Our cup runneth over with options for music and cinema media. We can consume CDs, mp3s, Blurays, DVDs, broadcast, streaming, LPs, and even movies and music of our own making. But regardless of your content, in the end you will need to play them back through a set of two or (many) more speakers. Your speakers are the translators from the electronic medium to the acoustical world that humans live in.
The task of a speaker is straight forward: reproduce an original acoustical event exactly as it was recorded without altering it’s timbre or spacial quality. Unfortunately in practice that’s impossible. Every speaker alters the sound it reproduces no matter how much money you throw at it. In the end, your choice of speakers boils down to which set of compromises you can live with.
I am going to acknowledge a bias that should not come as a surprise to anyone, I’m a purist. For me the ultimate priority is the quality of audio reproduction. I’m willing to give the speakers in my home the correct placement, space and surroundings so that they will sound ideal. Our best speakers are typically floor-standing models with multiple drivers that will take up as little space as little space as a floor lamp and as much space as a refrigerator. There has been much work done in the last 50 years of hi-fi to reduce the impact of speakers on the room but in the end, those dedicated to getting the best sound possible will spend thousands of dollars on some pretty imposing lumber.
At the other end of the spectrum there, are music and cinema enthusiast that want to enjoy their tunes but can’t put up with totem pole sized speakers in their home. For those more concerned with aesthetics one of the most popular options is to opt for speakers installed in their walls and ceilings. With in-wall/ceiling speakers only a small grill is visible in the room and they can typically be painted to match the wall.
The big compromise with this option is that we rely on dry-wall and stick framing to make up the enclosure for the speaker. Conventional floor-standing speakers use extremely carefully engineered enclosures. That all goes out the window as soon as we screw a speaker baffle into a wall There are of course in-wall/ceiling speakers that make use of a complete engineered enclosure in the wall. They can work pretty well but at a high cost and we still run into the problem of vibrating the whole wall or ceiling when we install a speaker into the drywall.
A popular compromise is to use miniature “satellite” speaker with a subwoofer. The speakers could be small enough to hold in the palm of your hand while a separate subwoofer which reproduces the bass can be hidden almost anywhere in the room. This format has been hugely popular for the last two decades especially for home theatre systems that require five or more speakers in the room. The key to success is to insure that the satellite is capable of reproducing enough bass on its own so that no human speech/vocals is reproduced by the subwoofer. The illusion is shattered if Darth Vader’s voice is coming from the subwoofer under your coffee table and from your speaker at the same time.
Many of the Sub/Sat speaker combinations sold over the years that used satellites were far too small to provide a convincing performance. Thankfully the desire to have satellite speakers match flat panel TVs in appearance led to satellites that were large enough to provide a convincing performance. It is ironic that improving the look of the speakers around our TVs has also improved their sound.
Even with all the advances in technology we have enjoyed over the last decades we still can not overcome the truism “you can’t get something for nothing.” When it comes to speakers the continuum between invisibility and intrusiveness is inversely related to sound quality. In the end it is up to the individual to decide where they wish to compromise between the cosmetic quality of their room or the richness of sound.