Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 

 

 

Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.

Column #40 (09/19/02)

In-Wall Speakers

Question:

Thanks for the informative writing. We have just purchased a 4:3 36" HD-ready TV (Sony).  Next step is a receiver and speakers to replace a 20 year old Sony receiver & Marantz speakers (4) that do double duty as end tables. The viewing/listening room is a pretty typical 12 x 17 in a modest 1,000 sq. ft. home. The thought is to go with recessed speakers this time in an effort to conserve space and minimize material clutter.  The speakers will provide audio for the TV and music listening.  My ears are 50 something.  I've poked about on Google with "in-wall speaker" as the subject.  You can imagine the range of products and prices. So enough already with the build up.  What's the question?

On average, what might one expect to pay per speaker or per pair for a "good sound" surround set up based upon a, say, 6.1 system with its own home theatre receiver? It's been suggested that the front pair be in-wall facing one another while the back pair be in-ceiling (facing down of course... Duh!).

AskAvi Responds:

In-wall speakers have several major problems to overcome: 

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You can't position them ideally in the room - once you cut a hole, that's where the speaker is going

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Basic acoustics dictate that most speakers sound best at least 2' out into a room - that's obviously not happening when the speaker is in the wall

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In most cases, an in-wall speaker causes the wall itself to vibrate along with the speaker cone, particularly at mid-bass and bass frequencies and any time you play it really loud.  This is not good - makes everything sound muddy.

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You're still going to need a subwoofer that physically sits in the room somewhere, though it can often be hidden behind a couch. 

For these reasons, from a "best sound" perspective, in-walls are best for background music or surround speakers, not main music or home theater speakers.  I have not violated my drywall and auditioned any in-walls, so I don't have specific recommendations.  But it's pretty clear that if you plan to use in-walls as your main speakers you should go with models from manufacturers that have taken steps to overcome the problems inherent in the design.  The tweeters should be adjustable to fire towards the primary listening position, their frequency response should be adjusted to compensate for flush mounting, and the cabinet should be as physically and acoustically separate from the wall cavity as possible. 

Speakers meeting these specs are in the $1000 - $1500 range (each), and you'll also need to budget $800 - 1500 for a good subwoofer to go with them.  Another option is to go with on-ceiling speakers all the way around.  THIEL makes a triangular shaped single-driver speaker for $1300 (each) called the PowerPoint.  They are small, unobtrusive, and take up no floor space.  I haven't personally auditioned these either, but the magazine and online reviews suggest that they are spectacular, and, in this case, I believe the reviews.  THIEL is a well known high end manufacturer and there are inherent benefits to a single driver design - no crossovers, better imaging, and since it isn't actually in the wall, it won't interact with it in the same way.

Of course, if you're willing to put big boxy speakers in your room, you can spend considerably less - a tremendous number of good speaker packages can be had in the $2250-3000 range, including subwoofer.  A short list of manufacturers to consider here (these I have auditioned extensively) includes PSB, Paradigm, Definitive Technologies, Atlantic Technologies, and Polk.  Spend a bit more ($4,000 - 7,500) and you can buy from M&K*, B&W, or Snell.  Spend more than that and you're chasing questionable performance gains.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but most folks are better served putting their money to different use.

Surround sound receivers that have adequate power, low amplifier distortion, and 6.1 surround capabilities start with Outlaw Audio's 1050 ($500), though it's easy to justify spending more (about $1000) for models from Denon, Onkyo, or Yamaha.  For your extra money you'll get additional oomph for those wild parties you Baby Boomers are always throwing, along with sophisticated video switching and better surround processing modes.  Above the $1000 mark, you start entering the Land of Diminishing Returns, a lovely land where you may get marginally better sound, marginally useful additional power, THX certification and processing modes, more sophisticated remote controls, and added setup flexibility.

-avi

*I've been lusting after M&K's S150THX speakers (nearly identical to M&K's professional monitors used to mix movies at Skywalker sound's mixing stages); they're about $1,000 each... 

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2001, 2002 Avi Greengart