Speech perception is remarkably robust. This paper examines how acoustic and auditory properties of vowels and consonants help to ensure intelligibility. First, the source-filter theory of speech production is briefly described, and the relationship between vocal-tract properties and formant patterns is demonstrated for some commonly occurring vowels. Next, two accounts of the structure of preferred sound inventories, quantal theory and dispersion theory, are described and some of their limitations are noted. Finally, it is suggested that certain aspects of quantal and dispersion theories can be unified in a principled way so as to achieve reasonable predictive accuracy.