Choosing Home Audio Speakers
Why Do I Need All Those Speakers?
In the real world, we don’t just hear sounds in front of us, but we hear them from the back and sides as well. Directors send certain sounds to the rear and sides of the audience in an attempt to make movies as lifelike as possible. For these reasons, modern soundtracks include additional channels that encompass audiences with sound. When movies are demonstrated through a multi speaker home audio theater, viewers are placed in the center of the action. And that is why you need all those home audio speakers!
Take a Balanced Approach
Your stereo, center, and surround home audio speakers should not only sound good, they should all sound the same. Top manufacturers achieve a consistent character of sound, or timbre, by using a technique known as timbre-matching. This assures a seamless blend among all channels, from the main to center to surround home audio speakers. You should choose a brand that offers a wide range of timbre-matched models. Look at the tweeters and drivers used throughout the home audio system. The tweeters should be the same, the midrange drivers should be identical and the cones should be made of the same material.
A chain is only as strong as its’ weakest link. This is true in home audio systems as well. Every speaker in today’s home audio systems has an important job and must do it well. Strive for balanced performance when selecting home audio speaker components. It makes no sense to overspend on one speaker component and be frugal on others.
Below is a description of each speaker in a home audio system as well as its purpose and how to choose the right one for you.
The Stereo Pair
The left and right main channels of a soundtrack carry most of a movie’s special effects and orchestral score, in addition to playing music. In order to excel at these tasks, the stereo pair must contain wide frequency and broad volume swings (dynamic range), duplicate subtle recorded details, and be able to establish a convincing soundstage (the impression of three dimensions).
When choosing main channel loudspeakers for your home audio system, play a variety of music and movie selections you know well. If you listen to a solo vocalist does the image of that performer seem to float at the center of the soundstage or can you trace the singer to the home audio speakers? You want the singer to seem as if they are “floating”. Next, try an acoustic guitar, violin or cello. You should hear the resonance of the instrument’s wooden body as well as refined, detailed string tone. Finally watch an action flick. Are the effects, such as gunshots and explosions, clearly duplicated? Or do they become hard, flat and generally undesirable as the volume gets louder? A good pair of home audio loudspeakers should NEVER sound depleting.
The Center Channel Speaker
The main purpose of a home audio center speaker is to fix the actors’ voices to the screen for off-center listeners. This channel also carries a great deal of the movie’s special effects. More than 50% of a typical film’s sound is routed to the center so the speaker must be able to generate very high volumes without contortion or strain. Test out a scene in which several actors speak. Does each voice standout? Male vocals should be deep, but never boomy or chesty, while stressing the deep chest sounds in singing or spoken voice. Women’s voices that are higher pitched shouldn’t sound harsh, spitty, or nasal. Finally, try a movie scene in which special effects go from left to right, such as a car chase. Does the sound remain consistent, or does it become weak as it crosses through the center?
For a single listener sitting equidistant from both home audio speakers, a center channel speaker is sometimes not even needed. All you need to do is turn on the phantom center control on your Home Audio processor or receiver, and you’ll hear a clearly confined central image. If you’d like to share the fun with friends or family, a good home audio center channel speaker is a must.
For most Home Audio systems you do not need a center channel speaker with good bass performance. All surround processors and receivers have bass management for the center speaker. They allow you to steer the center channel bass information into the main or subwoofer channels. The instruction manual for the processor will show you how to do it. The center channel speaker needs to replicate sounds only from 100 Hz and up.
If you want the ultimate home theater production, there are several center speakers that can reproduce bass with authority; some of them even have built-in powered subwoofers. If your main home audio speakers are ultra-high performance, you will enjoy the added dynamic kick, range, and imaging precision that a full range center speaker brings to the party.
The Surround Speakers
The next time you’re in a movie theater, look around at all the speakers lining the side and rear walls. They help the soundtrack encompass the audience. This effect places the viewers in the center of the action. Since it’s unrealistic for homeowners to install multiple pairs of effects channel loudspeakers, manufacturers offer bi-directional home audio speakers. These speakers place drivers on both the front and rear of the cabinet. This arrangement stretches the sound along the side walls. This makes it harder for the audience to identify the location of the home audio surround speakers as well as delivers a more enveloping experience. This is particularly important if the surround speakers need to be placed within a few feet of your listening position.
