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How to Pick the Right Loudspeakers

by June 05, 2012


Here at Audioholics, we get into some pretty advanced topics. The measurements fly back and forth and people take sides on their favorite arguments.

We all love it.

But one thing we often overlook is that we’re the ones that other people turn to when they have questions about home entertainment gear. In our respective circles of friends and family, we’re regarded as the experts. “Ask Joe; he’ll know.”

So even though all this is second-nature to us and we have high-current RMS watts flowing through our veins, our brother-in-law who is contemplating a simple speaker purchase, needs to know some basic information so he can make a reasonably intelligent decision, all by himself.

With that in mind, here is a simple, direct (but accurate) explanation, suitable for the great unwashed, about everything they need to know about choosing speakers for themselves. Just print this out and hand it to them. It even has nice pictures. Your brother-in-law will be so grateful that he’ll buy you dinner (for once!) and you’ll look like the pro that you are for explaining it so clearly and thoroughly.

Here goes:

Picking the Right Speakers

This is something that many people don’t think about too often—Hey, they’re only speakers, right?—but picking the right speakers for your home entertainment needs could be the most important leisure-time decision you’ll make. Great sound makes music emotionally-involving and exciting; great sound makes your big screen feel like a trip to the local movie theater. In any context, great sound as delivered by the right speakers makes a world of difference in your overall enjoyment and satisfaction.

The first thing you have to do is determine why you need speakers in the first place—how are they going to be used, what role will they play in your daily activities around your home, where do you plan on putting them, how much space do you have or are willing to devote to them? Identify your goals first.

Speakers come in different formats:

  • Separate component speakers are used in traditional hi-fi music and high-end home theater systems, and in “whole house” distributed audio systems

  • Soundbars augment and improve on the small, tinny-sounding speakers built into today’s ultra-thin TVs

  • Docking station speakers allow you to connect your iPod, iPhone, iPad or other portable device and get louder, clearer sound than you can from the iPad’s little speakers, or get sound that everyone can hear from devices that only use headphones

Let’s look at each category individually and give some more details about each one, so you can see if this is the direction you’re leaning.

How to Pick the Right Loudspeakers- Types of Speakers

Separate component speakers are what we think of as “traditional” speakers. These are speakers that are connected to other equipment, like a receiver or an amplifier. Other source devices (like a CD or DVD player, or the audio output from a TV or cable/satellite box) are also connected to the receiver. This forms a component audio system, comprised of the source unit(s), the receiver, and the speakers.

Speakers in this kind of system come in a wide variety of physical formats, shapes, finishes, and sizes. Let’s look at the different types and discuss their pros and cons:

  1. “Bookshelf”-sized box speakers—These are what people traditionally think of as speakers: A box about one to two feet long by perhaps a foot wide and a foot deep. They can go on bookshelves, they can be stand-mounted, they might even be able to hang on the wall with mounting hardware. As part of a theater sound system, there might even be a specialized “center channel” speaker and specialized “surround” speakers. In any format, these are compact freestanding box speakers.


Fig 1. Definitive Technology StudioMonitor Bookshelf loudspeaker

  1. “Floorstanding”-sized box speakers—These are larger versions of bookshelf speakers, tall enough so they sit on the floor without a stand. They generally play louder and go deeper in the bass than compact bookshelf speakers. Most often, these speakers are either the left-right speakers in a two-channel component music system, or they’re the left front and right front speakers in a 5.1- or 7.1-channel component home theater system. Since floorstanding speakers play such a prominent visual role in the room, many manufacturers make the effort to finish the speakers in a furniture-grade wood veneer or a high-quality painted finish.

Aeriel Acoustics 7T 

Fig 2. Aerial Acoustics Model 7T Floorstanding loudspeaker

  1. “Sub-sat” systems—Systems of this type are also known as “3-piece” systems, where the traditional large full-range bookshelf or floorstanding speaker is “shrunk down” to minimal size that just reproduces the midrange and treble tones. Bass—the low tones in music—are essentially non-directional to the human ear, so we fixate on the origin of the midrange and treble (voices, footsteps, guitar, etc.) as being where all the sound—including the bass—is coming from. A sub-sat system takes advantage of that fortuitous aspect of human sound perception by having the bass portion of the signal be reproduced by a separate ‘bass module,’ that can be placed off to the side, in a corner, or tucked behind a piece of furniture.

