Consumer Advice on Speakers

Feb 7 21:59 2007 Brooke Yan Print This Article

Speakers can make or break your audio or video setup. Try to listen to them in a store before buying. And if you can splurge on only part of your system, splurge here.

The best array of audio or video components will let you down if matched with poor-quality speakers. Good speakers don’t have to cost a bundle,Guest Posting though it is easy to spend a lot. For a home-theater system, you can start with two or three speakers and add others as need and budget allows. Size is no indication of quality


Among the hundreds of speaker brands available, the major names include Altec, Bose, JBL, KLH, Pioneer, Polk Audio, RCA, and Sony, and Yamaha. Speakers are sold through mass merchandisers, audio/video stores, and “boutique” retailers. You can also buy them online, but be prepared for shipping charges of up to $100 because speakers can be fairly heavy.

Speakers are sold as pairs for traditional stereo setups, and singly or in sets of three to six for equipping a home theater. To keep a balanced system, buy left and right speakers in pairs, rather than individually. The center-channel speaker should be matched to the front (or main) speakers. For the best sound, the rear speakers should also have a sound similar to the front speakers. The front speakers supply the stereo effect and carry most of the sound to the listener’s ears. The center (or center-channel) speaker chiefly delivers dialog and is usually placed on top of or beneath the TV in a home-theater setup. Rear speakers, sometimes called surround or satellite speakers, deliver ambient effects such as crowd noise. A subwoofer carries the lowest tones.

Price range: under $300 to over $1,000.

Bookshelf speakers. These are among the smallest, but, at 12 to 18 inches tall, many are still too large to fit on a typical bookshelf. A pair of these can serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front or rear duo in a home-theater setup. One can serve as the center-channel unit, provided it’s magnetically shielded so it won’t interfere with the TV. Small speakers like these have made strides in their ability to handle deep bass without buzzing or distortion. Any bass-handling limitations would be less of a concern in a multi speaker system that uses a subwoofer to reproduce deep bass.

Price range: $100 to more than $800.

Floor-standing speakers. Typically about 3 to 4 feet tall, these large speakers can also serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front pair in a home-theater system. Their big cabinets have the potential to do more justice to deep bass than smaller speakers, but we believe many listeners would be satisfied with smaller speakers that scored well for bass handling. Even if floor models do a bit better, their size and cost may steer buyers toward smaller, cheaper bookshelf models.

Price range: $300 to more than $1,000.

Center-channel speaker. In a multichannel setup, the center-channel speaker sits on or below the TV. Because it primarily handles dialog, its range doesn’t have to be as full as that of the front pair, but its sound should be similar so all three blend well. Dedicated center-channel speakers are short and wide (6 inches high by 20 inches wide, for instance) so they perch neatly atop a TV.

Price range: $100 to over $500.

Rear-surround speakers. Rear speakers in a multichannel setup carry mostly background sound such as crowd noise. Newer multichannel formats such as Dolby Digital, DTS, DVD-Audio, and SACD make fuller use of these speakers than did earlier formats. You’ll get the best blend if the rear pair sounds similar to the front pair. Rear speakers tend to be small and light (often 5 to 10 inches high and 3 to 6 pounds) so they can be wall mounted or placed on a shelf.

Price range: $100 to over $500.

Three-piece sets. Designed to be used as a stand-alone system or integrated with other speakers, these sets combine two bookshelf or satellite speakers for midrange and higher tones with either a center-channel speaker or a subwoofer for bass.

Price range: $300 to $800.

Six-piece sets. These systems have four satellites (used for both the front and rear pairs), one center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. Six-piece sets save you the trouble of matching the distinctive sounds of six speakers. That can be a daunting task at home, and even more of a challenge amidst the din of a store that doesn’t have a decent listening room.

Price range: $400 to more than $1,000.

Other shapes and sizes. A “powertower” is a tower speaker, usually priced above $1,000, with a side-firing, powered subwoofer in its base.


Lovers of loud sound should pay attention to a speaker’s measured impedance, which affects how well the speaker and receiver get along. Power range refers to the advertised watts per channel. The wattage within a matched pair, front or rear, should be identical. Additionally, a speaker’s power range should exceed the watts per channel supplied by your receiver or amplifier. Speakers sold to be near a TV set typically have magnetic shielding so they won’t distort the picture with their core magnets.


Consider size. Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, so see how they’ll fit in your room. Floor-standing speakers might overwhelm smaller spaces. Bookshelf speakers are often a better fit. But some are quite large, so make sure a model you choose will fit the shelf or niche you’ve earmarked for it. And don’t fear that you’re giving up quality for compactness. Many small speakers do a fine job. Style may factor into your decision as well. Some speakers are sleekly shaped, with silver finishes. Others are more conventional black boxes.

Focus on accuracy, not advertising. The most critical attribute of any speaker is accuracy--the ability to reproduce sound frequencies without over-or under-emphasizing any part of the audio range. As our test have shown time and again, some of the lowest-priced speakers can be among the most accurate. Ads often tout two-way or three-way drivers and the size of the cone inside a speaker, but you can’t judge sound quality by these attributes. 

Listen for the differences. Even speakers with comparable accuracy scores can sound quite different. One model may overemphasize treble, while another under-emphasizes it. There’s no substitute for hearing speakers, so bring a CD with a familiar piece of music to the store. Pay special attention to the front pair, because those speakers do the most work.

Speakers will sound different at home because of your room size, shape, and furnishings, so see if the retailer will allow a home trial or ask about the return policy. If you’re torn between two choices, buy the cheaper. Stores may be more open to a return if you want to trade up to a pricier set.

Check impedance. If you like to play music loudly, make sure your receiver is rated to handle the impedance (generally ranging from 4 to 8 ohms) of the front speaker pair.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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Brooke Yan
Brooke Yan



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