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Speaker Buying Guide

Learn about different types of speakers and their features to enjoy your favorite music at home or on the go.

Getting Started

Good speakers are the key to getting the best possible audio experience from your sound system. You can pair the best record player on the market with the highest-rated AV receiver, but without the right speakers, your audio or home theater setup won't be worth much when it comes to sound quality.
Speaker Buying Guide For Beginners
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Speakers provide the interface between an audio system's electronics and the physical world in which sound is actually played. Choosing the right set can make the difference between cramped, muddy audio, and crystal-clear concert-hall sound. But with so many options and prices ranging from $50 to $50,000, it can be hard to know which types of speakers are right for your needs. This speaker buying guide breaks down the basics so that you can make an educated decision when shopping for a new audio setup.
Various types of speakers available

How Do Speakers Work?

Speakers pull electrical energy from a battery or outlet to create a magnetic field. A speaker's voice coil reacts to the magnetic field to move the driver/cone back and forth. As the cone moves, it moves the air around it, producing sound waves. The cone creates high notes by quickly moving back and forth a short distance. When the cone ripples back and forth further, it does so more slowly, creating deeper notes. The frequency of the waves dictates our perception of the sound’s pitch.
To visualize this, think about throwing a rock into a pond. A large stone hits the water with a deep plunk. Doing so creates large waves that are spread far apart. Conversely, after throwing a pebble into a pond, you'll hear a high frequency plink. The resulting ripples will be shorter and spaced closely together. The waves and ripples in the water act in precisely the same way that sound waves move through the air. Large, slow waves produce low notes. Short quick waves produce high notes.
Most loudspeakers consist of two cones/drivers (a woofer and a tweeter), a crossover network, and a cabinet. Speakers with two cones are referred to as 2-way speakers. The cones are thin funnel-shaped pieces of material (usually plastic). Each cone produces the frequencies best suited to its size. The woofer produces bass while the tweeter emits high frequencies. The midrange falls somewhere between the two and is determined by the crossover network that divides the frequencies between the cones.
In a 3-way design, a dedicated midrange driver augments the work of the woofer and tweeter. 4-way speakers add a subwoofer into the mix. There are advantages to such designs, but getting three or even four drivers to work as one can be difficult and expensive. Be wary of 3-way designs costing less than a few hundred dollars each.
Diagram of 4-Way Speaker Crossover Circuit
The crossover network interprets the audio signal coming from your media device (records, CDs, streaming boxes...), sending the different frequencies to the appropriate driver. A well-designed crossover network consists of a low-pass filter (LPF), which keeps the highs from reaching the woofer, and a high-pass filter (HPF), which keeps the lows from seeping into the tweeter. All of these components are contained within the speaker cabinet, which is itself a critical component in the loudspeaker's design that has a major effect on its sound. A cabinet should be rigid, well braced, and internally damped to avoid sound-coloring resonances.
Plastic cabinets may work fine for computer speakers, but not for serious audio components. Cabinets should usually be made of wood, or, more commonly, medium-density fiberboard (MDF).
The cabinet design is typically one of two types: a sealed enclosure, or a "bass-reflex" type with an opening, or "port," used to provide a longer/deeper resonance cavity for the low frequencies. When a woofer moves, it pushes air in two directions, forward and back. Unless dealt with properly, the out-of-phase sound from the back wave will cancel the front wave, resulting in poor bass. The port gives the back wave a place to go.
A properly designed system causes the two waves to add instead of canceling, resulting in reinforced rather than diminished bass. An alternative and very popular bass reinforcement methodology is called "acoustic suspension." This design uses a sealed box wherein the trapped air acts like a spring. The advantage of this approach is that a smaller box can thereby produce very deep bass; the disadvantage is lower efficiency, resulting in the need for a more powerful amplifier.

