Long gone are the days when speakers were called “stereo speakers” and came packaged with your stereo. Also gone are the days when consumers were happy to listen to their television programming through the TV’s built-in speakers. Today, speakers are often referred to as “loud speakers” and they are available for viewers who want a cinema-quality soundscape at home. If you’ve recently spent a small fortune on an HDTV setup or top of the line home entertainment system, you won’t get the full experience if you don’t also invest in good speakers. Prices vary greatly, from a couple of hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. With such a wide range of price and feature, Pronto’s Buying Guide can help you determine which speakers are right for you.
If you listen to mostly music CDs, two very nice stereo speakers will probably suffice. For home theatre with Dolby 6.1, go with a set of six with center channel and subwoofer. If you buy a set of two with the thought that you’ll upgrade to surround later, make sure to match the speakers (mismatched speakers lead to audio disasters).
Size of audio equipment is no prediction of quality of performance. Understand what you need from a budgetary standpoint and what your home/listening room will accommodate. Speakers come as large as a person and as small as a box of cereal and the size choice is yours to make.
As a general rule, you’ll find serviceable, inexpensive speakers sold by large electronics manufacturers and more rarefied, aurally excellent speakers sold by audio boutiques. Never listen to speakers you can’t afford. As a rule, they’ll sound better than the ones you can afford. Know your range before you start shopping.
The ratings used to measure particulars about speaker performance (impendence, frequency response) come from non-real world laboratory conditions. That means the ratings have little to do with how the speakers will sound at your house.
No matter what, the best test for your speakers is in your home. Many online vendors have slashed shipping prices or eliminated them completely to make buying speakers via the Web easier. Take advantage of 30-day return policies with manufactures that offer them. Choose your entertainment CDs and DVDs and try them with every set.
Dolby and DTS (Digital Theatre Systems) are sound mode paradigms pioneered for movie theatre sound now available in home systems that deliver audio in discrete channels. Experts insist you’ll want a speaker for each channel, so 5.1 requires five speakers (often two front left and right, two rear left and right and one ‘dialog’ or ‘center channel). Dolby has several versions (Digital, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1) and so does DTS. Virtual Surround is when one or two speakers are used to achieve the desired ‘surround effect’ instead of the traditional five speaker surround sound setup.
Simply put, this is an electronic measurement of ‘resistance’ that your amplifier gives back to your receiver (in terms of electric current).
A mathematical measurement used to rate your amplifier’s ‘average power output.’ Used by the industry to describe an assessment of the unit’s maximum power.
If you don’t have a CRT display, then you don’t need to worry about video shielding at all. If you do plan to use a CRT with your new speakers, make sure they are shielded—which means they’ll employ a counter-magnetic to keep the speaker’s magnetic energy from affecting, or harming the TV’s picture tube. If you have a CRT and MUST buy an unshielded set of speakers, keep them 50cm or more from the television.
Another word for loudspeakers, in a four, five or six speaker set up.
A speaker that is specially created to handle the lowest frequencies, often in the 1hz-80hz range. Since these booming bass sounds are non-directional one speaker placed properly can provide the ‘room shaking effect’ most audiophiles crave.
The first question is “how many speakers do you need?” The general rule is one speaker for each channel of sound. The latest DVD and Super Audio CDs come in Dolby 5.1, so for best results, go with a traditional five-speaker setup: two speakers for stereo music, two for surround sound and one for dialogue. These speaker sets often include one large center channel and are what experts insist is the only setup that produces an optimal listening experience (matched left/right and front/back). Are there other options? Sound Bars, a new product on the audio market, allow you to substitute a five-speaker setup for one large speaker that simulates the work of five. If your room can’t accommodate a five-speaker setup (or you just don’t want to own and/or care for that much equipment), Sound Bar is a viable alternative.
Speakers come in a variety of designs. When most people think of speakers, they probably think of floor-standing speakers, which have long been the standard among home stereo and home theatre systems. Out of all the speaker designs available, floor-standing speakers take up the most space, but audiophiles claim that because they’ve been around so long, they perform the best thanks to decades and decades of product development and consumer experience feedback.
Other options include bookshelf speakers, which, despite their name are often larger than books and frequently don’t fit on a bookshelf. However, bookshelf speakers like the Sony SS-MF750H (est. $280) produce excellent sound and are an option everyone should consider when purchasing speakers. Want your speakers to be invisible and not disrupt the room’s décor? Check out in-wall, in-ceiling or the new in-floor speakers.
If you choose a speaker system for in-design, consider your skills first. Most DIY homeowners will find installation to be an “intermediate” level project. You’ll need to be comfortable fishing wires and cutting holes in drywall. If this is out of your comfort zone, there are many professional that specialize in audio-visual media installation. What to do if you don’t have the space (or desire) for floor-standing speakers and you don’t really want to cut holes in your walls? Consider wall-mounted or on-wall speakers. Be sure to read the fine print on these, though, because not all manufacturers sell them with mounting brackets. Ditto connection cables - until wireless speakers are the norm, you’ll need to budget a few hundred dollars for cables (you’ll probably spend less, but budget for more and you won’t be caught short).
Matching the décor may or may not be a top priority for you, but if it is, the sheer volume and variety of speaker systems on the market today almost guarantee you’ll find the brand you like and power you need in the veneer or finish you want.
Speakers are made of wood, plastic and steel and though there is a wide array of opinions, the experts agree that there are excellent systems made of each, and the materials alone should not be a decision point.
The short answer is: if it matters to you, it matters. Audiophiles all over the Internet message boards disagree that size and quality are directly related. Some enthusiasts insist that a high quality two speaker stereo set up can deliver a comparable experience to multi-speaker one. Ultimately, the only test that counts is how the system sounds in your room to your ears.
Speaker ratings and reviews tend to emphasize terms that evaluate the capacity of speakers and the volume of sound they produce (similar to how computer speed is measured in megahertz (mHz) or air conditioner power is measured in british thermal units (BTUs). These should be taken with a grain of salt, because the conditions under which speakers are tested in areas like frequency response (measured in Hz and kHz), decibels (dB) and impedance (ohms) are pulled from sound laboratory tests which produce decidedly different results than if the tests were performed in your home. In particular, the power range/handling settings have been called “meaningless” due to the near impossibility of damaging high-end speakers by turning the volume up too loud. If you rely on numbers for your purchase, look for speakers with impedance in a range from 4-8 ohms and frequency response between 100-200mHz.
If you’re going to be trying out new speakers, a surround sound system or home theatre setup, choose your test entertainment DVD or Audio carefully. Movies like the Star Wars series are great test movies because they allow you to evaluate dialogue from the center channel, music from the left/right channels up front and ambient noise from the left/right channels in back. If you’re purchasing for music only, experts recommend playing music by a female solo artist which allows you to best hear the highs/lows of your speakers’ capabilities. You don’t need to understand all the science that goes into making speaker sound, but you’ll understand what you hear, and whether it sounds good to you (or not).