How to Shop for a Surround Sound Speaker System -
Adrienne Maxwell, October, 2005
Audio myth #1: You have to be a hardcore audiophile to hear and appreciate the way a good speaker system can complete your home entertainment experience.
Audio myth #2: You have to pay a fortune to get such a system. You just have to be a smart, prepared shopper.
You've already taken the first step by doing you're research. After all, you're reading this article, aren't you? Now, take a good, hard look at the room in which you're putting your speakers before you begin shopping, ideally from the main seating area. Draw a quick sketch of the room's shape, contents, windows and openings to other rooms; take this with you when you shop. Where do you plan to put each speaker? If you plan to buy smaller speakers, will you put them on the floor or mount them on the wall? This will determine if you need speaker stands or wall-mounting brackets. Is there even wall space available in the needed locations? Perhaps the room has a lot of windows. If so, you may need to consider in-ceiling speakers. Is there an available area above or below your TV where you can place the center channel? Where is the subwoofer going to sit? How big is the room? Consider measuring its length, width and (if you're feeling ambitious) height. Knowing the room's volume can help your future salesperson pick a system that has the necessary gusto to immerse the room in sound.
Determine how many speakers you want and can afford. Surround sound doesn't just mean five speakers and a subwoofer anymore. Some experts recommend 5.2 (five speakers, two subs) for more complete, even bass response. The rise of Dolby EX and DTS ES soundtracks on DVDs means you might want to build a 6.1- or 7.1-channel speaker system that features, in addition to your five speakers and a subwoofer, two more side surround speakers and one or two rear surrounds.
Obviously, your room's size and layout are big factors in determining how many speakers you need and can accommodate. Your electronics are another factor. If you want more speakers or subwoofers, you may need a new receiver that offers the right amount of amplification. A knowledgeable salesperson can help you determine an appropriate speaker configuration for your room. When in doubt, go 5.1; this tried-and-true setup will be fine for most people.
Consider the speaker-cable dilemma. Are you willing to run speaker cables around the room or through the walls to your surround speakers? If not, you might want to consider one of the new wireless speaker systems, some of which offer just wireless surround speakers. (Be careful: You usually still have to plug a "wireless" speaker into an electrical outlet.) Samsung recently introduced some home-theater-in-a-box systems with wireless rear speakers. Or consider a pseudo-surround system that does not include surround speakers; instead, it employs special sound processing to create the illusion of surround sound from fewer speakers. KEF's Instant Theater, for example, has only two front speakers, but the illusion of surround sound.
Write down the model numbers of the gear you already own, such a receiver. Take this information with you.
Take some of your favorite CDs and DVDs with you. Whether you buy the speakers from a huge retail chain or a small specialty shop, you should always audition them with material you know. If any salesperson refuses to let you do so, shop elsewhere.
Try to shop during off-peak hours. Take an A/V "sick day" so you're not fighting with the weekend masses, both inside and on the way to the stores. Not only will this significantly lower your stress level and allow you to enjoy the experience, but you'll also get needed attention from the sales staff to answer your questions and offer advice.
Add at least a couple of small, specialty A/V stores to your shopping route, even if you're on a limited budget. Specialty stores carry brands that you won't find at the huge retailers, and it never hurts to broaden your horizons while you browse. You might discover a fantastic system at a reasonable price from a manufacturer you've never even heard of. And, generally speaking, the salespeople at specialty stores are better trained to look at your room diagram and gear list and narrow down your speaker search.
While you're there, ask for a demo of some quality speaker systems that are slightly out of your price range--and at least one that's way out of your price range. Have some fun hearing what a difference higher-quality audio can make . . . and you will hear a difference. Maybe you'll decide to up your budget and buy a slightly more expensive setup, or maybe you'll find a system worth saving for when you're ready to upgrade down the road.
Take your time. Listen to as many music and movie demos as you need to get a feel for the speakers. It's your hard-earned money, and you shouldn't let anyone urge you to make up your mind before you're ready.
If you're feeling saucy, buy a sound level meter. I know it sounds intimidating, but if you're committed, this inexpensive device is a simple but indispensable tool to help you set up your system. You can buy one at RadioShack (www.radioshack.com), for as little as $40. What does it do? It measures each speaker's sound output level. In a cohesive, well-balanced system, the sound output at the listening position will be the same from each speaker.
Remember and reward good service, wherever you find it. Remember the name of a helpful salesperson as you make your way to the register. Don't spend all afternoon getting great advice from a specialty retailer, only to buy the same system at a huge retailer to save $30. Good sound is truly addictive, and it's important to build relationships with knowledgeable, trustworthy salespeople whom you can turn to whenever the urge strikes to go bigger and better.