You will find different types of speakers out there.Different speaker layouts. Different speaker specifications. And, that’s before you consider all the different brands of home theater speakers that you must choose from.It can become a very confusing business.
If you are looking to buy the best home theater speakers for your surround sound system, then you have many things to consider. It is not just about the budget you have at your disposal – although, I guess that’s fairly important!I will take it step-by-step and highlight the important things you need to consider. First, I will look at the different types of home theater speakers that are available. Then, I will suggest some of the top speakers in each category which you might want to look at. Finally, I will list a buying guide for home theater speakers which you should find useful when deciding what to buy.
The first important issue you need to understand is, what options do you have when looking for speakers for your home theater? Until you are clear on the different types of speakers, then it can be overwhelming.
You can buy home theater speakers individually, or as part of a package. Some people like to buy specific speakers for their system, and then add to this as time goes by. For example, they might buy a 5.1 surround package, and then add more speakers to make a 7.1 or 9.1 system.Or, they might start with cheaper speakers, and then upgrade the most important ones when they can afford to. There is no right or wrong way, it is down to you to decide which way suits you best.
Surround Sound Speaker
While not a specific type of speaker, this is one of the easiest options you have. If you buy a home theater speaker system, then you get all the speakers you need in one go.There are no worries about matching the sound of the center and front left/right speakers. They will all have a similar specification. When it comes to setting any EQ and crossovers in your AV receiver, all the speakers should balance nicely. Heck, they will even look great together as they will be part of the same family.So, there is a lot to be said for buying a surround sound speaker package. So, why might you not want to go down this path?
Well, you might want the option to build your system yourself. You might want a subwoofer from that manufacturer. And a satellite speaker from another. For some, it’s a lot of fun. For others, a package of speakers is the better choice.
Complete speaker systems for surround sound come in a range of prices. There are budget packages with small satellite speakers and a more modest subwoofer. Or, there are top-end bundles where each speaker is a high-class component in a surround sound system.Please note, I am not talking here about an all-in-one home theater system i.e. a system that includes the speakers and an amplifier.
The sound from your TV speakers can often be flat and uninspiring. It seems a shame to get a fantastic high-definition image on your flat screen TV – and then make do with your TVs built-in speakers. That won’t do at all!Yet, many people don’t have space in their living room to install a true surround speaker system. Or, they don’t want to mess around with cables running around the room and speakers all over the place.
Therefore, a soundbar sits along the front of your TV. Usually underneath, but you can install it above the TV if that is easier. It provides a much better audio experience – without the worry of setting up a separate amplifier and speakers.
Many soundbars are active systems. This means they have built-in amplification to play the audio directly from your TV. No need for a separate amplifier. However, you can also buy a passive soundbar, which will need an amplifier. A passive soundbar will often include the front left, center and front right speakers all in one unit.
Some soundbars will use multiple speakers and DSP processing to simulate surround sound. The virtual surround sound they provide doesn’t match the experience of a true surround setup. But, they can provide an effective sense of space with the added advantage of an easier installation.A few soundbars will also come in a package with a subwoofer. This can provide a good value system that will produce a fuller sound than those with just a soundbar.
Center Channel Speakers
A center speaker will playback the center channel in a 5.1 surround sound mix. It will be a wide speaker that should be placed under or over the middle of your TV screen.It may look a little like a soundbar to you. So, what is the difference between a center channel speaker and a soundbar?
The center speaker is designed to reproduce the important center channel information. This will include dialogue, music and effects in a movie. It should work well with the left and right speakers and offer accurate sound placement and frequency response. It will often be bigger and heavier than a soundbar, include high-quality speaker drivers and will have standard speaker terminals for connecting to your AV receiver.
The soundbar is more of a jack-of-all-trades. Designed to play the full soundtrack all in one device. It will usually have a slim design with smaller speakers and will connect directly to your TV via optical or stereo analog connections. It probably won’t connect to your AV receiver unless it is a passive soundbar. Bottom line, it is built for a different job than a center speaker.If you want a center speaker, it will always be better to buy a speaker dedicated to that job.
Bookshelf speakers are larger than satellite speakers – and you may be more familiar with this type of speaker with your hi-fi system.Bookshelf speakers have this name as they are designed to fit easily into a room on a bookshelf, cabinet or small speaker stands. They are big enough to give a good full sound on their own – but small enough to fit into the average living room.
