How new speakers could improve your guitar tone


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Guitars, amps, pedals, pickups, plectrum gauges, technique – most of us six-stringers think about changing these things every day of every week. It’s all in the quest for that all-elusive perfect tone. Why then, are most of us not bothered about the speakers in our combo amps and cabinets? Because, as we’re about to learn, these unassuming paper cones are some of the most significant tone-shaping devices we’ve got at our disposal as guitarists…

GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome – afflicts many musicians, but guitar players seem particularly stricken by its evil, wallet-sapping nature.

If you’re reading this, we’ll bet you know how it is.

You’ve done nothing to provoke it. You’re simply going about your business on any given day, when suddenly a thought pops into your head, as if by magic: “Man, I could really use another Telecaster!”

Substitute your irrational gear weakness of choice here – you could be an amp addict, a pedal junkie or a Les Paul lover, for all we know – and this is what we’re talking about. Why does it happen? We’ve no idea.

You might have heard a great song, seen a cool new band, or just had an earworm going round and round in your head all day. And somewhere in your subconscious, your inner guitarist is telling you that you absolutely must have that piece of kit to replicate those sounds. Or something.

And now that thought’s in there, it’s there to stay. Because you just know that new piece of kit will take your sound to the next level! It’s that funny voodoo effect that so afflicts us guitar players (which we wrote about in more detail right here, should you wish to learn more about your musical psyche)…

To come back to the question we posed up top, though, why is it that most of us don’t put more than a second thought to our choice of speakers? They’re just not something we experience GAS over, apparently.

But perhaps they should be.

The inner workings of a speaker under testing at H&K headquarters. Some wise person (not, it wasn't us!) once mused that the soul of our guitar tone is somewhere in that paper cone, and we're inclined to believe them.

The inner workings of a speaker under testing at H&K headquarters. Some wise person (no, it wasn’t us!) once mused that the soul of our guitar tone is somewhere in that paper cone, and we’re inclined to believe them.

We all know that our choice of guitar, pickups and amps are hugely important in defining our tone. That’s a given.

But speakers are what actually make the sound that we hear when we play plugged in! So they’re rather crucial too, even if lots of us just accept the models that come with our amp of choice as a given.

These days, speakers come in a huge variety of different brands, shapes, sizes and combinations. The most iconic setup is the classic 4×12 cab, which features – you guessed it – four 12” speakers and is generally accepted as something of an industry standard, especially when it comes to classic rock sounds.

But there’s far more options out there if you want to change things up a bit.

Let’s start with combos, which feature the amp and the speaker cabinet in one practical combined box. By definition more limited than head and cab combinations in terms of mixing and matching, they’re nevertheless available in a bunch of different flavors.

If you’re looking for more low-end, you should consider a larger speaker size. With combos, this means a 12” speaker, a 2×12 or even a 15” (these are rarer), rather than a 10” or 8” option (which are typically found in amps intended for home or practice use).

With combos, you also need to consider the open back/closed back question. This can make a difference in tone, of course: if you’ve got two otherwise identical setups, an open back cab will give you a more open, complex and looser sound that will spread around your venue more, while a closed back cab will be the opposite: tighter, punchier and narrower in terms of the geographic area it’ll cover.

Moving back to heads and cabs, and the size issue also applies: generally, the bigger the cab/speakers, the correspondingly larger the sound will be.

Having a white amp instead of the more standard black/brown might make you look suave on stage, but it's still going to sound exactly the same as its less extroverted brothers...

Having a white amp instead of the more standard black/brown might make you look suave on stage, but it’s still going to sound exactly the same as its less extroverted brothers…

So, what to look for if you want to change your sound by changing your speaker(s)?

Well, it’ll help if you know the sound you’re after. There are a huge number of speaker makes and models available, so seeking the help of a speaker expert – or making a choice based on a player whose tone you greatly admire – is a good way to go.

You’ve got to make sure your new choice will work with your existing amp, too.

