Speaker FAQ’s, Answered

Q: WHAT SPEAKERS SHOULD I BUY FOR MUSIC AND/OR HOME THEATER?

A: That depends on a few factors:

First of all, you must decide if your main interest is music (HI FI) or home theatre (HT) or both. Your budget is the next important factor and then follows your taste of music and then the size of your room. Lastly, but sometimes very important, is the aesthetics factor, or as some called it the “WAF factor” (wife’s acceptance factor).   Speakers are a very personal choice. I can only guide you in this selection by drawing on my experience and knowledge of more than 30 years in this fascinating field. My experience over many years has taught me that in most cases the speakers that impress you initially are the ones that have “TISS” and “BOOM”,  they sound “different”… but the more you listen to them the more irritating they become especially at higher listening levels. Correct speakers do not always “stand out” when you hear them first … they do not draw attention to themselves… they sound smoother, warmer, not treble & bass focussed, but that is how it should be. Music is there to “relax” you. On the other hand Home theater (HT) are there to “excite” you…so speakers that sound bright and boomy are better for HT…thus you cannot get a speaker that can do both (music and HT) equally good!!

I still believe the best quality speakers are the ones that are designed and manufactured in their home country. The speaker brand must also have a “pedigree”, that is it must stood the test of time. That is why I prefer the following brands.

From USA:  MAGNEPAN (The world’s most famous panel speakers)

From CANADA: PARADIGM, the most awarded speakers in America.

From BRITIAN: PROAC hand built to perfection, some B & W models.

MJ ACOUSTICS some of the most accurate subwoofers in the world

From DENMARK: JAMO (Danish quality and style) most models, DYNAUDIO (quality)

From ITALY: SONUS FABER, OPERA & CHARIO beautifully made in real wood

The simple key to a good speaker is: “The bigger the better.” Also quality goes hand in hand with the weight of the speaker.  The basic physics of sound is to move air at different frequencies. You need different sizes of drivers for different frequencies and the more air you want to move (for good real bass)  the bigger the driver must be (or the more drivers you need ). To design a good small speaker that can match a good floor standing speaker is a very challenging engineering job and a hot topic nowadays. There are only a few of these special small speakers around that are exceptional, Jamo, Proac, Totem  etc are famous for their small speakers but they are generally very expensive. The new kid on the block, MJ Acoustics, has now come up with a small miracle mini monitor that took me by surprise and if you combine them with their exceptional accurate small subs you can match….no beat…floor-standers of 3 times their price!

NOTE: In choosing speakers for music and/or home-theater there are a few things to keep in mind. It is generally the believe that the worst sounding speakers are “IN WALL or IN CIELING” speakers because the designers does not have control on the wall structure and that can influence the sound the most. Next follows “ON WALL” speakers because of their flat size and light weight they tend to sound tinny. (There are a few exceptions to this, THX certified on wall speakers with very powerful subwoofers can be the best option for a dedicated HT room). The next best sound, especially for music, is “BOOK SHELF” speakers, however the best speakers are FLOORSTANDERS; it was, and still is, the best way to go if you want the best for music and HT…however this concept are now challenged by superb mini monitors and accurate subs like the above mentioned MJ ACOUSTICS models especially if your listening levels are normal to above normal…. not insane levels.

Let us look at Home Theater (HT) first: Quality is not that important but quantity is. Home theater is just effects in the higher frequencies in the front and rear speakers and lots of “distortion” (explosions) in the lower frequencies. That is why small speakers and a big enough sub woofer can go a long way in satisfying a HT customer. Also the brighter the speaker sound, the best it is for HT, warm soft sounding speakers are generally not good for HT.  Midrange frequencies are basically confined to the dialog (the voices) that happens on the TV. This is produced by a center speaker which is actually more important than the “effects” speakers. The main problem of most, if not all, of that “all in one” systems below the $1500 mark, is that their centre speaker can not handle the dialog well, it is too small. The other problem is the bass unit is a passive unit with a too small driver, less than 8”, which can physically not give enough impact in the bass. A good center speaker needs at least three drivers, two mid units (4” or more) and a tweeter. The size of the sub woofer is determined by the size of the room and the preferred listing level. In general a bigger room (more than 25 sqm) needs a bigger sub (10” driver and at least a 100w amp).  This is also true for higher listing levels. For HT quality of bass is not that important but quantity is.  An active sub with a 50—100w rms built-in amp and an 8’’ driver is my minimum recommendation. Small passive subs are definitely out.

