Home speakers FAQ
Answers to questions about choosing and using home speakers
Loren Barstow started at Crutchfield in 1999. After working a few years as a sales advisor, he moved on to become a writer and then an editor. He has written about televisions, Blu-ray players, speakers, and various other audio/video components.
More from Loren Barstow
Speaker terms and technology
Setup and placement
Q: What does each speaker do in a home theater setup?
A: The standard home theater setup consists of five to seven speakers and a subwoofer. The center channel speaker anchors the sound to the picture, and provides most of the dialogue and much of the special effects. The front left and right speakers deliver a wide soundstage, and work with your center channel speaker to reproduce on-screen action that moves to the left and the right, giving you a more realistic and exciting movie experience. The front speakers also act as the left and right stereo speakers when you listen to music.
The surround speakers, usually mounted or placed behind your viewing position, help create an enveloping, three-dimensional soundfield by reproducing the surround effects in videos, games, and some music recordings. Some home theater setups use an extra surround or two. These back surround speakers give you even more convincing wraparound sound. The latest surround sound systems with Dolby Atmos® also provide extra “overhead” channels using two or more in-ceiling or special, Dolby Atmos enabled speakers, to create a layer of sound above the listener.
And lastly, the subwoofer reproduces the very low frequencies in the video soundtrack, from the low-rumbling of an explosion to the strum of a bass guitar in your music videos. Some audio enthusiasts like to add an extra sub for more bass — it's really all up to your preference.
For more info, check out our article on choosing speakers for home theater.
Q: What's the difference between a pre-matched surround sound system and a component speaker system?
A: A pre-matched surround sound system is a room-friendly, space-efficient alternative to a conventional component speaker system. Pre-matched systems tend to have smaller front, center, and surround speakers, in addition to a small non-powered subwoofer. Many pre-matched systems also come with a Blu-ray or DVD player built right into the receiver.
Component speaker systems give you the ultimate flexibility, because you choose how many and what size speakers to get. Although you won't get the "all-in-one" benefit that pre-matched systems can offer, you'll be able to choose from more types of speakers, from high-end floor-standing models to sleek in-wall speakers. Speakers in a component system often boast better build quality, too, and higher performance to go with the receiver and home theater components of your choice. You can learn more about these and other options in our article on four ways to add sound to your TV.
Q: Can a pair of smaller speakers and a powered sub really sound as good as a pair of larger speakers?
A: Definitely. In fact, there are some folks who prefer a bookshelf/sub system to tower speakers. You must be sure to choose bookshelf speakers and a subwoofer that blend well together, and you may need to tweak the crossover to get the ideal sound. But a bookshelf/sub system can deliver impressive, full-range sound without taking up too much space in your home.
Q: If I buy a set of large floor-standing speakers, will I still need a powered subwoofer?
A: It really depends on individual taste. It's difficult to achieve the body-slamming bass that you experience in a movie theater without a sub. So if your main interest is home theater, you'll want to add a powered subwoofer. On the other hand, if you'll mostly be doing a lot of music listening, then the woofers built into most floor-standing speakers should be able to handle the bass just fine. Check the speakers' frequency response before you buy, and if you get them in your home and aren't satisfied with the bass, then it's easy enough to add a powered subwoofer later.
Q: What surround speakers should I get for my home theater system? Do I need "dipole/bipole" speakers?
A: The short answer is "no." Most people use normal bookshelf or satellite speakers as their surrounds, and they do a fine job. But if you really want the best home theater sound, then there are speakers designed specifically for surround sound known as dipole/bipole or solid/diffuse. Each of these speakers has two sets of drivers, with a switch that lets you select dipole mode (out of phase) or bipole mode (in phase). If you're mounting the speakers on the side walls in line with your listening position, the dipole mode will create a diffuse, ambient soundfield. If you're placing them behind your position, the bipole mode fires the drivers in phase to flood your room with surround sound.
|Dipole mode creates a diffuse, ambient soundfield when the speakers are placed on the side walls.|
|Bipole mode fills your room with surround sound when the speakers are placed on the rear wall.|
And remember, it's vital that your speakers work well together in a home theater setup. If all your speakers are voice-matched, you will experience a seamless surround sound effect. Sounds will move smoothly around your living room just like they do in a movie theater.
Q: What if I want to play my music in multiple rooms around my home?
