General Speaker Buying Advice

General Speaker Buying Advice
Like any audio product, different speakers have different values, as well as different prices. It’s worth going into a little more detail about how you should pick your speakers. You are, after all, going to be buying more than one of them, and so there are a few things you need to bear in mind. This advice, we think, is agnostic: whether you’re a wired junkie or flying-free-wireless, you’ll be able to make use of it.

The first thing, very obviously, is sound quality. Like any audio product, there will be differences between models. A speaker’s sound quality comes from a variety of factors, including the number of drivers it has, how big they are, how well they were made, the housing they are contained in and a zillion other things. Ultimately, all this costs money, and it will be up to you to figure out how much you’re willing to spend for good sound quality. Check our in-depth speaker reviews here, or our roundup of the best wireless speakers, or our take on the best bookshelf speakers here.

The second is loudness. Essentially: how loud can a speaker go? No, the answer isn’t “As loud as humanly possible.” If you have a small apartment, there is absolutely no point shelling out thousands of dollars for an enormous set of speakers, because you aren’t going to be able to push them to their maximum volume without getting evicted. Loudness is expressed in sound pressure level, or SPL, a measure of how many decibels are pumped out at a given volume (it’s also, confusingly, often referred to as sensitivity. For example: the Paradigm PW-600 wireless speaker (full review) has a sensitivity of 91dB, while the SVS Prime Elevation wired speakers (full review) each have a sensitivity of 87dB. Sensitivity can be tricky, as not all manufacturers have the exact same testing standards, but they will give you a rough idea. In this case, the PW-600 is likely to be a little louder than the Primes, assuming the volume is the same.

Then, you need to think about the number of speakers you’re actually going to buy. For wired speakers, this is pretty straightforward. At a minimum, you will need two - one per channel (don’t worry - they usually come in pairs). If you’re equipping a home theater system, which we’ll talk about in a little more detail below, then you may need up to five.

For wireless speakers, this isn’t just as simple as going, “I have five rooms in my house and so I need five speakers.” How big are the rooms? What’s in them? Where are you actually going to put the speakers? Is your house open plan? Could two rooms conceivably be serviced by a single speaker? How often would you be in a situation where you’re listening to music in that particular room? Would it be better to skip that room entirely, and just put two speakers in the room you’re in most often?

It’s a tricky one, and there’s no easy answer, mostly because you haven’t invited us inside your house yet to make an assessment (we take our coffee black, thanks).

A good guide would be to think about how much time you spend in each room, and wherein the room you spend it. Take the kitchen. For most of us, your writer included, the kitchen in our home is quite small. We probably only need one speaker to do the job. On the other hand, if you have a large kitchen, or into cooking, and on moving around a lot doing very noisy things with casserole pots and blenders, then two speakers may be required. Ditto if you like having lots and lots of people over. A crowded living room with loud conversations needs a couple of well-placed speakers. Whatever you do, don’t give up the WiFi password, or some idiot of a guest will decide they want to show you just how awesome Creedence Clearwater revival really is, man.

There’s also ease of use. Admittedly, this is more advice for wireless speakers, but hey ho. One of the beautiful things about multiroom systems is that, as they become more and more efficient, so have the means of controlling them. It’s not just that they should be easy to operate on a daily basis. They should be easy to setup, too. You should be able to connect them to the WiFi in under a minute, and be playing music a few seconds later. A lot of systems used to rely on built-in screens and buttons, which could make things tricky, but it is now far more common to do all the connections via an app. This should, in theory, be a breeze. However: don’t assume it will be. It’s always worth double checking the setup method for any speaker system you buy, on the off chance that it’s a bit more annoying than you thought it would be.

Then you need to think about what the speakers look like. We’re kind of divided about this here. Normally, a good-looking speaker is a nice perk, but we are far more interested in how they perform and how easy they are to use than their aesthetics. Most speakers can get away with looking utilitarian; nobody is going to mind a set of big floorstanding speakers on either side of your TV, mostly because that’s where they’re supposed to be. People look at them once, and then never think about them again. That’s not the case with multiroom audio. What you’re doing here is putting speakers in parts of the house where one would not normally expect to see a speaker. If you live by yourself and/or don’t give one hoot about what your place looks like, then you can skip this part, but if not you may want to pay attention.

Color is a big one. Do you want your speaker to stand out, or blend into the background? You could quite conceivably get a bunch of speakers that match the colors of your house, with very little effort. You also need to think about shape. To some extent, you can’t really control this, as most speakers are going to be small boxes of one configurations or another. But think about where you’re going to put them. Do they echo the surroundings, or jar with them? Again, you may not be too interested in this part, but it’s still worth mentioning.
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