How To Shop Loudspeakers
Shopping for a new speaker system is a lot like buying a new car. One must always find the right balance between performance, aesthetics and practicality while keeping within their budgetary constraints. Unfortunately looks can often tell very little about loudspeaker performance. In fact, some of the best looking, highest priced designs often look much better than they sound. The purpose of this article is to help the average home theater enthusiast pick and chose the right system based on their needs and budget.
To help narrow your selection, I suggest considering the following metrics in order of importance:
I know what you are saying – you’re probably pounding your fists because we didn’t select performance as the top metric. In an ideal Audioholic world, performance would be the only concern, but in the real world, the best performing speaker makes little to no sense if you can’t afford them or provide the proper environment for them to fit within your room décor while meeting the Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF).
All too often we see consumers spending an exorbitant amount of dollars on a new display leaving a shoestring budget for a multi-channel speaker package. A good rule of thumb is to allow for about 40% of your budget towards the entire speaker system (a little more if you’re an audioholic and a little less if you’re a videoholic). See this article for a breakdown of our recommended expenditures per category.
If you are pinned down to a limited budget that will either allow you to get a respectable pair of speakers or a mediocre multi-channel speaker package, we suggest going for the former and adding the rest of the speakers at a later date. There is no rush for great sound and following this advice will reduce the risk of buyer's remorse later on. The same logic holds true when considering a 5.1 system or a 7.1 system. Buy your main channels now so you can at least begin to enjoy music and watch movies in stereo.
Alternatively you can buy your surround back channels (assuming you are using direct radiating speakers) and use them as mains until you have the finances to purchase your main speakers. When that happens you can redirect these temporary main speakers to their intended surround duty and you are on the path to assembling your surround sound system.
If you are setting up a multi-channel system, we suggest placing most of your budget on the front three speakers and subwoofer(s). The surround channels would be your next focus, followed by the back channels (if any).
If you’ve got money to burn, we suggest running dual subwoofers for better bass response across a wider listening area. It’s almost always better to buy two good performing $500 subs as opposed to one mega $1,000 subwoofer. My advice here is to buy a reasonably priced subwoofer that will also fit within your room décor. Later when you have your complete surround package assembled you can add a second subwoofer to your system for added dynamics and smoother bass integration.
Ok so you’ve been eyeing that subwoofer from that online company everyone is raving about. The price is right, and it plays so deep that it’s said just a few listening sessions is a sure fire cure to chronic constipation. But a quick check of the spec sheet reveals it’s larger than your dual door GE refrigerator. Do you have the space in your room for one of these? More importantly, how does your wife feel about having one, perhaps two of them in your living room?
My advice with subwoofers is to first analyze the best placements for one or two subs in your listening room using our articles as a guideline. Then, make sure it’s practical to put them there figuring out the maximum box size you can live with. The same holds true for your speaker system. Don’t purchase behemoth floorstanding tower speakers when your space constraints can’t accommodate anything more than a small bookshelf speaker. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Ruth, BIGGER isn’t always better. This is especially applicable when it comes to speakers and subwoofers.
For your speakers, you must decide on the type of speakers you can live with. You can choose from: floorstanding, bookshelf, wall mount, and even in-wall or in-ceiling styles. I almost never recommend placing the front three channels in the ceiling or above ear height. For best fidelity, it’s imperative to have a direct path between the drivers of these speakers (particularly the tweeter) and the listener at or near ear level. Given the choice between a great speaker mounted on a ceiling or high on a wall versus a good speaker placed at ear level, I’d chose the latter when sound quality is a primary concern.
This is the parameter any true audioholic cares most about. It’s time to narrow your selection of speakers that fit within your budgetary and practicality constraints. But how do you determine which speaker system has the best performance, especially when the competitor brands may be located at different dealers or many only be sold exclusively online?
Reviews are a start, both professional and consumer. Study these, pay careful attention to the measurements and technical comments (if included in the reports). Talk to other Audioholics forum members online to hear their experiences with the products in question.
Bring familiar demo material to your local dealer for a listen. Use high quality program material (leave your Def Leppard CDs at home) to really get a picture of the dynamic capabilities of the speaker system. If possible, try to arrange a demo of the speakers in a room of similar size and dynamics as your own listening room.
When listening to speaker systems, I suggest paying careful attention to excessive sibilance in female vocals. So many speakers that sound overly detailed and impressive upon first listen tend to wear on you overtime with their excessive energy in the upper frequency range. It's important to do short (15-20 min) and multiple (if possible) listening sessions over the course of a few days to really understand how you will like the speakers. Don’t be afraid to visit your local dealer a few times before committing to a sale. Take notes of your listening experience so that you can compare even if the competing speakers aren’t located in the same listening room.
When comparing different speakers in listening tests, make sure you have them level matched and placed roughly the same distance apart and from your listening position. This is important as the LOUDER speaker will almost always win a comparative test even though it may not necessarily be a better product. Select the speaker that sounds most tonally accurate and true to the source as possible. Make sure your speaker choice has the dynamic capability of filling your room with distortion free sound. Understand the speakers sensitivity, impedance, and power handling when planning your system (ie. don’t use a $300 25lbs receiver to power an 87dB 4-ohm speaker system).
If you are buying online, you may want to first try out a pair of surround sound speakers from your choice manufacturer to determine if you like how they a voiced tonally before committing to large towers that will incur large return shipping expenses and hassle should you later decide to send them back. Make sure you understand the return policy of your local dealer and/or online distributor before committing to the sale.
Read our tech articles on Loudspeakers for more details on important speaker performance metrics.
This category is kind of interrelated to practicality. I can’t tell you how many friends' homes I’ve been in trying to help them set up a theater system only to be defeated by their better half because the speaker system didn’t match their room décor or just stuck out like a sore thumb. If a custom finish and/or box style is important in your selection process, make sure your top choice meets this criteria before settling on it solely based on performance and price. Expect to pay a 20-30% premium for custom finishes and prepare your spouse accordingly should they give you a hard time about how they blend into the room. In fact you may be able to use this angle with your wife to upgrade to a better series of speakers from your particular favorite manufacturer since they may only offer your choice finishes in that line. At this point, try to sell the idea to the wife that these aren’t just speakers, but pieces of furniture that will enhance the aesthetics of the room. Hey it can’t hurt to try and I am doing my best to help you out. Learn these tricks wisely and you are on your path to achieving the system you always wanted to assemble.
So there you have it. Use this beginner’s guide to shopping for loudspeakers as a resource to get you on the right path. We suggest some of our more advanced articles for those serious about getting the most for their money and understanding the types of products and designs they are shopping.
Once you assemble all of your home theater equipment, the next step is proper placement and setup. Proper setup is as important as the products you select, thus we encourage reading the related articles on our site and also consulting with your local installer and/or manufacturer to ensure you are getting the maximum performance out of your system.
Good luck and happy listening!