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Listen Up: Your Guide to Selecting Speakers

July 3, 2013 | Comments

Ready for a pop quiz? When it comes to sound quality, what's the most important link in the audio chain?

a) A/V receiver or preamp/power amplifier
b) Source component (DVD or Blu-ray player, cable box, etc.)
c) Speakers

If you chose "speakers," congratulations! Recognizing the vital role a speaker plays in sound reproduction is the first step toward assembling a crack sound system - the kind that puts you on the edge of your seat during a suspenseful movie scene and gives you goose bumps during a cherished musical moment.

That's not to say other components aren't important - having a solid receiver or power amplifier is a prerequisite to good sound - but ultimately it's the speakers that make or break "the performance."

But don't take our word for it: Visit the showroom of a local A/V installation firm and ask for a demo. Topnotch speakers, when properly set up in an acoustically friendly environment, can deliver a mind-blowing you-are-there experience.

Best of all, today's speakers come in a variety of décor-friendly shapes, sizes, and finishes that will fit any budget. And if accommodating six freestanding speakers is a concern, you can look into a stealth setup with speakers that mount in the walls and ceiling.

Movies or Music?

In the early days of home theater, there was some debate over whether speakers designed for movie watching could do justice with music. The short answer: A good speaker is a good speaker. But unlike a traditional stereo setup, it takes at least six properly placed speakers to get surround sound that puts you in the middle of the action.

Surround-Sound Setup

Getting movie-theater-like sound at home is about having the right speakers in the right places. Think of the speakers as a team that works in concert to reproduce the different parts, or channels, of a Dolby Digital or DTS movie soundtrack or multichannel TV broadcast. The basic breakdown is five channels plus a sixth ".1" bass channel. Let's take a closer look at a "5.1 channel" setup.

Front left and right

Positioned to either side of the TV screen, think of these as a stereo pair of speakers that can be called into action to play music, whether it's from a CD, an iPod or Pandora.

The most popular speaker packages use compact "satellites" for the front left/right positions, but die-hard audiophiles prefer floor-standing "tower" speakers because they generally deliver more full-bodied sound (and deeper bass). Towers, which stand 3 or more feet tall and sit directly on the floor as opposed to being mounted on a stand or on the wall, are worth considering if you spend a fair amount of time listening to music.

Center

While music and sound effects account for much of what comes out of the front "mains," the center speaker is arguably the most important piece of the home theater puzzle because its job is to reproduce dialogue. The typical form factor is a slender, horizontal enclosure that can be placed above or below the TV screen.

Left and right surrounds

In addition to conveying sound effects, rear "surround" speakers work with the front speakers to create a sense of space that puts you "in the movie." Ideally, they should be placed on the sidewalls above and slightly behind the listening position, but mounting them on stands or on the back wall will work as well.

The best surround setups produce eerily convincing ambience that is appropriate to the environment where the action is taking place - whether it's the great plains of Wyoming or the claustrophobic confines of a submarine.

While most surrounds look like ordinary compact speakers, some home theater packages include dipole or bipole surrounds with drivers on two or three surfaces, which do a better job of producing ambience because the sound is harder to "localize."

Subwoofer

The typical subwoofer packs one or more large woofers in a cubical enclosure that usually winds up in the corner of the room (placement can have a big effect on the overall sound so it makes sense to consult an expert). Its sole mission: To reproduce the deep bass in a movie soundtrack.

If you're a fan of action-adventure movies, having a subwoofer that can handle the sonic mayhem that defines this genre is a must. Sizes vary from a cubic foot or less to large, fairly obtrusive boxes, although a few companies make rectangular subwoofers designed to fit under a couch.

With these basics in mind, it's time to start mapping out your A/V project. To learn more about home theater and the multitude of speaker options - including in-wall and on-wall options - consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professional companies in your area.