A: You'll need to set up a multi-room music system. There are two main ways to get one: installing an integrated system with in-wall wire and controls, or setting up a wireless system. In either case, you'll have to consider how many rooms you want to get sound in, and what kind of control you want over your system. No matter what you choose, there are options to fit every home. Check out our article on wireless and wired multi-room music systems to get an idea of how to get a multi-room music system in your home.
Q: Can I use regular speakers to get sound outdoors?
A: If you want to get sound outdoors, then you'll need to go with outdoor speakers. They're specially designed to deliver great sound in the open space of your yard or deck, and to withstand the heat, the cold, moisture, and any critters that might want to eat them. Check out our article on choosing and installing outdoor speakers for more information.
Speaker terms and technology
Q: What is the difference between a 2-way and a 3-way speaker?
A: A 2-way speaker's crossover splits the frequency band into two ranges: bass frequencies go to the woofer, and treble frequencies go to the tweeter. In a 3-way system, the frequency band is divided into three ranges. The middle frequencies are sent to a third driver commonly referred to as the midrange. Because 3-way speakers require more room for the drivers, they're usually only seen in floor-standing models.
Q: How do the materials that a speaker's drivers are made from affect its sound quality?
A: Tweeters made from hard materials like metals and ceramic have a very crisp, clear, and accurate sound, but some people find them too "bright" and a bit harsh. Soft dome tweeters, such as those made from silk, sacrifice some accuracy, but deliver sound that's smoother and warmer.
Woofers made from paper tend to be very light and can provide the kind of fast response necessary for accurate sound. However, paper doesn't age or wear very well. That's why most higher-end speakers use woofers made from some combination of harder materials like metals and ceramics, and light materials like paper and textiles. These "poly" blends give a woofer the strength it needs to hold up to room-filling guitar riffs, as well as the lightness it needs to keep up with a racing piano solo.
Q: Does "bass reflex" mean a speaker puts out a lot of bass?
A: Not exactly. Unlike an acoustic suspension speaker that uses a completely sealed, airtight enclosure, a bass reflex speaker includes a tuned port hole in the cabinet to produce more bass in a specific frequency range.
Bass reflex speakers are highly efficient, and will usually play louder than acoustic suspension speakers when driven with the same amount of amplifier power. However, they may sacrifice some bass accuracy in exchange for the added bass.
Q: My receiver puts out 100 watts per channel — should I get a speaker with the same power rating?
A: Unless you plan to run your speakers at extremely high volume levels, there is no need to worry if they're rated to handle less power than your receiver delivers. The power rating most manufacturers assign to a speaker is the amount of continuous (RMS) power the speaker can absorb without damage.
Receivers and amplifiers are also usually rated for continuous power, so as long as the ratings are fairly close, you shouldn't encounter any power-handling problems. Actually, an amp or receiver with a high power rating is often safer for speakers than one with a low power rating. A low-powered model may "clip" and produce distortion at high volume levels, which is a common cause of tweeter damage.
Q: What should I know about my speakers' impedance?
A: A speaker's impedance rating refers to the amount of electrical resistance it presents against current flowing from your amplifier or receiver's powered outputs. Though impedance actually fluctuates as the speaker reproduces different frequencies, manufacturers usually publish a single, average figure, known as nominal impedance.
Most home speakers have a nominal impedance rating of 8 ohms; likewise, practically all home A/V receivers are designed to be stable when pushing an 8-ohm load. There are a number of higher-end receivers that are capable of handling a 4-ohm load (if you're not sure about your receiver, check the specs in your owner's manual). Speakers with significantly lower impedance (4 ohms or less) may cause problems with 8-ohm receivers by asking them to deliver more current than they are capable of producing.
When you drop from an 8-ohm to a 4-ohm load, you cut the electrical resistance in half, which usually causes your receiver to increase its total power output. Some people are tempted to mate their 8-ohm receivers with 4-ohm speakers, in order to get more wattage. It's wise to avoid this temptation, since it can lead to greater distortion, and cause the receiver to run hot or activate its protection circuitry and shut down.
Q: What does a speaker's sensitivity rating tell me, and why is it important?
A: A speaker's sensitivity rating (sometimes called efficiency) tells you how effectively the speaker converts power into sound. The higher the number, the more efficient the speaker, and the louder the sound it creates with a given input signal.
