Speaker Buying Guide – Updated 2023
Purchasing speakers for your hifi or home theatre system may initially seem straightforward. Just find the largest ones with the highest wattage, and you’re good to go, right? Well, those who have delved into the world of speaker research know that there is much more to consider. Investing time in research now will ensure that you find speakers tailored to your needs, bringing you years of satisfaction.
Speakers act as the crucial link between an audio system’s electronics and the tangible world where sound comes to life. Selecting the right set can mean the disparity between cramped, indistinct audio and a crystal-clear, concert-like experience. However, the abundance of options and prices ranging from $50 to $50,000 can make it challenging to determine which types of speakers suit your requirements. This speaker buying guide simplifies the fundamentals, empowering you to make an informed decision when embarking on your quest for a new audio setup.
How Do Speakers Work?
Speakers utilize electrical energy from a battery or power outlet to generate a magnetic field. This magnetic field interacts with a speaker’s voice coil, causing the driver or cone to move back and forth. As the cone moves, it displaces the surrounding air, producing sound waves. The cone’s movement at a fast pace and over a short distance generates high-pitched notes, while slower and more extensive movements create deeper notes. The frequency of these waves determines our perception of the sound’s pitch.
To visualize this process, imagine throwing a rock into a pond. A large stone creates a deep, resonant splash, resulting in large, widely spaced waves. On the other hand, tossing a pebble creates a high-pitched, quick plink, resulting in shorter, closely spaced ripples. The movement of waves and ripples in water mirrors the behavior of sound waves in the air. Low notes are produced by large, slow waves, while high notes are produced by short, rapid waves.
Most loudspeakers consist of two cones or drivers: a woofer and a tweeter, along with a crossover network and a cabinet. Speakers with two cones are commonly referred to as 2-way speakers. Each cone is typically made of thin, funnel-shaped material, often plastic, optimized for producing specific frequencies. The woofer handles bass frequencies, while the tweeter reproduces high frequencies. The midrange, falling between the two, is managed by the crossover network, which divides the frequencies between the cones.
In a 3-way design, an additional dedicated midrange driver complements the work of the woofer and tweeter. 4-way speakers incorporate a subwoofer into the setup. While such designs offer advantages, achieving seamless integration among three or four drivers can be challenging and expensive. It is advisable to exercise caution when considering 3-way designs priced below a few hundred dollars each.
The type of music you enjoy listening to can influence your speaker selection. Some speakers naturally excel at providing robust bass and are well-suited for rock music, while others offer exceptional detail and are ideal for classical music. Certain models may require the addition of a subwoofer to achieve the desired sound, while others may perform well on their own. It’s also worth considering the amplifier you pair with your speakers, as it can make a difference in sound quality and is another factor to take into account.
Determining Different Brands or Models of speakers
When it comes to determining how different brands or models of speakers sound, the best approach is to actually try them out. Reading reviews and engaging in discussions can be helpful, but nothing beats sitting down and playing music through the speakers yourself. This is where your relationship with a local hifi store can be beneficial. Bring along some music that you are familiar with and listen to various speakers to get a sense of their sound characteristics. If you are purchasing speakers for your home theater, take advantage of any theater demo rooms available in the store.
Additionally, ensure you have high-quality music sources. While portable media devices offer convenience, the music files they carry are often highly compressed and lack detail. Consider bringing music on CD or inquire if the store provides access to high-quality streaming options. It’s a good idea to choose music that covers different areas such as strong bass, strings, vocals, and quiet passages. Familiarity with the music will help you notice differences, and you may even discover new elements in songs that you haven’t heard before.
It’s important to take reviews and opinions with a grain of salt. Individual experiences may vary, and what worked well for one person may not necessarily be suitable for your specific situation. Ultimately, trust your own ears as the final judges of sound quality.
Take your time when listening to speakers and allow yourself to adjust to the new sound. While comparing different sets of speakers can help eliminate unsuitable options, remember to sit back and give each set a fair audition. Some speakers may initially sound impressive but can become fatiguing to listen to over time. Therefore, investing sufficient listening time is crucial for long-term satisfaction.