This means making sure your impedance is going to match, for one. We wrote all about ohms and impedance in detail in another blog (which you can read here) but here’s the most relevant nugget of wisdom that applies here:

“A guitar amp’s tube power amp works on the principle of matching impedance. In practice, this means using corresponding speakers and amps. For example, if you connect an 8 ohm speaker to the 8 ohm output on a tube amp, the internal resistance of the source (that is, the tube output stage) is exactly that of the load, or speaker.

In this way, and only in this way, can the amp unleash its full power on your unsuspecting audience. This is also the only way you will get your amp to sound exactly like the designers intended it to sound.”

If you’re not sure of your amp’s impedance, check the back panel, and if it’s not written there, ask the company who made it to help you out.

Oh yes, and if you’re playing a closed back combo, pay attention: it might be more difficult for you to find a speaker that fits properly, and it might be pretty difficult to get into the cabinet in the first place. But of course you can always go see a pro tech if you’re not sure about something.

A speaker/cab testing unit at H&K HQ. Basically, we turn everything up to 11 and leave the cabs blaring over the weekend. The surrounding wooden box is filled with sand and locked in a fireproof room, so our neighbors can still sleep at night!

A speaker/cab testing unit at H&K HQ. Basically, we turn everything up to 11 and leave the cabs blaring over the weekend. The surrounding wooden box is filled with sand and locked in a fireproof room, so our neighbors can still sleep at night!

And why change your speakers when you could just buy a new guitar instead?

That’s a good question, and of course there’s no straight answer. If you want that new six-string, you’re going to buy it, and more power to you!

But decent speakers can certainly be had for cheaper than a new axe or a new amp, they’re relatively simple to install (especially if you let a tech do the work) and they’ll make a significant and immediate difference to your sound.

Fresh speakers can breathe a new lease of life into an ailing amp, add an extra twinkle on your tone, and make the difference between a good and a great guitar sound.

But of course there’s those other elements to think about too: the wood in your cabinet, your guitar, amp head, pickups, plectrum, strings, your technique… And so it goes on.

Only one thing in the tone game’s for sure: if you love your sound, you’re well on the way to experiencing your own musical enlightenment.

So why not try a few new things out?

Get down to a store and try out a few different speaker types. Borrow a friend’s cab for your next gig. Check out some A/B comparison videos on YouTube. Hell, even play around with speaker types in an amp modeling app – it all helps, and if you’re having fun, you’re on to a winner.

We’d love to hear your speaker-related stories. Do you have a favorite you put in all your amps? Are you forever switching speakers out in favor of the next great new thing? Or couldn’t you care less? Let us know in the comments below…

 

First published: February 27 2015. Most recent update: February 27 2015.

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Leave a comment

John mcchristia on February 25, 2017 Reply

What is the ohms of each speaker in the 2×12 Hugh’s & Kettner cabinet. I need to replace one.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 10, 2017 Reply

    Hi John. The speakers are both 8 ohms – hope this helps 🙂

G.M. on February 1, 2017 Reply

I have a 60 watt fender supersonic combo I use to play out here and there.
I don’t like the sound of the vintage 30 that it came with. It’s sounds to britle. It could be that the amp is bright too! I have a speaker made by fender that was in a solid state fender roc pro 1000 combo, and I put it in the supersonic and it sounds much better. Both speakers are 8 ohms so the impedance is correct. I am not sure what watts the fender speaker is that I replaced the vintage 30 with, but It says in the manual of the roc pro that the volume of this fender speaker is 69 watts @ 8ohms @5% thd. & 94 watts @ 4 ohms @5% thd. The supersonic is 60 watts so would it be ok? With those specs now many watts might the speaker be?
Thanks.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 7, 2017 Reply

    Hey G.M. Interesting story, and cool that the new speaker you put in sounds better. We don’t think you need to worry about it at all, although of course Fender might have other ideas 😉 We’d recommend that you ask them ab out it directly, and they should also be able to tell you about the exact specs of that new speaker you’ve put in and how it affects the Supersonic…

