How To Shop For Home Theater Speakers
There are things you know how to shop for well. Groceries. Clothes. You’ve got lots of experience shopping for those. And then there are things maybe only YOU know how to shop for. Cars or engines or paint or roofs. Maybe it is because you work in the industry. Maybe it is because you have had a string of bad luck and had to get good at it. We don’t know. But shopping for home theater speakers isn’t something that most people do. And if they do it, they don’t do it often. We’re here to help.
Start with the Room
Your first thought is probably to do an Internet search. Wrong. You need to look at where your speakers will be placed. In particular, you want to look at the room and where the speakers will be in relation to your seat. This will tell you what type of speaker you should be considering. A good rule of thumb when shopping for home theater speakers is that if they are going to be closer than twelve feet, they can be bookshelves. Twelve feet or father? Towers. This isn’t always true as some bookshelf speakers are very efficient, but it is a great place to start.
Remember, your surround speakers are normally much closer to you than the front three speakers. Getting smaller, satellite speakers from the same line of speakers is a great way to save some money. When you are shopping, just make sure that all the home theater speakers in the line are voiced the same.
What Type of Speaker Do You Want?
Now that you know where your speakers will be, you need to identify the type of speaker you want. Do you want freestanding speakers? Are you looking for in-walls? If you are considering bookshelf speakers, where will you put them? You’ll find as you shop for home theater speakers that there are many types from ugly to beautiful, compact to huge. Only you know what you’ll be comfortable with. Are you more concerned about price or size? Aesthetics or price?
If you are considering in-wall speakers, you’ll want to grab a stud finder. One of the most common mistakes we see people make is looking at a wall and picking a spot for a speaker without ensuring that it can actually be installed in that spot. Make sure that the wall behind the spot is actually free of studs or you’ll find yourself in a pickle when you try to install them. If you can’t install in-walls, there are plenty of on-wall options.
Get Familiar With Some Well Recorded Music
There are lots of artists out there that care about the quality of their recordings. Before you start to shop, you need to find a couple of tracks that you can tolerate and are really well recorded. Notice we didn’t say tracks that you like. At this point, it doesn’t matter if you love the music or not. You need to shop for home theater speakers with an arsenal of music that can reveal the speakers’ ability to perform.
You’ll want some music with very high notes (cymbals, chimes, flutes) and very low notes (kick drums, organ music). You’ll want a mix of musical instruments and vocalists. If you can find something with side-to-side or front-to-back pans, that would be great. There are tons of recommendations on the Internet. Look some of them up and pick a good mix.
Now, start playing those tracks over and over. Listen to them in your car, on the best headphones you own, in your current home theater. Pay attention to every note, every whisper, every instrument. Try to pick out the instruments that are playing behind the instruments! Get to know these songs as well as you can. Now, burn them to a CD and get ready for the next step!
Time to Listen to Lots of Home Theater Speakers!
This is the fun part of shopping for home theater speakers. Go to your local Best Buy and head to their Magnolia room. Go to your local high-end shop, and listen to everything they have. Not just the speakers that are the type you are planning to buy. At this point, you don’t really know what you like.
There are many speakers out there that have a sonic character. There are others that go for a flat frequency response. We have our preferences, but this isn’t about us. It is about you and your home theater experience! At this point, all we need to know is what speakers you find the most engaging. Don’t look at price tags. Don’t worry about that right now. What you need to be able to do at the end of all the listening is complete this sentence: “I want speakers that sound like…” If you can do that, you are ready to shop for your PERFECT home theater speakers.
Author’s Note: Don’t worry about the bass response of the speakers. All they need to do is play cleanly down to around 80-60Hz for your front three, and maybe 100-80Hz for your surrounds. In a home theater, the speakers should never be playing the lowest bass. That is for the subwoofers. You could ask them to cross over the speakers you are auditioning at 80Hz but to turn off the sub. They probably won’t, but that is the correct way to audition home theater speakers.
Narrow Down the List of your Favorite Home Theater Speakers
Now that you know what “sound” you are looking for, it is time to make a list. Do a search for your favorite speakers and “sounds like.” That’s a good place to start. You’ll also want to read some reviews. We prefer the professional reviews as they (the reviewers) tend to have more experience than owners. That said, there are many review sites that make their money by giving positive reviews. When you read these, you’ll want to be very cautious. Once you’ve read enough reviews, you’ll start to see patterns emerge. Those patterns can give you insight into how to refine your search.
Are they saying the speaker is “engaging” or has a “lively top end?” Look for a speaker with a tipped-up treble response. Do the reviews say they do female vocals well? Look for that in other reviews. As you shop for your home theater speakers, you’re going to see a lot of those phrases. As you recognize the patterns, you can search for similarly voiced speakers.
At Home Auditions
We cannot stress this enough. If you are going to buy speakers, make sure you try them out in your house before you finalize the purchase. Sound is affected heavily by the room in which they are playing. Speakers that sound great in one room can sound horrible in another. For many speakers, that means you’ll have to buy local from places with good return policies. Getting them from a high-end dealer might take some convincing. But we would never suggest you buy a speaker without auditioning it at home first.
Author’s Note: Auditioning in-wall and in-ceiling speakers is nearly impossible. But, most manufacturers will have freestanding speakers in the same line. When looking at in-wall offerings, you can audition similarly voiced freestanding speakers for an approximation of how the in-wall offerings will sound.
Also, remember that there are online manufacturers that offer free two-way shipping. SVS and Aperion Audio will pay to ship your speakers back to them if you don’t like them. Yes, you’ll have to “buy” them first. But they will refund you all the money you spent. No restocking fees. These companies make quality speakers that aim for a flatter frequency response. We always suggest that in-home auditions include at least one of these offerings.
Author’s Note: If you are getting serious about your home theater experience, you’ll need to address your room. We’ve talked about room acoustics on this site and you’ll want to correct as many of your room issues as you can BEFORE you start auditioning. This will ensure that you are getting a great speaker and not a speaker that is great ONLY in your current room.
Time to Buy Your New Home Theater Speakers!
You’ve identified the best speakers for your room. Auditioned everything you could. You’ve made of list of potentials and you’ve listened to them in your room. Now you are sure. You KNOW what speakers you want! If you have the patience, you can wait until they go on sale or until you can find secondhand offerings. But, if you are like us, you won’t be able to wait. And we won’t blame you! You’ve done the work, time to reap the rewards! Enjoy your new home theater speakers!