One advantage of bookshelf speakers is they are better suited to listening to music on their own. They can handle a wide frequency range, and so they are more versatile as part of an entertainment system. You can get an excellent sound from the best bookshelf speakers.
The most common use for bookshelf speakers is for the front left and right pair. You can also use them for your surrounds, but just be aware that they are larger than satellite speakers. So, in some living rooms, they may prove difficult to position.
When used with a subwoofer, it can also be easy to get a balanced sound with bookshelf speakers. They reproduce lower frequencies well, so it is easier to get a nice smooth transition between the bookshelf and subwoofer.
If you also use your system for playing music, then a front left/right pair of bookshelf speakers will work well for movies and music.
Depending on the actual size of the speakers, and the space in your room, you can buy floor stands to put the speakers on. Or, use wall brackets to keep them out of the way a bit more. Check the guide for your speakers though. Some bookshelf speakers work best when placed near to a wall, and others further away. Some use the proximity to a wall to increase the bass response.
Floorstanding speakers are generally seen as more specialized speakers. They are sometimes called tower speakers or floor speakers.If you want the best sound possible for listening to music, then floorstanding speakers are often the way to go.
The frequency range that we can hear is 20Hz to 20kHz. This type of speaker will handle most of that – sometimes right down to around 30Hz. Much more than a bookshelf speaker. The physical size of these speakers will mean they can reproduce very low bass frequencies – and have the clarity of the mid and high frequencies.
They stand on the floor – hence the name! – which gives them a very solid base. Floorstanding speakers are tall as each tower may hold several small speakers. Each of these speakers will play specific frequencies with a precise crossover between them.
In a home theater system, floor standing speakers are mainly used for the front left and right speakers. Maybe for the surrounds if you have enough space – and money! However, most movie surround mixes don’t tend to use much low-end at the rear, so the floorstanders may be underused. It will be great for surround sound music though if that’s your thing.
As these speakers are designed to reproduce low frequencies so well, you may not need a subwoofer as part of your system. Many will set up the room with a 5.0 system i.e. no ‘.1’ subwoofer speaker.Another alternative is to have a subwoofer, but only switch it on when you watch movies. The floorstanders will be great for music, but to reproduce really low sound effects you might want a subwoofer.
Satellite speakers are small speakers used in surround systems. They are common to find as part of a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound speaker package. However, you may also buy them separately to add to your existing setup.Due to their small size, they are ideal for the rear speakers as they don’t get in the way. They can fit discretely into your room without the need for removing bits of furniture to fit them all in!
While they are often used as the rear speakers in a 5.1 or 7.1 system, they can also work as the front speakers too – left, center and right.The main disadvantage of a small speaker is the range of frequencies it can reproduce. While it can sound great for mid and high frequencies, it will struggle to reproduce the lower end.
However, if your satellites are in a speaker system with a subwoofer, then this can work well. The subwoofer is used to handle the lower frequencies where the satellites will struggle. You might be amazed to hear the full sound that you can get with a modern satellite/subwoofer combination.
The big daddy of the speaker world is the subwoofer. Designed to produce all the really low-end bass rumble, subs come in a range of shapes and sizes.
Most subwoofers are active, that is, they have their own built-in amplifier. All you need to do is connect a cable from the LFE or Pre-Out channel on your AV receiver. Passive subwoofers will need a separate amplifier to power them. Or, you may be able to connect speaker cable from your AV receiver and manually set the crossover on the subwoofer. Unless you have experience in these matters, I would suggest you go with a powered subwoofer as it will make your life much easier.
The cone of a sub can range from around 6-inches up to 15-inches. Sometimes more. To generalize, the bigger the cone then the better the sub will produce the really low -end frequencies. Although, you shouldn’t assume a smaller driver will have less bass. The actual design of the subwoofer will make a big difference. The smaller subs will be fine for filling out the bottom end in your room. But, if you really want to shake the room with effects, then you will need a larger model.
You may see a choice between a ported and sealed subwoofer. A sealed sub is known as an acoustic suspension subwoofer. These will tend to be more compact and provide a more dynamic and controlled lower-end. A ported subwoofer, known as a bass reflex subwoofer, will have an open port to radiate the low frequencies. Generally, these will be larger and have an increased bass response. They will provide more ‘oomph’ (for the want of a more technical term).