The Different Types of Speakers

With so many different types of speakers, it can be hard to know which ones will best suit your needs. Start by thinking about what you plan to use the speakers for. Are you building a high-end home theater, looking for a multi-room audio system, or dreaming of a high-fidelity stereo sound system for your vinyl collection? Maybe you want to listen to music while cooking or sing-along to your favorite songs in the shower to start your day.
Once you know how you plan to use your system, think about the room in which you'll listen. The bigger your space is, the more powerful your system should be. Are you bringing sound into a studio apartment or a 1,000 sq ft home theater? A single smart speaker might be enough for the former. For the latter, you'll probably want a high-powered surround sound setup with 5+ speakers and at least one subwoofer. Let's take a look at the different types of speakers available to choose from.
Tower / Floor Standing Speakers

Tower / Floor Standing Speakers

As the name suggests, floor standing speakers typically find their home on the floor. Often referred to as tower speakers, most stretch three to four feet off the ground. Although the size of a speaker has little or no correlation with sound quality, large speakers are usually louder. Since it's easier to create low frequencies with larger cones, floor standing speakers are also better equipped to produce more bass.
With this in mind, tower speakers are best suited for large spaces. A stereo pair of floor standing speakers might be all you need. But they are also commonly used in surround sound systems, acting as the front left and right speakers in most cases.
Bookshelf Speakers

Bookshelf Speakers

Bookshelf speakers are a great alternative to tower speakers, especially for smaller spaces. They're significantly smaller and typically equipped with a tweeter and a woofer or a mid-range driver. However, you can also find 3-way bookshelf speakers that include each of these drivers. While this type of speaker can sit on a bookshelf, they provide a higher quality of sound when placed on a speaker stand. A stand allows sound to radiate more freely while a shelf will absorb much of the sound the speaker puts out.
Like towers, a pair of bookshelf speakers can work well for a stereo sound setup. They're also great for surround sound systems where they can serve as the front or rear speakers, or both. And while their size limits their bass response, pairing them with a subwoofer allows you to enjoy the full range of sound frequencies.
Surround Speakers / Satellite Speakers

Surround Speakers / Satellite Speakers

Satellite speakers are designed to sit behind or off to the sides of your listening area. Like a smaller cousin of bookshelf speakers, they usually feature two cones, typically a tweeter and mid-range driver or woofer. While they can be used as a stereo pair, they're generally used to complement additional speakers rather than acting as the main attraction. To avoid running cables across your listening area, satellite speakers are often mounted to the wall or ceiling. Wireless satellite speakers are another option. Just remember that these will still require a power cord.
Shop Center-Channel Speakers

Center-Channel Speakers

Center-channel speakers are an integral part of virtually every surround sound setup. They live between the front left and right speakers. When used in a home theater they usually sit just below the screen. Given that they sit in the center, it's only fitting that they specialize in mid-range frequencies. When watching movies and shows, center-channel speakers are responsible for producing the majority of the dialogue.
Shop Subwoofers

Subwoofers

To enjoy deep, rich bass notes, a subwoofer is essential. Most subwoofers today are "powered," meaning that they contain a built-in amplifier and a crossover network that lets you adjust the sub's upper-frequency response to blend in with your main speakers more effectively. Read through our Subwoofer Buying Guide for help finding the right model for your system.
Subwoofer performance is greatly affected by placement. Some locations in a room will cancel the bass entirely. So where you place the subwoofer and where you sit are critical to getting the most from it. Learn how to easily set up a subwoofer.
A Soundbar on TV stand

Soundbars

Soundbars are the easiest way to improve your TV audio quality. Installing them is often as simple as plugging a power cord into your wall outlet or surge protector and then connecting an HDMI or audio cable to your TV. Learn more about them in our Sound Bar Buying Guide.

Built-In Speakers

Built-in speakers allow you to enjoy high-quality audio without cluttering your space. While most speakers are built into speaker cabinets that can rest on a stand, a shelf, or some other rigid surface, built-in speakers are concealed within the ceiling or wall. These speakers come with a front panel or grill, but they don't have a full cabinet as the wall or ceiling will serve as one. As a result, the speaker itself is often less expensive than a similar bookshelf or satellite speaker. But having them professionally installed will likely make them at least as expensive as other types of speakers, if not more so.
In-Wall Speakers

In-Wall Speakers

In-wall speakers act beautifully as rear surround speakers, allowing you to enjoy a fully immersive experience without having to worry about speaker wire or power cords running across your listening area. Like bookshelf speakers, they typically have a tweeter and a woofer. It's also common to use in-wall speakers as a stereo pair in a secondary location such as a kitchen or bedroom.
In-Ceiling Speakers