For more information on Subs, read our Subwoofer FAQ

For music:  The Home theater arrangements are not ideal; in fact almost the opposite is needed. Only two speakers are needed, the front left and right speakers.  There is no need for a centre speaker and rears, but full range sound is needed from the front speakers, not just effects. That is why a small speaker (without a quality sub) cannot do justice to music. Also, warm, soft sounding speakers are best for long listening music sessions.

Unlike HT midrange frequency reproduction is very important for MUSIC because nearly 70% to 80 % of music is produced in this range, however it is the top and bottom end that mostly influence the clients choice…”too bright” , “ too boomy” are the buzz words often heard. Most musical speakers can be put into two categories:  smooth, soft sounding or sharp, bright sounding. This depends mainly on the type of tweeters they use. Soft sounding speakers use a soft dome tweeter and bright sounding speakers usually have a metal dome tweeter. Bass reproduction is very important and most of the times this influence the buyer the most (turn the bass control on your amp completely down and listen how the scale of the music disappears). To define good bass is very difficult and this is also the most difficult to get right in designing a speaker. More bass is also not always the answer. It can tire you out very quickly, especially when it drones, like a badly designed sub. Quality bass is more important, that is the bass must be tight and well defined (very difficult and costly to get it right with a sub). This is much more enjoyable in the long run.  At least two bass drivers is preferred, one to handle the mid and upper bass and the other to handle the lower end bass.  A subwoofer is not important if you have good floor standing speakers but it can add fullness to the sound when a lower listing level is preferred. It can be important to help your stand mount speakers if they lack a bit of deep bass but the most important aspect here is to go for a quality sub of the sealed enclosure type. In fact it is my experience recently that this last approach is the most cost effective way to get big quality sound.

Q: HOW MANY SPEAKERS DO I NEED?

A: The short answer to this question is: only two for studio recorded music and at least 5 and a SUB (the so called 5.1 system) for Home Theater and live recorded music.

One could get the impression from recent articles that all 5 (or more speakers) should be equal for digital home theater. If cost is no object, that is correct, however watch a movie with only the rear channel speakers playing, most of the time very little is going on. While the rear channels in digital sound have the same capability as the left, right, and center, movie producers will continue to use the surrounds essentially for effects, keeping the majority of the audio up front with the video. So you can go a long way with small rear speakers. It is important to note that the rear channels are only there for “defuse” the sound and not to “direct” the sound as in the case of the fronts. That is why the main speaker brands go for dipole speakers (a box with speakers on 3 sides of the box) at the rear to defuse the sound. However they need to be placed at least a meter above your head and in line with your sitting position for optimum effect. If this is not practical in a room the alterative is to go for an extra  speaker (or two!) at the rear (the so called 6.1 and 7.1 speakers setup. Digital surround has enhanced the quality of home theater, but for those of us who do not have unlimited budgets, it is better to apportion your speaker budget according to your musical preferences. “Home Theater Speakers” is a term for speakers which have been designed for extremely wide dynamic range and dispersion characteristics to enhance the home theater experience. Reproducing the dynamic range of HT, like gun shots and car crashes, etc. has pushed speaker development in directions which do not enhance music reproduction. What has been lost along the way is resolution. The typical high efficiency “home theater” speaker does a poor job with music played at moderate levels. Detail and inner resolution is usually lost by a speaker that is also capable of damaging your hearing. Don’t let a loud “action” movie demo influence your buying decision. These demos are impressive and are used to sell “home theater” speakers. “Action” scenes are exciting, but there is more to home theater sound than dynamic range. It is important to ask the salesperson to demonstrate the system at realistic levels that you would find comfortable for a two hour movie.

