Speakers: a beginner's guide
Buying a Speaker- is it same as buying a car?
An interesting combination but they both have significant similarities to consider in the purchasing process.
Both are important investments, both serve practical and frivolous needs, and both vary greatly in terms of size, aesthetics, quality, performance and price. Yet, most people we know will spend weeks, if not months, researching, test-driving, haggling and, ultimately, buying a car, whereas those same shoppers are known to simply walk into a store, hear a demonstration and walk out with a set of speakers in the time it take to order a coffee.
The truth is, the right set of speakers, if properly taken care of, will last longer than your car and will serve up decades of enjoyment without criticizing your taste in music. The key to aural bliss is to empower yourself with knowledge, do a little research and spend some time test driving before pulling the trigger.
Below is a guide to the process from beginning to end of purchasing your next set of speakers. Armed with the knowledge below, your next speaker purchase can be easy, fun and downright gratifying.
What will you use them for?
You don’t necessarily need huge speakers or a full-blown 7.1 channel surround system to get great sound. Take a moment to think about what your listening habits are.
If you primarily listen to music, one pair of speakers may be exactly all you need to enjoy your music with occasional TV and movies as well.
If you are a passive music listener and don’t see yourself sitting down to appreciate the sound for extended periods of time, then a pair of quality bookshelf speakers or in-wall speakers may be the ticket. Want more bass? A small subwoofer can deliver the extra low end you are looking for.
If you are more of an active listener, or simply want the option of having your hair blown back on a whim, a pair of monitors or floor-standing speakers may be in order. Remember that a small floor-standing speaker with multiple drivers can deliver a really full-sounding, highly satisfying music experience without taking up much space.
If you are just looking to beef up the sound of your TV for general TV and movie watching and perhaps occasional music listening, a soundbar or soundbar and subwoofer combination may be a great choice. There are several quality options on the market you can find in our reviews section.
If you are a movie buff and surround sound is a must. At that point, you need to start thinking about where all the speakers in a surround system would be placed. So let’s take a look at implications involved with your room.
Surveying your space
An important part of the process for refining your speaker search is to consider the space the speakers will be operating in. Let’s look at the most important factors involved in what is to be your speakers’ new home.
Generally, one of the first questions you are likely to be asked is, 'how big is your room?' Now, we aren't trying to gauge just how big a speaker we can sell you; rather, we are trying to determine what effect your room characteristics will have on your speakers’ sound. Room size, however, is just one consideration. You also need to think about how open the room is.
Small, closed in rooms with walls on all sides are not great environments for really large speakers. One, they take up lots of space. Two, they tend to 'load' the room with bass, which can result in muddy sound. Conversely, large, open rooms will make a small speaker sound very small. Larger speakers can help keep the sound-stage lifelike, seamless and more immersive, which are all important parts of home theatre sound.
Speakers in furniture
Will you need to place some of your speakers inside an entertainment cabinet? If so, you will want to stay away from large bookshelf or monitor speakers with ports that produce lots of bass. All of that bass will just end up bouncing around in the cabinet and probably produce some unwanted resonances. If you must place speakers inside a cabinet, plan on finding a bookshelf speaker that stops playing bass around 80 Hz or so. Also, the inside of a cabinet is about the worst place you can stick a subwoofer. Select a spot for your sub or plan on looking for a sub with a shape that will make it easy to tuck away in a hidden spot.
Speakers in the corner
Placing full-range, floor-standing speakers on either side of a TV that squares off a corner comes with some challenges. This arrangement has a way of cancelling out bass, which is a big part of what you might be paying for with a full range, floor-standing speaker. In these cases, you are likely to get more bang for your buck if you go with bookshelf speakers and a single point-source of bass, i.e. a subwoofer.
Walls and floors
Hard surfaces are good sound’s chief enemy. No matter how great the sound is coming out of a speaker, if there are a bunch of large, smooth surfaces for that sound to reflect off of, it will change what you hear. If you’re worried your room might be too 'live', go stand in the centre of it and clap loudly. If you hear a lot of echo, consider putting your system in another room or taking steps to calm down that echo. Furniture, drapes, carpet, plants…anything that helps break up long, hard, flat surfaces will help whatever speaker you get sound its best.
If your significant other spent good time (and money) making the room look nice, then you should consider looking at speakers that will compliment the space, not clash with it. Believe us when we say that hearing about how ugly your speakers make the room look on a regular basis will make you rue the day you made that purchase. The good news is, there are some flat-out gorgeous speakers with furniture-grade finishes out there that are bound to integrate nicely with your room’s décor.
