Shopping for speakers can be overwhelming given the vast variety of designs and enormous range in pricing. It’s a good idea to pre-plan prior to starting your search; otherwise, you’ll get lost in an ocean of technical terms, performance specifications, and marketing lingo.
If you’re armed with a bit of knowledge beforehand, the selection process can be an adventure instead of a chore. It’s an opportunity to discover what pleases your ears, because at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as perfect loudspeakers; the goal is to find speakers that are perfect for you.
1. Standalone, On-Wall, In-Wall, In-Ceiling
– Standalone loudspeakers such as tower and bookshelf models are self-contained and can be placed in optimal locations for better fidelity.
– It’s often better to place standalone speakers some distance away from the walls, but some speakers are specifically designed to be placed near a wall or in a corner.
– Many of the best-performing speakers are standalone designs.
– On-wall speakers are typically very shallow, but they don’t require that you cut holes in your walls. Instead, they mount on a bracket.
– In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are designed for permanent installation; you must cut holes to mount them, and you’ll need to run wires inside the wall or ceiling to power them.
– If you want an “invisible” system, in-wall and/or in-ceiling is the way to go.
2. Tower or Bookshelf?
– Tower speakers are usually designed to put the acoustical center of the drivers at ear level.
– Bookshelf speakers (also known as monitors) are meant to be placed on a shelf or on stands. Some bookshelf models have optional stands made specifically for them.
– When selecting stands for bookshelf speakers, check with the manufacturer to see what the proper height should be.
– Typically, the optimum height for a bookshelf speaker puts the tweeter roughly level with your ears when you’re seated. It all depends on where the speaker’s acoustic center is.
– Tower speakers typically offer higher sensitivity, greater power handling, and deeper bass response than bookshelf models.
– Many manufacturers offer bookshelf and tower loudspeakers in the same product line, with the bookshelf model (or models) costing less than the towers.
– It is not uncommon to use bookshelf speakers in a satellite/subwoofer system where the sub takes care of bass frequencies.
– Large tower speakers typically work better in large rooms, whereas bookshelf models are a great fit for smaller spaces.
3. Active or Passive?
– Passive speakers require external amplification whereas active speakers have built-in amps.
– Unless they are battery-powered, active speakers need to be connected to a power source.
– Some speakers, such as various models from Definitive Technology, take a hybrid approach. The woofers are active, while the midrange and tweeters are passive.
– Passive designs are popular for residential 2-channel and surround systems. This is partly because receivers and AVRs have built-in amplification, and this has been the dominant paradigm for many decades.
– There are some high-performance wireless systems, such as products featuring WiSA technology.
– In active speakers, the amplifiers are optimized for that specific speaker.
– For passive speakers, it’s important to make sure the amplifier you use can drive them properly. Check the impedance as well as power requirements.
4. Dynamic, Ribbon, Electrostatic, Planar-Magnetic, or Hybrid?
– Although there are some esoteric methods of making sound out of electricity (plasma, for example), most speakers intended for home use feature dynamic, ribbon, planar-magnetic, or electrostatic drivers.
– Dynamic drivers are the cone-and-dome woofers and tweeters that everyone is familiar with. The basic mechanism is a motor consisting of a voice coil and a magnet, which is used to drive the cone or dome diaphragm.
– The most common types of dynamic drivers are cone, dome, and compression-driver. There are some exotic designs such as MBL’s Radialstrahler and various “flat” dynamic drivers—as opposed to cone- or dome-shaped—such as the concentric drivers used in the Technics SB-C700 speakers.
– Compression-driver tweeters are commonly found in professional PA speakers, thanks to their high sensitivity and high output. They are generally used in a horn-loaded configuration, although they can be paired with waveguides that are not horns.
– Dynamic drivers can be full-range, or they can be optimized for a part of the audio spectrum.
– Ribbon drivers are typically used for tweeters and sometimes for midrange. At their most basic, they consist of nothing more than a metal ribbon and a magnet.
– Ribbon drivers offer extremely fast transient response, and they render a lot of detail.
– AMT (Air-Motion Transformer) drivers are also known as folded-ribbon drivers. AMT tweeters are appearing on more and more speakers due to their low cost and high fidelity. The accordion design packs more surface area into a smaller space.
