You’ve probably heard the phrase “where the rubber meets the road” and know it means a critical element in the performance of something. The saying came about because tires, though underrated, are one of the most important parts of an automobile. Bad tires equal poor traction, poor steering, poor stopping ability and a poor-performing car, even if it’s a great vehicle otherwise.
So why all the car talk? Because loudspeakers are the tires of your home theater system. They are where the audio meets the air, with the next stop being your ears. So your loudspeakers should be the finest you can afford, whether your home theater can best be compared to a Mazda or to a Maserati.
1. Your home theater will only sound as good as your speakers, no matter how solid your other audio components are. Bad speakers will produce bad sound, period. And when you have bad sound, you won’t want to listen to your home theater as much.
2. There is a type of speaker to fit nearly every need. There are large freestanding or floorstanding loudspeakers, bookshelf-sized models, in-wall and in-ceiling models, newer on-wall ones, subwoofers and even a new family of speakers called audio transducers. Some units are simply functional, like a good car that gets you from point A to point B. Others are sculptural art, like exotic sports cars or classic roadsters. And many are somewhere in between. What you don’t want is something that looks fancy but underperforms.
3. Freestanding, floorstanding, cabinet-style or box speakers are just what their names suggest: speakers that stand alone on the floor or are housed in their own cabinets. Included in this category are traditional boxy wooden speakers. Freestanding speakers, especially those made to fit in larger cabinets, generally provide the best sound, whether for music or home theater. Freestanding speakers are often used in particular rooms, such as a media room where there’s space and where you may want the best quality of music, movies and more. But they can be used anywhere.
4. Large freestanding speakers can take up a lot of space and generally be a nightmare for the aesthetic-minded homeowner. However, freestanding speakers no longer have to be drab boxes. Some models are slender tower speakers that can add a unique design element to your space. Some cabinet-style speakers feature beautiful wood veneers, while others come in high-gloss finishes such as piano black. Many freestanding models need to be placed a couple of feet from the walls, or a “boomy” sound will result. You can also place freestanding speakers in home entertainment cabinets, concealing them behind fabric grilles, for example.
5. Some freestanding speakers use technologies other than traditional round speaker woofers, tweeters and midrange drivers. Electrostatic and planar (or ribbon) speakers produce sound from electrical charges created along thin films or ribbons. These tower speakers are well suited to reproducing classical music and vocals. They often appear as beautiful sculptures and include woofers in their bases to reproduce the lower sounds.
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6. Small bookshelf speakers can be very effective when placed on shelves, atop home entertainment cabinets or even concealed in soffit spaces. And with today’s technology, many bookshelf speakers produce sounds on par with some floorstanding behemoths. So don’t disregard them because of their diminutive size. They are a great way to get the sound quality of freestanding speakers without taking up much space.
7. Bookshelf speakers can be especially effective surround speakers when placed to the sides or in the back of a room. They can even be used as front speakers when they’re placed unobtrusively on a shelf or in a recess in a wall or entertainment cabinet.
8. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are often a good choice when you don’t want the devices to be visible or don’t have the space for freestanding speakers. These thin units are placed in a wall or ceiling (as you might expect), with their grilles flush mounted to the surface. They are often colored or can be painted to match the wall. In-wall speakers are generally rectangular in shape, while in- ceiling speakers are almost always round to blend better with lighting receptacles and other ceiling fixtures.
9. Many models of in-wall or in-ceiling speakers may look alike, but they are not all are created equal. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers may have two or three speaker drivers and may come with “back boxes,” enclosures to which the speaker drivers are specifically tuned for the best performance.
10. Look for dampening properties that help separate the speaker from the wall as much as possible. This is important, because without proper dampening, the entire area of drywall or sheetrock effectively becomes part of the speaker, affecting the sound.
11. Because of their small size, in-ceiling speakers are often compromised when it comes to producing high-quality audio. Directionality of the sound, especially in surround-sound setups, can be a problem as well. Seek an in-ceiling speaker that has a moveable or pivoting tweeter, which allows the sound to be directed toward a particular area of the room.