Consider your listening environment when choosing speakers. Room size is a key factor, and it’s important to avoid adding large floorstanding speakers to a small room. Not only would it be a waste of money, but it could also result in overpowering bass that overwhelms the space. Assess the footprint of the speakers and how it will influence your decision. Bookshelf speakers, although smaller, may occupy a similar area when placed on stands.
Pay attention to any recommendations from the manufacturer regarding speaker placement away from walls. Most speakers require some free space around them to achieve optimal sound quality, so factor this in when measuring your room. While there are models that perform well in tight spaces, as a general guideline, large floorstanding speakers typically need at least 20cm of clearance from the rear wall and 70cm from side walls.
Remember that if you are unable to position your speakers correctly, you won’t fully experience the sound quality you paid for.
Consider the aesthetics of the speakers as well. Think about the available finishes and how they will suit your room. Since the speakers will be in plain sight, it’s important to choose something that you find visually appealing. Additionally, selecting speakers that complement your decor may help gain approval from others who share the space.
The construction of a speaker, including the materials and manufacturing methods used, can significantly impact its sound quality. The cabinet’s role is to absorb unwanted vibrations and allow the speaker driver to perform optimally. A sturdy and substantial speaker cabinet will do a better job at this than a lightweight and flimsy one. A quick tap on the side of the cabinet should produce a dull thud, indicating good levels of vibration absorption
The Different Types of Speakers
With so many different types of speakers, it can be hard to know which ones will best suit your needs. Start by thinking about what you plan to use the speakers for. Are you building a high-end home theater, looking for a multi-room audio system, or dreaming of a high-fidelity stereo sound system for your vinyl collection? Maybe you want to listen to music while cooking or sing-along to your favorite songs in the shower to start your day.
Once you know how you plan to use your system, think about the room in which you’ll listen. The bigger your space is, the more powerful your system should be. Are you bringing sound into a studio apartment or a 1,000 sq ft home theater? A single smart speaker might be enough for the former. For the latter, you’ll probably want a high-powered surround sound setup with 5+ speakers and at least one subwoofer. Let’s take a look at the different types of speakers available to choose from.
Front View of Two Tower Speakers near a Cabinet
Tower / Floor Standing Speakers
As the name suggests, floor standing speakers typically find their home on the floor. Often referred to as tower speakers, most stretch three to four feet off the ground. Although the size of a speaker has little or no correlation with sound quality, large speakers are usually louder. Since it’s easier to create low frequencies with larger cones, floor standing speakers are also better equipped to produce more bass.
With this in mind, tower speakers are best suited for large spaces. A stereo pair of floor standing speakers might be all you need. But they are also commonly used in surround sound systems, acting as the front left and right speakers in most cases.
Bookshelf speakers are a great alternative to tower speakers, especially for smaller spaces. They’re significantly smaller and typically equipped with a tweeter and a woofer or a mid-range driver. However, you can also find 3-way bookshelf speakers that include each of these drivers. While this type of speaker can sit on a bookshelf, they provide a higher quality of sound when placed on a speaker stand. A stand allows sound to radiate more freely while a shelf will absorb much of the sound the speaker puts out.
Like towers, a pair of bookshelf speakers can work well for a stereo sound setup. They’re also great for surround sound systems where they can serve as the front or rear speakers, or both. And while their size limits their bass response, pairing them with a subwoofer allows you to enjoy the full range of sound frequencies.
Surround Speakers / Satellite Speakers
Satellite speakers are designed to sit behind or off to the sides of your listening area. Like a smaller cousin of bookshelf speakers, they usually feature two cones, typically a tweeter and mid-range driver or woofer. While they can be used as a stereo pair, they’re generally used to complement additional speakers rather than acting as the main attraction. To avoid running cables across your listening area, satellite speakers are often mounted to the wall or ceiling. Wireless satellite speakers are another option. Just remember that these will still require a power cord.
