Choosing Hi-Fi Speakers
A good pair of hi-fi speakers should last for many years, but with the many designs on the market, and a multitude of speaker manufacturers, making the right choice can be difficult.
Having a long passion for audio and electronics, I’ve put together this basic guide to buying hi-fi speakers based on my knowledge and first-hand experience. I’ve set out the guide in such a way as to make it easy to skip over any points you may be familiar with.
Ten things to take into consideration when buying hi-fi speakers are – not necessarily in order of importance – impedance, power handling, design, size, finish, specifications, placement, auditioning, price, and sound.
Make sure the impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), matches your amplifier’s output. You don’t have to have an extensive knowledge of electronics to do this, just look at the back or your amplifier, or your amplifier’s specifications, and it will give a clear indication. You might see, for example, ‘4-16 ohms’. This means that any speaker rated from four to sixteen ohms will be ok. As a general rule it’s alright to use a speaker of greater impedance than specified. For example, plugging a 16 ohm speaker into an amplifier that specifies 8 ohms is quite acceptable. However, plugging a speaker of lower impedance than specified - such as connecting 4 ohm speakers to an amplifier that specifies 8 ohms - is not a good idea, as you risk overloading the amplifier.
It used to be conventional wisdom that speakers should be able to handle twice the amount of power the amplifier can give, i.e. if your amplifier’s output is 50 watts per channel, your speakers should be rated at 100 watts. However, nowadays this is not the case. Instead, speaker manufacturers tend to give suggested amplifier power ratings for their speakers. The photo on the right shows an information sticker attached to the back of a speaker, clearly stating the speaker's impedance, 8 ohms, and suggested amplifier power ratings, 15-175 watts.
It’s important to realize that hi-fi speakers are not sound reinforcement/PA/disco speakers. Many will go extremely loud in a living room, but they are not designed for anything more than that.
The three basic speaker designs you’re likely to come across on the high street are: reflex, acoustic suspension, and transmission line. Reflex speakers have ports (holes), usually at the front or back, acoustic suspension speakers don’t, and are completely sealed, and transmission lines have long ducts inside the cabinet terminating in a port, again, usually at the front or back. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages therefore it can’t be said that one is automatically better than the other. The important thing is how much thought the manufacturers have put into making their speakers sound good, using the design principle they have adopted.
Decide whether you want floor standing speakers (quite tall, and often thin, speakers specifically designed to be place on the floor), stand mounted speakers (designed to be placed on stands), and bookshelf speakers (usually smaller speakers designed to go on shelves or stands). It’s worth bearing in mind that stand and bookshelf speakers really do sound better if they are placed on proper speaker stands.
Speaker cabinets come in a variety of finishes and colours. Which to choose is a matter of personal taste. Real wood veneer is attractive, and can also be treated quite easily in the case of it being scratched or damaged. High gloss black has a very classy look, but clearly shows finger marks and dust, and is much harder to repair if the finish is damaged. Personally I would avoid anything outlandish, such as bright colours or designs. What might look trendy now will probably look dated within a short space of time.
Specification sheets should only be used as a guideline, as they can be misleading. Provided that the impedance and power handling match the amplifier you will be using, it’s best to let your ears decide which are the better speakers, and not your eyes.
If you intend to place stand or bookshelf speakers on the floor, or behind your sofa, my advice would be to just buy a cheap pair of speakers. The quality of hi-fi speakers will be significantly compromised if they – and you – are not positioned correctly. As a general rule, avoid placing speakers in corners, and too close to walls (manufacturers will often give their recommended distances from walls and corners). Also, try to have the speaker’s 1.5 times as far away from you as from each other, at the same height, with the tweeters close to ear level, and pointing inwards slightly. In the shop try to position yourself as close as possible to this ideal. Standing right next to a speaker is not the best place to be to assess its sound quality.
Make sure you hear the speakers through a CD player and amplifier comparable to the one you will be using them with. This is very important as most speakers will sound significantly better when fed from the most expensive amplifier and CD player in the shop. Also, audition the speakers using CDs of your choice. Preferably take your own, and choose tracks that you believe will best demonstrate the speaker's full audio potential. I always take along the CD I recorded, Sometime Somewhere..., as I’m more familiar with this than with any other CD, in addition to one or two others, with tracks carefully chosen to put the speaker's frequency response to the test.
It's worth bearing in mind that even if the shop uses the same CD player and amplifier as you, there's still a good chance the speakers won't sound quite as good in your home. This is due to the acoustic environment, which is probably more 'speaker friendly' in the shop.
This is simple. Generally, the more you pay, the better the speaker is going to sound. But it’s very much a case of diminishing returns. For example, it’s reasonable to expect £500 speakers to sound significantly better than £100 speakers, but £1,500 speakers will usually only sound a little better than £1,000 speakers. Before buying speakers decide on your price range and then audition as many as you can in that range.
Also, the price of the speakers should reflect the price of the CD player and amplifier you intend to use them with. Expensive speakers are not going to sound good with a cheap CD player and amplifier.
At the end of the day, the secret to choosing a pair of speakers that you will keep, and enjoy listening to for years to come, is first and foremost to use your ears. It seems obvious, and it may not be the advice you wanted to read, but I really can’t stress enough the importance. Of the four pairs of hi-fi speakers I have bought over the past 25 years, the two pairs bought based on reviews alone I’ve never really been content with, whereas the two pairs bought using my own judgment I’m extremely pleased with. By all means read reviews and listen to the opinions of others, but let your own ears be the final judge.