Installing in-wall and ceiling speakers
A step-by-step, do-it-yourself guide
Tara W. has worked for Crutchfield since 2004. She writes about whole-house music and video gear, and works on Crutchfield's video team.
More from Tara W.
Installing your own in-wall, in-ceiling, or on-wall speakers can give you a good-looking, great-sounding audio system. This guide includes detailed information to help you install in-wall, in-ceiling, or on-wall speakers. If you plan to install speakers in a new or finished home where you'll need to run in-wall wire, read our article on wiring your home. It'll give you information on planning your wire route, the tools you'll need, and how to install in-wall wiring.
Some people don't feel comfortable with certain aspects of the in-wall or in-ceiling speaker installation process. If you'd prefer not to do it yourself, call our A/V Designers at 1-800-555-9407 and we'll set you up with a certified professional installer in your area. (Installer service available for single-room installations only.)
Before you get started
Make sure that you have a thorough understanding of local building and fire codes. Also, make sure you know what's behind the wall or ceiling into which you plan to install your speakers. Finally, read and follow the safety guidelines below, as well as those in the owner's manual.
When working on a ladder:
- Place your ladder in a stable position close to where you're working. Don't reach.
- Always have one hand on the ladder.
- Face the ladder when ascending or descending.
- Don't carry heavy items up the ladder that could cause you to lose your balance and fall.
When working in the attic:
- If it's not a finished attic, be careful to walk only on ceiling joists.
- These areas are often poorly ventilated. Stay hydrated and use a fan to circulate air if you can. Make sure someone knows that you're up there, and take breaks when you need to.
- Make sure the area behind your wall is clear before cutting.
- Turn off the power in areas you'll be drilling to avoid electric shock.
- If there might be live power lines behind the wall around your pilot hole, wrap the exploratory wire with electrical tape.
- Unplug your receiver before connecting your speakers.
Can you install the speakers yourself?
Take a look at the chart below. What kind of installation do you want to do? Do you feel confident about the skills and tools involved?
|You should be able to do this...||...if you're comfortable with these household tasks...||...and know how to use these tools...|
|Install in-wall, in-ceiling, or on-wall speakers using in-wall wire||
|Install on-wall speakers and run wire outside the walls||
See the chart above to determine which tools you'll need to install your own speakers. You may also want a partner's help with certain parts of the installation.
Preparation and planning
Generally, you'll want to choose your speaker locations before buying speakers. If you're still in the process of deciding where to put your in-wall, in-ceiling, or on-wall speakers, or if you want some detailed placement tips, check out our article on in-wall, in-ceiling, and on-wall speaker placement. For tips on placing in-wall or in-floor subs, see our article on home theater speaker placement.
Making sure your speaker locations will work
After you've chosen your ideal speaker locations, use a stud finder to locate the studs in that area of the wall or ceiling. We suggest you use a high-quality stud finder than can detect studs, AC cables, and water pipes so that you can avoid these in-wall obstacles. Remember that in-wall and in-ceiling speakers need to fit between two studs or joists (preferably in the middle of that space for the best performance); on-wall speakers need to be drilled into a stud, or into the wall using an anchor.
Always inspect as much as possible without making a hole. Explore your crawlspace or ceiling in an unfinished segment of your basement. Try to detect which way joists run and where empty wall space between studs might be. By inspecting from your crawlspace or attic, you can identify which wall locations are empty of water pipes and electrical wires. However, you still can't know what's behind the wall with absolute certainty. You must be prepared to cut and patch exploratory holes.
To determine if each of your in-wall or in-ceiling speaker locations will work, you'll need to drill a pilot hole in addition to using a high-quality stud finder. This is a small hole, drilled in the middle of where you want to place your speaker. Shut off power in the area where you'll be drilling your pilot hole. Use caution when drilling, so you don't plunge your bit into a pipe or electrical conduit. Next, insert a sturdy wire (such as a bent coat hanger) into the pilot hole, and explore the surrounding area, making sure there's enough room for the speaker. Check the mounting dimensions listed in the owner's manual, including any required brackets, and make sure there's enough space in the wall to accommodate the width, height, and depth.
Don't cut any drywall until you've drilled pilot holes and checked all of your desired speaker locations. If one of your locations doesn't work out, you might want to move one or more of the others.
Once you know that each of your speaker locations will work, trace the template that came with your speaker onto the wall or ceiling. Use a level to make sure it's positioned properly. You may want to tape it to the wall to make sure it doesn't move while you work.
Use a sturdy wire (such as a bent coat hanger) to explore your pilot holes. Be sure there will be enough room (width, height, and depth) to install your speakers.
- If you're installing an in-wall or in-floor subwoofer, the process will be very similar. You'll need to locate an area of wall or floor between two studs or joists that is capable of fitting your subwoofer. Due to the size of in-wall subs, you may need to drill multiple pilot holes, or cut a larger exploratory hole so that you can ensure that the space will be big enough. Next, trace the template that came with your sub.