Tommy Stewart on November 11, 2016 Reply

I have put the Austin Speaker Works “CROSSROADS” greenback inspired, super-creamy lush sounding creations in all my cabs from my orange th30c and my Hughes and Kettener 212 cab I use with my GM36 to Marshall Stacks of 4×12’s used live. You will never use anything else once you hear that sweet honest vintage tone.
Your gonna sound like jimmy page with these speaks if your good. You gonna sound like drunk jimmy page if your not so good, but your gonna sound like jimmy page. I also play and old LP through a Reeves. That helps.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 21, 2016 Reply

    Drunk Jimmy Page is better than nothing 😉 Thanks for the tip Tommy, we’ll have to check those speakers out sometime! Sounds like a geat rig you’ve got there…

Filipe Monteiro on October 26, 2016 Reply

I could not agree more with what was said in the article. To express my ideas I’ll tell my story…
Around two years ago, Chirstmas period, I found a second hand Mesa Boogie Rockett 44 for sale and based on its fame I went for it. In the shop it sounded good, so I thought that was the solution for my problem, a good/loud and valve amp for me to take to my gigs, right? Wrong! At loud volumes the amp sounded very boxy and harsh on the top end (uncontrollable highs)… I tried it in many different places and situation and never felt satisfied with the sound I was getting out of it! After a long lasting search (articles, forums, youtube, etc…) I decided that a modification would solve my problem. I did the MOD, changed the tone stack of it based on what someone’s youtube sugestion… Problem solved? Almost as the amp improved some of those frequencies that used to bothered me deeply. While researching a out amp mod and etc, I also considered a speaker but I thought that it wouldn’t make such difference. Wrong! Replacing the speaker made the amp sound as good as the sounds I have always dreamed about having. For the sound I wanted I completely rely on an alnico type speaker and that’s what I have now, the Celestion alnico cream.
If you ask me now, what you change first on an amp I wil say, the speaker!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 28, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to tell your story Filipe! It’s more proof of how important speakers can be in shaping your tone. Makes sense, of course, but we reckon more guitarists should take speaker types into consideration when considering what they need to change to get their dream tone 🙂

Vasko on October 17, 2016 Reply

My apologies. I thought my post would go directly under what matthew goodger posted. I was talking about the Blue Edition 60, as he was, therefore I was addressing him. But, by all means if anyone else, or a Hughes & Kettner techie has a tip i could try, I will be very grateful. Thanks in advance

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 28, 2016 Reply

    Ah right! No, we apologise, because our comments system didn’t understand this and put your post at the bottom 😉 Hmm, but our best advice for you would be to go to a decent tech with your amp – one with a good knowledge of speakers. He or she would be able to let you test out the properties of some different makes and models, and you could then choose which ones did the best job for your ears and needs 🙂

Vasko on October 13, 2016 Reply

Hi 🙂 So i use the same amp as you for over 2 years now and it has his original speaker. I was wondering have you tried a few different speakers? I am leaning towards louder sound, or as clean as i can get, without breaking up the amp. Any suggestions?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 17, 2016 Reply

    Hi Vasko. Hmm, which amp/speakers exactly are you using? A TriAmp MKII with the matching cabinet? Let us know and maybe we can then make you some recommendations… 🙂

steve catt on August 18, 2016 Reply

my math skill is not great enough to use the dandy math formula offered for calculating total ohm load i use a multi meter ….also you guys never mentioned a 2 ohm load….ex. the back of my amp has a selector for 2-4 or 8 ohms… ..but the info that best helps me is match the amp and speaker load…..also i noticed some botique amp and speaker manufactures offering 1-12 cabs with a 16 0hm speaker loaded……whats going on there…. thanks so much guitarhead steve

