Selecting Speakers

Speakers have the most influence on how any audio system will sound. With so many speakers available in various shapes, styles and sizes, you may feel overwhelmed when trying to choose. Use this guide to learn about the various types of speakers available and the important role each plays in a stereo or surround sound system.

Why Do I Need All of These Speakers?

A two-channel (stereo) system features two full-range speakers and possibly a subwoofer. A typical surround sound audio system will feature at least five speakers and a subwoofer—hence the designation “5.1” (the “.1” being the subwoofer). More complex systems can extend to 7.1 or even 9.1. The front and surround speakers create a 360-degree circle of sound, while the subwoofer recreates rumbling bass and low frequency effects often found in movie soundtracks. Here’s a look at each speaker’s job:

● Front Left and Right Speakers
These speakers recreate the front left and right soundtrack with surround sound content and all two-channel (stereo) content.

●Center Channel Speaker
The center channel speaker reproduces primarily voices and dialogue, which accounts for most of a movie’s or TV show’s soundtrack.

● Surround Speakers
The surround speakers create a sense of space and depth. A system may have two or more surround speakers, depending on the audio system's capabilities.

● Subwoofer
Delivers low bass and low frequency effects often found in movie soundtracks.

Speaker Types

You have many choices when it comes to speakers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a look at the main categories of speakers:

● Satellite Speakers
These are small speakers with either a single driver or a tweeter and midrange only. Satellite speakers are designed to be used with a subwoofer in order to get the full range of sound. Satellite speakers can be used for stereo listening or as the front, center and/or surround speakers in a surround-sound setup.

● Bookshelf Speakers
Better suited to handle higher power output and bass than satellite speakers, these speakers come in small to medium-sized cabinets. These are well-suited for both two-channel (stereo) systems and as the front speakers in a surround-sound rig.

● Floor Standing Speakers
Also known as tower speakers, these larger, full-range speakers typically use multiple drivers to reproduce a wider range of frequencies and improved bass response. Floor standing speakers are typically used as front left and right speakers only and are ideal for high-performance two-channel music reproduction.

● Built-in Speakers
In- and on-wall and in- and on-ceiling speakers are mounted flush on drywall or other surfaces to create a custom-installed look. Built-in speakers can be used for both two-channel (stereo) listening and as the front, center, and/or surround positions in a surround-sound system.

● Center Channel Speaker
This speaker is designed specifically for the center channel. It should sonically match the front left and right speakers, and usually sits on top or below a TV set or home theater screen.

● Subwoofer
A subwoofer delivers low bass and low frequency effects often found in movie soundtracks. A typical design is a floor-standing cabinet, though in-wall subwoofers are also available. "Powered" subwoofers feature built-in amplifiers and active crossovers that filter out all but the bass frequencies.

● Sound Bars
A sound bar is a speaker that delivers stereo or virtual surround sound from a single speaker. These systems are a great step-up from your TV’s internal speakers and are well suited for smaller rooms or spaces not conducive to surround speakers.

Selecting Speakers

There are five main considerations when selecting speakers:

1. Stereo or Surround?
Will they be used primarily for music, movies or both? Speakers with a wider frequency response and larger drivers are typically better suited for both two-channel (stereo) and multi-channel music playback.

2. Décor
How does the speaker’s finish match the room in terms of size, color and style? Speakers come in all sizes, shapes, finishes, styles and installation types.

3. Amplification
What receiver or amplifier will be used? What is the speaker’s sensitivity rating? Generally speaking, the higher power handling (expressed as watts/channel “RMS”) and sensitivity (expressed in dB), the better.

4. Room Dimensions
How much power handling will you need to fill the room with sound? Can the room fit floor-standing speakers or bookshelf speakers on stands? Larger rooms need higher-sensitivity speakers and speakers that can handle higher power output.

Auditioning Speakers

Perhaps the most subjective – and important – step when choosing speakers is finding those that sound best to you. Ask the sales associate to demo different speakers for you and listen for the five qualities below:

1. Distortion
Turn the volume to the loudest level you expect to listen to see if you hear any distortion of the sound.

2. Soundstage
Close your eyes and see if you can locate instruments or sounds as if they were on a stage in front of you. You should not hear sound from only one speaker, rather the sound should entirely fill the space. The speakers should essentially “disappear.” Choosing speakers with great imaging and soundstage is more critical for two-channel (stereo) listening since two speakers must reproduce a seamless “wall” of sound.

3. Dispersion
Is there a single “sweet spot” where the sound is remarkably better, or can you move around the listening position and still maintain good sound quality?

4. Treble And Midrange
High- and mid-range sounds should be free of echos and not sound overly “bright.” Listen to cymbals, pianos and acoustic guitars.

5. Bass
Lower-quality speaker systems produce inaccurate “muddy” bass. Listen to kick drums and cellos for detail and accuracy. A constant “boom” or rumble is a sign of inaccurate bass.

Click here for a printable version of this article