The First Steps in Choosing Speakers

By Wes Phillips

It's a great time to be buying loudspeakers. Your choices used to be: large or small; but nowadays measurement technology, digital equalization, and talented audio engineers have expanded our choices tremendously. But matching your speakers to your lifestyle and listening habits will go a lot smoother if you plan a bit before you buy.

As always, what you listen to will influence what you listen through. If you like listening to symphonies from the fifth row or heavy metal in front of the stage, you probably won't be satisfied with tiny little speakers. You want big'uns that can play loud and can deliver deep bass. There's nothing quite like a floor standing loudspeaker for projecting the power of a Mahler symphony or Metallica's Enter Sandman/ So not only do you need the floor space in which to place the speaker, but you'll want to move it away from the walls behind them and on either side.

Want big sound, but don't have lots of floor space? Well, there's a way around that: Use two monitor loudspeakers with a subwoofer (those terms mean two small speakers and a special speaker that only plays low bass notes).

There's no such thing as a free lunch, however. You gain floor space this way, but you have to be very careful in placing the speakers and subwoofer. Your dealer can help you with this.

Small loudspeakers can have space requirements, too. Most monitor speakers are called bookshelf loudspeakers, but most of them do not actually sound their best inside of bookshelves or on top of low furniture. They sound best mounted on stands out away from the walls. What do they offer if they take up similar amounts of space as floor-standing speakers?

Well, for one thing, they cost less. Also, small speakers can focus sound in a very special way—you can  hear the space surrounding the musicians with remarkable detail. We call this spatial imaging and monitor loudspeakers can be very seductive because they offer it to such a remarkable degree.

What if you don't want speakers out in the room? You have choices. Some speakers actually are designed to go in bookshelves; these are called near-boundary speakers and they have the frequency reinforcement added by the wall calculated into their response curves. Some designers prefer designing this type of loudspeaker because the "bump" in frequency response caused by placing a speaker near a wall is a constant and engineers love constants.

In recent years, the proliferation of flat-screen televisions designed to be hung on walls, has inspired a new type of loudspeaker. These too are designed to be hung on the wall and provide sound for those flat TVs. Some of these even include their own amplification and digital equalization—these are usually called sound-bars and offer some degree of surround-sound simulation or even multichannel sound. Others require external amplification, but are designed to complement the flat-screen TVs.

We could go on. What we wanted to do here was get you thinking about different types of loudspeakers and what you want to do. The next step is to visit your dealer and listen to a few loudspeakers. What you learn may raise other questions. That's all right—come back and see us. We've got answers