An efficient speaker helps you maximize your available wattage. Believe it or not, a 3 dB increase in speaker sensitivity produces the same audible increase in volume as doubling your amplifier power. So when you're shopping for speakers, it always pays to check the sensitivity spec — especially if you have a lower-powered receiver or amp.
It's a common myth that larger speakers require tons of power and smaller speakers can get by with minimal wattage. In fact, the reverse may be true — some of the smallest speakers are actually more power hungry than some larger speakers.
Q: I've heard that to get the best sound from my speakers, they need to be "in phase" when I hook them up. What does that mean?
A: When your speakers are connected in phase, the drivers in each speaker move in and out at the same time. When they're out of phase, one or more of the drivers move in, while the others move out. If your speakers have removable grilles, you can pop them off and actually see this. Your speakers should always be connected in phase. Out-of-phase speakers sound "not quite right" — imaging is vague and there isn't as much bass.
To hook up your speakers in phase, just make sure that your positive receiver (or amplifier) terminals are connected to the positive speaker terminals, and your negative receiver terminals are connected to your negative speaker terminals.
It helps to pay attention to the markings on the wire — look for print, a stripe, or a rib that may be molded into the wire's jacket. If you find that your speakers are out of phase, then don't worry. It's easy to fix. Just switch the positive and negative leads at one of your speakers (not both). If you have a receiver with automatic calibration, then it'll tell you if your speakers are out of phase.
Q: How do I know if my speakers are "voice-matched?
A: If your speakers all belong to the same "family," meaning that they're made by the same manufacturer and belong to the same speaker line, then you should be covered. Voice-matching simply means that the separate speakers you choose have the same timbre or tonal quality. This is essential if you want seamless, convincing sound. For example, you wouldn't want a car to sound different in your surround speakers than in your front speakers — it would be distracting. Voice-matched speakers ensure that what you hear sounds the same in your front speakers as it does in your back, giving you the most engaging, movie theater-like experience possible.
Q: Is it true that speakers need a "break in" period to sound their best?
A: Different manufacturers have different ideas about break in, though most do recommend that you give your speakers some time to break in before doing any real critical listening. We simply recommend that you give your speakers a good audition over 3-4 weeks, listening to the same material that you'd usually listen to. That will give you ample time to make any fine adjustments you'd like and also cover most manufacturer's break in recommendations.
Setup and Placement
Q: Does it matter where I put my speakers in my room?
A: Yes. Without proper placement you could be missing out on a lot of what you should be hearing. You can watch our video on speaker placement for more tips on how it's done. You'll find more in-depth tips in our articles on speaker placement for home theater or stereo listening.
Q: Where in the room should I put my subwoofer?
A: The best answer is to experiment. You can start by placing your subwoofer near a wall or in a corner reasonably close to either your listening/viewing position or the front speakers — the surrounding walls will automatically boost low-frequency output. Keep in mind that even though this will increase the bass, the quality may be slightly "boomier" and less controlled. You can move it further away from your walls to get tighter, more precise bass.
Another technique is to temporarily place the subwoofer in your listening spot, play some music, walk around the room, and listen. The spot that sounds best is where you should put the subwoofer. Watch our video on speaker placement for great sound, or check out our article on speaker placement for home theater for more tips.
Q: How do I connect my speakers to my receiver? What kind of speaker wire do I need?
A: To carry an amplified signal from your receiver's output terminals to your speaker's input terminals, you'll need some speaker wire. Speaker wire consists of two leads, one for the positive signal and one for the negative signal, encased in plastic insulation. For a good, solid connection, a lot of folks opt for speaker wire that terminates with connectors instead of bare wire. You can choose from pin connectors, banana plugs, spade connectors, and dual banana plugs. And yes, quality wire and connectors do matter — old or cheap wire can actually degrade the quality of your sound. For more information, check out our article on choosing and installing speaker wire.
Q: Can I use my TV's speakers for the center channel in my home theater?
A: Well, yes, as long as your TV has separate audio/video inputs, and your receiver has a preamp-level center channel output. However, we don't recommend this approach.
In DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, nearly all the dialogue and on-screen sound effects come through the center channel. So you want an accurate speaker that's capable of reproducing a full range of frequencies.
You'll add to the realism of your system if you choose a speaker that matches well with your left and right speakers. Otherwise, you may hear a distractingly audible "hand off" as the sound moves between your front three speakers. Most speaker companies offer center speakers that are voice-matched to blend in well with their other models.
