Choosing the Right Speakers

The technology of audio reproduction has undergone more change in the past 10 years than in the previous 100. Digitization, micro circuitry, new materials, and intensified attention to connectors and cables are among the prime movers in recreating sound of all kinds. The scope, power, and quality of these changes sometimes seem to have become available to us faster than our ability to figure out what to do with them. It’s exciting as hell, but it can also overwhelm our discernment when we invest in it. The array of technical options available can cause us to overlook the critical role – the defining role – of the most fundamentally unchanged components in anybody’s sound system.

Speakers are the last links in the sound chain (except for your ears), and because we hear in analog, speakers deliver sound to us in analog. Whatever your electronics do, when they finally send their signals to the speakers, the dice are cast. Your speakers will finish the job without any further opportunity for electronic modification. Sure, you can modify the sound according to what the speakers are telling you, but that’s a workaround; you can take it only so far. Poorly chosen or just plain crappy speakers will ultimately have their way, while good ones will reward every dollar and every second you’ve spent on the rest of your system.

Basic Considerations

So how do you decide what’s best for optimizing the sound of your electronics? The level of service and satisfaction the salesman can help you attain depends first upon how well you’ve prepared yourself, in terms of the considerations we’ll talk about here. As with speakers themselves, the initial considerations are subjective. They include:

  • Purpose: What’s your main use for this system?
  • Size: How big is your room, and from how far away are you usually listening?
  • Power: How much suds do you need to drive these babies?
  • Quality: It has no substitute.

There’s nothing here you haven’t had to deal with before – just a different context.


Home theater may be all the rage, but music is what most of us listen to. Bear in mind that we experience music with ears forward: We’re attending to something that’s right in front of us. On the other hand, more and more movies are made to surround us.

If you’re at a concert, the sound that comes from behind is the reflection of what’s in front, and since your home listening is done in a reflective room anyway, you may not need a surround speaker setup. In fact, a surround layout might really muddy what you’re hearing by mushing together the rear speaker output and the natural reflections of the room.

If you’re mainly into movies (particularly action flicks), no front-only speaker setup can originate a sound from behind you, let alone one that moves from back to front (think: Opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, or any Star Wars movie), so surround is a major bonus.

That said, it is a new Millennium, and the chance that there’s going to be reversion to simple stereo in any recorded medium is nil.

The recommendation here is that you devote primary attention to the front speakers. Any multichannel system should allow you to shut off the rear channels at your discretion, and in accordance with the recording mode of your source material. Thus, since your front speakers are going to comprise 95% of your sound experience 95% of the time, it only makes sense that you focus your quality and value attention there first.

Size & Power

It’s natural to think that getting enough volume out of your sound system is the key issue in speaker choice, but there’s another bun on the burger: Too much volume. Whether you have sensitive neighbors or not, if your amplifier and speakers combine to generate overpowering sound at top end, it can turn out that when you go for softer volume, you can’t turn it down far enough before the sound signal from you preamp section falls closer to the inherent noise level of your electronics and source material. Then what you hear at low volume is the sound of your entertainment source against an audible background of hiss. Boo.

There are two key considerations when matching your system and its environment. First is the match of the amplifier and the speakers, in both power (watts) and resistance (measured in ohms). Second is the output of that first match relative to the size of your listening room or theater.

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Regarding amps and speakers, you can’t sneak around physics. Always match the resistance (in ohms) of your amplifier output terminals and your speaker connections. Spend zero time even thinking about putting four-ohm speakers against eight-ohm outputs (or vice versa). Likewise, a speaker power handling rating (in watts) that is less than the peak power output of the amp only means you’ll blow your speakers. Some amplifiers are actually rated for 2, 4 and 8 – ohm speakers, such that (unless they’re really strange) your speakers will match up.

To confirm, check at:

  1. The cable mounting posts

  2. Your owners’ manual
  3. A website that you respect (Like this one), for specs and/or guidance, on both the amplifier and the speakers.

The point is: Match these factors.

When it’s time to match the speakers to the room, once again it’s just as easy to overpower a room as to underpower it, so be realistic about what you’re buying and where you’re putting it. Also, determine whether you’re going to be listening closer to the open middle of the room, or more toward the wall opposite the speakers.

Quality Equals “Musicality”

When you’re focusing on the quality of a speaker, you ultimately are referring to the sound it puts out. A terrific looking speaker (by whatever standards) can really let you down if all of the manufacturer’s work went into visual design and none into audio execution. When you’re sampling different models, do so at least part of the time with your eyes closed and your ears open. You’re listening for:

  1. Clarity - at all frequencies and volumes – no muddy bass or steely highs

  2. Detail - Can you hear each instrument? Can you hear the voices and instruments at the same time? Can you recognize and distinguish them?
  3. Range - Can you hear these qualities (clarity and detail) at all reasonable listening levels?

If you have these qualities, you have what I call “Musicality”, and this is the imprimatur of a good speaker. Yes, be sure the look is fine: the cabinet edges match, the speaker cloth is straight, the drivers are well mounted, and the connections are well soldered. But above all else, make sure it all sounds good. These are the front drivers, matched to the electronics and to the satellites, to each other and to the room you’re listening in. Your chance of being rewarded by the entire system you have purchased has just gone up immeasurably.

Go Git ‘Em

Please bear in mind that the foregoing just scratches the surface of how far you can go in speaker selection. The attempt here has been to outline those things that you (as the buyer) are accountable for resolving before the salesman gets his/her whack at you. When you focus on them first, you’ll find that the quality/price = value equation will be much easier to solve to your satisfaction.

Incidentally, please note that the coffee must have been really something at the Techlore headquarters on December 14, 2004. That’s the day that Matt Whitlock released three excellent articles for helping the discerning buyer address the issues raised here. They are “Understanding Amplifier & Receiver Power Specs,” “Timbre Match Your Speakers,” and “How to Calibrate Your Surround System Using an SPL Meter.” Give them a look when you’re ready to dig further into this subject.

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