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How to Buy Speakers

Big, Small, or hung from the wall?

Speakers are arguably the most important component in your audio system. While the ultimate quality of your home theatre's sound also depends on the quality of your source material, amplification, etc., it's the loudspeakers that actually convert all that electrical energy zipping through the wires back into sound waves.

And, while dollars spent can help translate into sound quality received, it ain't necessarily so. These days, you can get really good sound from speakers worth only a few hundred dollars. Likewise, you don't necessarily need huge, hulking cabinets to give you the sound you want, which is great news for those living in small quarters or who don't necessarily want monolithic behemoths in their living room.

There are probably more speakers brands, models, and types available than any other audio or video component, which shows just how personal a choice good sound is. It's also extremely subjective: a speaker your neighbour says sounds great might grate on your ears, and vice versa.

So rule of thumb number one when looking for speakers is "Trust Your Own Ears."

Type Casting...

The most conventional speakers are the ones that come in box-like cabinets. These can be floor standing models, smaller units you mount on a stand, or tiny little things that mount with wall brackets. The smaller the speaker, generally, the more "bass challenged" they can be (it takes a certain amount of air movement from the speaker "driver" to create the long wavelengths of the lower frequencies), which is one of the reasons separate bass speakers (subwoofers) are popular now: they can add the missing ooomph to a small pair of speakers.

Three piece systems, with two "satellite" speakers that handle the high and midrange frequencies and a subwoofer module to crank out the bass, have become increasinly common over the past few years. An advantage to this setup is that the satellites can be mounted or placed just about anywhere (within reason, of course - you don't want to put them in a closet!), from mounted on wall brackets to in a wall unit (beware sitting them on a shelf, though, 'cause they can move around when the sound gets loud!), while the subwoofer - which isn't nearly as sensitive to where it's located - can be hidden out of sight behind or under furniture. This leaves you with more room for furniture - what a concept!

Now Speaking…

For a typical home theatre, you'll need several speakers. Conventional stereo audio requires two, which will probably double as the main speakers for your Dolby Surround system. Add to that a centre speaker (usually different from the main speakers, and magnetically shielded so they don't cause coloured splotches on your TV) and at least one pair of surround speakers. You may also want a subwoofer to ensure that, when the Star Destroyer comes on screen at the opening of "Star Wars," your floor shakes with the proper authority. A subwoofer isn't always necessary: if your main speakers put out enough bass to peel the paint from your walls you may find it redundant.

Of all these speakers, the two main (front) ones are the most important, as this is where the lion's share of your sound is going to originate. Next in importance for a home theatre is the centre channel, because that's where most of the dialogue and sound effects originate. You can get away without a centre channel (using the Dolby Pro-Logic "phantom" mode), but it isn't nearly as satisfying and should only be used until you can afford a proper centre channel speaker (and centre channel amplification).

Surround channels are used mostly for effects and you can often get away with a smaller, less expensive pair here. This is only a rule of thumb, though. If you're building a real THX system (which is supposed to have equal power into all channels) you'll want a better class of surround speakers. THX recommends dipoles, speakers that "fire" both forward and backwards, though of course the THX police aren't going to break down your door to check up on you; you will, however, have to live with the knowledge that you're bastardizing the THX standard for which you've paid extra cash.

But we digress…

Picking the Litter...

Choosing a speaker obviously depends a lot on the room in which they're going to be located (and your wallet size, of course). If you live in a broom closet, speakers the size of coffins are definitely out. That said, however, the opposite doesn't necessarily hold true; you can fill a big room with sound from small speakers if the speakers are of high enough quality and their amplification is up to snuff.

Speaker choice also depends on the rest of your audio system. If they're not matched to your amplifier, for example, they could sound lousy or even be damaged by the amplifier (or vice versa). You should keep two things in mind when matching your speakers to your amplifier (for this article we'll use the word amplifier to mean receiver as well): impedance and power.

Impedance is basically the speaker's resistance (measured in Ohms) to the electrical current the amplifier sends it. High impedance doesn't necessarily mean high quality, however, nor does the reverse hold true. Low impedance speakers merely means it takes more current to drive 'em to the same loudness as a higher impedance speaker.

