Home Audio SystemBuying a home audio system can be baffling, but it doesn’t have to be!

From transistors to the new age wireless music systems, home audio systems have undergone a phenomenal transformation. There are so many choices and price points that getting a home audio system that fits your specific needs can become an arduous undertaking. For the numerous audiophiles out there, picking the best system is an adventure – we know, we do it all day! But not everyone is an audiophile and most of us just want  the process to be easier. With that in mind, we decided a ‘How to Buy Speakers: Beginners Guide to Home Audio’ would help demystify the process!

I was browsing through some of the more recent audio blog posts and saw a statement that “My speakers cost more than my car.” I chuckled a bit at that but I was inclined to believe it because speakers can get pretty pricey. However,  the statement got me thinking about how speakers are an important investment and wondering why more people didn’t treat their speaker investment as seriously as their car purchases.

Think about it – you wouldn’t go out and just point at a car and say, “I’ll take that one!” No way! Every car varies greatly in terms of size, quality, aesthetics, performance and price. Most people will spend weeks (or months) test driving, researching, haggling and, eventually, they’ll purchase a new car. So why is it those same shoppers will walk into an electronics store, listen to a short demonstration and walk out with a cheap home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) speaker system?

HTIBs used to be the go-to budget option for home audio, but I’m reluctant to recommend an HTIB these days. You get all the downsides of multiple speakers and tangles of wires, yet you often don’t get dramatically better sound than a good sound bar. And unlike AV receivers and speakers, an HTIB typically isn’t upgradable, so you’re stuck with the AV receiver, speakers, and built-in Blu-ray player your HTIB features. While there are some scenarios in which an HTIB is the best option, in most cases you’re better off saving up for a full-size system.

The truth is, the right set of speakers (if properly cared for), will last longer than your car. Empower yourself with knowledge, do some research and spend some time test driving several types of speakers before purchasing anything. Armed with the knowledge contained in this guide, your next speaker purchase can be easy, fun and sonically gratifying!

So,  what comes first? Well, it’s always easier to understand the what and why of something if you can figure out the technical jargon. If I was talking about speakers and suddenly started gabbing about tweeters, some people might  think I had veered so far off subject that I was talking about  the well known “Twitter” social platform. Granted, tweeters were around way before a “tweeter” was a person using Twitter – but if you don’t know that a tweeter is a driver that produces high frequencies (a.k.a treble) in a speaker, what else could you think? And what if I then told you that I think getting a good monitor would totally beef up your bass? Admit it, the first thing that jumps to mind is the screen you’re looking at while reading this post!

Therefore, the first step is knowing what the basic terms and definitions are when it comes to home audio.  Our home audio glossary lays down a primer on all the basic speaker terms and definitions you need to get started understanding home audio.

Amplifier: An electrical circuit designed to boost the current or voltage of a signal

Back surrounds: Also referred to as rear surrounds, these are surround speakers that are meant to be placed in the back of a room, facing toward the TV or projection screen. The speakers, work in conjunction with surrounds to provide a realistic sound-field behind the listener.

Bass (low frequencies): Between 0Hz to about 200 Hz it is the low end of the audio frequency

Bookshelf speakers: The next step up in size from satellites. There is some grey area here because some folks call larger satellites “bookshelf speakers” anyway, but for our purposes here, a bookshelf speaker will usually have a driver of 5.25 to 6.5 inches and a tweeter. Depending on how well they are made, bookshelf speakers can produce some bass, but they don’t get down very low in the bass spectrum.

Cabinet: The structure in which a speaker’s driver(s), tweeter(s) and crossover components are housed.

Center channel: In home theater systems, the center channel is responsible for reproducing dialogue and some sound effects. The center channel is meant to be placed just above or below a TV or projection screen to give the impression that the voices are coming from the screen.

Crossover: A network of parts that break up a sound signal into different frequency bands and direct them to the appropriate driver or tweeter for sound production.

Crossover Network (Filter): An electric circuit or network that splits the audio frequencies and distributes them into different bands to be transferred into individual speakers.

Dome Tweeter: Made from metal or silk, they are high frequency speaker driver with dome-shaped diaphragm.

Driver:A driver is the cone or circular portion of a speaker that moves back and forth to produce sound. Sometimes speakers with several drivers will be distinguished as midrange, mid-bass or bass drivers, which describes their role in reproducing some part of the frequency spectrum.

Equalizer: An electronic device that acts as active filters to boost or maintain certain frequencies.

Floor-standing or tower speakers: As the names imply, these types of speakers sit on the floor and are tall enough that a speaker stand isn’t needed to get them to the right height. Floor-standing or tower speakers usually (not always) have multiple drivers and a tweeter. The size of these drivers can vary from 3.5 to 12 inches in diameter and it is not uncommon to mix in several different sizes. The bigger the drivers are, the larger the cabinet is likely to be. Some floor-standing speakers today use multiple, small drivers and are so slim that they take up less space than a bookshelf speaker on a speaker stand.

Frequency: The number of waves passing through a point in one second, they are expressed in hertz (Hz).

Front-height speakers: A relatively new addition to home theater, front-height speakers are usually placed above and between the two main speakers. The idea is to provide a little more height to the sound-field, making the surround sound that much more convincing.

Front-width speakers: Also a new addition to home theater, front-width speakers sit to the left and right of the main speakers and slightly forward. The goal of these speakers is to help bridge the gap between the mains and the surrounds.

High-pass Filter: It refers to an electric circuit which passes high frequencies but blocks low frequencies.

Low-Pass Filter: It refers to an electric circuit to pass only low frequencies and act as high impedance to frequencies out of the filters range.

Mains/Front L/R: Refers to the main two speakers in a system. For music, the main left and right speakers will do most of the work. For home theater, the mains will take care of a lot of sound effects, particularly the sounds of things happening just off-screen.

Monitors: Monitors are like oversized bookshelf speakers. These can have a driver size of 6.5 to 8 inches and, because of larger drivers and larger cabinets, most monitors can produce some pretty significant bass power and get down reasonably low.

Port: A hole that is placed in a speaker’s cabinet in order to enhance its bass response. 

Satellite: A very small speaker made to fit in areas where space is at a premium. Satellite speakers generally have a main driver of 4 inches or less, and a tweeter. Some have drivers so small that a tweeter is not necessary. Because the drivers in satellites are so small, they usually produce little to no bass. Satellites come in all sorts of shapes: cubes, spheres, rectangles…you name it.

Subwoofer: The subwoofer’s job is to produce bass. A subwoofer is usually a 6.5- to 15-inch driver mounted in its own cabinet, no tweeter. Active subwoofers have their own amplification. Passive subwoofers (rare these days) require amplification from another source. Subwoofers can be used to fill in the low frequencies for smaller speakers, or cover the extremely low frequencies in a home theater system.

Surrounds: In home theater systems, the surround speakers are responsible for directional sound effects. The surround speakers are supposed to be placed just to the side and just behind the listening position (i.e. your couch, easy chair or theater seating). Surround speakers can sometimes be smaller than the main speakers in a system.

Tweeter: A very small driver, often 1-inch in diameter or less, which produces high frequencies, a.k.a “treble.”

Woofer: a loudspeaker that acts as an electrical converter which has been designed to reproduce low-frequency sounds.

That wraps up part one! I will continue this post next week so check back for the next exciting installment of our guide!