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How to Buy Home Theater and Surround Sound Speakers

In this article I am going to cover some of the basics, including some rules of thumb about how to judge speaker quality.

There are 3 main configurations for home theater systems termed loosely 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 channel surround systems. These include variations with names such as Dolby Digital, Pro Logic, Dolby Digital EX, DTS, and many others. Receivers capable of 7.1 channel surround will also work fine with 5.1 and 6.1 channel surround, and a 6.1 channel receiver will do 5.1 channel just fine.

The number of channels determine the number of speakers. The .1 in the figure is the subwoofer. Thus, a 5.1 system includes 5 speakers and a sub woofer, and a 7.1 surround system has 7 speakers plus the subwoofer. More speakers improve the immersion in the surround experience, however, most persons have a limited budget. On a limited budget you will be able to afford better quality speakers by buying fewer and using a 5.1 channel system. You will have to decide if you want better quality speakers or the more complete surround system. You also need to think about the fact that you will have to do more work to place more speakers. Make sure that your home theater receiver can do 7.1 channels before buying 7 speakers and a subwoofer.

The speaker setup consists of 2 or 3 special types of speakers in addition to the standard type. You need a subwoofer for the .1 channel, which is a speaker specifically to produce the bass content efficiently. You also must have a center speaker which anchors dialog (and sounds that need to be centered) to the video source. You can use a standard type speaker for this, but a dedicated center channel speaker is preferable. It has specific characteristics built in to allow all listeners to hear an even, clear sound no matter where they are sitting. Most configurations have a high frequency driver (tweeter) with a midrange/woofer on either side of it. The usual setups use standard style home speakers for the rest of the system, but some manufacturers make dedicated surround speakers. They are made to provide a diffuse sound source, and work very well for the purpose. They may be called dipole or bipole, a technical term referring to the construction type and operation of these speakers. It is not recommended to use these in the front left and right speaker locations. For more on proper speaker locations you can read an article on my speaker website.

Now that you have an idea of what you need, we can get into some specifics.


Power Rating: The speakers should be rated at least as high as the output of the receiver. They can be rated much higher and will work fine. Power is rated in Watts. You need to make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Unfortunately, there are quite a few manufacturers that will inflate power ratings by various cheats. The proper rating is RMS or continuous watts. One method of exaggerating wattage is by specifying in peak power, which is the power the speaker can handle only for a fraction of a second before burning out. Advertising peak power is fine if the manufacturer also specifies the RMS wattage for proper comparison.

Frequency Response: All the speakers for a surround system should respond down to at least 80 Hz in the bass to work correctly. If they are rated to lower frequencies it is better. Human hearing limits are from 20 Hz in the bass to 20Khz (20 Khz = 20,000 cycles per second). Most adults cannot hear higher than 16 Khz. Obviously you want the subwoofer to go as low as possible. You may see a rating such as +/- 3db or some such. In this case the smaller the number the better. +/- 1.5 db (rare) is much better than 3 db. This figure indicates the flatness of frequency response, and thus how accurate the frequency balance is. The more accurate, the better sounding the speaker. Again, compare carefully as the figure may be specified at different frequency limits than the overall response limits.

Sensitivity: The higher the better. A typical rating is 88 Db @ 1 watt, 1 meter. This is an interesting specification as it indicates a relative measurement of how loud the speaker will play with a specific amplifier wattage. Every 3 db increase is the same as doubling your amplifier power (keep in mind all these statements are true, but are not laboratory precise in order to avoid making this too complicated for the layman to follow or bother with). In other words, speakers rated at 88db on a 100 Watt rms amplifier will play at the same maximum volume as speakers rated at 91db sensitivity on a 50 watt amp. By the way, the most common cause of burned out speakers is an underpowered amplifier being turned up too high. Yes, that is correct, I said underpowered. There is not room to get into the explanation in this article.

Impedance: This is a very important, confusing and complex subject, so rather than get into it I will give general rules of thumb. For more info you can see articles on the speaker website. If the speakers are rated 8 ohms or higher, you are in good shape whatever the rating of your home theater receiver is. If the speakers are rated at 6 ohms or lower (4 ohms is not uncommon) your receiver must be rated into that low of an impedance. If it is not, you may damage your receiver by connecting them. It will also probably overheat and shut off easily, and will not provide the proper frequency response and impact your speakers are capable of.

Magnetic Shielding: This is a must for speakers within 6 feet or so of a video screen or computer monitor (unless you are using a projector) and doesn't matter for the rest of the speakers.

Drivers: Don't worry about this too much, it is only generally descriptive. Larger woofers usually go deeper in the bass, which you can see in the frequency response. Generally, larger drivers might produce more impact depending on how well the speakers are built. More drivers may also produce better results. This can get complicated and confusing. For example, two six inch woofers may produce better and deeper bass than a 10 inch woofer provided the speaker is properly built. They provide a large surface area like a single large woofer, but can respond faster to changes in the music because of being lighter weight. This provides better transient response, and can subjectively result in more “punch” to the music and a less muddy sound. There is a large amount of learning needed to draw proper conclusions from driver configuration. One specific configuration I want to mention is called passive radiators. These can work great in a properly built system, but since they cost little to make some manufacturers throw them in to make their speaker look like it has more drivers and fool the customer in that fashion. These are usually cheaply built speakers and don't work well. Passive radiators are drivers that look like speakers but have no magnet or voice coil and are not electrically driven. Properly configured, as in BIC America speakers, they are very effective. Their purpose is not to look like expensive drivers, but rather to provide a way of properly tuning an enclosure for increased bass response. The most common method of doing this is with a bass reflex port. The passive radiators replace a tuned port, providing much the same effect but with improved transient response, thus better sound quality – provided the system is properly built.

Weight: This can be a good rule of thumb indicator of a well built speaker. Good speakers will be heavier because of many factors. Two important ones are bigger driver magnet size, and heavier, non resonant cabinets that don't improperly color the sound.

Magnet Size: Generally speaking, the bigger the better. Small magnets are usually a sign of a cheaply built speaker, since magnets are expensive. A larger magnet means more control over the cone movement and thus clearer, more defined sound.

Cabinet Solidity: This is hard to test when buying on line, but speakers that advertise solid, non resonant cabinets will have better sound. Cheaper cabinets will resonate which causes some sounds to be louder and some quieter. This can cause many different unpleasant results in the sound. This is usually not hearable as an actual vibration, but rather as an unwanted and unpleasant character to the sound. It may not be obvious without measurement that cabinet resonance is causing the unpleasant character. If you can get to the cabinets, knock on them with your knuckles, in particular the back of the cabinet because this is where manufacturers may hide cheap construction. Ideally, knocking on the cabinet would be the same as knocking on a slab of concrete. The more of a woody sound you get, the more that speaker will color the sound with the cabinet resonance.

About the Author: Ron from SmartBuySpeakers.com has 27 years technical experience including 8 years as owner of an A/V retail & installation business. Certifed by Cedia (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association). Technical experience includes Audio/Video, computers, typewriters, copiers, video gaming machines, video slot machines, satellite systems including 2 way vsat systems and cable TV systems.

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