Q: ARE HI-FI SPEAKERS GOOD FOR HOME THEATRE?

A: In short yes, but high resolution and warm sound in home theater is not appreciated in a 5-10 minute demonstration. The typical home theater demonstration is short and full of crashes, explosions and other dramatic scenes. That is why bright, sharp sounding speakers with slam in the bass are better for HT.  What Hi FI speakers can do for home theater will take at least 20 minutes or more into a movie. The process is subtle. High resolution sound does not call attention to itself. You become more immersed in the movie and don’t realize until later that Hi FI speakers have a seductive quality on home theater that will increase over time. HI FI speakers generally go down lower in bass than HT speakers but the bass is slower and deeper than the case with HT speaker’s slam and impact.

Q: WHAT ARE THE BEST SPEAKERS FOR MY ROOM?

A: To answer that question requires some background information. You may have noticed similar specifications for the least-to-most expensive speakers. There is nothing in the specifications to justify the cost difference. More than any other performance parameter, what you are buying as you move up in the speaker line is resolution (or definition) in both top, mid and bass frequencies. Unlike video, there are no specifications in loudspeakers for resolution. You can hear it, but it is not easily defined.
To answer the question about the best speaker for your room, think of the problem in terms of tweeter, midrange and bass. Even in a small room a better tweeter would sound better. The same argument goes for the midrange. The bass is the only real sonic issue in your room. Speakers are “voiced” by the engineers on set assumptions. Most consumers will buy a bigger speaker for larger rooms because their bass response is “voiced” accordingly.  For a small room this speaker might produce too much bass. Do you buy less resolution with a lower priced speaker so that you can get less bass output? That’s not an attractive alternative.   Fortunately, bass can be eliminated easier than it can be produced. There are some electronic solutions (such as bi-amplification) for a speaker in a small room that is voiced for a large room. The best solution is to go for a very well designed small stand mount speaker and a quality sub of the sealed enclosure type. This approach has become very popular in resent years and is one of my favorite ways to tackle a difficult room.  Bass extension works against good sound quality in small rooms or rooms with poor dimensional ratios. Any volume of air in an enclosed space will reinforce certain frequencies when that air is excited.  This reinforcement is called resonance, and the frequencies at which the resonances occur are the room’s resonance modes. The frequency of a resonance mode is determined by the distances between the room’s walls. The greater the distance, the lower the resonance frequency will be. (The fundamental resonance is supported between two walls at a frequency whose half wavelength equals the distance between the two walls. Another resonance mode occurs at one wavelength, one and a half wavelengths, and so one at every multiple of half a wavelength. The fundamental resonance mode is 1130/2D, where 1130 is the speed of sound (ft/sec) in air at “room temperature and D is the distance between two walls. So for a 20′ room the fundamental resonance will be at 28.25Hz, with further modes at 56.5Hz, 84.75, 113Hz, and so on. This is similar to when you blow into a bottle, you are not producing the pitch you hear; the bottle’s resonant modes are. You are simply exciting the air in the enclosed space nearly randomly; the bottle reinforces certain frequencies that you hear as a pitch. Similarly, a loudspeaker exciting the air in a listening room causes the room to reinforce certain low frequencies. The result is smeared and boomy bass.

The larger the room, the lower the room’s fundamental resonance and thus the more closely spaced and dense the resonance modes are. Closely spaced resonance modes are a good thing; if the resonances approximate a continuum; individual resonances are less likely to be audible. Conversely, a small room’s resonance modes are spread out more widely over the band. With large gaps between resonant frequencies, those resonant frequencies are rendered much more audible. That’s one reason why it’s hard to get good-sounding bass in a small room.

Now some of that is getting pretty technical I know, if you have any questions just get in touch.