Big, Small, or hung from the wall?
By Jim Bray
Part One: First Steps
Part Two: The Components We Used
Part Three: Buying a TV
Part Four: Buying a
Part Five: Accessorizing
Part Six: Buying a Receiver
Part Seven: Buying Speakers
Part Eight: More on Buying Speakers
While the quality of your home theater's sound is affected by your amplifier
and the source material, it's the loudspeakers that actually take the
electrical energy zipping through the wires and convert it into sound
So spend some time listening to a few models before plunking down your
after-tax disposable income.
If you live in a broom closet, coffin-sized speakers are definitely out.
That said, however, the opposite doesn't necessarily hold true; you can
fill a big room with small speakers if they and their amplification are
up to snuff.
Dollars spent doesnt necessarily translate into sound quality,
either. While Ive heard some spectacular speaker systems that cost
in the tens of thousands of dollars, Ive also been amazed at the
sound quality Ive been able to get from fairly inexpensive speakers,
if theyre well-designed and built.
The most common speakers look like boxes. These can be floor standing,
stand sitting, or mounted on a wall with brackets. The smaller
the speaker, generally, the more "bass challenged" it can be, since it
takes a certain amount of air movement to create the long wavelengths
of the lower frequencies.
That said, Ive also heard small speakers that put out a surprising
amount of bass, though most are more suited to playing back music than
they are meant for playing movie soundtracks. This is why subwoofers are
so popular now: they can add extra oomph to a small pair of speakers,
and that can make the difference between an explosion sounding like a
muffled poot or shaking your very foundations.
Multi-piece systems, which use tiny "satellite" speakers to handle the
high and midrange frequencies and a subwoofer for the bass, have also
become increasingly popular in recent 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 them in a closet!), from wall
brackets to wall units, while the subwoofer (which isn't nearly as sensitive
to where it's physically located in the room) can be hidden in a corner
or behind the sofa. This leaves you with more room for furniture!
For a typical surround sound home theater system, you'll need several
speakers. The left and right speakers of the traditional stereo audio
system will double as your main front speakers. Youll also need
a center speaker (which should be magnetically shielded so it wont
cause colored splotches on your TV) and at least one pair of surround
A subwoofer is optional but, as mentioned above, highly recommended to
ensure that, when the big spaceships come on screen at the opening of
the "Star Wars" films, your home theater is moved by the proper Phantom
Of all these speakers, the two main (front) ones are the most important,
as this is where the lion's share of the full range of sound originates,
especially when youre playing music (and movies have music too,
remember). Next in importance is the center channel, because that's where
most of the dialogue originates. You can get away without a separate center
channel (using what they call "phantom" mode), but it isn't nearly as
Surround speakers are used mostly for effects and you can get away with
a smaller, less expensive pair if necessary. This is only a rule of thumb,
though, and purists will argue you need to pay as much attention to your
rear (speakers, that is) as to the rest. The THX police wont break
down your door to check up on you, however, so make up your own mind.
Speakers should be invisible. That is, they shouldnt add or subtract
sound. This is great in theory, of course, but the dickens to get. In
the real world, what you'll end up doing is buying a speaker that "colors"
the sound in a way your ears find the most acceptable.
The most important rule of thumb is "Trust Your Own Ears." When youve
decided on two or three speakers you like, try to audition them in your
home to hear how they sound in their natural environment.
Youll probably have to leave a deposit with the store, but thats
Remember to take a familiar CD to the store, too!
Ill outline other considerations, like power, impedance, and placement,
in an upcoming column.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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