In these heady days of 5.1+ surround speaker sets and wireless speakers, it's easy to lose sight of some of the basics. The fact remains, when it comes to pissing off the neighbors, nothing does the trick like a good pair of floorstanding speakers. They're the solid bedrock upon which you can build the stereo system of your dreams.
Floorstanding speakers have been a cornerstone of home audio systems for decades. Also known as tower speakers, they are able to deliver a big and full sound that’s difficult to match. Even as more complex home theater systems have become common, they remain the go-to workhorses that provide the most important part of surround sound. If you’re just starting out looking for a set of floorstanding speakers, the choices may seem overwhelming at first. Arming yourself with some knowledge beforehand can save a lot of time and headaches, and prevent you from winding up with a set of speakers that doesn’t suit your needs.
It’s important to choose the right speakers for several reasons. First, speakers are an investment you will likely have to live with for years to come. Second, they are possibly the most important part of your sound system. A great receiver paired with a subpar set of speakers likely won’t be able to produce satisfactory sound quality. So, where is the best place to start?
Before going forward with a set of floorstanding speakers, it’s a good idea to make sure that they are the right type of speaker for your needs. The main alternative to tower speakers is bookshelf speakers. As their name suggests, bookshelf speakers are smaller than their floorstanding counterparts. However, an actual bookshelf may not be the best place for a pair; this is because the shelves will absorb a great deal of the sound produced, lessening their efficiency. The recommended setup for bookshelf speakers is to put them on specialized stands.
Bookshelf speakers are more favorable for stereos in places like a bedroom or study, where they take up less space and the sound is more likely to be played at lower volumes. They also tend to suffer less from cabinet resonance, which is what happens when the drivers vibrate the speakers’ cabinets and distort the sound—though well-designed floorstanders, such as the Klipsch models, don’t have this problem. For some people, the decision comes down to cost, since speakers of the bookshelf variety can be less expensive than floorstanding speakers, though they under-perform in terms of bass response, and their size limits the number and size of drivers they can contain, resulting in limited loudness and fullness of sound.
In cases where budget, space, or noise restrictions limit options, bookshelf speakers may suffice. But if you’re looking for a loud, full sound with plenty of bass response (which is what most cinephiles and music aficionados prefer), then a good set of floorstanding speakers should be your go-to choice.
Let’s take a look at what makes up a floorstanding speaker. First, they are the largest type of standard speakers found in the home. They’re typically at least 3 to 4 feet tall with a footprint at least 1 square foot, although they can be much larger. And they contain several drivers, which produce sound through vibration, to allow for a wide range of sound. How many and what type of drivers vary from model to model.
There are four types of drivers, each responsible for a particular frequency range. The human ear can perceive sounds ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz. A given driver’s size depends partly on what its range is. Higher ranges have shorter soundwaves, so their drivers can be smaller. Conversely, lower frequencies have longer soundwaves, requiring larger drivers. The different type of drivers are:
These small drivers, named for the high pitch sounds birds make, are usually found at the top of the speaker, and generally emit sounds at high frequencies ranging from 2,000 to 30,000 Hz. There are three types of tweeters that are common in floorstanding speakers:
These handle sounds ranging from 500to 2,000 Hz. This is the range that instruments and the human voice falls within, which means having a satisfactory midrange driver is crucial. Like tweeters, they can be made of different materials, which will affect sound quality. Some highly engineered horn tweeters can also serve as midrange drivers, since a horn tweeter actually resonates in that frequency range (around 1000-2000Hz) which adds acoustic energy into the sound of the speaker, making it easier to match the tweeter to the woofer since the 1000-2000Hz range has a little more energy.
Named for the low-pitch noises dogs make, these drivers produce lower frequency sounds, ranging from 40 to 1,000 Hz or higher. Woofers are known for having a high-quality bass response. The superior bass performance of woofers in tower speakers is one reason they are often chosen over smaller, bookshelf speakers.
These drivers magnify bass sounds, with a range of 20 to 200 Hz. Sounds of this frequency are non-directional, meaning that there is some flexibility in where they are placed in a room. In some cases, subwoofers are used with smaller speakers to bypass the need for large tower speakers. In a true home theater system, a subwoofer is necessary to properly reproduce the LFE (low frequency effects) channel.
The next major part of a tower speaker is its cabinet. The cabinet should be well constructed and anti-resonant, meaning that it is sturdy but won’t cause sound distortion by being vibrated by the sound emitted by its drivers. When choosing a floorstanding speaker, consideration should also be given to how the cabinet material and finish will fit within the room’s aesthetics; wood and wood finishes are popular materials used in speaker cabinets that will compliment many decors.
Looking at a cabinet’s footing is important as well. If you have hard floors (e.g., wood, linoleum, etc.), look for rubber or padded feet. If you have carpet, look for carpet spikes that will hold the speaker in place. Do not use spikes on hard surfaces, as they will scratch the floor’s surface.
Tower speakers can come in several different configurations but there are three main classifications, named simply for the number of drivers each contains:
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the different types of speakers, it’s time to consider what size you will need. Of course, you will need to make sure that the speakers will physically fit within the space you intend for it. If space is going to be limited, measure it and use it as a maximum size for the speaker’s footprint.