– Planar-magnetic speakers, such as those made by Magnepan, are a sort of ribbon hybrid. The metal ribbon is mounted on mylar film. This allows the creation of very large, low-mass drivers at reasonable cost.
– Electrostatic speakers features an ultra-thin diaphragm that reacts to electrical fields. Like ribbons, electrostats offer tremendously fast transient response.
– Electrostatic models don’t have a separate tweeter and midrange, but often are part of a hybrid design that features a cone woofer for bass reproduction—MartinLogan specializes in this design.
– Most planar-magnetic and electrostatic speakers are dipole designs and therefore require careful placement to achieve the best fidelity.
– Planar-magnetic and electrostatic speakers that cover bass frequencies are quite large.
5. Full-Range, 2-Way, 3-Way, 4-Way, etc.
– Some speakers only use one driver for the entire frequency range they are capable of reproducing. These are full-range speakers.
– 2-way designs split the task of reproducing the audio spectrum between a tweeter and a woofer.
– 3-way desigs add a midrange driver to the woofer and tweeter, but at an added cost.
– In a 4-way design, you’ll typically find either a super-tweeter or an integrated subwoofer.
– Some drivers feature a 2-way concentric design with a tweeter located in the center of a midrange. This allows the sound from the tweeter and midrange to emanate from the same location.
6. Enclosure Type
– Options include ported (bass reflex), sealed, passive-radiator, open-baffle, horn-loaded, and transmission-line among others.
– There are a lot of different ways to design a speaker enclosure. Ported and sealed designs are the most common speaker types for home use, followed by speakers with passive radiators.
– In sealed designs, the drivers are mounted in airtight enclosures.
– Ported designs feature one or more tuned vents. This improves the speaker’s efficiency at the tuning frequency, which boosts bass output. The tradeoff is bass response drops sharply below the tuning frequency.
– A passive radiator is a lot like a woofer that has no motor. By adding weight to the diaphragm you can tune a passive radiator, just like a port.
– Passive radiators behave similarly to tuned ports; they increase speaker efficiency at the frequency they are tuned to. They cost more than ports but are immune to an effect called chuffing, in which you can hear air rushing through a speaker’s port.
– Open-baffle speakers don’t have any enclosure; the drivers are mounted in the baffle and open to the surrounding environment in front of and behind them. The appeal is that there’s no enclosure and thus no enclosure resonances.
– Open-baffle designs radiate sound in a figure-eight pattern and typically struggle with deep bass frequencies. However, they are free of any “boxy” coloration, and the bipolar radiation pattern creates a spacious sound.
– Horn-loaded speakers—the Klipschorn is a famous example—feature drivers that are mounted in the mouth of horns. This markedly improves sensitivity but also requires relatively large enclosures.
– Some speakers only horn-load the tweeter or the tweeter and midrange.
– Transmission-line speaker designs achieve deep and tight bass response by utilizing a complex internal pathway for the sound waves.
– It’s comparatively difficult to design a good transmission-line enclosure, as compared to sealed, ported, or passive-radiator models. This is one reason it is less popular than those other configurations.
7. Frequency Response, Sensitivity, Power Handling, and Impedance
– Few people can hear past 20,000 Hz, and most have an upper limit well under that. If a speaker is flat to 20,000 Hz, that’s enough.
– Some would argue that a frequency response above 20,000 Hz is important for reproducing high-resolution audio, even if those frequencies can’t be heard directly. I’m highly skeptical of this claim.
– Look for frequency-response specs that list a margin of error of +/-3 dB or less. A spec like “14 to 40,000 Hz” is meaningless without context.
– Unless your speakers have bass response that gets down to 30 Hz or below, you might want to consider adding a subwoofer to your system.
– Sensitivity is a measure of how loud a speaker can get with a given amount of power.
– High-sensitivity models don’t require as much amplification to reach a given volume level.
– As a general rule, larger speakers have higher sensitivity.
– Many horn-loaded speakers offer such high sensitivity that they might only require a small fraction of the power required by other designs.
– Power-handling specs are often exaggerated.
– If you want to play music loud, you’ll want speakers with both high sensitivity and high power handling.
– Many speakers for home use have either 8-ohm or (more recently) 6-ohm nominal impedance. Most amps and AVRs can handle this with ease.
– 4-ohm speakers can be challenging for some amplifiers. If you are looking at 4 ohm options, make sure your amplification can handle that.