Now we’re back to thinking about where you can put speakers in an effort to determine how many them can be reasonably incorporated into your system. For instance, if your couch or chairs are up against a wall, there’s no point in attempting to cram in a 7.1 system. You will have enough challenges placing your surround speakers in a good spot, never mind worrying about the back surrounds, which need at least 3 or 4 feet of distance away from where you sit to be effective. Plan on a 5.1 system and sort out where you can put those surround speakers to get the best effect. Don’t forget the décor consideration here either.
On the other hand, if there is no wall behind you or to the sides (or they are really far away) you may have challenges finding any place to put surround speakers. In-ceiling speakers used as surrounds can make an elegant solution, provided that is an option in your home.
Sure, there are a lot of factors to consider and these are just a few of the possible scenarios. The important thing is that you take time to think about what you will use your speakers for, the room that you will put them in and possible speaker placement options. With a good idea of how many and what type of speakers you need, it’s time to start researching, the do some shopping.
Specs: Impedance, sensitivity and other technical bits
At some point in your research and shopping endeavours, you are likely to hear that it is important to match your speakers with your receiver or amplifier. There are two facets to this concept. First, you want to make sure that, from a technical standpoint, your amplifier is capable of driving your speakers effectively and safely. The other side of this consideration is how your receiver or amplifier (for simplicity, we'll just use 'amp' generically from now on) sound together with your speakers. Let’s start with the technical part.
Speakers have an electrical characteristic known as impedance, which is measured in terms of ohms. Think of impedance as the resistance your speakers give to the electrical signal your amp is sending to them. While it may seem like resistance is undesirable, in truth, it is crucially important. The amplifier needs to see some resistance to the power it sends, otherwise it will just keep pumping out power until it burns out. Most popular receivers and amplifiers are perfectly happy driving an 8 Ohm 'load'. As it happens, many popular speakers have an 8 ohm rating. You will probably only run into trouble if you attempt to drive a low-impedance speaker (4 ohms or 2 ohms) with an amplifier that just doesn't have the juice necessary to do so safely. If you find yourself looking at 4 Ohm speakers, know that you will need some serious amplification to drive your speakers to healthy volumes without putting your speakers and amp at risk. If some of the speakers you are looking at are rated at 6 ohms, just know it will take more power to get those speakers to the volume you want. If you have a well-powered amp, you aren't likely to run into problems unless you drive several 6-ohm speakers at once up to ear-splitting volumes. At that point, your receiver may start 'clipping' and you can do damage to your speakers.
Naturally, this brings up the question of how much power your amp (or the amp you may be purchasing) has. You may be under the impression that your amp puts out 100 watts per channel. However, you might be surprised to learn that electronics manufacturers often 'cook the books' to make their product’s power ratings look good and, because of that, you may actually be working with less power than you think. Don’t worry, if your amp has always sounded good with 8-ohm speakers in the past, it will continue to do so. Again, it is only if you are considering a low-impedance speaker that you should take a close look at how powerful your amp really is. If you are looking at 8-ohm speakers, whatever amp you are working with is likely to do just fine. Don’t stress about over-powering your speakers either, it is very rare that anyone does damage to speakers because their amp is too powerful. More often than not, people’s ears will give out to excessive volume before their speakers will.
Another measurement you may run into while looking at speaker specs is 'sensitivity'. In a nutshell, this refers to how loud a speaker plays per watt. Speakers with a low sensitivity will require more power to get them to loud volumes. The opposite is true for high-sensitivity speakers. Generally speaking, consider a speaker with a sensitivity rating of 80 dB to 88 dB per watt to be on the lower end of the spectrum and 89 dB to 100 dB per watt or more toward the top.
There is also a synergistic consideration when pairing speakers with an amplifier related to sound characteristics. You may hear of speakers described as 'bright' (an emphasis on treble), 'laid back' or 'punchy'. Amplifiers, like speakers, will also exhibit certain sound characteristics. You can imagine how a speaker that is described as bright paired with a receiver that is also known to sound bright could team up to produce a particularly bright sound that you might not enjoy (or you might…and that’s cool, too). Yet, when paired with an amp that is known to sound mellow, a bright speaker will be tamed and the resulting sound may be more to your taste. You can imagine the potential combinations from here. This factor can be important both for those purchasing a new amp and those that already have an amp and want to find speakers that will best match it.
The Showroom Audition
As with a car purchase, you always take it for a test drive first before purchasing. Buying speakers should not be any different.
The obvious advantage to a showroom demonstration is you can touch and hear the products you’re interested in right away. Another plus is the ability to test numerous combinations of speakers and electronics with a person on hand to do all the switching around for you, thus making the audition process a little less labour-intensive. Another often overlooked consideration is that many speaker manufacturers do not sell their speakers online, so going to an authorised dealer (such as Klapp Audio Visual, gratuitous self promotion I know!) is the only option. Should you decide you don’t like the speakers you chose, making a return or exchange can be done right away.
