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Choosing Speakers: Where to Start

August 29, 2014 | Comments

Whether you're choosing speakers for listening to music or watching movies in a theater-like surround-sound environment, Job No. 1 is to decide what type of speakers you want.

Do you have traditional, freestanding speakers in mind? Or are you interested in something less obtrusive - more stealth? Or maybe you'd like to keep things as self-contained and simple as possible.

Whichever way you're leaning, we've put together this quick guide to help you figure out which approach to sound reproduction is best for you.

Speakers Meant to Be Seen and Heard

If someone says "speaker," what's the first thing you think of? A classic "box speaker," right? Freestanding speakers have been around for well over a half a century and come in one of two form factors: Tall, slender "towers" that sit directly on the floor or compact bookshelf speakers designed to sit on a shelf, cabinet, or stand.

If you agree with the following statements, stand-alone speakers are worth considering.

  • I don't mind - and maybe even like - seeing speakers in the room.
  • I like being able to choose from a wide variety of shapes, styles, and sizes - from the traditional rectangular "box speaker" to models featuring sculpted (and potentially exotic) enclosures - with finishes ranging from every imaginable type of wood (real and faux) to piano black and other high-gloss colors.
  • I want the best possible sound quality and realize that speakers - two for stereo or at least five for surround sound - must be properly positioned to ensure a goose-bump-inducing music or movie experience.

Speakers Meant to be Heard, Not Seen

Traditional, freestanding speakers were the only option for decades until a couple of crafty engineers invented speakers that mount flush in the wall back in the mid to late 1970s. They took a while to catch on, but by the early 1990s, in-wall speakers had become central to what would evolve into the $14 billion home technology/custom installation industry CEDIA serves today.

In-wall/ceiling speakers have evolved to the point where today's best models can deliver performance that comes close to matching that of high-quality freestanding speakers. If you agree with the following statements, in-wall/ceiling speakers might be for you.

  • My room décor is just so and I don't want speakers and cables intruding upon it.
  • I want inconspicuous speakers but not at the expense of sound quality and a convincing surround-sound movie experience.
  • I'm willing to pay extra to have speakers mounted in the walls and/or ceiling, hidden behind grille covers that blend in.

Single Enclosure Speakers

Today's fastest growing type of speaker is the all-in-one soundbar: multiple woofers and tweeters in one long, slender enclosure designed to sit below a flat-panel TV. Ideal for secondary spaces, such as a bedroom or den, the soundbar is an inexpensive alternative to a full-blown surround-sound system with six speakers (including a subwoofer) spread around the room.

Most soundbars include a stand-alone wireless subwoofer to handle deep bass and use psychoacoustic tricks and digital signal processing to simulate a wrap-around surround-sound effect that varies from subtle to surprisingly compelling.

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