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Choosing Speakers: Freestanding vs. In-Wall

July 28, 2014 | Comments

When high-fidelity speakers designed for in-wall mounting were introduced in the early 1980s, they played a pivotal role in the emerging custom installation industry that led to the birth of CEDIA a few years later.

For the first time, it was possible to enjoy full-bodied sound from décor-friendly "architectural" speakers that effectively disappeared in the walls behind unobtrusive grilles.

Today, a wide variety of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are available from virtually every major speaker brand at prices ranging from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars a pair, including models designed specifically for home theater.

Freestanding Speakers

The paradigm for music listening has revolved around a pair of freestanding speakers since the birth of high-fidelity sound in the1950s, which paved the way for mass-market stereo in the 1960s. And it's still the way most of us listen to music.

home theater with freestanding speakers
Home theater installation by VIA International

The Pros

The beauty of freestanding speakers is that they come in many styles and sizes - from ultra-compact cubes to rectangular bookshelf models to the floor-standing towers coveted by audiophiles. Styles and finishes range from plain-Jane boxes to sculpted cabinets with finishes that run the gamut from black vinyl or faux woodgrain (which can be surprisingly good) to furniture-grade wood veneer or black lacquer polished to perfection.

So in addition to selecting speakers that physically fit the room, you can choose models that complement the décor or become a focal point. And whether we're talking about floor-standing towers or small- to medium-size speakers on a shelf or stand, you can move them around to optimize sound quality.

The Cons

Freestanding speakers take up space, which can be an issue in small or crowded rooms - especially in the case of a home theater installation with five speakers plus a stand-alone subwoofer. And some homeowners just don't want the "clutter" introduced by a pair of speakers, let alone the six you need for a convincing surround-sound experience…which brings us to in-wall speakers.

In-Wall/Ceiling Speakers

The inconspicuous nature of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers has made them the darlings of whole-house music systems and media rooms set up for home theater.

in-ceiling speakers in modern media room
Media room with in-ceiling speakers by BaseNTX

The Pros

Because they sit flush in your walls and ceilings, you don't have to find a place for them, making them perfect for small or crowded rooms and for people who, frankly, don't want to see speakers.

They're particularly well-suited for home theater installations, especially in the case of rear surround-sound speakers, which present challenges for freestanding speakers; in addition to finding a place to put them, you also have to run speaker cables.

One of the knocks on in-walls is that they're hard to position for optimum sound. But that's not really much of an issue these days thanks to pivoting tweeters that let you aim the sound and switchable equalization that lets you adjust tone, making the sound more or less "bright," for example.

The Cons

Installation is required, which takes time and costs money. You have to cut holes in the walls (or ceiling) and snake wires through the walls - both specialties of custom home theater installers. And once the speaker is place, you can't move it, which means you need to carefully consider the mounting location before you break out the saw.

From a sound quality perspective, speakers can't be mounted too far apart or you'll lose the stereo imaging that makes great musical recordings so life-like.

To learn more about home theater and multi-room speaker options, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.