12. Some speakers are created to fit completely inside the wall behind a very thin coat of plaster or wallpaper. These units are completely invisible in a room, yet audio comes through. They are best for lower-level background music, as sound quality is somewhat compromised with this approach.
13. On-wall speakers are a new breed of loudspeakers that are sort of a cross between in-wall and freestanding speakers. These thin units hang on the wall and can complement the look of a flat-panel video monitor. In most cases, two thin speakers flank the flat-panel TV, while a horizontal center-channel speaker is mounted beneath it. These speakers are often available in different finishes, including silver to match a plasma or LCD screen. Some even have various art pieces printed on their grilles to achieve a more decorative look.
14. Be sure an on-wall speaker sounds right to you. The thin enclosures can limit the sound and performance of these speakers, though some companies overcome this technical hurdle quite well.
15. Subwoofers produce the low-bass sounds you hear in music and movie soundtracks and are responsible for shaking you up with explosions and the like. They add a visceral element to your enjoyment of different media. There are active subwoofers, which include built-in amplifiers to power the woofers, and passive subwoofers, which draw power from an outside source such as a power amplifier or audio/video receiver.
16. Subwoofers typically come in square, boxy cabinets that can be placed in a corner on the floor, behind a piece of furniture or inside a large basket, for example. These days, however, you can find in-wall subwoofers, though definitely check for back-box enclosures and dampening features. Some subwoofers are now as thin as 4 inches.
17. Subwoofers produce their low sounds by moving air, so the bigger the woofer, the more air it will move. Subwoofer drivers range in size from about 5 to 18 inches in diameter, with the majority falling in the 12-inch range. Some of the enclosures are ported, meaning they have a hole on the side or the bottom of the cabinet for air intake. The port helps add thump to the bass.
18. In a typical home theater setup, only one “sub” is needed. If you are planning to add certified THX components, two subwoofers are required.
19. Wireless speakers are untethered to your audio/video rack and free you from dealing with unsightly wires or difficult speaker cable routing. Wireless speakers are powered and need to be plugged into a wall socket, though some also operate on batteries. Keep performance in mind, however: Many things can happen that interfere with wireless signals.
20. Audio transducers, otherwise known as “butt kickers” or “shakers,” take certain audio signals and turn them into vibrations that can rumble your seat to special effects such as explosions. They can be placed beneath seats or under the floor of a home theater. They can also be felt when you play music.
21. Shakers can be especially effective when placed beneath wooden risers in a dedicated home theater. The vibrations from these units, especially when combined with powerful bass, can flex the wood slightly to enhance the special effects in a movie or video game.
22. We advise not overusing transducers or shakers. They’re great for explosions and rumbles, but their effect will be diminished if they’re used all the time.
23. Loudspeakers tend to come in two-way or three-way configurations. Two-way speakers use both tweeters for the high treble sounds and woofers for the low bass sounds, while three-way speakers use tweeters, woofers and midrange drivers (for sounds in the middle).
24. A three-way speaker with a woofer, midrange driver and tweeter is not necessarily better than a two-way speaker. Be wary of this if the speakers are comparable in price. Chances are the two-way speaker uses better and more expensive speaker drivers than the three- way model. So don’t be seduced by multiple drivers.
25. Contrary to popular belief, most speakers don’t “blow” because they are overpowered. Rather, they can be damaged because they don’t receive enough power from the amplifier, causing the amp to overwork and “clip,” or produce spikes of power that can cause the speakers to fail. (You may impress your friends with this knowledge at a later date.)
26. If a speaker, especially a center-channel speaker, is to be situated atop a TV, be sure it is magnetically shielded.
27. Remember that frequency response is basically the range of sounds a speaker can reproduce, from low to high.
28. Match the power requirements of your speakers to your audio/video receiver or power amplifiers.
29. Match the impedance rating, which is usually 4, 6 or 8 ohms.
30. Remember that sensitivity is more important than power in a speaker.
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