PART 3: TYPES OF SPEAKERS & PLACEMENT
In part 1 we reviewed some of the more important terms you should be aware of before purchasing your home audio system. In part 2 we covered some of the more important aspects to consider including listening preference, decor, and room acoustics. Now, step 3 of our home audio guide is to familiarize yourself with the type of speakers available so you can make an informed decision based on your listening habits and preferences. Below this post I have embedded the Home Theater Speaker Guide from Dolby that will assist with speaker placement. Simply choose the distance and configuration (5.1, 7.1, or 9.1) and the guide will assist you with where to put your speakers for the best surround sound.
On to those speakers!
Speakers are sold as pairs for traditional stereo setups, and singly or in sets of three to eight for equipping a home theater. In order to keep a system balanced, buy the front left and right speakers in pairs rather than individually. The center-channel speaker should be acoustically matched to the front speakers. Rear speakers should also sound similar to front speakers. Each type of speaker serves a different purpose. The front speakers are used for stereo music playback; in a home-theater setup, they provide front left and right sounds. A center-channel speaker delivers dialog and is usually placed atop or beneath the TV in a home theater. Rear speakers, sometimes called surround speakers, deliver rear ambient effects such as crowd noise or special effects. A bass unit- known as a subwoofer -reproduces the lowest tones, such as bass instruments and action-movie explosions.
These are among the smaller speakers, but the largest of them can be 20 or so inches tall, too big for some shelves, despite their name. A pair can serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front or rear duo in a home theater. Small speakers like these have become better at handling bass without buzzing or distortion and are likely to satisfy many listeners. Any bass-handling limitations would be less of a concern in a multi-speaker system that uses a subwoofer to reproduce deep bass.
Typically about 3 to 4 feet tall, these large speakers can also serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front pair in a home-theater system. Their big cabinets have the potential to do more justice to deep bass than smaller speakers–and some may contain built-in powered subwoofers–but they take up more space and might not be the best choice for aesthetic reasons.
In a multichannel setup, the center-channel speaker is typically placed above or beneath the TV, as its job is to anchor sound to the onscreen action. Because it primarily handles dialog, its frequency range doesn’t have to be as full as that of the front pair, but its sound should be similar, so that all three blend well. Many center-channel speakers are wider than they are tall.
Rear speakers in a multichannel setup carry ambient sounds, such as crowd noise, and directional effects, such as a car racing by or a plane flying past. Multichannel formats such as Dolby Digital, Digital Theater System (DTS), and the high-resolution lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master soundtracks found on many Blu-ray movies make fuller use of these speakers than earlier formats, so many models now have a wider frequency response. Rear speakers tend to be small and light (often 5 to 10 inches high and 3 to 6 pounds), so they can be wall-mounted or placed on a shelf.
Meant as a standalone system or for use with other speakers, these so-called 2.1-channel sets combine two bookshelf or small satellite speakers for midrange and higher tones with a subwoofer for bass. Some may include a center-channel speaker rather than a subwoofer.
An easy route to a full surround-sound system, these matched sets typically have small bookshelf or satellite speakers for front and rear pairs (though some sets have floor-standing speakers for the front), a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. Six- or eight-piece sets take the guesswork out of matching speakers. They differ from a home-theater system in that you have to add a receiver.
More correctly called bass units, they reproduce all the bass or low frequencies. In a stereo or multichannel setup, the bass unit might sit apart from the other speakers, in a location that delivers the most consistent bass or that’s more convenient–even hidden out of sight. But you can’t just stick a subwoofer anywhere. If you put one in a corner, for example, the unit might overemphasize some notes and make your system sound boomy. Most subwoofers are “active” or “powered,” meaning that they have built-in amplification. Some are now wireless, so you don’t have to run a cable to a receiver.
Sound bars contain the left and right front speakers, and sometimes a center speaker, in one enclosure. Many are self-powered–meaning they have built-in amplification–and connect directly to a TV, cable/satellite box, or DVD player, so a receiver/amplifier isn’t needed. Some come with a separate subwoofer, often wireless, and a few incorporate either a Blu-ray or standard DVD player. A few models include rear surround speakers that can connect to a wireless subwoofer or amplifier.
How to choose:
Consider size. Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, so see how they’ll fit in your room. Floor standing speakers might overwhelm smaller spaces. Bookshelf speakers are often a better fit, though some are quite large. Make sure the model you choose will fit the shelf or niche you’ve earmarked for it. Most can also be placed on stands. And don’t worry that you’re giving up quality for compactness. Many small speakers do a fine job, especially in the relatively modest environs of typical rooms. For maximum space saving, consider one of the new flat speaker systems designed to complement flat-panel TVs. They can be wall-mounted or placed on a stand. In-wall models have gotten better, and can virtually disappear in a room.
Speaker placement options:
Now we’re back to thinking about where you can put speakers in an effort to determine how many of them can be reasonably incorporated into your system. For instance, if your couch or chairs are up against a wall, there’s no point in attempting to cram in a 7.1 system. You will have enough challenges placing your surround speakers in a good spot, never mind worrying about the back surrounds, which need at least 3 or 4 feet of distance away from where you sit to be effective. Plan on a 5.1 system and sort out where you can put those surround speakers to get the best effect. Don’t forget the décor consideration here either. On the other hand, if there is no wall behind you or to the sides (or they are really far away) you may have challenges finding any place to put surround speakers. In-ceiling speakers used as surrounds can make an elegant solution, provided that is an option in your home. Sure, there are a lot of factors to consider and these are just a few of the possible scenarios.
With a good idea of how many and what type of speakers you need, it’s time to start putting it all together and do some shopping!