It’s great fun watching people beat the system in movies such as Ocean’s Twelve with George Clooney and company performing a daring heist or Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio masquerading as an airline pilot. But don’t attempt this sort of derring-do when assembling your own home theater. One of the biggest truisms in home entertainment is that your home theater will only sound as good as your speakers. If you buy a great audio/video controller and amplifiers but purchase lousy speakers, guess what: The sound will still be lousy. You simply can’t cheat on the speakers. That’s because loudspeakers are the last element in the line of sound reproduction before the audio arrives at your ears. So bad speakers will produce bad sound, no matter how good the signals it receives from your audio components are. The good news is that there is a type of speaker to fit nearly every need. There are large freestanding or floorstanding speakers, bookshelf-sized speakers, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, newer on-wall speakers, subwoofers and even speakers called audio transducers. Here’s a quick and easy breakdown of each type so you can choose what’s best for you.
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 the traditional boxy wooden speakers that many people have grown to detest. But they’re no longer just 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.
Freestanding speakers, especially those with cabinets, generally provide the best sound, whether for music or home theater. This is because these speakers are specifically tuned to their enclosures, unlike many in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. The drawbacks are the space they take up and their aesthetics, if that’s not the look you’re going for. In addition, many freestanding models need to be placed a couple of feet from the walls or a “boomy” and unpleasant sound will result. You can also place freestanding speakers in home entertainment cabinets, concealing them behind fabric grilles, for example.
Freestanding speakers are often used only in select rooms, such as a media room where there’s space and where you may want the best quality of music, movies and more.
Some freestanding speakers use technologies other than traditional round speaker woofers, tweeters and mid-range 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. The speakers often appear as beautiful sculptures and include woofers in their bases to reproduce the lower sounds.
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.
Don’t want to compromise the room layout or decor by having your speakers on the floor or shelves? Then consider in-wall and in-ceiling 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 to match the wall.
In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are used in kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms and baths—places where you typically don’t want speakers taking up floor or counter space. And although these types of speakers are best used for listening to background music in different areas of your home, they are becoming popular in home theaters and media rooms.
In-wall speakers are generally rectangular in shape, while in-ceiling speakers are built round to blend better with lighting receptacles and other ceiling fixtures.
It’s easy to think all in-wall or in-ceiling speakers sound alike, because many models look so much alike. But the fact is that not all in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are created equal. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers may have two or three speaker drivers and may come with “back box” enclosures so the speaker is pre tuned to a specific enclosure before it gets mounted behind a wall. Also look for dampening properties when mounting the speakers, which allows the speaker to be separated from the wall as much as possible. This is important, because without proper dampening, the entire sheet of drywall or sheetrock between two wall studs effectively becomes part of the speaker, affecting the sound.
Because of their small size, in-ceiling speakers are often somewhat 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.
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 used for lower-level background music, as sound quality is somewhat compromised with this approach.
Speakers That Hang
If you’re drawn to the sound quality of freestanding speakers but don’t want to mount speakers in the walls, a new breed of thin speakers that hang on the wall could be right for you.
On-wall speakers can complement the look of a flat-panel video monitor that hangs on a wall. Two thin speakers flank the flat-panel screen, 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 different look.
Just the Bass
Subwoofers produce the low-bass sound 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 their own built-in amplifiers to power the woofers, and passive subwoofers, which draw their power from an outside source such as a power amplifier or audio/video receiver.
Subwoofers typically come in square, boxy cabinets that can be placed in a corner on the floor, behind a piece of furniture or a plant. 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 four inches.
Shake, Rattle & Roll
There is another breed of “speaker” available, known as an audio transducer (otherwise known as a “butt kicker” or “butt shaker”). This device takes certain audio signals and turns them into vibrations that can rumble your seat to special effects such as explosions. The speakers can be placed beneath seats or under the wooden risers or floor of a home theater. They can also be “felt” when you play music.
Follow Electronic House
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates