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Speakers Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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Woman listening to stereo speakers

Whether you're a music enthusiast or a fan of great movies, high-quality sound can boost your entertainment experience. This speakers buying guide focuses on the speakers themselves, the audio components that make home theater systems, stereos and other high-quality audio systems sound great. It will help you navigate your options and build a sound system that will bring the best audio quality to your music and movies.

Buying Speakers:

  1. Listening environment: The audio quality from your speakers can be affected by the room you place them in. The shape of a room, the construction materials and even the furniture can affect how sound propagates through the listening space. Ask yourself a few questions about your listening environment:

  2. Architecture: Does the room have large doors, arched walls or a cathedral ceiling? A more enclosed room, with few wall openings, low ceilings and large windows will reverberate sound more strongly than in a more open space. Carpeted and hardwood floors also make a significant difference. Reverberating sound can amplify your speaker power or cause echoes or introduce noise.

  3. Seating: Where will listeners be seated, and what materials will the seating be made from? Fabric surfaces, like curtains, upholstered furniture and wall hangings, will absorb sound. You'll want to place speakers so that listeners are at the center of the sound-projection area without a lot of furniture between them and the speakers.

  4. Outlets: Where are the electrical outlets and cable hook-ups? Your home theater system or stereo speaker system will need access to power, and you'll need to run speaker wire to your audio speakers from the receiver. Otherwise, you can use wireless speakers for some or all of the audio channels.

  5. Audio cables: The most important thing to consider when selecting speaker wire is the resistance rating, which measures the electrical conductivity of the speaker wire. Lower resistance allows more power to reach the speaker from the receiver. Match the resistance of the speaker wire to the impedance rating of your individual speakers. If the resistance of the wire exceeds 5 percent of the speaker impedance rating, you may start to hear reduced audio quality.

  6. Power: Measured in watts (W), the power rating describes the amount of electrical power each speaker can use before experiencing damage. More power can equal more volume without loss of clarity. You'll see speaker power described in two ways:

  7. Nominal power: Nominal power is usually displayed as the root-mean-square (RMS). This is the level at which your speakers can operate continuously with low distortion and no risk of damage.

  8. Peak power: Peak power describes the highest power level your speaker can experience before being damaged.

  9. Impedance: The electrical components that make up amplifiers and speaker drivers ever so slightly resist the flow of electricity. This is known as impedance. Impedance for amplifiers and speakers is usually rated at 4, 8 or 16 Ohms. You can use impedance ratings to match speakers to amplifiers and receivers. Mismatched components can produce poor sound quality or cause damage to one another.

  10. Frequency response: Frequency response is the range of sounds a speaker makes. Your ears hear around 20 to 20,000 Hertz (Hz), and a good speaker system will try to replicate sounds in that range as naturally as possible using a combination of speaker types:

    Speaker Types

    • Super-tweeters are designed with high frequency response and can produce well beyond 20 kilohertz (kHz) and reproduce high-pitched sounds with little distortion.

    • Tweeters get up to 20 kHz.

    • Mid-range speakers are 500 to 3000 Hz.

    • Woofers reach 40 to 1000 Hz.

    • Subwoofers produce deep sounds, close to 20 Hz to 200 Hz or lower, which is the low end of the hearing spectrum.

    • Full-range speakers attempt to cover the whole range of frequencies with a single driver.

  11. Subwoofers: Subwoofers reproduce the very low bass sounds for your speaker system. Low frequencies are more non-directional to your ears, so your subwoofer can be placed almost anywhere in the room. An adjustable, self-amplified subwoofer with a sturdy enclosure will give you great bass that fills the room without over-drawing your audio receiver.

  12. Sensitivity: Sensitivity measures the sound pressure level (SPL) in decibels (dB) and describes how much volume speakers put out for a given voltage. There is no universal standard for sensitivity, but a higher sensitivity can indicate how efficiently your speakers translate power into audio volume.

  13. Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR or S/N): Also measured in dB, SNR is about clarity. "Signal" is the audio you want to hear, and "noise" is the unavoidable audio background clutter. The higher the SNR ratio, the clearer your audio will be.

  14. Total harmonic distortion (THD): Measured as a percent, THD is similar to SNR. High-quality audio speakers have a THD rating below one percent.

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