Bi-directional surrounds are not for everyone. With 5.1 channel systems, your rear home audio speakers need to reproduce the same high frequency range as your front home audio speakers, with bass as low as a minimum of 80 Hz. You’ll probably be happier with high performance front firing speakers than with a pair of inexpensive bipoles or dipoles. In truth, bi-directional speakers selling for less than $400/pair are not an astute choice.
In order to choose the home audio surround speakers that are best for you, first select the type of speakers (floor, on-wall, in-wall, etc.) that fit well in your home theater room as well as a location.
If you have or are planning on getting a Dolby Digital decoding system, pick home audio surround speakers that are as close as possible in performance to your front speakers. Look for the same or similar tweeters and drivers as your front speakers. Choose speakers made by the same manufacturer as your main home audio speakers.
In-wall or in-ceiling speakers are an appealing option for surround channel use. These home audio speakers can present high performance and take up no space at all.
As said before, a powered subwoofer is a home audio speaker that reproduces only the lowest frequencies to give a more exciting and lifelike movie experience. It has its own built-in amplifier so you don’t need to be concerned about whether your receiver or amp has enough power to drive a powered subwoofer.
Subwoofers are an essential component of 5.1 channel digital Home Audio systems since these formats designate additional low frequency effects to a separate subwoofer track. This sixth speaker may not be necessary if you’ve chosen powered home audio towers for your stereo pair since they have built-in subs. If you’re looking to put together a truly outrageous home theater system, including a separate subwoofer to a set of powered towers will deliver an effortless, body moving encounter.
There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a powered subwoofer for your home audio system. First, select a location for your subwoofer and measure the space to see what fits there. Subwoofers usually perform best when placed near walls.
Next, the better your front main home audio speakers are, the better the subwoofer should be. If your floorstanding speakers already have good bass, choose a subwoofer that is able to portray very low frequencies so that it produces the bass that your main home audio speakers cannot reproduce freely. A small, inexpensive subwoofer paired with large, high quality floorstanding speakers may do more harm than good.
You need to also factor in the size of your room for your home audio needs. The bigger the room you want to fill, the better the subwoofer you’ll need. High ceilings or open walls are all seen by the subwoofer, even if you don’t listen in that area. This also includes any airspace above suspended ceilings. Therefore the larger the home audio room, the more powerful subwoofer you will need.
Action/adventure movies have considerably more bass requirements then talk shows, news or comedies. If you want to rattle your walls and feel that chest collapsing bass, one or more compelling subwoofers are recommended.
But the best advice to be given is to ignore the numbers and simply listen to the home audio equipment before you buy it. So many people assume that the bigger the driver size and the higher the power amp rating, the better the subwoofer. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Your home audio dealer can let you listen to different subwoofers before you buy. If it’s possible, listen to movies and music with the front speakers you already own or intend to buy. Trust your ears. Just keep in mind the dealer’s home audio showroom acoustics are probably significantly more different from your home.
Tire Kicking – How to Judge a Quality Speaker
There are other clues to quality home audio loudspeakers other than just listening. Tap your knuckles on the sides of the cabinet: a hollow thud signifies a poorly made enclosure that will probably degrade the sound. The weight of a home audio speaker will give you a clue as to the construction quality and the materials. The finest speakers have 5-way binding posts that offer the best possible connection with any type of cable.
Read the manufacturer’s specifications to make sure your amplifier and speakers will work properly together. The sensitivity rating tells you how much sound a home audio speaker will produce when fed one watt of power. A low-powered home audio system needs high efficiency speakers so choose a model rated at 86 dB or higher. Finally, check the “impedance” specification. If you’ve chosen a reasonably priced receiver, your speakers’ impedance should be preferably 6-Ohms or higher, but at least 4-Ohms.