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Home stereo speakers buying guide

Find the right pair for your ears and your space

If your stereo system doesn't sound as good as it used to, it may be time to replace the speakers.

Is the bass weak? Pull off the grilles to see if the foam surrounds have disintegrated. Dull highs? Maybe the tweeters are blown.

Even if there's nothing wrong with your speakers, odds are that a new pair will sound (and look) way better. Speaker technology has improved a great deal over the years. 

Maybe you're starting from scratch, rather than replacing an old pair of speakers. Either way, this article will help you make a good choice.

Speaker types

Floor-standing speakers give you excellent performance. They reproduce a wide range of frequencies, including deep bass, and are usually more efficient than other types of speakers. They're the largest type of speaker for stereo music setups and, as such, cost the most. But they're hard to beat for big, room-filling sound. [Shop for floor-standing speakers.]

Bookshelf speakers Bookshelf speakers can give you great sound without taking up much floor space.

Bookshelf speakers deliver great performance and come in a wide variety of sizes, with most being small enough to fit on a cabinet or shelf. They're best for small- to medium-sized rooms or for music-only listening systems in a den or bedroom. Just be aware that bookshelf speakers generally can't produce the low bass frequencies that floor-standing models can, so many folks choose to add a powered subwoofer to reinforce the deep bass. [Shop for bookshelf speakers.]

Powered computer speakers are are an option if you want better stereo music in your home office or in places like a dorm room where space is limited. [Shop for computer speakers.]

Cabinet design

The cabinet or enclosure that holds speakers in place. Cabinets can have a huge impact on the sound created by the speaker, since the amount of space and air behind the speaker helps determine the movement of the woofer(s). There are typically two types of enclosures,  each with their own sonic traits:

Acoustic suspension
A type of speaker enclosure that uses a sealed box to provide tight, accurate bass response. It gives up some efficiency to provide bass that is more accurate and controlled, so compared to a bass reflex design, it may require more amplifier power to play at the same volume level.

Bass reflex
A type of speaker enclosure that includes a "tuned" port or passive radiator to increase and extend bass response (by releasing some of the energy created by the inward movement of the woofer cone). Bass reflex designs are more power-efficient than acoustic suspension designs — they'll play louder than an acoustic suspension speaker when driven with the same amplifier power. But they may sacrifice some bass accuracy in exchange for the added bass output.

Driver materials

Speaker cones can be made from a variety of materials, such as metals, papers, plastics, rubbers, or some combination of materials, each with their own sonic properties. For example, tweeters made of metal tend to have a bright, snappy sound. Tweeters made of softer materials, such as silk, tend to have a smoother sound.

In choosing materials for woofer and midrange cones, manufacturers tend to strive for a good balance between light weight (for better movement) and strength (for clearer sound without distortion).

Specs

Frequency response
The human ear responds to frequencies from approximately 20 to 20,000 cycles-per-second, or Hertz. A speaker's frequency response indicates how much of that range can be reproduced.

Impedance
The load value (in ohms) that the speakers present to the amplifier — the amount of resistance to the flow of current. While playing music, a speaker's actual impedance constantly fluctuates; however, speakers are usually given a single nominal impedance rating for easy comparison. Low-impedance speakers (4 ohms or less) can cause problems with receivers or amplifiers that are not designed to deliver large amounts of current.

Sensitivity
A sensitivity rating tells you how effectively a speaker converts power into volume. The higher the rating, the louder your speakers will play with a given amount of amplifier power. Sensitivity is often measured by driving a speaker with one watt and measuring the loudness in decibels at one meter.

The chart below illustrates that a few dB in sensitivity can make a big difference:

Speaker Sensitivity rating Power needed
to produce a given volume
Speaker A 85 dB 100 watts
Speaker B 88 dB 50 watts
Speaker C 91 dB 25 watts
A speaker with a sensitivity rating that's 3 dB higher than another
speaker's only needs half as much power to deliver the same amount of sound.

Wiring

Some speakers include dual sets of wire terminals, which almost always also feature a special type of crossover with separate "high-pass" and "low-pass" sections. Speakers with dual sets of terminals work fine when used with a single set of speaker cables. In fact, they usually come from the factory set up for conventional operation, with "jumpers" installed between the two sets. These jumpers can be easily removed for bi-amping or bi-wiring.

  • Bi-amping means that instead of driving a speaker full-range with a single channel of amplification through a single set of speaker cables, you actually connect two sets of cables, with each set carrying the signal from a separate amplifier (or amp channel). This way, both low-frequency drivers (woofers) and high-frequency drivers (tweeters) receive dedicated amplification.
  • Bi-wiring involves connecting two sets of cables to your speakers, like bi-amping, but both sets of cables connect to the same set of output connectors on your receiver or amplifier. Bi-wiring doesn't deliver more wattage to your speakers, so it doesn't offer as dramatic a sonic improvement as bi-amping. Still, many audiophiles find that it offers subtle improvements in imaging and detail.

Terminal types
You probably don't think about the connectors on the back of your speakers until you go to hook them up. There are two basic types:

  • Spring clip terminals are usually found on lower-priced speakers. They work best with bare wire connections with small-gauge speaker wire, or pin-type connectors.
  • Binding post terminals are a sturdier, more versatile type of speaker jack, often found on higher-quality speakers and receivers, and on most amplifiers. They're threaded, so you can tighten them down against the wire or connector for an extra-snug connection.
spring clip binding post

A common variety of binding post, especially for speakers, is known as a "5-way" binding post. This type accepts bare wire, pin connectors, spade connectors, banana plugs, and double-banana plugs.

Cables
The quality of the cables you use can make a big difference. Cheap cables will allow the signal to degrade, especially over longer runs, causing your sound to lose detail and dynamics. For more information, check out our articles on why cable quality matters and speaker wire for more help in choosing high-end speaker wire.

Placement
It's important to consider what kind of flooring you plan to place your speakers on. A wobbly foundation can introduce unwanted vibrations into your music, not to mention you don't want your new speakers easily tipping over when you accidentally run into them with the vacuum cleaner.

If your room is carpeted, then look for floor-standing speakers or speaker stands that come with carpet spikes to improve the speakers' stability. If your floors are made of hardwood, vinyl, stone, or any other flat material, then look for padded feet to come with your speakers or stands.

Remember that your room may also have an effect on your speakers' sound. Just because a pair of speakers sounds great in the store or in your friend's home, doesn't mean they'll sound the same in your room. Glass windows, doors, coffee tables, and bare walls or flooring can all introduce unwanted effects that can color your sound. There are several simple steps you can take to get better sound, like installing curtains or putting down a rug over bare floors. And if you want to turn your room into an audiophile's haven, then there are special sound damping materials that you can install on your walls and ceiling. 

For detailed information about setting up a stereo speaker system, check out our article on speaker placement for stereo music listening. Check out our article on room acoustics for more information.

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