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 2, 2016 Reply

    Hi Steve. Hmm, what amp do you have? We didn’t mention 2-ohm amps or cabs because they’re relatively rare these days. But yes, general rule is that you can’t really go wrong if you match the amp and cab loads. That’s how most are designed to perform at 100%…

Sam M. on June 30, 2016 Reply

So I recently ordered a Tubemeister 36. I would have also gotten the tm212 but seen they came with 2 v30. I’m not too fond of those speakers so I wanted to get another 2×12 cab with different speakers. Perhaps another kind of Celestion. I’m new to the cab scene as I’m coming from a combo amp. That being said, I’m not too sure which type of speakers will work with the 36 head. Am I restricted to finding two other 60w speakers like the v30 is? I just don’t want to damage the amp or speakers.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on July 19, 2016 Reply

    Hi Sam, the best thing to do if you’Re not sure about speakers is to go to a tech who can show you the different speaker types and even let you do some A/B testing between them. Only you know what sounds best to your ears, and if you take your guitar with you too, you’ll end up with a perfect pair of speakers for your needs – plus you won’t need to worry about damaging the amp or the speakers 🙂

jeff mercer on April 13, 2016 Reply

Well I currently own a Coreblade that I got on Ebay for $1225, which I use with a Port city os wave cabinet, that is loaded with a Jenson black bird, and a tornado. The Jenson speakers are pretty expensive, and I decided on them cause I heard a video on youtube, and the guy was using a switchblade 2×12, and thought what the hell. The sound I get is pretty bright dgenti sound which I have a tendency of leaning towards, but some times it winds up being to harsh due to extra distortion that I have a tendency of adding in. The weird thing is when I use headphones my sound is way less distorted, and smoother, which I do like. I plan on getting my 2notes torpedo live hooked back up so I can go through speaker sims via there store so I can test the water, to see if there might be a better option for my amp. I’ve been thinking from time to time that maybe I should buy the original speaker for the Coreblade cab to see what Hughes and Kettner envisioned for that amp. I was playing my sound yesterday moving the mic a round, and decided to go back and try a Shure SM57, which did sound pretty good with the new position, and different settings I used on my amp, so mic can also make a big difference for recording purposes as well.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 22, 2016 Reply

    Hi Jeff, and thanks for your message 🙂 Hmm, interesting thoughts on mic placement and hearing about the differences between your sound in the headphones and without! If you’re leaning towards a djent-type sound, you should definitely see if you can give one of our Coreblade cabs a go – they might be just what you need in terms of dialling out the harshness! They worked pretty well for guys like Jeff Waters after all 😉 Let us know if you do find the chance to try one – we’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how it compares to the other options you’ve got 🙂

Michael Irons on August 16, 2015 Reply

Thank you very much for taking your time and answer to my dilemma 🙂
It’s helping me a lot to understand how to get a good sound out of my gear, and I’m experimenting now with different cabs / speakers. But, when you started your explanation, you’re referring to a “tube amp”. Is there any difference using a tube amp versus a solid state amp when choosing the speaker?

In the mean time I was “digging” on the Internet for more info and I found same kind of idea on Celestion’s website:
“Generally, you can safely run a 60-watt Celestion speaker at 60 watts and it’ll keep going all day long. Connect it up to 100 watts and it might work for an hour or more before it incinerates. “Over-power” any speaker and it’ll work fine for a while; just don’t bank on it lasting” ( the entire post here: http://celestion.com/speakerworld/guitartech/1/37/Speaker_Upgrade:_Power_Handling/ ). Then, I noticed that all Marshall and Fender combos are equipped with speakers having twice the power than the amp’s power. Probably this is more like “on the safe zone” approach.