Bose AM-5.jpg 

Fig 3. Bose AM-5 3-piece Sub-Sat speaker system

Since the midrange-treble portions of the speaker (the “satellites”) can be quite small, many manufacturers take the opportunity to make the sats out of highly-styled molded plastic or some other visually clever material or process. Note—there are also “home theater” versions of the 3-piece sub-sat system, where a central bass module reproduces the bass for all 5 or 7 channels of a theater audio system, and the satellites for those channels are commensurately small.

Bose AM-10.jpg 

Fig 4. Bose AM-10 Sub-Sat Home Theater speaker system

  1. Built-in speakers (in-wall and in-ceiling speakers)—These are sometimes called custom-installed or whole-house speakers. Generally, these speakers are designed to install so they are flush with the wall or ceiling surface, with only a thin plastic frame outline and a perforated metal grille showing. The advantage to these speakers is that they’re virtually invisible in the room (they don’t take up any shelf or floor space) and good ones from good manufacturers actually sound very good—almost as good as traditional freestanding speakers.

The disadvantage is that they generally have to be installed by a professional, since it involves running speaker wire through the walls or ceiling (no easy task, especially after the walls are already up, like in an existing house) and it requires a fair amount of mechanical/carpentry skill. Also, once the speakers are in, it makes re-arranging your furniture somewhat problematic, since you can’t easily re-position built-in speakers for a different furniture layout!

System 10-inwall-lamp.jpg 

Fig 5. In-wall speakers are almost invisible in actual use

Soundbars (so named because they take the form of a long slender bar, usually between 35-50” long by no more than 5 or 6” high and very shallow, to fit on a wall or in front of a table-mounted TV) are a fairly new category of speakers, but have grown in popularity very much in recent years, to the point where this is a major category of speakers. There are two main kinds of soundbars: self-powered and passive.

A self-powered soundbar contains several speaker drivers and its own amplifier(s) and usually some digital decoding/processing circuitry with a remote control. These build-in electronics enable a powered soundbar to be connected directly to the TV/video system (without the need for an external home theater receiver) and provide better sound than the small speakers typically built in to flat-screen televisions. The digital decoding/processing circuitry will deliver a sense of three-dimensional spaciality, giving video sources and movies a surround-like feel. They can be mounted on the wall right below the flat screen TV or on a table or shelf in front of the TV.


Fig 6. Powered Yamaha soundbar with on-board digital decoding

There is a variant of the powered soundbar that takes on a different physical form factor, but functionally it is very similar to the powered soundbar: a powered sound base. The sound base is a table-top unit that functions as a base for a table-mounted flatscreen television. Such a sound base might be about 30 inches wide by about 4-5 inches tall and around 14-16 inches deep. The TV simply sits right on top of it. The sound base functions electrically and acoustically very much like a powered soundbar, but because of its greater internal air volume, it will likely deliver acoustic performance superior to a soundbar.

TV sitting on zvox.jpg 

Fig 7. ZVOX Powered sound base with flatscreen TV sitting on top

A passive soundbar is either the front three Left-Center-Right (“LCR’) theater speakers or the full five or seven front + surround speakers built into one long, slender enclosure. A passive soundbar needs to be powered by a separate home theater receiver, the way that five or seven separate box or built-in speakers do. It can be thought of as a space- and décor-saving alternative to having 3, 5, or 7 separate speaker boxes strewn around your living area, while still delivering sound that’s far superior to the built-in speakers of a television. The best passive soundbars have essentially the same sound quality as separate speakers, but in a more compact form factor. The biggest drawback to the best passive soundbars compared to separate component speakers will be loss of the sense of “separation,” due to the fact that separate speakers can be placed physically farther apart than the dimensions of a soundbar.

 FS-7.1 front no grille.jpg

Fig 8. Passive 7-channel soundbar

A Docking Station is a compact, self-powered speaker “base,” so to speak, onto which you attach or “dock” your iPod, iPad, iPhone or other digital music storage/playback device. With a docking station, you can play music back “publicly” from a device—like an iPod—that ordinarily uses only headphones that only permit one person to hear the music.