As a general rule, the bigger the speaker the louder the sound, and vice versa. What size (and therefore loudness) you choose is a matter of its location and personal preferences. Room size plays a big factor; bigger rooms will need bigger speakers to fill the room with sound. Smaller rooms require less, but if you like loud sound you may still want to consider a larger speaker.
The materials used in the room also make a difference - floors, walls, ceilings, furniture, and decorations all make a difference in a room’s acoustics. In general, softer materials (e.g., carpet) tend to absorb and dampen sound. Hard surfaces (wood, plaster, linoleum, etc.) tend to have the opposite effect, reflecting soundwaves which can cause an increase in volume and even some distortion. If you are having problems with a such a room, there are several options available to you, such as installing carpet or even wall-hanging sound dampeners. Klipsch speakers with controlled directivity minimize adverse reactions with room acoustics because they focus the sound into the listening area, reducing reflections and, thus, variation in response or added distortion.
A floorstanding speaker is rarely used by itself. Since stereo sound became popularized in the mid-to-late 20th century, sound recordings have been made with at least two, if not more, channels of sound. Stereo sound, which has two channels, adds the illusion of space by having two speakers create the impression of multi-directional sound being produced. Surround sound, which was created for film in the 1970s and popularized in home theater equipment in the 1990s, utilizes 5 or more channels of sound, expanding the number of speakers to increase the multi-directional effect.
Common sets of surround speakers come in 5.1 and 7.1 speaker configurations. In a five-speaker system, there are pairs of two front and rear or side speakers along with a single center channel, with the .1 being made up of a subwoofer. A 7.1 speaker setup is also possible, with a similar form as the 5.1 except that there are two rear and two side speakers.
In addition to listening to a prospective set of speakers before buying, it’s important to look at any given speaker’s specifications. Although specifications can do little to define the quality of a given speaker’s sound, every model is required to provide a set of specs to the consumer, and it is important to understand what they mean and how they are derived to make an informed decision. Some key specifications to review are:
Frequency response - Measured in Herz (Hz), this is the frequency range that the speaker is able to produce. Floorstanding speakers use multiple drivers to produce a wide range in frequency.
Impedance - Measured in ohms, impedance measures current resistance impacting what load the speaker can handle coming from the amplifier. The actual amount of current is usually in a state of constant flux, but speakers are usually given a single nominal rating for ease of comparison. Common impedance values are 4, 8, and 16 ohms. It’s important to match the speaker’s impedance to that of your amp; mismatches can result in sound problems or damage to your equipment.
Sensitivity - Measures how efficiently the speaker converts power into sound. It’s measured in decibels (dB), and is usually measured by loading the drivers with 1 watt of power and measuring how loud the sound is that is produced. The lower the rating the less is its efficiency, and just a few decibels difference can have a big impact. For every three decibels in a sensitivity rating, you cut the amount of power required in half. Tower speakers usually have a high sensitivity rating in relation to other types of speakers. In other words, a speaker with 88 db @ 2.3V / 1 m needs ten times the power of a Klipsch speaker with 98 db @ 2.3V / 1m. So, if you put 100 watts into the Klipsch speaker, it requires 1000 watts in the other speaker for the same volume. YIKES!
There are other small yet important details that one should review when looking for floorstanding speakers. The first is the type of wire terminal found on the speaker. There are two types - spring clip and building post terminals. Spring clips are typically found on lower end models, and work with bare wire and pin type connections. Building post terminals are sturdier and more versatile, allowing for connections with several types of wires. It is also possible to tighten building post terminals to strengthen the connection.
There are a couple of different configurations for the number of terminals. The most common is to have a single set of terminals. In this case there is a single connection to the speaker, with a crossover determining which part of the signer goes to which driver.
Some speakers have two sets of terminals, with one being for low-frequency drivers and the other being for high-frequency. This way, each frequency range is capable of receiving a dedicated channel. To take full advantage of the two-set terminal configuration, it is necessary to have an amplifier that provides that differentiation. If your receiver doesn’t provide for the two channels, you can still connect them by either jumping the two sets of terminals, or running two sets of wires from the same terminals on the receiver to the two sets of speaker terminals.
Tower speakers are frequently used for the front right and left channels in home theater systems. As such, they can make up a critical component of the surround system, providing a louder and wider range of sound than the rest of the setup. As a result, when buying surround speakers as components on a budget, it often makes sense to spend a greater portion of the budget on the floorstanding speakers than on the remainder of the set.
It’s recommended to buy all of the speakers from the same model line, or at least the same manufacturer, to help ensure they will work to provide a seamless sound experience. Before buying, it is always best to listen to all of the speakers working together as a set. We all want to hear what a set sounds like together before we make a purchase ... or we can trust the quality speakers from the “Keepers of Sound - Klipsch.”
Once you have found an audio setup with floorstanding speakers that you will like, you will never go back to using your TV's wimpy built-in speakers. And after your have made your purchase, you will, of course, still need to install them properly. We're here to help! Rock on.
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