Another design difference you might find is a down-firing subwoofer vs a front-firing (or side-firing) model. Although you will find varying opinions on this, the practical difference between the two is fairly small. A down-firing subwoofer may sound different depending on the type of floor surface. And, it may have a more controlled sound if you need to place it near to walls or corners. However, the position in the room will make more difference than the direction the driver is firing.
Elevation / Dolby Atmos-enabled Speakers
A relatively new speaker type is an elevation speaker. With the advent of Dolby Atmos object-based audio, you will need to install height speakers. Dolby recommends that you use either in-ceiling speakers or Dolby Atmos-enabled elevation speakers.
Dolby Atmos speakers are engineered to direct sound upwards so that the sound reflects off the ceiling. They come in two types:
- an upward-firing speaker integrated into a standard forward-firing speaker.
- a module that contains just an upward-firing speaker. These can be placed on top of your existing speakers or another flat surface.
FYI – some users say they prefer the sound of standard direct-firing speakers mounted high in the room, rather than elevation speakers. Also, DTS:X object-based audio doesn’t need extra speakers and will work with a standard 5.1 / 7.1 system.
In-ceiling speakers might be the perfect solution if you want to keep your speakers out of the way.You can get speakers that lie flat along the surface of the ceiling. Or, you can even get motorized speakers which move down out of the ceiling at the touch of a button.
You can use in-ceiling speakers for most of the speakers in a 5.1 system. Fronts, surrounds, even the center. You would then only need to worry about hiding the subwoofer. However, in my opinion, they would work best as the surrounds, with standard speakers creating the soundstage at the front. This type of speaker is also a good option for Dolby Atmos height speakers.
The downside of ceiling speakers is they can be more difficult and expensive to install than ordinary speakers. You would need to cut holes in the ceiling for the speakers. And, you would need to run the cabling from the amplifier.Unless you are pretty nifty with a toolbox it may be wise to pay a specialist installer to do this work for you. Which would also be an added expense.However, the results can be fantastic, and you really would have a system that resembles a cinema or theater.
In-wall speakers are like the previous type but are fitted vertically into a wall rather than a ceiling.
The decision on using either wall or ceiling speakers would mainly come down to the room you have. It would depend on the shape of the room and the seating positions.
One option would be to use wall speakers for the surrounds and in-ceiling for your Dolby Atmos height speakers.
Other than that, in-wall speakers have similar advantages and disadvantages to those in your ceiling. They provide a good way to hide your speakers in a room, so they don’t get in the way. And, they can look very elegant and professional. But, they can be more difficult and expensive to install, and the sound quality may not be quite up to the best bookshelf or floorstanding speakers.
A popular development in recent years is the introduction of wireless speakers. As consumers, we have become used to wireless devices and would like that convenience in our home theater too.
The most common application for wireless speakers in a home theater setup is for the surrounds and the subwoofer. You can place the sub anywhere in a room, so it is great to have the freedom of a wireless subwoofer.
As for the surrounds, they have always been the most difficult to run a length of speaker cable to. Simply because they are furthest away from the AV receiver.
You have a few options for wireless speakers in your home theater system:
- buy an all-in-one system which comes with wireless speakers.
- buy a wireless speaker kit which is suitable for any standard passive speaker.
- buy a dedicated subwoofer wireless kit, which can transform a standard powered sub.
- buy a Sonos CONNECT:AMP to power your passive speakers. Note, this can only be used for surround speakers as part of a Sonos PLAYBAR or PLAYBASE system.
- buy an AV receiver which supports a wireless speaker technology. Denon and Marantz use the HEOS system. Yamaha has MusicCast. Onkyo support DTS Play-Fi and FireConnect. Just be aware, many of these systems don’t allow these wireless speakers to be part of your standard surround sound setup. Only for multi-room audio around the house.
Audiophiles have long questioned if a wireless connection can offer the same sound quality and reliability of a trusty old cable connection. And, while there have been big improvements in wireless technology, that debate still continues.
However, if you’re not an audiophile, you will probably find the convenience of wireless speakers the main issue.
Bipole and Dipole Speakers
Bipole and dipole speakers are commonly used as surround speakers. They have a special design with two speakers enclosed in the one unit. These dual speakers fire in different directions at the same time to create a less directional sound.
In a bipole speaker, the audio is in-phase, meaning both speakers push and pull at the same time. A dipole speaker is different as the audio is out of phase by 180-degrees. So, when one of the speakers is pushing, the other is pulling. This creates a phase-cancellation effect which results in a very diffuse sound.