On the other hand, “digging” more I found that some companies / guitar players are using speakers with lower wattage than the amp itself for some combos or heads. For example, EVH is offering an 1X12 – 30 Watt cab as, what they’re saying to be, “the perfect companion” for the the 5150 III – 50 Watt head. Mesa-Boogie is using in two 100 Watts combos a 90 Watt speaker (Mark V – 1X12 combo and Lonestar). Moreover…John Petrucci of Dream Theater when presenting his 2014 tour rig, said that he is using the 2:Ninety power amps – 90 watts, with 1X12 Rectifier cabs which are rated 60 Watts. I guess these guys are not wrong either….but what I’m missing here? 🙂

I think, if you know how to use the amp’s volume knob and your common sense as a guitar player you’ll have a perfect sound.
I hope that you’ll have the time and patience to write a good and well documented article on this topic 🙂

Thanks again
Mike

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 18, 2015 Reply

    Hi again Mike. Interesting points again, and again our speaker expert has written to you directly, so here are his thoughts:

    “Dear Mike,

    You have great questions for us, and they touch upon the essence of what guitar amps and guitar speakers are about. As manufacturers we all have knowledge which we like to keep to ourselves, for obvious reasons!

    However, to answer your questions, what I can do instead is give you general guidance on ‘the nature of guitar loudspeakers, amplifiers, and guitars’, and their role in finding the tone that you are looking for.

    Here goes…………
    In my humble opinion, classic guitar tone comes from three things, which are connected like a triangle consisting of 3 almost equally influential elements:

    1) The signal that you deliver to your amp from your guitar. And this is affected by the quality of the guitar itself: is it single or humbucking pickups, have you old or new strings on it, are they standard gauge or ‘heavy’ gauge, how stiff is the plectrum (guitar pick), what position are the guitar controls set at, and so on………..?

    2) The guitar amplifier itself.
    A) Is it a digital amp (where you do not produce sound, you just reproduce it by triggering digital information)?
    B) Is it a transistor amplifier (which aims to copy the sound and behaviour of a tube amplifier but with solid state parts)?
    C) is it a Hybrid amp, which is a preamp tube section with solid state power amplifier?
    D) Is it a tube amp, where both pre amp and power amp section contain vacuum tubes?

    3) The guitar loudspeaker.
    A) What size/diameter is the speaker (12″ is the traditional ‘best’ size?
    B) What is its power rating?
    C) What Ohms rating does the speaker have?
    D) What type of housing is it in? Combo format? 4×12 cabinet format? 1×12 format? 2×12 format?
    E) Is the speaker a ‘vintage’ build method, or is it a ‘modern’ build method?

    If you always understand that, within a traditional guitar amplification setup, this triangular connection between the guitar, the amp and the speaker and the list of questions above, is crucial to understanding why amps sound as they do, and who does what with their products.

    Of course, when you pay more, you generally get more.

    That is my answer.”

    Mike, we hope this is more food for thought for you, and thanks for your stimulating conversation! The quest for perfect tone goes on…

Michael Irons on August 5, 2015 Reply

Very interesting article. I have to admit that I’m playing guitar for more than 20 years but only in the last couple of years I started to experiment with different cabs/speakers. Usually I was playing on an amp using whatever speaker was in the combo or cabinet, never thinking that replacing the speaker can drastically improve my tone. Last amp I purchased few months ago is a Peavey 6505 1×12 combo. I replaced the original speaker with an Eminence The Governor. Great improvement for my sound:)

But…I never found a really well documented article on the internet about matching amp’s output power with the speaker.
It’s all very confusing:
– some websites are claiming that you should go with the same power for the speaker as the amp or even a little more power coming from the amp,
– some websites are claiming that you should have a speaker that can handle at least 1.5 more power than the amp is delivering.
Which theory is correct in your opinion?
Thanks
Mike

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 13, 2015 Reply

    Hi Mike, and thanks for your comments! We decided to ask our resident speaker expert about this for you, and he came back with the following:

    “Rule of thumb would be that a tube amp of any wattage will work well with a good guitar loudspeaker as long as the loudspeaker(s)’ power either equals or exceeds the power of the amp itself. For example, you can play the V30 at 1 Watt if you wish, or at 60 Watts. If you overpower a speaker in a tube amp, for example a 100 Watt all-tube head playing through a 1×12 cabinet with a Celestion 25 Watt G12M, you will not only heat up the voice coil too much, you will also mechanically wreck the speaker through overpowering it, so it will fail.

