25 Terms & Tips for Choosing and Using Speakers

Your home theater will only sound as good as your speakers, no matter how solid your other audio components are. Bad speakers will produce bad sound, period. And when you have bad sound, you won’t want to listen to your home theater as much.

There is a type of speaker to fit nearly every need. There are large freestanding or floorstanding loudspeakers, bookshelf-size models, in-wall and in-ceiling models, newer on-wall ones, subwoofers and even a new family of speakers called audio transducers. Some units are simply functional, like a good car that gets you from point A to point B. Others are sculptural art, like exotic sports cars or classic roadsters. And many are somewhere in between. What you don’t want is something that looks fancy but underperforms.

  1. Freestanding, floorstanding, cabinet-style or box speakers are just what their names suggest: speakers that stand alone on the floor or are housed in their own cabinets. Included in this category are traditional boxy wooden speakers. Freestanding speakers typically provide the best sound, whether for music or home theater. Freestanding speakers are often used in particular rooms, such as a media room where there’s enough space and where you may want the best quality of music, movies and more. But they can be used anywhere.
  2. Large freestanding speakers can take up a lot of space and generally be a nightmare for the aesthetic-minded homeowner. However, freestanding speakers no longer have to be drab boxes. Some models are slender tower speakers that can add a unique design element to your space. Some cabinet-style speakers feature beautiful wood veneers, while others come in high-gloss finishes such as piano black. Many freestanding models need to be placed a couple of feet from the walls, or a “boomy” sound will result. You can also place some freestanding speakers in home entertainment cabinets, concealing them behind fabric grilles, but you’ll likely sacrifice some of the product’s performance.
  3. Some freestanding speakers use technologies other than traditional round speaker woofers, tweeters and midrange drivers. Electrostatic and planar (or ribbon) speakers produce sound from electrical charges created along thin films or ribbons. These tower speakers are well suited to reproduce classical music and vocals. They often appear as beautiful sculptures and include woofers in their bases to reproduce the lower audio frequencies.
  4. Small bookshelf speakers can be very effective when placed on speaker stands. And with today’s technology, many bookshelf speakers perform on par with some floorstanding behemoths. So don’t disregard them because of their diminutive size. They are a great way to get the sound quality of freestanding speakers without sacrificing much space.
  5. Left and right freestanding speakers often need to be toed in, or angled toward the listen area, for the stereo image to properly blend and sound best.
  6. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are often a good choice when you don’t want the devices to be visible or don’t have the space for freestanding speakers. These thin units are placed in a wall or ceiling (as you might expect), with their grilles flush mounted to the surface. They sometimes can be ordered in a custom color or can be painted to match the wall. In-wall speakers are generally rectangular in shape, while in- ceiling speakers are almost always round to blend better with lighting receptacles and other ceiling fixtures.
  7. Many models of in-wall or in-ceiling speakers may look alike, but they are not all created equal. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers may have two or three speaker drivers and may come with “back boxes,” enclosures to which the speaker drivers are specifically tuned for the best performance.
  8. Because of their small size, in-ceiling speakers are often compromised when it comes to producing high-quality audio. Directionality of the sound, especially in surround-sound setups, can be a problem, as well. Seek an in-ceiling speaker that has a moveable or pivoting tweeter, which allows the sound to be directed toward a particular area of the room.
  9. On-wall speakers are designed to be attached to the wall and are often sold to complement a flat-panel TV. Soundbars usually are used as on-wall speakers.
  10. Be sure an on-wall speaker sounds right to you. The thin enclosures can limit the sound and performance of these speakers, although some manufacturers have overcome this technical hurdle quite well.
  11. Subwoofers produce the low-bass sounds you hear in music and movie soundtracks and are responsible for shaking you up with explosions and the like. They add a visceral element to your enjoyment of different media. There are active subwoofers, which include built-in amplifiers to power the woofers, and passive subwoofers, which draw power from an outside source such as a power amplifier or audio/video receiver.
  12. Subwoofers typically come in square, boxy cabinets that can be placed in a corner on the floor, behind a piece of furniture or inside a large basket, for example. These days, however, you can find in-wall subwoofers, although definitely check for back box enclosures and dampening features. Some subwoofers are now as thin as a few inches.
  13. Subwoofers produce their low sounds by moving air, so the bigger the woofer, the more air it will move. Subwoofer drivers range in size from about 5 to 18 inches in diameter, with the majority falling in the 12-inch range. Some of the enclosures are ported, meaning they have a hole on the side or the bottom of the cabinet for air intake. The port helps add thump to the bass.
  14. On the other hand, don’t base your subwoofer selection on size alone. Some newer technologies allow very small subwoofers to produce extremely deep and accurate bass.
  15. Where one subwoofer is good, two is often better. Subwoofers can create peaks and nulls in a room, resulting in uneven distribution of the sound. Adding a second subwoofer will help even out the sound across the room.
  16. Wireless speakers are untethered to your audio/video rack and free you from dealing with unsightly wires or difficult speaker cable routing. Wireless speakers are powered and need to be plugged into a wall socket, although some also operate on batteries. Keep performance in mind, however, as wireless technologies are prone to pick up interference.
  17. Loudspeakers tend to come in two-way or three-way configurations. Two-way speakers use both tweeters for the high treble sounds and woofers for the low bass sounds, while three-way speakers use tweeters, woofers and midrange drivers (for sounds in the middle).
  18. A three-way speaker with a woofer, midrange driver and tweeter is not necessarily better than a two-way speaker. Be wary of this if the speakers are comparable in price. Chances are the two-way speaker uses better drivers than the three-way model. So don’t be seduced by multiple drivers.
  19. Contrary to popular belief, most speakers don’t “blow” because they are overpowered. Rather, they can be damaged because they don’t receive enough power from the amplifier, causing the amp to overwork and “clip,” or produce spikes of power that can cause the speakers to fail.
  20. Speaker frequency response is the range of sounds a speaker can reproduce, from low to high.
  21. Match the power requirements of your speakers to your audio/video receiver or power amplifiers. It’s more dangerous to underpower your speakers than to overpower them.
  22. Internal bracing in a speaker helps reduce vibration from the soundwaves.
  23. Match the impedance rating, which is usually 4, 6 or 8 ohms.
  24. Remember that sensitivity is more important than power in a speaker.
  25. After your speakers are hooked up to your audio system, it’s important to balance them. Use your receivers built-in test tones (if it has them) or a test disc or download, and balance the speaker volume by measuring the output with an SPL meter or SLP meter app (there are several available).

EH Staff • February 25, 2015 • electronichouse.com