Fig 9. Logitech iPhone/iPod docking station

Docking stations generally are small table-top-sized units, anywhere from about 6-18 inches long by about 4-8 inches tall and about 4-8 inches deep. They’re generally made out of plastic and contain a few small drivers in a quasi-“stereo” configuration. They tend to be cheap, low-fi tinny-sounding items whose main attribute is not that they sound good, but that they simply allow you to play your iPod through a set of external speakers so you don’t have to only use ear buds to hear your iPod’s or iPhone’s music files. Many clock radio units these days also function as docking stations, which lets you connect your iThing so you can wake to your favorite music as heard through your clock radio’s wondrous 2” speakers.

clock radio with dock.jpg 

Fig 10. Clock radio with docking station

These three general categories of speakers are the basic formats to choose from. Many people use more than one (they may have a full home theater component system in the living room with high-end separate speakers and an iPod docking clock radio in the bedroom, or a powered soundbar with the main television and a separate two-channel music system in another room, etc.) For your intended use in your intended room(s), you should evaluate and prioritize such considerations as sound quality, space usage, convenience/ease-of-connection, cost, etc.


You’ve identified your needs, determined how you will use your speakers, and picked out a few possible models to choose among in your price range.

How will you know if they’re any “good”? What should you listen for?

In days past, when there were hundreds of “stereo stores” on every corner (or so it seemed) picking your speakers was a far easier proposition than it is today. In those days, there were “sound rooms” inside the store with a wall of speakers. A speaker-selector switch allowed you to hear any two models in direct comparison to each other as you played your favorite music. This was called “A-B’ing’ speakers against each other, because you could switch between speaker A and speaker B as the music was playing and quickly determine which sound was preferable to you.

These days, the big-box electronics retailers do not have speaker comparison sound rooms and there is no longer the opportunity for the customer to do A-B speaker comparisons in a quiet, sound-proofed room, free from extraneous noise and distracting influences.

Store mob.jpg 

Fig 11. It’s hard to properly evaluate speakers in a big-box store

There may very well be some smaller retailers in your area, or a home theater installation company that has a small showroom where speakers, electronic components and TVs are on display, and able to be demonstrated. Seek out these businesses.

How to Pick the Right Loudspeakers - How to Conduct a Listening Test

If you can compare two models of speakers, follow these time-proven guidelines of how to conduct an A-B speaker comparison that will provide you with truly meaningful information:
  1. Only compare (‘A-B’) two models at once. Human auditory memory is very short, and by time you get to ‘C,’ you’ll have forgotten what ‘A’ sounded like.
  1. Make sure the speakers are played at the same volume level. Again, human hearing being what it is, we invariably think “louder” is “better.” Play them at the same volume.
  1. Be certain that the two sets of speakers are in as close to the same position in the room as possible. Walls, floors, and ceilings influence the sound. Large room boundaries like the floor and sidewall reinforce the bass, so a speaker near these surfaces will sound fuller or heavier. Speakers well away from these surfaces tend to sound thinner or “lighter.” The important thing is to have both sets of speakers under consideration positioned as similarly as is practical.

  1. Listen for a natural, balanced tonal presentation. Play a wide range of music with which you’re familiar. Acoustic instruments and vocals are the best ‘test’ material because people are most familiar with the sound of real instruments and voices. (Heavily-processed electronic synthesizers have no real-life reference of “naturalness,” since those sounds don’t exist in nature. Same thing for movie sound effects—no one knows what an Exploding Death Star is supposed to sound like, because it doesn’t exist in real life.)
  1. Listen for the depth and fullness of the bass. A speaker with good bass response conveys much of the power, weight and impact of real, live music. Even though bass should be strong and powerful, it should always sound clean and articulate, never “thudy,” “boomy,” or like it’s simply one indistinct bass note repeating itself (known as ‘one-note’ syndrome). A good thing to listen for is whether you can follow the bass line in the music in spite of the “busyness” of all the instruments and vocals taking place on top of it. If you can follow the bass, and it’s strong, impactful and clear, that’s a very good sign. Many speakers fall down on this. This test really separates the contenders from the pretenders.

 acoustic bass player.jpg          eletric bass player.jpg

Fig 12. Bass gives music its weight and sense of power

A side note on powered subwoofers: A powered subwoofer is a separate speaker in its own enclosure with its own amplifier devoted to reproducing only the bass portion of the frequency spectrum. Its purpose is to relieve the other speakers in the system of the arduous task of reproducing the lowest bass frequencies, which is very difficult to do from a technical standpoint. However, when evaluating the bass quality of a powered subwoofer, use the exact same guidelines as spelled out above.