Sean and Tony love their audio equipment and will be more than happy for you to bring in your favourite music or movie and have a demonstration in the Klapp AV Showroom and answer any questions you have.
The Real Audition
The 'real' audition happens at your home: As mentioned before, checking out speakers at a store comes with some advantages, but it is highly unlikely you will be able to duplicate all the work they've put in to making everything sound its best at your own home. At the end of the day, you need to hear speakers in your room, with your electronics, sitting in you chair or sofa. The unique attributes of your walls, furniture, ceiling, amp, speaker wire… these will all change the sound.
Kicking the tires
When test driving an audio system, it is important to get a feel for what you are looking at and listening to. A lot can still be gleaned from the A/V equivalent of 'kicking the tires'. The speaker may look cool and shiny on the outside, but you need to sort out what is happening underneath that glossy exterior.
When looking over a speaker, give it a good knock with your knuckles. It should feel solid and the sound you hear should be solid too, not empty. If you've ever searched for a stud in a wall, you already know what to listen for. Once you hit that stud, the sound goes from empty and cavernous to solid and dead. A speaker with a thick, rigid cabinet will bite back at your knuckles a little and that solid sound means that the inside of the cabinet isn't going to generate unwanted resonances. This ‘knuckle test' will also clue you in to how solid the finish of the speaker is. If it is a vinyl mock-up of wood, you'll feel it.
Pick your listening material
While many electronics stores and stereo boutiques are equipped to accommodate iPods and other portable media devices, these are usually terrible sources with which to judge an audio systems true capability. Most digital music files are compressed so a lot of the detail and refinement is missing from the music. Instead, pick some songs from a few CDs that you are really familiar with. We suggest a song with some strong bass, a quiet song, perhaps with some string instruments, a song that centres around a vocal performance and anything else you may have listened to countless times. When you have your selections in hand, listen to them some more on your old speakers and take some notes on how they sound and what appeals to you about them.
When you listen to these songs during your speaker auditions, see if you don’t hear things that you've never heard before - an instrument that was covered up previously, the creaking of a piano bench, or the squeaking of fingers sliding across guitar strings, for example.
On the other hand, sometimes it is what you don’t hear that makes a speaker great. Colourations of vocals and instruments, unnatural reproductions of high frequencies, overly bloated bass…these are all things you don’t want to hear from a good speaker.
Relax your ears
Some speakers sound dazzling right out of the gate but, over time, will become fatiguing. Though a speaker may sound very engaging at first, after a while you may find yourself wanting to turn them off. The only way to know is to spend time with them (another reason a home audition is crucial) It is because of this phenomenon that a wise speaker engineer once suggested that we practice relaxing our ears. The idea is to ignore your initial impression and allow your mind’s ear to adjust to the new sound you are hearing. After a while, if you just don’t like what you hear, it is probably time to move on.
This practice is especially helpful when doing A-B comparisons. Jumping back and forth too quickly doesn't allow your mind time to adjust. You'll always be comparing the sound you are hearing now with the sound you are hearing just before, instead of trying to compare the sound to what is natural and realistic. A-B comparisons will help you weed out the big-time losers, but they are not an effective way of deciding between two speakers you have already decided you do like.
Can I mix and match speaker brands?
You can, sure, but it isn't a great idea. Different speaker brands will sound different and when sounds move from one speaker to another in a surround sound scenario, you want the sound signature to remain the same all the way around. If you need to piece-meal your system, that’s fine. Just know that with each matching speaker you add, the better your system will sound. The one exception to this rule is the subwoofer, which leads us to our next question.
Can I buy a subwoofer from a brand that differs from my speakers?
Yes you can and, in many cases, it is a very good idea. Not all speaker makers are necessarily great subwoofer makers (and the inverse of that statement is also true) Check out the reviews of the subwoofers that go with the speakers you are considering. If they are less than glowing, consider a subwoofer from a company that specializes in subs. The sub is a big part of a high-performance home theatre system and shouldn't be skimped on.
Do I need two subwoofers?
In many cases, a single subwoofer will produce plenty of bass and can stand on its own. There are times, though, when the area you must place your sub in is less than ideal from a performance perspective. The addition of a second subwoofer comes with a few advantages. Two subs will work together to even out 'dead spots' in the room. Each sub in a dual-sub system won’t have to work as hard and, therefore, the resulting sound is often cleaner. It is also possible that your appetite for bass is flat-out insatiable. A dual-sub system should do a good job of feeding your need for big, bad bass.
At this point, we hope that you feel empowered to venture out and make a wise speaker purchase. Remember, this should be fun! The moment the fun stops is the moment you know you are headed in the wrong direction. No one hears things quite the way you do.
Trust your judgment and find some speakers that move you. Good luck!