Packaged systems take the guesswork out of buying the most important part of any surround-sound system. We'll go through their component speakers and let you know what to look for.
You can choose from miniature 10cm satellites or move up to hulking tower speakers. There's a size and shape for every taste. While the best small speakers can sound awfully good, they produce less bass and have loudness limitations compared to larger speakers. Full-size, 96cm tall or larger tower speakers frequently offer the best overall sound, though midsize 30-40 cm bookshelf speakers may be the best compromise for sound-conscious buyers who can't accept the visual intrusion of full-size speakers.
The same logic applies to the vitally important centre speaker, which is responsible for reproducing a large part of your DVD's dialogue, effects and music. The smallest 18cm-wide models are the least visually intrusive but most sonically compromised.
A standard 5.1 system uses a pair of surround speakers, located to the sides of the main listening position. The newer Dolby EX/DTS ES 6.1 systems add either one or two surround speakers, centred behind the main listening position.
Subwoofers supply deeper bass than satellite speakers. Once again, cabinet and driver size play a large part in predicting bass quality and quantity. Lower-end HTIB models are called passive, meaning the receiver's amplifier powers the subwoofer. Higher-quality subwoofers are powered, as they have their own onboard power amps.
Individual speakers come in three flavours:
- One-way -- woofer only
- Two-way -- woofer and tweeter
- Three-way -- woofer, tweeter and midrange
Generally speaking, two-way speakers produce better sound than the one-way designs found on many entry-level HTIB systems. And three-way speakers usually sound better than two-ways. Some designs add one or more extra woofers, though multiple woofer, or midranges don't increase the "ways" of a speaker -- a speaker with two woofers, one midrange and one tweeter is still a three-way speaker. Multidriver speakers are usually pricier than speakers with fewer drivers.
Low-profile on-wall speakers are the perfect sonic solution for wall-mounted plasma and flat-panel TVs. Some models are designed to visually complement wall-mounted TVs. On-wall speakers can also be a better-sounding alternative to in-wall speakers. For apartment dwellers, on-wall speakers free up floor space.
Most lower-priced speakers use spring-loaded connectors, which may not provide the most secure grip on the wires. Binding posts are better and work with bare wire leads, spades (U-shaped connectors), or handiest of all, banana jacks (bowed, banana-shaped male jacks). You can get banana jacks at specialty audio stores or your local Tandy or Dick Smith.
Some higher-end speakers have biwire capability -- two sets of female connectors. One set of connectors are for the tweeter and another set hooks up to the woofer; many cable manufacturers offer special biwire cables. Biwiring may produce slightly better sound with more detail and higher-definition bass than the standard single-wire method.