PART 2: Speakers 101

Home Audio

Welcome to part 2 of our “How to Buy Speakers: A Beginners Guide to Home Audio”.

In part 1 we reviewed some of the more important terms you should be aware of before purchasing your home audio system. Now that we’ve explored the technical jargon, it’s time to determine what you want your speakers for. Okay, that sounds like you have no idea what speakers are for – but give me a few moments and it will make more sense!

Most of us think the bigger the speaker, the better the sound – that, however, simply is not true. You do not need a 3 foot tall set of speakers to get optimal sound. If you are the flashy type and want the biggest, baddest speakers money can buy I’m sure you will not be disappointed by the sound quality – then again, take those same speakers and put them in a very small room and you will find yourself drowning in bass and listening to “muddy” sound.

So, step 2 is figuring out what you want your speakers for.

Take a moment to think about what your listening habits are. If you primarily listen to music, one pair of speakers may be exactly what you need to enjoy your music with occasional TV and movies as well. If you are a passive music listener and don’t see yourself sitting down to appreciate the sound for extended periods of time, then a pair of quality bookshelf speakers or in-wall speakers may be the ticket. Want more bass? A small sub-woofer can deliver the extra low end you are looking for.

If you are more of an active listener, or simply want the option of having your hair blown back on a whim (or blowing your friends away with teeth rattling sound), a pair of monitors or floor-standing speakers may be in order. A small floor-standing speaker with multiple drivers can deliver a really full-sounding, highly satisfying music experience without taking up much space. If you are just looking to beef up the sound of your TV for general TV and movie watching and perhaps occasional music listening, a sound bar or sound bar and sub-woofer combination may be a great choice.

If you are the theater going type and you want your home movie experience to, well, “take you out to the movies”, surround sound is a must. Surround sound audio is, simply put, sound that completely surrounds you. It means a speaker in virtually every corner of the room, projecting high-quality digital sound at you from all angles just as though you were in a theater.

If you know what you want your speakers for, then you’re halfway there! Now you just need to refine your speaker search by considering where you want them. This is very important. Remember what I said earlier about the biggest, baddest speakers in a small room? If you’re going to invest in a good home audio system, you certainly don’t want “muddy” sound! That totally defeats the purpose of a sound system and would leave you feeling as if your investment was a waste of time and money. Speakers are a critical component of any home-entertainment system, and their sound quality can make or break your listening experience. An important part of the process for your speaker search is to consider the space you will place them in as this can greatly impact sound quality.

Let’s take a look at the most important factors:

1. Room size and space: Large, open rooms will make small speakers sound flat and localized just as large speakers in a small room will make your speakers sound “muddy”. Room characteristics play a large part in the quality of sound you get. By placing larger speakers in a larger, more open space you keep the sound seamless and more immersive. By placing small speakers in a small room with a closer space you get a more crisp, clear sound. The best way to remember is to think small rooms = smallish speakers and larger rooms = larger speakers. There is more to that but we will cover it in more depth in part 3.

2. Walls and floors: Have you ever walked into a big house with open rooms, hard floors, and little furniture? I’m sure you have at some point. Do you remember what it was like (besides that creepy haunted feeling)? When I was a kid the best part about a house like that was the echo. It was always amazing to say hello and hear it continue on, and on, and on. Of course, I thought it was magic for years. Then I grew up and learned the echo was caused by the sound of my voice reflecting from the smooth surfaces. There was nothing to buffer the sound, to calm it or soften it so it distorted and acted like a super ball bouncing here and there. While it’s great fun for kids, open spaces like that are your speakers enemy. If you hear a lot of echo in any space, consider putting your system in another room or taking steps to calm down that echo. Furniture, drapes, carpet, plants…anything that helps break up long, hard, flat surfaces will help whatever speaker you get sound its best.

3. Furniture: Many of us have entertainment centers where we keep our TV, DVD/Blue ray player, game systems, etc. Many entertainment systems come with doors that we can hide all the electronics and wires behind. Generally, we use entertainment stands because we want to keep everything neat and tidy. If your room or space is fairly small, you may want to place your speakers inside the entertainment cabinet. If so, you will want to stay away from large bookshelf or monitor speakers with ports that produce lots of bass. All of that bass will just end up bouncing around in the cabinet and probably produce some unwanted resonances. If you must place speakers inside a cabinet, plan on finding a bookshelf speaker that stops playing bass around 80 Hz or so. While we’re on the topic, the inside of a cabinet is about the worst place you can stick a sub-woofer. Select a spot for your sub or plan on looking for a sub with a shape that will make it easy to tuck away in a hidden spot.

4. Decor: While last, it is by far not the least important aspect of your room. As a matter of fact, it is the room. I know I have spent tons of time and hard earned money to create an atmosphere in my home that helps me relax the moment I walk through the door – and this is carried throughout every room in my home. If my husband were to start plopping large speakers (eh gads!) – or even small speakers for that matter- all over the house that clashed with the atmosphere I had created, I would probably club him with something. Aside from the clubbing, he would have to listen to me complain about how bad the speakers look on a pretty consistent basis or until he got a clue and fixed it. While I can’t speak from actual experience, I’m pretty certain that would ruin his speaker buying experience and earn me a few pleading puppy dog stares. If you or your significant other have spent time and money making the room or space look nice, you should consider looking at speakers that will compliment the space, not clash with it or subtract from the atmosphere you were trying to create. The good news is, there are some flat-out gorgeous speakers with furniture-grade finishes out there that are bound to integrate nicely with your room’s decor.

Now that we have covered some of the more important aspects to consider when purchasing your home audio system, our next part will focus on types of speakers and setting up your system for optimal sound quality. In addition to this guide, I will be adding a few posts on the more technical aspects of speakers and what I like to call “The Audition” phase of your new speaker purchase. Stay tuned for part 3!