Center-channel speakers are an integral part of virtually every surround sound setup. They live between the front left and right speakers. When used in a home theater they usually sit just below the screen. Given that they sit in the center, it’s only fitting that they specialize in mid-range frequencies. When watching movies and shows, center-channel speakers are responsible for producing the majority of the dialogue.
To enjoy deep, rich bass notes, a subwoofer is essential. Most subwoofers today are “powered,” meaning that they contain a built-in amplifier and a crossover network that lets you adjust the sub’s upper-frequency response to blend in with your main speakers more effectively. Read through our Subwoofer Buying Guide for help finding the right model for your system.
Subwoofer performance is greatly affected by placement. Some locations in a room will cancel the bass entirely. So where you place the subwoofer and where you sit are critical to getting the most from it. Learn how to easily set up a subwoofer.
Soundbars are the easiest way to improve your TV audio quality. Installing them is often as simple as plugging a power cord into your wall outlet or surge protector and then connecting an HDMI or audio cable to your TV. Learn more about them in our Sound Bar Buying Guide.
Built-in speakers allow you to enjoy high-quality audio without cluttering your space. While most speakers are built into speaker cabinets that can rest on a stand, a shelf, or some other rigid surface, built-in speakers are concealed within the ceiling or wall. These speakers come with a front panel or grill, but they don’t have a full cabinet as the wall or ceiling will serve as one. As a result, the speaker itself is often less expensive than a similar bookshelf or satellite speaker. But having them professionally installed will likely make them at least as expensive as other types of speakers, if not more so.
In-wall speakers act beautifully as rear surround speakers, allowing you to enjoy a fully immersive experience without having to worry about speaker wire or power cords running across your listening area. Like bookshelf speakers, they typically have a tweeter and a woofer. It’s also common to use in-wall speakers as a stereo pair in a secondary location such as a kitchen or bedroom.
The designs of in-ceiling speakers are similar to those of in-wall units, featuring a woofer and a tweeter. Because they’re meant to be installed above the listening area, they aren’t as effective as surround speakers. However, they’re great for object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X that add a vertical dimension to surround sound for the most immersive listening experience available. In-ceiling speakers are also an excellent choice for multi-room audio setups, allowing you to conceal the source of sound while still enjoying your tunes outside of your primary listening area.
Music doesn’t have to be confined to the walls of your home. Outdoor speakers are designed to withstand the elements, allowing you to enjoy your favorite artists while manning the grill, relaxing on the patio, or doing yard work. Some share their looks with satellite or bookshelf speakers and are typically mounted to the side of your home. Others hide in plain sight, designed to look like rocks or lawn ornaments.
Smart speakers are a simple way of bringing quality audio into any room of the house. Installation is as simple as plugging them into an outlet and connecting them to your home network. Once connected, you can control them from an app on your phone or use voice commands to play music from all of the best streaming services.
Many smart speakers, including Sonos’ full-line, are perfect for multi-room audio systems. They let you sync playback across multiple speakers throughout the house via your smartphone app or voice controls, ensuring you never miss a beat. If you have a compatible receiver in your entertainment room or a device like the Sonos Port, you can even sync playback from any device connected to your receiver so that you can still hear what’s going on while running to the kitchen for a snack.
When movie soundtracks are mixed for surround sound, the vocals are usually given their own channel. This can cause a problem when playing back on a two channel system, in that this vocal track is split between the two channels and direct control over its volume is lost. Sometimes vocals or dialog can be hard to hear and there’s no ability to adjust accordingly. Adding a centre speaker will allow for more clarity and volume from the vocal track.
If you’re adding a centre speaker to some existing floorstanding or bookshelf speakers then we recommend sticking with the same brand if possible. They will have matching sound profiles which is great for when the sound sweeps across the room and all of your speakers react together and create a tight, immersive effect. This is known as timbre matching and can make a genuine difference to your viewing experience.
For quality audio away from home, a portable Bluetooth speaker is the way to go. These devices can be small enough to fit in your pocket or as big as the boomboxes from the 80s. If you like to spend time at the beach or on the water, look for a waterproof model to make sure it will stand up to whatever comes its way.
