The loudspeaker system is the most personal part of any HD setup

The loudspeaker system is the interface between you and the rest of the system – and consequently among its most important parts. The loudspeaker does the hardest job of any item in a home theatre system: it converts an electrical signal into vibrating pressure waves in the air, and this is inherently a very difficult thing to do accurately. Consequently of all the parts of a home theatre system, one brand or model of loudspeaker will sound far more different to another brand or model than is likely to be the case with the home theatre receiver or source device.

That means that picking the right loudspeakers will often be the most important part of making your system sound the way you want it to. There are three main ways to approach this, with the options for surround sound being a:

  • Surround speaker package
  • Home theatre in a box
  • Soundbar

The first describes a full set of specialised surround loudspeakers, while ‘home theatre in a box’ refers to a set of speakers packaged with a home theatre receiver (and sometimes with a built-in DVD player). The last uses some of the advances of modern technology to deliver surround sound into your room without a need for the full set of loudspeakers. We shall deal with all these options in the next three chapters.

Achieving balance

One thing you may have noticed missing from those three is a set of surround loudspeakers assembled item by separate item. This kind of system is possible, but we recommend against it. The reason is balance. Just as we believe your sound system should be balanced in price, performance and ‘size’ with your video display system, so we think that the speakers should be balanced with each other.

To put that another way, in order to get the best surround performance all your loudspeakers need to be tonally balanced against each other. If they aren’t, then the surround sound will be far from convincing. The easiest way to achieve this balance is to assemble a set of loudspeakers from a specific range provided by single reputable manufacturer. These will have all been designed to provide similar tonal characteristics, and thus excellent surround sound.

Space, numbers and looks

Beyond that, and making a final choice as to sound quality (see ‘The Audition’), there is a wide range of things that you may want to take into account.

First, how much space do you have? A small listening area may lead you to choose ‘satellite’ speakers, tiny things with no bass that you can screw to a wall. For these, all the bass is delivered by a subwoofer.

A large space would be ill-served by satellite speakers. Instead this may demand large loudspeakers with a high sensitivity. ‘Sensitivity’ in this context has nothing to do with feelings, but the efficiency with which a loudspeaker turns amplifier power into sound. A higher sensitivity loudspeaker (rated at 90dB or higher) provides much higher volume levels from a given home theatre receiver than a low sensitivity loudspeaker.

You may also want to consider whether 5.1 channels will meet your needs, or if 7.1 channels will work better. While 7.1 channel material constitutes only a very small proportion of the discs on offer, 7.1 channel speaker systems can improve the surround effect in some cases. The main advantage is in larger rooms where some of the movie watchers tend to be towards one side wall or the other.

Also on the subject of fitting in, there are aesthetics to consider. Loudspeaker styles occupy a gamut as wide in range as furniture styles, so you should be able to find something that looks good in your room.

As a general rule, higher sensitivity loudspeakers in larger, heavier boxes and with the greatest power handling provide the best performance. But there is little in this field that is absolute. Innovative loudspeaker companies keep on breaking rules and delivering more for less.

high definition lifestyle

If you don’t like the feeling of being in a room full of speakers, flush-mount models can be installed inside the wall and painted to seamlessly blend with the decor

GadgetGuy tip – smaller speaker options

Sometimes we simply can’t have 7.1, or even 5.1, channels of large speaker boxes in our home environments. Perhaps our space, or our decor, or even another family member, will not permit it.

If that applies to you, you need not feel left out for there are several ‘almost invisible’ speaker options. There are tiny satellite speakers with a hidden subwoofer. There are loudspeakers providing decent performance, but in compact, shallow enclosures that do not intrude much upon a room, or there are in-wall loudspeakers.

None of these will perform quite as well as professionally designed, carefully located, individual loudspeaker boxes, but they can still do a very strong job. The ranges on offer are enormous, and some require installation (eg. in-wall). Or you may prefer to mix and match. For example, some installations use normal loudspeakers for front, centre and surround, and in-wall (or in-ceiling) speakers for the rear channels.