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Up, Up and Away: Invisible Ceiling Speakers and Spectacular Audio

September 12, 2014 | Comments

The ceiling is probably one of the last places you would expect to find speakers in a home setting. Yet "in-ceiling speakers" have become a popular option for décor-conscious homeowners who love listening to music but prefer to keep their AV gear under wraps.

For many, the thought of overhead speakers conjures up images of screechy airport public address systems and sleepy if not tinny elevator music. But recent advances in design and performance have made it possible to enjoy rich, full-bodied sound from speakers that disappear in your ceiling.

Ceiling speakers have quite a bit in common with their in-wall cousins. They mount between joists (instead of wall studs), sit flush with the sheetrock, and project sound through fine-mesh grille covers that can be painted to match the surrounding surface.

Unlike in-walls, which typically have one or two woofers and a tweeter mounted in a rectangular plate, in-ceiling speakers tend to be round and consist of a woofer with a tweeter suspended above it.

In-ceiling speakers
In-ceiling speakers installed by Graytek


Sound From Above

Putting sound quality aside for a moment, you may be wondering how speakers mounted above your head could possibly create an optimal listening experience. Can in-ceiling speakers really reproduce the illusion of a musical performance with ambience and a sense of space between instruments and voices? Can they successfully create the feel of being transported by a movie soundtrack with dialogue centered on the screen and realistic sound effects - precisely what we expect from properly placed freestanding speakers?

These questions are particularly relevant in the case of a media room or home theater space where five or more speakers plus a subwoofer are used to create a movie-theater-like surround-sound experience.

It turns out that speaker companies that have found ways to trick your ears into thinking the sound is in front of and around you instead of coming from the ceiling, which is what you get with speakers that fire straight down.

In-ceiling speakers
In-ceiling speakers by Andrew Lucas London


The best in-ceiling designs use specially designed drivers mounted at angles carefully calculated to produce sound imaging that rivals what you would hear from freestanding speakers. Pivoting tweeters that can be "aimed" also come into play, along with varying degrees of electronic signal processing and equalization.

The final piece to the puzzle is placement - taking the room and the application into consideration and locating the speakers where they will deliver the best possible result. From there it becomes a matter of driver quality - as is the case with any speaker - and making sure each speaker receives enough clean power to convey a palpable listening experience.

So when it's time for new speakers, don't skip over in-ceiling models you once dismissed. The best of the lot can deliver shockingly realistic sound that will leave you looking around the room in disbelief.

As for the cons of putting speakers in your ceiling, let's just say that installation can be challenging, especially in rooms where there is no space (as in an attic) above, which is why we always recommend consulting a professional audio installation company. Another downside: You don't have a set of gleaming 4-foot-tall tower speakers to show off - if that's your thing.

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