Home Theater Speaker Buying Guide
Now you have a better understanding of the different types of home theater speaker, you should have a good idea of what you are looking for. However, there is more to it than deciding which speaker type you need.
Let us look at the other important issues you will want to consider when buying a home theater speaker. Hold on to your hats, we’re going to get technical! You might want to think about:
- Sensitivity: every speaker will have a sensitivity rating. You may see this referred to as efficiency. It is one of the most important speaker specifications. It tells us how good a speaker is at converting the power it receives into sound. An inefficient speaker will turn more of the power it receives into heat. In other words, it will need more power to reach the same volume as a more efficient speaker. The sensitivity of speakers can range from around 80 dB to 100 dB. Below 84 dB is quite poor, and above 92 dB is very good. To compare the sensitivity of two different speakers, you would also need to know the impedance they were tested with. You can’t compare them if measured with a different impedance.
- Power Handling: a speaker will be given a rating for the power it can handle. This is the power that it receives from the amplifier or AV receiver. You should check the rated output of the amplifier, and make sure you are in the right ballpark. Make sure you compare like-with-like values. Ratings are often listed using average/RMS values and peak values. These are different. You may also see a suggested power range.
- Impedance: a speaker has an impedance value. Usually in the range of 4 to 8 ohms. This refers to its resistance – or how hard it is to send an electrical signal through it. The listed impedance is a nominal, or average value – the actual impedance will vary with the frequency of the audio signal. Your amplifier is designed to work with a certain range of impedance. Check your amplifier specs, and make sure it supports the impedance of your speakers.
- Frequency Response: the range of human hearing is about 20Hz – 20kHz. Although, our high-end hearing will usually reduce with age, and the bottom end is more ‘felt’ than heard. A speaker is designed to reproduce certain frequencies, and the frequency response tells us this range. A subwoofer may only reproduce frequencies between 20Hz and 200Hz. A bookshelf speaker, which should sound good on its own, will be more in the range of 60Hz to 20kHz. The chart of a speaker can also help to give an idea of how it will sound in your room. Ideally, a speaker will have a flat frequency response. This means it can reproduce all frequencies equally given a fixed level input signal. In reality, it will never be perfectly flat. You would need to see the chart for a particular speaker to know how well it reproduces the full-range. A high-end speaker would be expected to reproduce these frequencies more accurately. The sound of a speaker is determined by how it reproduces all the audible frequencies.
- Speaker Size and Type: you will often see the size and type of the speaker driver/cone listed. In general, a smaller speaker will be used for reproducing high frequencies and is called a tweeter. A bigger cone will be better at reproducing low frequencies and is called a woofer. However, this is an oversimplification, and a larger speaker doesn’t necessarily mean it has more bass than a smaller one. It doesn’t account for differences in speaker design and tone. A midrange speaker fits somewhere between a tweeter and a woofer. It is a full-range speaker, like a woofer, but is smaller in size – say, 5 to 8-inches in diameter.
- Sound Quality: this is where it gets subjective. A good sounding speaker for one person, might not sound great to another. You can use all the specifications above to get a rough idea of the quality of a speaker, but the only proper way is to hear them. If you can’t manage to hear speakers for yourself, then you will just have to rely on the specifications and/or the opinions of others. All the speakers made by the leading brands will sound good. You can’t really go too far wrong with any of them. Whether it matches your idea of ‘good’ only you can say. Also, bear in mind, that the sound of a set of speakers will vary depending on the amplifier used, and the room they are in. You do get what you pay for. It should come as no surprise of the more expensive speakers will sound better. However, we all have a budget, and only you know how important great sound is to you. Buy the best, and you will have speakers that will last for years to come.
- Wireless Speakers: even though we use the term ‘wireless’, you can’t get away from the pesky things completely. Any wireless speaker, or wireless speaker adapter, will need power. So, each ‘wireless’ speaker will need to have a power socket nearby. So, there will be a wire from the power to the speaker.
So, you thought that finding the best surround sound system speakers in 2018 was going to be an easy business? If you’ve reached the end of that lot, and read every word, then I congratulate you. If not, go back and try again!
It’s not so tough really. The main thing you need to decide is what type of speaker you need for your room. Now you understand the different speakers available, that should be clearer.
Next, find some speakers within your budget and take a look at the specs to understand a little more about them. If you get the chance to demo the speakers for yourself, all the better. If not, there are plenty of reviews and suggestions out there that will help. Hey, there are even a few suggestions here!
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