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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.


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Recent Forum Posts:

Mikebiker posts on June 07, 2012 19:09
The title should have had ‘right’ replaced with ‘correct’. Like many others, my first thought was “but what about the left one”.
cpp posts on June 06, 2012 13:37
Picking the right speakers means leaving your home (computer) and doing some in-depth auditioning at more than one place using your music, your ears and your wallet then if married convincing the wife it's a win-win for her as well.
wiyosaya posts on June 06, 2012 13:33
GranteedEV, post: 888762
what about the Left one?
Front or rear?
Adam, post: 888764
Choosing the right loudspeaker is half the battle.
1/4 or less?
Adam posts on June 06, 2012 00:05
GranteedEV, post: 888762
what about the Left one?

Choosing the right loudspeaker is half the battle.
GranteedEV posts on June 06, 2012 00:04
what about the Left one?
Post Reply