    You do not need masses of power to bring a guitar speaker into distortion mode; The right speaker will distort at very low volume if designed to do so – for example, Jimi Hendrix in one of his Marshall cabs apparently had 4 x Fane guitar speakers, which distorted beautifully at low volume (Wind Cries Mary), and distorted dreadfully at high volume. He only used them at low volume, therefore.

    From what I learnt about guitar speakers, the power amp needs to be similar or less power than the speaker itself, but there should be some reasonable equilibrium between them.

    An Amp’s power rating is the maximum power that it delivers. A speaker’s power rating is the maximum power it can receive.”

    So there you go – we hope this is helpful for you! And also: you may have inspired us to write another article on this topic, so thank you for that 🙂

Tyler on March 2, 2015 Reply

Well yesterday we had the A/B comparison session between his V30 loaded closed back cab and my Greenback loaded closed back cab. The difference was astounding. I definitely prefer my Greenbacks over the V30s.

The V30s were considerably darker and I felt muddy in the mid range. They were certainly tighter in the lower end, but the Greenbacks just had a sparkle and bite to them that I loved. Without dialing in any eq at all, just purely swapping between the boxes, the Greenbacks had a great clarity to them.

Would absolutely recommend that any guitarist do this, the difference speakers makes to tone is significant.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 2, 2015 Reply

    Very interesting, and we’re not surprised that you heard such big difference between the two speaker/cab types. Did you try a range of different genres/sounds/guitars too?

    We’d recommend all guitarists looking for a change in sound do similar – as we wrote in the blog, speakers make a huge tonal difference, and they’re way cheaper than a new guitar or amp! Plus, those kinds of A/B tests are always fun and enlightening…

matthew goodger on March 1, 2015 Reply

I use an edition blue 60 with an eminence Swamp Thang and I love what its done to the sound! Although I had to put some dampening material in the cab as it struggled with all the extra bass output, so that maybe one thing to be aware of when changing speakers… This 150w speaker and is really efficient so it has loads of clean headroom and has given it a really clear, modern sound. I gig it over amps 4x the price now as its more reliable than my tube amps but sounds just as good :). Definitely recommend experimenting with different speakers you’ll be amazed at how much it changes things.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 2, 2015 Reply

    Wow, that’s a cool story – not often we hear of a player putting a more’boutique’ speaker into an entry-range amp. We’d love to hear how yours sounds! Solid state amps do really well with cleans generally anyway, so it’d be cool to know just how much the Eminence has improved things. Good tips too – and we’d agree 100% re: testing out different speakers!

Tyler on February 28, 2015 Reply

Timely article, having just scored a Grandmeister, and a good buddy has picked up a Carvin V3m, we’re getting together with a few speaker boxes this weekend to do some A/B tests. Greenbacks vs V30s vs … some other old box, will have to open it up to see what they are. But it will be very interesting to see what the differences are.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 28, 2015 Reply

    Awesome, sounds like fun! Let us know your results, and what your favourite is… We need to do a video where we A/B all the different speaker options – thanks for the tip/inspiration 😉

Richard Crawshaw on February 27, 2015 Reply

Sold my Marshall JVM 205C for a Switchblade 100 TSC……

……. and wondered why it has Eminence Rockdrivers in it rather than Celestion’s?

Eminence told me that the Rockdriver is similar to the ‘Wizard’ (I think), and it was specially designed for the Switchblade.

Good amp by the way, does all I need and more. Very Happy.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 28, 2015 Reply

    Yep, you’ve answered your own question there Richard – they’re specifically designed for the Switchblade to ensure optimum performance. Just out of interest, would you have preferred Celestions? And thanks for the kind words! Glad you’re enjoying the amp…