Q: Can I use my receiver's "B" speaker connections for surround speakers?
A: Definitely not. Your receiver's "B" speaker outputs provide the exact same stereo signal as its "A" speaker outputs. (The "B" speaker outputs are useful for connecting a second pair of stereo speakers for some other area in or around the house.)
Surround sound, on the other hand, consists of multiple audio channels which carry different portions of a soundtrack. These channels must be decoded by a multichannel surround sound processor.
Q: Can I hook up a powered subwoofer if my receiver doesn't have a subwoofer output?
A: Most newer home theater receivers and high-end stereo receivers already have subwoofer outputs — it's just older receivers and some stereo receivers where this may be an issue. However, most powered subwoofers have speaker-level connections for use with virtually any receiver. Just run one set of speaker cables from your receiver's main left and right speaker outputs to the subwoofer, then another from the subwoofer to your main left and right speakers (you'll need an extra pair of speaker cables).
Q: My receiver has an adjustable crossover. What frequency should I choose?
A: Choose a frequency that your front speakers can reasonably play down to and your subwoofer up to. For example, some floor-standing speakers can cover frequencies down to 100 Hz or even lower, but some smaller satellites can only reasonably reproduce sounds down to 150 Hz. At the opposite end, a high-end sub can cover up to 160 Hz.
The goal is to make sure that whatever frequency you choose won't over-work your speakers, or leave a gap in the frequency response covered by your sub and front/surround speakers. You should always check your owner's manual for recommendations tailored to the make of your particular speakers.
Also keep in mind that if your receiver has an automatic calibration feature, then it will choose the crossover for you. Still, you might want to make sure that you're happy with the chosen settings — sometimes your speakers may be able to cover a wider range than the one chosen, or you might want to eliminate any gaps between what your front/surround speakers play and what your subwoofer plays.
Q: How do I know if I should use speaker stands? If so, which size? And what exactly will spikes do for me?
A: Because midrange and treble frequencies are very directional, your speakers will sound their best when your ears are at the same height as the tweeter. Floor-standing speakers are designed to be used without speaker stands, but small- to medium-sized speakers will most likely need stands to raise the tweeters to ear level.
|You'll experience better directional accuracy and hear more treble when your speakers' tweeters are at ear-level. Small- or medium-sized speakers may require stands to raise the tweeters to the optimum height.|
It's worth taking the time to measure to determine what size stand will work best with your speakers. Check out our articles on speaker placement for home theater and speaker placement for stereo listening for more info.
If you have a carpeted floor, and your speakers or speaker stands accept spikes on the bottom, installing them may improve your sound. Spikes often "tighten up" bass response by reducing sound-muddying vibrations. Spikes also provide greater stability on carpeted floors.
Q: How do I install in-wall speakers?
A: They're a little trickier than simply placing floorstanding or bookshelf speaker in your room. In-wall speakers mount flush with your drywall, and you should be able to install them yourself if you're comfortable cutting drywall and have the right tools. Otherwise, you should be able to find a certified professional installer in your area. To see what exactly this project entails, check out our article or video on installing in-wall speakers.
Keep in mind that you'll also need to run speaker wire to power your speakers, if it's not already installed. See our guide to in-wall wiring to find out how it's done.
Q: How can I safely dust my speakers and cables?
A: Keeping your speakers and wires clean will give you a good-looking setup, and it'll prevent dust and dirt from damaging your equipment's internal circuitry. But be conscientious when you choose products and methods for cleaning your components. It's always a good idea to check your owner's manual for suggestions.
Here are some general tips:
- Make sure that your speakers are turned off before cleaning.
- Be careful to protect the finish on your speakers, particularly if it's wood. Pledge and other wood cleaners that contain silicone can leave residue in the wood grain. A dry cloth will usually do for simple cleaning, although you can dampen it with water if the job calls for it.
- Spray a small amount of water on a rag and then wipe your speakers, instead of spraying water directly on the speakers.
- For speaker grilles, a can of compressed air or even the upholstery brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner will do. It's usually a good idea to remove the grilles first, if you can, so that you can easily and safely clean both sides of them.
- Every few years, you should unplug and replug the cables that connect your speaker system. This will help keep the connections clean.
- If you notice any build-up on your cables, use a good contact cleaner like DeoxIT®.
For more tips, see our article on keeping your A/V gear clean.