8. Center Channel, Surrounds, Elevation, Dolby Atmos-Enabled
– If you are shopping for a surround system, as opposed to 2-channel, you’ll want to consider a dedicated center channel and purpose-specific surround speakers.
– Center channels are designed for use in a horizontal orientation, so they don’t block your display.
– Surround speakers are designed for wide dispersion and typically accommodate wall mounting.
– You can use tower or bookshelf speakers as a center channel or surrounds, as long as you can get them to fit.
– Some surround systems utilize in-wall or in-ceiling models as surrounds, with standalone towers or bookshelves and a center channel for the front stage.
– In-ceiling speakers are often used for elevation channels.
– You can also mount surround speakers at ceiling height and use them to render height effects. Some companies, such as SVS Sound, make speakers explicitly for this purpose.
– Dolby Atmos-enabled elevation speakers are designed to sit on top of ear-height speakers and bounce sound off the ceiling for the elevation channels.
– With Atmos-enabled speakers, you don’t have to cut holes in your ceiling to enjoy 3D immersive audio.
– You can buy speakers with Atmos-enabled functionality built-in or modules that you can add to existing speakers.
9. Pro or Consumer?
– In addition to all the speakers that are marketed directly to consumers, there’s a wide selection of models designed for professional applications.
– Typically, with professional speakers, form follows function. For this reason, it is not uncommon for professional loudspeakers to offer a high price-performance ratio.
– Generally speaking, professional speakers fall into two categories: studio monitors and PA (public address).
– Studio monitors are all about accuracy, while PA speakers are more about dynamics and power.
– If you like your music loud and have the space, don’t underestimate what a good pair of PA speakers could do for you.
– Pro speakers usually require a separate subwoofer. They typically sacrifice bass extension for higher sensitivity and raw output.
– Pro models may require EQ to perform properly in a home environment.
– Consumer loudspeakers come in many shapes and sizes, but generally speaking, they are optimized for residential use.
– There’s a focus on aesthetics with consumer speakers that you won’t find with professional models.
– An attractive pair of tower can add to interior décor, rather than detract from it; not so with pro models.
– If you are using speakers behind an acoustically transparent screen in a home theater, aesthetics are meaningless.
– High sensitivity pro-style loudspeakers are popular for home-theater applications.
– Building speakers from scratch or kits is a challenging but rewarding pastime.
– Unless you are an experienced speaker designer, it’s best to use a proven design.
– There are many proven designs out there, and a vibrant community of DIYers make AVS Forum their home.
– Kits offer DIY options to enthusiasts who don’t have woodworking skills.
– DIY speakers can cost less than commercial options for a given level of performance, but inevitably you must invest some sweat equity in them.
– Imagine the satisfaction of hearing great sound coming out of loudspeakers you built yourself!
– Unless you get in-wall speakers or place your front speakers behind an acoustically transparent screen, you going to be looking at them whenever you listen.
– Attractive wood or glossy-paint finishes tend to increase the cost. If you can settle for matte-black wood-grain vinyl, you can often save money versus the same model with the fancier finish.
– Certain loudspeaker technologies have signature looks. You won’t mistake MartinLogan electrostats for anything else.
– Some people like looking at drivers, while others like hiding them behind a grill. If your inclination is to put the grill on for protection but remove it when you’re listening, consider speakers that feature a magnetically attachable grill.
– If you shop for high-end speakers, you’ll see designs that are practically works of art.
– If you build or assemble your own speakers, you can apply your own finish.
12. Budget and Recommendations
– There is an unbelievable variety of speakers to choose from, and there is an enormous range in price—from a few dollars to a million bucks or more—between the bottom and the top.
– Speakers are often considered the most important single component in a sound system. Make sure you budget accordingly—don’t skimp.
– It’s not uncommon to find steep discounts on speaker systems. If you have the motivation and patience, find out if the speakers you’re interested in go on sale on a regular basis. You might find that you can save up to half off (or even more) by timing your shopping carefully.
– There are plenty of great options that won’t break the bank, with a near-infinite variety for under $500/pair.
– If you are on a tight budget, consider ELAC’s Debut series or Pioneer’s multiple affordable models—both lines are designed by Andrew Jones, who excels at designing inexpensive loudspeakers that rock. I’m particularly fond of the ELAC Debut 6 bookshelf model ($280/pair on Amazon), reviewed here.
