May 21, 2008
| by Dennis P. Barker
The reproduction of sound will make or break your stereo or home theater system. For better or worse, we listen to sound through loudspeakers which come in all shapes and sizes and ages. Like other stereo or A/V components, speakers are critical to your optimum enjoyment of the experience. Speakers will sing to you! They are the voice of your system, but they also have to wear many hats. They have to be able to make music sound sweet like the velvety voices of Celtic Woman, and, at the same time, make armies clashing in “300” sound realistic and believable.
What are They?
While there are several different types of speakers in the marketplace today, we’ll focus primarily on bookshelf type speakers. Bookshelf speakers get their name obviously from the fact that they are small enough to be placed on a bookshelf. Although, with the advent of home theater, this may now be misnomer. Under the category of bookshelf speakers, they can be front left and right main speakers, center channel speakers or even rear/side/surround speakers. Bookshelf speakers are housed in smaller and more compact cabinets than say floor-standing variants. The majority of bookshelf speakers are no taller than 15-in. to 20-inches. At the other end of the spectrum, the smallest bookshelf speakers may only be 2-in. 3-in. high.
Because of their compact cabinets, bookshelf speakers can be placed where towers or floor-standing speakers cannot. According to Polk Audio, “the name ‘bookshelf’ is unfortunate, since most such designs perform best when placed upon rigid stands, rather than tucked inside pieces of furniture. While bookshelf-type speakers are more placement-friendly than larger speakers, the small enclosures are more rigid and produce less sonically degrading ‘box resonance’ than all but the best towers.” While they can certainly be placed on a bookshelf (as the name implies), in many instances they are now placed on stands today.
A clear advantage to bookshelf-type speakers are their modest price and size. Bookshelf speakers fit rooms and budgets that cannot accommodate a pair of towers. The small, solid cabinets are both versatile-able to excel in bookcases, atop shelves or hung on walls-and provide excellent midrange clarity. It should be noted that many speakers use air tunnels or “ports” to improve efficiency and bass output. However, if you plan to place your speakers against a wall or inside a cabinet, choose a model whose port is located on the front panel, with the drivers.
On the other hand, an argument can be made that reduced cabinet volume and driver surface area limit the dynamic and bass frequency range of bookshelf speakers. This can also compromise power handling and efficiency. Are you measuring the prowess of your system by the size of your speakers? However, with smaller speakers come smaller drivers especially woofers. To overcome this potential handicap, a subwoofer may be needed to add additional oomph to the sound.
Types – Cubes, Satellites, Box-type, etc.
Since bookshelf speakers are smaller than their larger brethren, most are either full-range or two-way. Some models will only include a mid-range driver purportedly offering full-range sound. A two-way speaker means that it has two drivers: one woofer and one tweeter. Of course, there are also a handful of three-way variants (and a bit larger also). A three-way speaker has three drivers: a woofer, mid-range, and a tweeter. Many manufacturers offer a family of bookshelf speakers that gradually get larger with the increased size of their woofer and tweeter. As you go up in driver size, the price of the speaker normally goes up also. Many bookshelf type speakers have tweeters up to 1-in. in size, and woofers ranging between 4-in. and 6.5-in.
Dennis has been involved with Consumer Electronics forever it seems. His 25+-year career includes a 12-year tour of duty at Consumer Reports magazine, as well as stints as a product reviewer, market analyst, technical editor, and consultant for the electronics industry. He lives in Ossining, NY with his two children, one demanding cat and piles of A/V equipment.