Choosing a Quality Speaker
The best speakers reproduce audio exactly as it was recorded. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple, catch-all spec that you can look at to determine the quality of a speaker. And, because sound quality can be subjective, a speaker that sounds impeccable to one set of ears might sound tinny to another. Ideally, you’ll be able to listen to a speaker before taking it home. That said, you can pay attention to the following specs to get a fairly good idea of a speaker’s quality.
When pricing out a set of speakers, it’s important to budget for the speakers, amplification, wiring, and potentially their installation. The range of prices for speakers themselves is incredibly wide. Some bookshelf-sized speakers only cost a few hundred dollars. Others can set you back thousands and are worth every penny and more.
In the $300-and-under range, expect to get a solidly built bookshelf-sized speaker with optimal performance from 60 Hz (mid-bass) and up. Expect to spend $300 – $600 for a pair of bookshelf speakers with stronger, deeper bass (around 40-Hz) and a desirable balance across the audio spectrum. Speakers that offer deep bass in lower price ranges are almost certainly short-changing other important parts of the frequency spectrum, often the crucial midrange.
A speaker’s frequency response range is a measurement of how wide a selection of sounds it can reproduce. The human ear is capable of hearing sounds from 20-20,000 Hz. The lower the number, the lower the tone and vice versa. Most speakers are capable of responding from around 45-20,000 Hz. But just because a speaker can cover a given range doesn’t mean that it will provide quality sound for every frequency.
A speaker’s variation from “flat” can be a useful gauge of its performance. This specification is stated as a “+/- x dB.” The tighter the variance, the more flat, or accurate, a speaker’s response. Typical variances range from +/- .5 dB to +/- 3 dB, with the lower figure usually bounding the frequency extremes. That is, a speaker whose published frequency response is 50-25 kHz, +/- 3 dB, will be -3 dB below “flat” at 50 Hz and 25 kHz. This doesn’t mean that information below 50 Hz will not be heard, only that the drop-off after that point may be steep.
A speaker’s sensitivity is a measure of its efficiency. Highly sensitive speakers output higher volumes at a given voltage. This provides you with some idea as to how big an amplifier you’ll need to drive the speakers. This measurement is expressed as a certain number of decibels (dB) per 2.83 V input. For example: “88 dB/2.83V.” Unless you’re using a monster amplifier, you probably want speakers with an efficiency of at least 86 dB, though 88 dB or higher is preferable.
Power handling tells you how much power the speakers can take without damage. If a speaker is rated at “100 Watts maximum,” don’t worry too much if you choose or own a 200-Watt-per-channel amplifier. Chances are you’ll never put that much power into the speakers. In fact, what usually damages a loudspeaker is using too small an amplifier and driving it to “clipping” (distortion) levels. The loud-level high harmonics in the distortion is what does the damage.
A speaker’s impedance refers to the resistance an amplifier will encounter when trying to drive a given speaker. Today, most loudspeakers are rated at 8 ohms. However, the impedance of a loudspeaker varies with its frequency. Modern solid-state amplifiers can effectively drive most properly designed loudspeakers. Still, for reasons too complex to delve into here, look for loudspeakers with a “nominal” 8-ohm impedance even though most amplifiers will easily handle a 6-ohm load.
Another important consideration is stereo imaging or “soundstaging.” Speakers with great soundstaging allow you to hear the “location” of different sounds as if the band was playing in front of you. Perhaps the vocalist is front and center with the guitarist and keyboardist off to either side while the drummer hammers away behind them.
Unfortunately, a speaker’s specs won’t tell you anything about its soundstaging. But you can check online reviews or give us a call at 800-860-3577 if you have questions about a specific model. To truly appreciate a speaker’s soundstaging ability, it’s important to sit directly between the speakers and listen to a simply produced live or “acoustic” recording, rather than a multi-tracked, artificial studio production.
The human ear responds well to spatially correct cues in the form of subtle reflections from surfaces in the room where music is recorded. When these reflections are faithfully recorded and played back, the result can be a stunningly real sonic portrait of a musical event.