Info and Answers
The Complete Guide for Buying Speakers
Because they come in all shapes and sizes, here's a quick tutorial for anyone venturing into the world of speakers.
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November 04, 2008 by EH Staff

Loudspeakers might be the character actors of your home A/V setup. Long ago, they were the stars: You had a pair of giant cabinet or tower speakers that captured your full attention, while sound to accompany video was relegated to the TV’s paltry speakers. Video displays have become home entertainment’s A-list celebs, but today’s loudspeakers are more versatile than they were in hi-fi’s heyday. So like great character actors, they can fill any role in your house—and often steal the show.

Hundreds of manufacturers produce loudspeakers, and the choices can be overwhelming. Their versatility enables you to place speakers in just about any room, and in virtually any area of that room, including within the walls and ceilings. Those floorstanding tower models can still provide an impressive appearance and breathtaking sound, but not everyone has space for them—especially in places where you want room for five or seven speakers plus a subwoofer.

Tune Yourself In
Fortunately, the options are limitless, in both form and function—and price, of course. You can buy speakers that cost $140, $14,000 or $140,000 and be happy with each depending on your tastes, expectations and room requirements. Some rooms, like your master bathroom, might require merely one speaker to brighten your day with music or the morning sports scores, and you can find an in-ceiling model that fits the bill without too big at hit to the decor or your bank account.

Start by asking yourself what you’ll be listening to, and by all means, ponder that for every room of your house. You’ll be much happier when your teenager’s iTunes playlists stay confined to his bedroom while you’re enjoying your jazz favorites in the den and when it can all be accessed from the same media server. Are you looking for background music for a dining room? Crank-it-up, make-your-ears-bleed movie soundtracks for a dedicated theater? Everyday tunes to hear in the kitchen while you’re preparing breakfast or dinner? Perhaps a two-channel, audio-only purist haven in your home office? What rooms may benefit from surround sound? Don’t forget about entertaining guests, either, especially when it comes to backyard barbeques and pool parties.

Pick a Speaker Type, or Two
Tower, cabinet or floorstanding loudspeakers are what spring to mind when you talk about traditional speaker types. They generally come in tall, boxlike enclosures, with wood grain or black finishes, and large models can weigh a ton. With at least a two-way driver design that includes high-frequency tweeters and low-frequency woofers, and frequently a three-way design that adds a midrange driver, these speakers will give you the fullest range of audio. Some come with “active” woofers, meaning the amplification for those bass drivers is included within the speaker itself. These units also require more power to push the higher decibel levels they can achieve, and you’ll appreciate them for serious listening environments like dedicated theaters and media rooms—whether in a two-channel audio setup or as front left and right channels within multichannel surround sound.

Bookshelf speakers are a perfect alternative if you don’t have, or want to reserve, the space for towers. They are smaller, generally less powerful versions of the floorstanding and cabinet models, yet they offer more than enough output for the majority of media room applications. Their size makes them flexible, so you can place them in A/V furniture (some cabinetry already makes provisions for house speakers), mount them on stands to better blend with your decor, or stow them on shelves. These work well for passive listening environments as stereo pairs, or teamed together in a “sub sat” surround system as five “satellite” speakers that work with a separate subwoofer.

In-wall speakers are the fastest-growing category of speakers, thanks in large part to their designer friendliness and space-saving qualities. These speakers are mounted between wall studs, so they don’t protrude into your room, and all that’s seen is the grille. To make in-walls further disappear, their grilles can usually be painted to match the surface. If you’re wondering about sound quality, manufacturers have made strides in recent years to produce in-wall models that, although limited by their reduced cabinet depth, can nearly replicate the range and fidelity of floorstanding speakers. Some in-wall models feature backbox enclosures that lessen unwanted resonance and vibration within the wall cavity as well as sound seepage into adjacent rooms.

In-ceiling speakers have become popular along the same vein as in-walls: They’re unobtrusive, the grilles can blend in with the rest of the ceiling, and technology advances are making them a viable, low-compromise alternative to big floorstanding speakers. If you’re a fan of recessed lighting, you might appreciate the style of the in-ceiling speaker. The substance is there, too, with sound quality that’s constantly improving. Many models include pivoting tweeters that can be directed to cover more ground and decrease the localization effect for smoother, more natural surround sound. In ceilings work well in space-restricted rooms along and within multizone audio systems as easy ways to route tunes to bedrooms, foyers, dining rooms, home offices, kitchens and other places a traditional setup may be unnecessary.

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