It's easier to determine if your on-wall locations will work. If your speaker needs to be mounted to a stud, use a high-quality stud finder to locate the studs nearest to your ideal spot and mark the location. When you mount the bracket, you'll want it centered on the stud.
If you're going to secure your speaker to the wall using anchors, mark your ideal locations, and use your stud finder to check for any obstructions. You can find anchors at your local hardware store.
Finding pre-wired speaker wire
If you or someone else pre-wired your house during construction, and you're going to install the speakers yourself, you'll need some kind of documentation to show you where the wire is behind the wall. You can reference photographs of the wire run before the drywall went up, or the wiring plan for your speakers or similar documentation (which should be available from the electrician or custom installer who ran the wire). That way you'll know where to find the wire — as well as where not to cut so you don't damage it.
Of course, if you used a hole-saving bracket while your house was being built, you won't have any trouble finding your pre-wired speaker wire. Hole-saving brackets attach to exposed studs and can be used as place-holders. That way, when the drywallers install the drywall, they'll cut holes in the sheetrock around the bracket (just like they do for light fixtures, electrical sockets, etc.). With the speaker hole already cut, and the speaker wire just inside, there's no guesswork.
If you're still in the process of planning your installation, and haven't run in-wall speaker wire yet, see our guide to in-wall wiring for detailed info.
After you've checked all of your speaker locations and traced the templates, you can begin cutting the drywall. If it's a rectangular speaker, start by drilling two small holes in opposite corners; if it's round, drill two small holes on opposite sides. Next, using your drywall saw, start from one hole, and work around the outline to the next. Use a hand-held drywall saw (not an electric one) and cut slowly. Cut the drywall in one piece, on an inward slant, so that it's easier to patch later if necessary. If you don't need to patch the hole, just remove any excess material before installing the speaker. Be sure you know what's behind the drywall before you cut. For information about drywall repair and cleanup, see our article on in-wall wiring.
Plaster and lath walls
If your house has plaster and lath walls or ceilings, installing your own in-wall, in-ceiling, or on-wall speakers will be more complicated. Plaster tends to crack and crumble easily, so you should be prepared to do some touch-up work. Running hidden in-wall wire could be particularly challenging — consider running out-of-wall wire, and using carpets, cabinetry, and other spaces to hide it. See our article on home A/V cable management for more ideas.
- For in-wall/in-ceiling speakers: After tracing the pattern of the speaker, protect the plaster from cracking by applying masking tape around the edges. Score the plaster repeatedly with a utility knife, following the pattern you traced. Then, within the outline only, chip the plaster away until you expose the lath underneath. Remove the plaster that's between the lath as well. Next, cut the lath carefully with a keyhole saw, not a powered saw. Powered saws can vibrate the lath many feet away, resulting in large cracks in your plaster.
- For on-wall speakers: Finding a stud in these walls is difficult — even some professional-quality stud sensors won't be able to tell the difference between a stud and the lath. If you can find a stud, place an "x" of masking tape over the spot where you plan to drill to help prevent protect the plaster, then slowly and carefully drill the screws into the stud. Another option is to try using a masonry bit to drill a hole. Then insert a wall anchor, and drill the bracket's screws into the anchor. Either way, there's a good chance that the drilling will cause some cracking and crumbling, so be prepared to do some touch-up work.
Installing your speakers
Tools you'll need:
- a drywall saw
- a utility knife
- wire strippers (for the gauge of wire you're working with)
- a Phillips screwdriver and/or drill (check the owner's manual)
- masking tape
- a pencil
- a level
- a chalk line or laser level (especially for in-ceiling speakers)
- measuring tape
- a scribe (for circular speakers)
Installing in-wall or in-ceiling speakers: Once you've chosen your speaker locations, check for obstructions using your stud finder. Drill a small test hole, and probe the area behind it using a sturdy wire, making sure the area's clear before cutting. To install the speaker: A. Level the template. B. Trace the template. C. Cut the drywall out in one piece. Pull out your dressed loop of speaker wire. Strip the wire and attach speaker connectors, if you like. D. After you connect the wires to the speaker, screw the speaker and frame into the wall, but not too tightly or the grille won't fit properly. E. Gently place the grille into the frame. F. Enjoy the finished product.
The basic idea behind all in-wall and in-ceiling speakers is that the speaker is held in place by sandwiching the drywall. A frame around the speaker conceals the cutout in the drywall and presses against the front of the wall. Behind the wall, the speaker has either a set of flip-out "dog ear" brackets or a bracket that screws into the frame. You should read and follow the manufacturer's instructions precisely. Here are some tips that may help (if they don't conflict with your speaker installation manual):
- Put some insulation in the wall cavity before you install the speaker to improve the sound. Put the same amount of insulation in each speaker cavity — don't pack it tightly in one and loosely in another.
- Check for any tone controls on the speaker. If the speaker is within a foot of a corner, set the bass controls to the "minus" or "cut" position. If the room is going to be very "live," without rugs or a lot of upholstered furniture to absorb sound, set the treble control to the "minus" or "cut" position.
