Speaker Shopping Do’s and Don’ts
Ten great buying tips for those about to venture out into the world of speakers.
The good news: There are audio speakers available today for just about every need. There are big ones, small ones and in-between-sized ones. It used to be that only the bigger speakers could provide you with quality sound and power for a home theater system. And here’s the really good news: Innovations have made some of the smallest speakers sound great. There are still bad speakers out there, though, so you should shop around with discerning eyes and ears. But you can get satisfying sound from a variety of options that fit every taste and decor. First, however, please heed our general rules about home theater speakers:
1) Don’t scrimp.
Your home entertainment speaker system is not the place to get cheap. You’ve heard the phrase, “where the rubber meets the road” to denote something’s importance? Just as a good set of tires is essential to the performance of an automobile, a good set of speakers is crucial to the performance of a home entertainment system—whether there are 20 speakers or just two.
The speakers are the last stops for sound on the way to your ears. So you can have the world’s greatest DVD player and amplifiers, all creating this beautiful sound, but if you have a lousy set of speakers, it will still sound lousy. In other words, your system will only be as good as its speakers.
There’s no set figure on how much you should spend on audio versus video, but a good benchmark is to try to budget for them equally, and look for a set of speakers to fit the audio portion. Try to spend at least as much on your speakers as you spend on your other audio components.
2) Leave Mr. Audio at home.
Everyone seems to have a friend or relative who is a self-professed audio expert, and when he—and usually it is a he—gets wind that you’re buying a home theater, he’ll suddenly become your self-appointed shopping consultant/escort/new best pal. Leave this guy at home. Chances are he will try to talk you into buying a system that he likes, not the one that is best for you. And he may be grossly misinformed. Consult him over the phone if you must.
3) Same speakers, all around.
Ideally, you’d have the exact same speakers throughout your home entertainment system. If it’s a five-speaker system, try to use the same five speakers. This is often difficult, as the front center channel is usually positioned horizontally, and you may not have room for full-size surround speakers. If that’s the case, look for packaged home theater speaker systems, though don’t bother with inexpensive home-theater-in-a-box systems which often include DVD players and A/V receivers. Opt instead for a package that comes with only speakers. Many manufacturers sell all five or more speakers together, with a smaller center channel and surrounds. The advantage of these speakers is that they are designed to work well together.
The speakers should also have identical power ratings and frequency ranges. A 5.1 surround-sound system, for example, calls for five full-range speaker channels. Look for ranges starting at 60 to 100 hertz for the low sounds and up to 20 kilohertz for the high sounds, and leave the really low bass for a subwoofer to reproduce. Some center-channel and surround speakers may have narrower frequency ranges, as they don’t normally reproduce some lower sounds, for instance.
If you can’t get all the same models or a package for the speakers, try to get them from the same manufacturer’s line, or from the same manufacturer, as each speaker maker tends to have a signature sound. That way, the speakers will sound good together. If you have to use a mix of brands, be sure your electronics professional matches them for tonal quality. This process is called timbre (pronounced tamber) matching.
4) The center channel rules.
It may be smaller than the other front speakers. It may lie on its side and look like it’s not doing much. But the center channel is the most important speaker in a surround-sound system. All of the on-screen dialogue comes through this speaker, and about 70 percent of all sounds in a movie soundtrack come through it. That’s a lot. Scrimp on it or buy an underpowered one, and you may be constantly turning up the volume to hear what’s being said. That doesn’t make for good a home entertainment experience. That’s why the center channel should have the same power ratings as your other speakers. Don’t settle for less.
5) Power isn’t all-important.
Sure, Mr. Audio friend brags about his 200-watt-per-channel blah de-de-blah blah blah. And his system can still sound lousy. Power isn’t important unless you have a really big room to fill. Save the 100-watt-per-channel systems for dedicated home theater rooms where you want to shake, rattle and roll. Sixty watts per channel should be plenty in a family room environment. Thirty-five watts per channel is more than enough for background music.
6) Sensitivity wins.
This is the age of Mr. Sensitive. Much more important than the power capacity of a speaker is its sensitivity, which is a measure of how a speaker plays at low power. This is expressed in decibels, from about 83 to 93, the higher the better. And here’s a little factoid for Mr. Audio: An increase in 3 decibels of sensitivity is equal to doubling the power. The higher-sensitivity system will likely sound better as well.
7) Surround channels should be diffused.
That means they are meant to create ambient effects that can’t quite be localized, such as the hum of a spaceship or crickets chirping in the night. You shouldn’t be hearing your surround speakers all of the time. And you shouldn’t be able to pinpoint where those ambient sounds are coming from. For that reason, surround speakers should be located on the sides of the seating area and at least a foot above the heads of the seated audience. Many surround speakers have dual sets of speaker drivers pointed to both the front and back of the room to help disperse that sound. These are called bipole speakers. A dipole speaker goes step further and produces a sound that’s slightly “out of phase,” which you can think of as a slight delay between the two sets of drivers, thereby making the sound even more ambient. Bipolar and dipolar speakers are used almost exclusively for side surround channels.
8) More is not necessarily better.
One speaker has three drivers: a woofer for bass, a tweeter for high sounds and a midrange driver for sounds in the middle. The other speaker has just a woofer and a tweeter. The two speakers are about the same price. Which is better? All other things being equal, the two-driver speaker will likely have the better drivers, and the three-driver speaker will have cheaper ones. Moral of the story: Don’t be swayed by the notion of getting more for same price or less.
9) Try them out.
Listen to several speaker systems before you buy. And don’t just listen to the music or soundtracks the store has. The best way to judge a speaker is to hear how it reproduces the human voice. Bring CDs and DVDs of your own and that you are very familiar with. It’s a good idea to select various tracks or DVD chapters that have loud and soft sounds. Bring vocal tracks and a DVD with some really soft or whispered dialogue. Can you hear that whispered dialogue clearly? Listen to the CDs and DVDs before you go to the store, even if you’re sick of them. This will enable you to judge the speakers’ sound and perhaps pick out sounds that you’ve never heard before.
10) Buy what you like.
Don’t be influenced by “this is the better system.” If one speaker sounds better to you, go with it. You’re the one who’s going to be hearing it day in and day out. But be sure to take other things into consideration, such as the room decor and layout, and consult your electronics dealer on which system would be best for a large space with hardwood floors, for example.
For more information about speakers check out our Best Speakers of 2007 and Speaker Q&A with Snell’s Bob Graffy.
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