But impedances should be matched between amplifier and speakers, so if your speakers are rated at 4 ohm impedance (or 8 ohm, or whatever), the amp should be rated similarly.

If you're running more than one set of main speakers (for instance if you're powering a second set in a different room from your main system) you may need higher impedance in your amp. If in doubt, check the specifications of your potential amp and speakers or ask your dealer.

Power is the fun part 'cause power can translate into POWER! The power rating of a speaker - and the amp- is an important matchup because if your amp is too powerful your speakers could end up as little black smoking ruins on your living room floor. Likewise, too little power and your speakers won't be used to their potential and may go on strike for higher wages.

Speakers' power ratings are usually measured as "peak" or "continuous" power and you should be aware of both terms. "Peak" power means that's the maximum they can handle before the smoke starts pouring out, while "Continuous" means just that: they'll hum along happily at that power rating, but beware pumping more than that into them for more than an instant or two at a time.

Most amps' power rating are "Continuous" watts per channel (which means per speaker), so if you match the amp's continuous rating to the speaker's you should be okay. Amp ratings often include "peak" power as well, which is helpful. Remember, too, that quite often a store will list an amp's power as, say, 200 watts when what they're really selling is a 100 watt per channel amp.

Command Performance

A good loudspeaker should be invisible. That is, it should output the input signal without adding or deleting anything. Of course while this is great in theory, it's the dickens to get in reality. In the real world, what you'll end up doing is buying a speaker that "colours" the sound in a way your ears find the most acceptable.

Cheaper, er, more inexpensive speakers tend to not reproduce the sounds at either high or low end of the spectrum - especially the low end - as well as the middle frequencies. So if you're scrimping on the main speakers, or buying tiny ones, and still want sound that'll bring tears of joy to your eyes, expect to add a subwoofer.

Of course, you can also colour the sound with your amplifier's (actually your preamplifier's) tone controls, which will get your hand slapped if you're hanging around with a high end audiophile. Tone controls, or an equalizer, can also help compensate for flaws in your system or listening room, however, but this is a compromise and is no substitute for a system that just sounds good without fiddling and a perfect listening room. This is the real world, though, so we won't laugh at you if you tweak the controls.

Everything in its Place…

Where you put your speakers is vital to your happiness with them. For good stereo separation, you'll want the speakers to be far enough apart (say, ten feet) for a full soundstage to be heard, but not so far apart that it sounds artificial or "hollow."

And if you put your speakers too close to a corner or a wall, the bass can become "boomy," which is nice if you like listening to explosions but does little for the subtleties of a string bass. Then again, if your speakers are lacking in bass, sticking them in a corner can make 'em sound as if they have a little more "ooomph."

Manufacturers or dealers can often give you good advice as to speaker placement, so don't be afraid to consult with them. You might even want to take a diagram of your listening room into the store with you to help with the salesperson's recommendation. You can even try cajoling the salesperson into taking a look at your room - and a cash bribe may help convince him or her of the wisdom of such a service.

To Buy or Not to Buy…

That is the question. When going to audition speakers in a store, try to find a place that has a decent listening room. Most audio dealers worth their salt will have at least one good listening room, though it may be hard to find one at a discounter. A good store will also have a good switching setup that'll let you audition more than one pair of speakers at a time (switching back and forth between them) so you can compare them.

Take your own source material with you, something you know well, and only compare two pairs of speakers at a time (otherwise your brain will shut down). Pick the pair you like best, and repeat this process until you've narrowed down your choices.

Once you've settled on one or two pairs, try to arrange to test them in your listening room. This may require leaving your credit card number, or making a conditional purchase, but most reputable dealers will cooperate happily. But don't jerk them around, either. Time is money for both of you.

Rather than bamboozle you with a dizzying array of speaker types and configurations, most of which you probably don't care about, suffice it to say that you should ignore types and configurations and buy speakers that - to you, your wallet, and your listening room - sound good. Period. And ignore the hype! It won't matter to you if your speakers have the latest polymer cone configurations held together by black magic if, to your ears, they suck. So buy what you like.

Good Luck!


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January 31, 2006