- Don't over-tighten the screws. If you over-tighten the screws, the speaker frame may bend, or the drywall may crack. If you're using a powered screwdriver, set the torque setting on low. Let the powered screwdriver do most of the work, then do the final tightening by hand.
- If the speaker has any tone controls or has a pivoting tweeter, leave the grille off until you can listen to the speaker. Once you have adjusted the speaker, install the grille.
- Be careful handling the grilles. If they get bent, it's very difficult to use them. Grilles friction-fit into the installed speakers. Do not use excessive force to install them. If the grille does not slip in, try loosening the mounting screws before resorting to muscle to install them. Work a little in at a time, starting at one corner and gradually moving around the speaker.
Drop ceiling installation
Installing speakers in drop ceilings is slightly different than normal in-wall or in-ceiling installations. Your required materials and steps will vary depending on the type of drop ceiling in your home.
- For installations in high-quality press board drop ceilings, you'll be able to cut into the sturdy ceiling panels, use the tools listed above, and follow the directions above, too.
- For installations in thinner, foam-panel drop ceilings, you'll want to place a relatively large piece of plywood above the foam panel, and cut a hole for the speaker through both pieces. The sturdier plywood will support and distribute the weight of the speaker, while still giving you a nice, clean look. This installation technique can also be used in patios and four-season rooms that don't have a supportive ceiling structure.
Installing on-wall speakers
Tools you'll need:
- a utility knife
- wire strippers (for the gauge of wire you're working with)
- a Phillips screwdriver and/or drill (check the owner's manual)
- a pencil
- a level
- a tape measure
On-wall speaker brackets need to be drilled directly into a stud, or possibly drilled into the wall using wall anchors. If you're using in-wall wire, you'll need to make a small hole close to the speaker bracket for the wire to exit the wall. Since the speaker wire will likely be coming out of the wall directly behind the on-wall speaker, this hole will probably be concealed by the bracket. For this reason, many people choose not to mount a wall plate. You'll just need a hole large enough to pass your speaker wire without pinching it.
Start by drilling a pilot hole and exploring the space behind the wall using a piece of sturdy wire (such as a bent coat hanger). Check for any obstructions. When you've confirmed that the area behind the wall is clear, cut a small hole to retrieve your in-wall wire. Cut the drywall on an inward slant so that it'll be easier to patch when you're done. If you have detailed measurements and photographs of your in-wall wire, it may be as simple as reaching into the wall and pulling out the wire. But finding your in-wall wire isn't always that straightforward, and you may have to cut another hole to reach it. Be prepared to patch and repair your drywall. For drywall repair and cleanup tips, see our in-wall wiring guide.
If you're running wire on the outside of the wall, you'll probably want secure it to the wall within 2-3" of the speaker for a clean look. Use flat or round cable clamps (depending on the shape of your cable). These plastic clamps nail easily to your wall.
Finally, it's time to attach the bracket to the wall, wire your speaker, and attach your speaker to the bracket. This process can vary slightly between mounting brackets, so be sure to follow the installation instructions in the owner's manual.
New construction: Covering all holes before final inspection
If you're working in new construction, your last visit before you move into your new home is to install all of the in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, volume controls, infrared sensors and wall plates in your system. All of the holes in your home must be covered for your builder to get final approval for you to move in.
Speaker grille and frame painting
If you're going to paint the speaker grilles and frames yourself, here are some tips:
- If your speakers are already installed, remove the grille from the speaker. They must be painted separately with paint that's been thinned. Only use thinners recommended by the paint manufacturer.
- Clean surfaces with a damp cloth before masking.
- Protect the speaker drivers. The woofer and tweeter cannot be painted. You must mask them off. Some speakers come with paint masks in the box. If not, use paper and masking tape to create your own mask. Mask off the entire baffle (the area behind the grille). Don't use tape directly on the drivers.
|Many speakers come with paint masks to protect the drivers.|
- If you're painting an on-wall speaker and bracket, mask off the speaker wire connections, and any threaded parts on the speaker and the bracket.
- Use a primer for best paint adhesion.
- It's best to apply the paint in several light coats, and spraying the paint on will work better than using a paint brush. When you paint the grilles, use thinner paint and take care not to clog the holes of the grille.
- Wait until paint is completely dry before removing any masking.
If you're installing your speakers in new construction, you may be working with your builder and painters to paint your speaker grilles to match your room. Be sure to schedule a trip to install them before the painters begin work at your home. With some speakers you must install the speaker and the frames and grilles; with others you can simply install the frame and grille, keeping the expensive speaker portion safely at home until the house is finished.
Discuss painting the speakers with your painter and your builder. Place the grilles for each room's speakers in that room with notes attached identifying the grilles as speaker grilles to be painted. Plan to return to the site as soon as the grilles are all painted to install the grilles into the frames. Don't expect the grilles to stay clean and unscratched if you leave them lying around the construction site. Install them as soon as you can. Since the grilles simply friction-fit into the frames, it's typically a quick visit with a ladder and no tools.