  1. Now, shift your attention to the midrange area of the sound. This is the region of sound where most of the things we can actually identify are: vocals, guitars, saxophones, footsteps on the floor, slamming doors, hand clapping, violins, etc. A good speaker will make this sound very realistic. Your favorite singer should sound just like your favorite singer. A speaker that is not accurate in the midrange will make your favorite singer sound like she’s got a head cold or will make a familiar male vocalist sound like he’s singing from the bottom of a deep barrel. Their voices will take on an unnatural “coloration” that is very obvious and quite objectionable.

Similarly, instruments should sound like they do in real life: a tenor saxophone should have that nice reedy “bite,” but it shouldn’t be shrill or annoying. An electric guitar should have a nice sharp ‘twang,’ but it shouldn’t take your head off. Music played loud should sound exciting and detailed, and, well, lifelike. If your first inclination when playing a speaker loudly (assuming the amplifier isn’t running out of power and distorting) is to turn it down because the sound is grating on your nerves, that’s a sign that something about the speaker’s sound is amiss.

 cs21.jpg          Michael Brecker.jpg

Fig 13. Midrange region of music contains vocals and instruments

  1. Lastly, listen to the very highest tones, or what we call the treble. This is the frequency region reproduced by the tweeter. A speaker with good high frequency response has a silky, sparkling sheen to its sound. Again, be on the lookout for sound that’s too “hissy” or edgy. Good speakers deliver sparkle and detail without sounding shrill.

 tambourine.jpg          Dejohnette.jpg

Fig 14. The treble region of music should be detailed but not harsh or shrill

Two things will tell you if the speaker has a good, accurate treble region: 1. The upper-range instruments (like triangle, tambourine, cymbals, etc.) have a sense of ‘air” around them, as if you can visualize them existing in their own three-dimensional physical space. 2. A speaker with good high-frequency response has what speaker engineers call good “dispersion,” which means that you can hear the high frequency sounds even if you’re well off to the side of the speaker. Poor speakers tend to send out their highs like a flashlight beam—pretty much only straight ahead. Good speakers disperse their sound in all directions.

The preceding section on tonal evaluation applies to any kind of speaker, whether it’s a separate component speaker, a soundbar, a docking station, a clock radio, anything.

If you’re in a situation (like the wide-open, noisy sales floor of a big-box store, for example) where a controlled, careful A-B speaker comparison is not possible, then do your best to stand close to the speaker you’re interested in and play it a bit on the loud side. Being closer to the speaker (in what engineers call the ‘near field’) will reduce—though not eliminate, unfortunately—the distracting effects of outside sounds, and playing it a bit louder will further tend to mask extraneous sounds and let the speaker of interest’s sound character come through more clearly.

Many retailers—both brick-and-mortar and on-line—have generous return policies, so it’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that you buy a pair of two different speaker models and then compare them in your home. Use the ‘A-B’ guidelines we’ve listed above. The advantage to this method is that you’ll be conducting the A-B comparison in the actual listening space—your own room—where you’ll be using the speakers, which will give you very reliable results. (Note: As a point of credibility and honor, Audioholics would never suggest that you buy two pairs of speakers from one source under false pretenses and then make your final purchase from someone else. That just isn’t right.)

People are often told to “Trust your ears” when evaluating speakers, but you have to know what to listen for. Being told to “Trust your ears” is akin to someone who has never been on skis before being told to “Trust your legs” as they’re pushed downhill for the first time. Knowing what to listen for helps you make a better choice, one that you’ll be happier with in the long term.

 Ski accident.jpg

Fig 15. You need guidance to evaluate speakers, just like you need instruction before you ski!

We hope this guide gives you a little insight as to how to evaluate and listen to loudspeakers to empower you or a family member / friend with the knowledge needed to make the right purchasing choices.



About the author:
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Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authored historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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