“My speakers cost more than my car.” We actually heard someone say that recently at an audio convention, and we’re inclined to believe him, too, because speakers can get outrageously expensive. After we got done stifling our chuckles, though, the statement got us thinking about how speakers really are an important investment, and why it is that more people don’t treat their speaker purchases more like their car purchases.
Both are important investments, both serve practical and frivolous needs, and both vary greatly in terms of size, aesthetics, quality, performance and price. Yet, most people we know will spend weeks, if not months, researching, test-driving, haggling and, ultimately, purchasing a car, whereas those same shoppers are known to simply walk into a big-box electronics store, hear a demonstration and walk out with a set of speakers.
The truth is, the right set of speakers, if properly taken care of, will last longer than your car. Heck, they last a lot longer than most marriages these days — and will serve up decades of enjoyment without criticizing your taste in clothes or music. The key to sonic bliss is to empower yourself with knowledge, do a little research and spend some time test driving before pulling the trigger.
We’re here to help. Below is our guide to the ultimate speaker buying process from beginning to end. Armed with the knowledge contained within, your next speaker purchase can be easy, fun and downright gratifying.
Speakers 101: A primer
If you’ve already started reading audio or home theater magazines, then you may have run into some terminology that you aren’t familiar with. If you already know the difference between a satellite and a monitor or a surround and a rear surround, then please feel free to skip ahead. For those who need to do a little catching up, make sure to check out our home audio glossary for a brief overview of what is happening in speaker-land these days.
What will you use them for?
You don’t necessarily need huge speakers or a full-blown 7.1-channel surround system to get great sound. Take a moment to think about what your listening habits are.
If you primarily listen to music, one pair of speakers may be exactly you need to enjoy your music with occasional TV and movies as well.
If you are a passive music listener and don’t see yourself sitting down to appreciate the sound for extended periods of time, then a pair of quality bookshelf speakers or in-wall speakers may be the ticket. Want more bass? A small subwoofer can deliver the extra low end you are looking for.
If you are more of an active listener, or simply want the option of having your hair blown back on a whim, a pair of monitors or floor-standing speakers may be in order. Remember that a small floor-standing speaker with multiple drivers can deliver a really full-sounding, highly satisfying music experience without taking up much space.
If you are just looking to beef up the sound of your TV for general TV and movie watching and perhaps occasional music listening, a soundbar or soundbar and subwoofer combination may be a great choice. There are several quality options on the market you can find in our reviews section.
Say you’re a movie buff and surround sound is a must. At that point, you need to start thinking about where all the speakers in a surround system would be placed. To that end, let’s take a look at implications involved with your room.
Surveying your space
An important part of the process for refining your speaker search is to consider the space they will be operating in. Let’s look at the most important factors involved in what is to be your speakers’ new home
Room size: Ask a professional for advice and one of the first questions they are likely to ask is “how big is your room?” Ideally, they aren’t trying to gauge just how big a speaker they can sell you on; rather, they should be trying to determine what effect your room characteristics will have on your speakers’ sound. Room size, however, is just one consideration. We also need to think about how open the room is.
Generally speaking, small, closed in rooms with walls on all sides are not great environments for really large speakers. One, they take up lots of space. Two, they tend to “load” the room with bass, which can result in muddy sound. Conversely, large, open rooms (like “great rooms”) will make a small speaker sound small and localized. Larger speakers can help keep the sound-stage lifelike, seamless and more immersive, all important parts of home theater sound.
Speakers in furniture: Will you need to place some of your speakers inside an entertainment cabinet? If so, you will want to stay away from large bookshelf or monitor speakers with ports that produce lots of bass. All of that bass will just end up bouncing around in the cabinet and probably produce some unwanted resonances. If you must place speakers inside a cabinet, plan on finding a bookshelf speaker that stops playing bass around 80Hz or so. While we’re on the topic, the inside of a cabinet is about the worst place you can stick a subwoofer. Select a spot for your sub or plan on looking for a sub with a shape that will make it easy to tuck away in a hidden spot.
Speakers in the corner: Placing full-range, floor-standing speakers on either side of a TV that squares off a corner comes with some challenges. This arrangement has a way of cancelling out bass, which is a big part of what you might be paying for with a full range, floor-standing speaker. In these cases, you are likely to get more bang for your buck if you go with bookshelf speakers and a single point-source of bass, i.e.: a subwoofer.
Walls and floors: Hard surfaces are good sound’s chief enemy. No matter how great the sound is coming out of a speaker, if there are a bunch of large, smooth surfaces for that sound to reflect off of, it will change what you hear. If you’re worried your room might be too “live”, go stand in the center of it and clap loudly. If you hear a lot of echo, consider putting your system in another room or taking steps to calm down that echo. Furniture, drapes, carpet, plants…anything that helps break up long, hard, flat surfaces will help whatever speaker you get sound its best.
Décor: If your significant other spent good time (and money) making the room look nice, then you should consider looking at speakers that will compliment the space, not clash with it. Believe us when we say that hearing about how ugly your speakers make the room look on a regular basis will make you rue the day you made that purchase. The good news is, there are some flat-out gorgeous speakers with furniture-grade finishes out there that are bound to integrate nicely with your room’s décor.
Speaker placement options: Now we’re back to thinking about where you can put speakers in an effort to determine how many them can be reasonably incorporated into your system. For instance, if your couch or chairs are up against a wall, there’s no point in attempting to cram in a 7.1 system. You will have enough challenges placing your surround speakers in a good spot, never mind worrying about the back surrounds, which need at least 3 or 4 feet of distance away from where you sit to be effective. Plan on a 5.1 system and sort out where you can put those surround speakers to get the best effect. Don’t forget the décor consideration here either.
On the other hand, if there is no wall behind you or to the sides (or they are really far away) you may have challenges finding any place to put surround speakers. In-ceiling speakers used as surrounds can make an elegant solution, provided that is an option in your home.
Sure, there are a lot of factors to consider and these are just a few of the possible scenarios. The important thing is that you take time to think about what you will use your speakers for, the room that you will put them in and possible speaker placement options. With a good idea of how many and what type of speakers you need, it’s time to start researching, the do some shopping.