– The new Monoprice Monolith speaker line also offers great bang for the buck in this price range, as does the new T Series from Polk.
– Stage Right 15″ PA loudspeakers from Monoprice offer surprising fidelity, coupled with an ability to handle lots of raw power, at an almost absurd price. Behringer’s B215XL is another option; there’s a huge thread about them here on AVS Forum—perfect for budget-conscious home-theater geeks.
– Plenty of DIY projects cost less than $500 in raw parts, and they can yield speakers that perform as well as much more expensive commercial models. Check out www.partsexpress.com, www.madisound.com, and www.DIYsoundgroup.com for some great ideas and options.
– Entry-level wireless networked loudspeakers also fall into this range, for example the Sonos Play:1 ($400/pair).
– From $500 to $1000/pair, you’ll find a ton of high-performance bookshelf speakers as well as numerous towers. Check out brands like SVS Sound, Klipsch, Polk, Definitive Technology, JBL, PSB, ELAC, and KEF.
– I’ve reviewed a number of great speakers that fall in the $500 to $1000 per pair price range. Check out the Sonos Play:5 ($940/pair on Amazon) for an active, networked speaker than can belt out quality audio with impactful bass. Or, delve into a pair of SVS Prime bookshelf speakers ($500/pair in black ash, $600/pair in piano black gloss), they perform great for their price.
– Between $1000 and $5000/ pair, you’ll find a whole world of heavy-hitting loudspeakers. If you don’t care about stylish looks, brands like JTR Speakers, Power Sound Audio, and Seaton Sound will sell you supremely competent speakers that are a bit industrial in appearance but perform at a level few speakers meant for home use can reach.
– My favorites at the lower end of this range include B&W’s CM6 S2 bookshelf model, which is hyper-detailed, Power Sound Audio’s MTM-110 and MTM-210 models, which have that special energy you feel at live concerts, and Klipsch’s RP-280FA towers, which are likely the most kick-ass Dolby Atmos-enabled option out there. I’m also a fan of the smooth yet impactful sounds made by Paradigm’s 75F towers.
– More awesome options in this price range include KEF’s R-series featuring Uni-Q 2-way concentric drivers. I have a pair of R500s in Piano Black; they are some of the sharpest-looking towers you’ll see, and they offer performance to match their dapper good looks. GoldenEar’s Triton line are a great choice in this price zone—the Triton Five is one of my favorite 2-way floorstanders at any price.
– From $5000 to $50,000/pair, you’ll find an astonishing variety of high-performance, high-concept, and high-art designs. You’ll also find some of the top pro gear, like JBL’s M2 monitors ($20,000/pair)—my choice for an ideal 2-way system. One of the best ways to experience speakers at this price and performance level is to go to an audio show like AXPONA, TAVES, RMAF, Capital Audio Fest, etc.
– Bowers and Wilkins 805 D3 bookshelf ($6000/pair) lives in this zone and is the absolute best-sounding 2-way bookshelf loudspeaker I have heard. Likewise, the B&W flagship 800 D3 ($30,000/pair) is possibly the best tower meant for home use that I have heard. Paradigm’s new Persona line also competes at these rarefied price points, and the top model’s hybrid active/passive Persona 9H ($35,000/pair) makes for a mighty compelling listen.
– Once you get past $50,000/pair, you are dealing with speakers designed with a cost-no-object philosophy. This can rapidly become an absurdist exercise in vanity, but there are some systems that are too cool to criticize. MBL is a prime example; its 101 X-treme ($263,000/pair) look like some steampunk fantasy, but they offer true 360-degree sound using unique dynamic (moving coil) drivers that resemble giant hourglasses.
– Wilson Audio is a big name in this space; its new WAMM Master Chronosonic is a rare example of a 5-way design. Focal also makes this list, with its Grande Utopia EM towers ($195,000/pair). And what would the world of high-end audio be without Magico and its over-the-top Ultimate III horns ($600,000/pair). I have spent quality time with MartinLogan’s Neoliths ($80,000/pair), and KEF’s Muon MkII speakers ($225,000/pair) have blown me away on multiple occasions. The amazing thing is there’s no shortage of speakers in the “costs as much as a house” category.
I’m sure that AVS Forum members have many opinions about all of this, so I invite you to share them in the comments.