In-Ceiling Speakers

The designs of in-ceiling speakers are similar to those of in-wall units, featuring a woofer and a tweeter. Because they're meant to be installed above the listening area, they aren't as effective as surround speakers. However, they're great for object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X that add a vertical dimension to surround sound for the most immersive listening experience available. In-ceiling speakers are also an excellent choice for multi-room audio setups, allowing you to conceal the source of sound while still enjoying your tunes outside of your primary listening area.
Outdoor Speakers

Outdoor Speakers

Music doesn't have to be confined to the walls of your home. Outdoor speakers are designed to withstand the elements, allowing you to enjoy your favorite artists while manning the grill, relaxing on the patio, or doing yard work. Some share their looks with satellite or bookshelf speakers and are typically mounted to the side of your home. Others hide in plain sight, designed to look like rocks or lawn ornaments.
A Smart Speakers

Smart Speakers

Smart speakers are a simple way of bringing quality audio into any room of the house. Installation is as simple as plugging them into an outlet and connecting them to your home network. Once connected, you can control them from an app on your phone or use voice commands to play music from all of the best streaming services.
Many smart speakers, including Sonos' full-line, are perfect for multi-room audio systems. They let you sync playback across multiple speakers throughout the house via your smartphone app or voice controls, ensuring you never miss a beat. If you have a compatible receiver in your entertainment room or a device like the Sonos Port, you can even sync playback from any device connected to your receiver so that you can still hear what's going on while running to the kitchen for a snack.

Portable Speakers

For quality audio away from home, a portable Bluetooth speaker is the way to go. These devices can be small enough to fit in your pocket or as big as the boomboxes from the 80s. If you like to spend time at the beach or on the water, look for a waterproof model to make sure it will stand up to whatever comes its way.

Choosing a Quality Speaker

The best speakers reproduce audio exactly as it was recorded. Unfortunately, there isn't a simple, catch-all spec that you can look at to determine the quality of a speaker. And, because sound quality can be subjective, a speaker that sounds impeccable to one set of ears might sound tinny to another. Ideally, you'll be able to listen to a speaker before taking it home. That said, you can pay attention to the following specs to get a fairly good idea of a speaker’s quality.

Price Range

When pricing out a set of speakers, it's important to budget for the speakers, amplification, wiring, and potentially their installation. The range of prices for speakers themselves is incredibly wide. Some bookshelf-sized speakers only cost a few hundred dollars. Others can set you back thousands and are worth every penny and more.
In the $300-and-under range, expect to get a solidly built bookshelf-sized speaker with optimal performance from 60 Hz (mid-bass) and up. Expect to spend $300 - $600 for a pair of bookshelf speakers with stronger, deeper bass (around 40-Hz) and a desirable balance across the audio spectrum. Speakers that offer deep bass in lower price ranges are almost certainly short-changing other important parts of the frequency spectrum, often the crucial midrange.
Diagram of the audio sound frequency spectrum

Frequency Response

A speaker's frequency response range is a measurement of how wide a selection of sounds it can reproduce. The human ear is capable of hearing sounds from 20 - 20,000 Hz. The lower the number the lower the tone and vice versa. Most speakers are capable of responding from around 45 - 20,000 Hz. But just because a speaker can cover a given range doesn't mean that it will provide quality sound for every frequency.
A speaker's variation from "flat" can be a useful gauge of its performance. This specification is stated as a "+/- x dB." The tighter the variance, the more flat, or accurate, a speaker's response. Typical variances range from +/- .5 dB to +/- 3 dB, with the lower figure usually bounding the frequency extremes. That is, a speaker whose published frequency response is 50-25 kHz, +/- 3 dB, will be -3 dB below "flat" at 50 Hz and 25 kHz. This doesn't mean that information below 50 Hz will not be heard, only that the drop-off after that point may be steep.

Sensitivity

A speaker's sensitivity is a measure of its efficiency. Highly sensitive speakers output higher volumes at a given voltage. This provides you with some idea as to how big an amplifier you'll need to drive the speakers. This measurement is expressed as a certain number of decibels (dB) per 2.83 V input. For example: "88 dB/2.83V." Unless you're using a monster amplifier, you probably want speakers with an efficiency of at least 86 dB, though 88 dB or higher is preferable.

Power Handling

Power handling tells you how much power the speakers can take without damage. If a speaker is rated at "100 Watts maximum," don't worry too much if you choose or own a 200-Watt-per-channel amplifier. Chances are you'll never put that much power into the speakers. In fact, what usually damages a loudspeaker is using too small an amplifier and driving it to "clipping" (distortion) levels. The loud-level high harmonics in the distortion is what does the damage.

