Speakers part 1: covering the basics
Welcome to part 1 of our guide to the world of speakers. In this section, we'll cover some foundational tenets of speaker knowledge, with part 2 diving a little deeper into more technical concerns.
If you're completely new to this, check out our key components of a hifi stereo system blog for more generalised info on getting started in the world of hifi. Let's dig in.
This is probably common sense stuff for most reading this, but before you start doing ANY research, figure out how much you want to spend on your purchase.
More importantly, if you’re buying an entire system, how much you want to spend on each component. If you’re buying a turntable system for example, you might want to sink more money into a turntable now, and upgrade your cartridge, speakers and eventually your amplifier further down the track.
It’s very easy to get carried away with all of the shiny new things at your fingertips but overspending when you’re just getting started can lead to buyer’s regret. Unless you have a substantial disposable income, there’s no need to go big as you embark on your journey down the river hifi.
Trust us, blowing big dollars on a pair of floorstanders when you’ve been listening to an entry-level pair for a few years can be an extremely fulfilling experience.
The notion of matching your speakers to your decor may seem axiomatic, but it’s not necessarily something people give a great deal of consideration to. A lot of speakers, especially those from larger and more established manufacturers are offered in a number of finishes.
How much weight you put into keeping a harmonious domicile of balanced aesthetics will have a bearing on how much this actually matters to your purchase, but take a minute to think about the role you want your speakers to play in your listening space.
Do you want them to be a feature? Maybe a rosewood finish to help them pop. Are they sat alongside a large cabinet? Walnut could be the go. Next to your Steinway baby grand? Gloss black might be a good choice, though we sincerely hope you own a dusting cloth.
Monitor Audio Gold 300s, pictured in a regular, everyday living room
Placement + room size
There’s another aspect to speaker assessment that we feel is sometimes overlooked, especially if you’re doing your research online and buying without assistance from a living, breathing human (I am one, and hopefully I’m helping).
If you want to coerce the best possible performance from your speakers, you must experiment with placement in your listening space.
Proximity to walls both behind and to the side of the speaker can have a substantial effect on lower-end frequencies, and you might find that a rear-ported model sounds slow and boomy if too close to the rear wall.
As someone that’s worked in a customer support role I still have flashbacks to a video a budding hifi enthusiast sent in complaining of a lack of low end from his speakers. They were placed a few centimeters beneath the ceiling on a tall steel frame in the middle of a room that would’ve been suitably sized for accommodating a herd of cattle. So rather than exaggerating the bass frequencies, they were getting lost in all that space.
And if you want to get a little more nuanced, you can also try toeing the speakers in towards your listening position. This can affect what’s called the soundstage. Think of it as the width of the sound; an imaginary performance taking place in front of you.
Toeing the speakers means pivoting them slightly so they point towards the listening position. There's no right or wrong way of doing this, it's completely dependent on the speakers.
Speakers that can conjure a great soundstage make it seem as if the music is coming from an actual stage in front of you, the speakers almost ‘disappearing’ if you close your eyes.
It’s up to you to find the perfect spot, we’re just urging you to be aware of the improvements that considered placement can make.
Floorstander v standmounts, aka bookshelf speakers
There’s two key speaker designs in terms of dimensions; standmounts and floorstander.
Bookshelf speakers, often referred to as standmounts (they sit much more comfortably on a stand than on an actual bookshelf) are a smaller box that are a little more versatile with placement, whereas floorstanders feature a much larger cabinet and work well in larger rooms.
The Pro-Ject Speakerbox 10. These are a slender floorstanding model, suitable for smaller listening spaces.
How do you know which style is right for you?
A lot of this comes down to personal preference and how you want them to look in your listening room, though larger speakers are capable of pushing out more noise, so if you’re in a relatively small space you’d do well to avoid large floorstanders in a small room and vice versa for small standmounts. Simple enough.
Adding a subwoofer
It’s rare for a pair of hi-fi speakers from a reputable manufacturer to be extraneously deficient in lower-end frequencies, though it’s true that some aren’t as capably sonorous as others.
That said, standmount speakers, especially more compact models, have the advantage of a smaller footprint that suits listeners with limited space. But sometimes they need a bit of a helping hand with the lower end. In these cases a subwoofer can be a sage investment.
Subwoofers are often thought of as part of a home theatre setup, adding thunderous low end to an action blockbuster or maybe a high-octane video game. But you might be surprised at how they can add a bit of low end heft to speakers with modest bass output.
Two smaller standmount speakers paired with a subwoofer, typically referred to as a 2.1 setup.
It’s not just electronic genres with a huge four-on-the-floor kick drum that’ll benefit from a bass boost either, you’ll be astounded how much richer classic rock or soul recordings sound with a bit more bass extension.
Another note, we’ve already spoken about how important speaker placement is because of the effect it has on the lower tones in your listening space, and the same rules apply to subwoofers.
If you do decide to invest in some extra rumble for your setup, make sure you tinker with the sub’s placement before you decide that you should’ve bought a bigger one. Bass frequencies can behave in very strange ways.
It might work just fine if you set your sub to one side of your speakers, but if it’s placed in a corner you might find yourself wondering where your low end has gone. Close to the wall might work, away from the wall could suit, even behind your listening position.
There’s no golden rule here, so some shuffling and re-shuffling may be the order of the day. Just make sure you’ve got some assistance from a trolley or another human. Your speakers and sub won’t be much use in your hospital bed after corrective spinal surgery.
Ah, yes. A hifi debate as old and immovable as the trees. Do different cables make a measurable difference to your sound? This article hasn’t been written with the aim of starting wars so we’ll keep this very simple.
When purchasing speaker cable, we’d suggest seeking out cables that are sturdily built and well-insulated. Properly-shielded cable will do more to block noise-inducing interference than one with a thin layer of plastic around it and will possibly improve dynamics, bass control, clarity, and other aspects of your sound.
Is it worth forking out hundreds or even thousands of dollars on speakers cables? That’s down to your personal beliefs and your budget, but you can assuredly get a terrific sound from affordable cables.
A lot of guides will emphasise the importance of auditioning speakers before you buy. Whilst that’s certainly good advice, for some people it isn't feasible. The current situation with Covid-19 has made going out for shopping much more challenging than was previously the case, especially for those with pre-existing health conditions.
The other reality of living in Australia away from an urban centre is that getting to a store to audition can mean hours on the road.
Fear not, us good folks at Instant Classic offer you 30 days to decide if you’re happy with your purchase or not. And as good as a pair of speakers might sound in a hifi store, a hifi store isn’t your lounge room. The only way to get a good indicator of how they’re going to sound in your home is to get them into your home!
Which amplifier do I need?
Certain speakers require certain amounts of power, and some amplifiers simply don’t have the capability to drive some power-hungry speakers. Good news! We’ve written an entire blog on it! Check it out over here.
And that brings us to the end of part 1. For those wanting to delve a little deeper, part 2 is over here.