Impedance

A speaker's impedance refers to the resistance an amplifier will encounter when trying to drive a given speaker. Today, most loudspeakers are rated at 8 ohms. However, the impedance of a loudspeaker varies with its frequency. Modern solid-state amplifiers can effectively drive most properly designed loudspeakers. Still, for reasons too complex to delve into here, look for loudspeakers with a "nominal" 8-ohm impedance even though most amplifiers will easily handle a 6-ohm load.

Soundstaging

Another important consideration is stereo imaging or "soundstaging." Speakers with great soundstaging allow you to hear the "location" of different sounds as if the band was playing in front of you. Perhaps the vocalist is front and center with the guitarist and keyboardist off to either side while the drummer hammers away behind them.
Unfortunately, a speaker's specs won't tell you anything about its soundstaging. But you can check online reviews or give us a call at 800-860-3577 if you have questions about a specific model. To truly appreciate a speaker's soundstaging ability, it's important to sit directly between the speakers and listen to a simply produced live or "acoustic" recording, rather than a multi-tracked, artificial studio production.
The human ear responds well to spatially correct cues in the form of subtle reflections from surfaces in the room where music is recorded. When these reflections are faithfully recorded and played back, the result can be a stunningly real sonic portrait of a musical event.

Other Things to Consider

Once you've decided on the perfect set of speakers, there are a few other variables to consider to ensure you get the most out of your audio system.
Proper Speaker Placement Diagram

Placement

Where you place your speakers can have a big impact on what you hear. While speakers are effectively able to direct high frequency sounds forward, mid and especially low frequencies balloon out in all directions. If you place your speakers close to a wall or corner, the lower frequencies will bounce off the wall(s), causing the audio to sound like its low end was boosted with a low shelf EQ. While some listeners enjoy the boost, you can always correct it by using the EQ on your receiver. Learn more about how soundwaves respond to different speaker placements.
It's also important to place your speaker on a rigid surface to prevent vibrations from diminishing the sound quality. If you're playing music from a record player, make sure your speakers aren't on the same surface as the player. As the stylus glides over the spinning vinyl, it reads the vibrations in the groove to output an audio signal. The vibrations coming out of a speaker can interfere with this delicate process, distorting the audio.

Additional Components

Speakers won't work in a vacuum. Make sure to think about any other components you might need to complete your audio system.
An Audio Receiver

Receivers & Amplifiers

A receiver is essential for most audio setups. It acts as a sort of command center, taking in the audio signal from your media source (a record player, cable box, games system...) and sending it out to the appropriate speakers. Receivers also feature built-in amplifiers, allowing them to power the speakers with the same speaker wire that sends out audio signals. You can add a separate power amp if you like to crank the volume up to 11 or have an especially large space but this isn't necessary for most systems. Our AV Receiver Buying Guide is a great place to learn more about these devices.
Brackets, Stands & Mounts

Brackets, Stands & Mounts

Investing in mounting hardware of some kind can improve the sound quality of your system. Placing a speaker on a shelf or table can lead to vibrations that can muddy the sound quality. Speaker stands serve as a solid base to prevent these unwanted vibrations. Speaker brackets and mounts perform a similar function with the added benefit of opening up placement possibilities.
Speaker Wire

Wires & Cables

Most speakers don't come with the wiring necessary to connect them to your receiver. Make sure you have enough speaker wire to stretch from your receiver to each of your speakers. Additionally, you'll want to make sure you have the proper audio & video cables to connect your media devices to the receiver. If your devices are already set up, you almost certainly have what you need. However, if they're plugged directly into your television, you may still need an HDMI and/or optical cable to connect the receiver to the TV.

In Summary

Start your search for the perfect speakers by thinking about how and where you'll use them. Next, figure out which type of speaker will work best for your needs. Then, if possible, stop by our store to test out different models. Otherwise, review the speaker specs detailed above and select a model that fits your budget. Finally, make sure you have a receiver to power the speakers and the cables you need to connect them.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to our Custom Audio and Video Department by phone at 847.544.2307 or send an email to [email protected]. We're more than happy to help you any way we can in your hunt for the perfect audio system. We can even come out to your home to set it all up if you’re in the greater Chicagoland area.
Last updated: September 8, 2020

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