Speaker Buying Guide

Here’s a hard pill to swallow: The speakers playing your music often matter more than the vinyl it is on. To get the most dynamic range from your records an investment in a decent pair of speakers is a must. With so many options, it can be hard to cut through the noise and find ones that are best suited to your needs. Though we’re not claiming to know it all here, this speaker buying guide is enough to get you started on your quest to find a pair of speakers.

Before You Start

Take into account these considerations before researching new speakers:

  1. Size of Room – The bigger the room, the more powerful the speaker. If you’re keeping it to small living spaces a set of small bookshelf speakers might be all you need. Consider increasing power, and size, if your space is bigger.
  2. Use of Speakers – Just vinyl? Maybe some TV or video games as well? Definitely important to consider all the formats your new speakers will be playing. Many appreciate the warm sound of vinyl and might only look for speakers that complement that. If you’re watching Transformers later that night, those speakers might not be the best. Consider the balance needed to accommodate how you will use them.
  3. Existing Gear – Speakers are expensive as is, much more so if you have to buy new gear for them to work properly. Do you have an amplifier or receiver? Do you need one? Make sure the gear you have if compatible with the gear you want. Our guide to amplifiers and receivers in home setups can be found here and will give you some bearings.

Speaker Types

With your room size and usage considerations in mind, explore speakers in the category that matches your needs.

  • Floor-standing or Tower Speakers – larger, more powerful speakers. These will generally be louder and can have more bass. They can be expensive, and often more cumbersome if you’re in a smaller space. However, a good pair might allow you to forgo buying a subwoofer.
  • Studio Monitors (also known as just Monitors) – once limited to extremely expensive speakers for production professionals, in the last decade there have been some wonderful Studio Monitor options in lower price tiers. However, these are typically more expensive than bookshelf speakers. Studio monitors are smaller than floor speakers but often larger than bookshelf speakers. These pack some power for being relatively small.
  • Bookshelf Speakers- smaller speakers with a wide range of price tiers. You can find affordable speakers that are great for smaller spaces in this category. The convenient size sometimes comes at the expense of bass.
  • Satellites – a very small speaker for when space is at a minimum. Avoid these for high-quality listening setups, except when absolutely necessary.

Speaker Terminology

  • Frequency Response – Specification of a loudspeaker that can give a general indication of how high the treble frequencies will reach and how low the bass notes will hit. Humans can hear between 20 Hz at the low end through 20 kHz at the high. Look for speakers that can cover this range, but be aware that there’s some nuance here too.
  • Impedance – There’s no standard for displaying impedance on speakers, so it should only be used to generally evaluate compatibility with other components in your system, primarily your amplifier.
  • Sensitivity – Probably the most important specification to understand. Speaker sensitivity is a measurement of how loud speakers can play and how much power that requires.

How to Test Speakers

This is important. If there’s one thing you take away from this guide it should be this – never purchase speakers without listening to them. This can be logistically challenging, but absolutely necessary. Ideally, you need to playtest the speakers thoroughly. You need to listen to music that you know well and connect with. Make a list of music you think would be good to test, it’s a fun thought experiment and will serve you well in your quest. Try to pick songs that have diverse styles. Bring this music into your local speaker store and listen. It’s fun, I promise. The sales reps will get it. And surprisingly, if you pick songs you know well enough, you’ll discover which speakers sound best quickly.

Does Speaker Brand Matter?

Almost every brand makes high-cost speakers with excellent quality and low-cost speakers that serve as an entry to the brand for newcomers or the cost-conscious. Not all brands effectively get their high-end innovations to translated into affordable features in their budget gear in a way that confers benefits to the listener. That’s why listening matters – don’t just listen to that $5,000 8″ monitor in the shop and then assume that the $300 5″ model from the same brand will have similar levels of quality. At the end of the day, you can read reviews, but you will need to test the speaker regardless of what they say.

Should You Consider Old Speakers?

If treated right, home speakers can last a long time – easily decades. Some music aficionados attest to the superior quality of vintage speakers that have been treated well. But it’s risky, and new speakers are often affordable and verifiably in perfect working order with an attached warranty. Our recommendation is to test everything, no matter new or old. If it is old, extra diligence should be applied during your test – give them a long listen and crank that volume knob up for good measure.

Should You Buy A Subwoofer?

Honestly, some people just love bass. And that’s okay, we’re not judging you. If you’re one of those people that love to feel the bass in your music, then a subwoofer is a must. The type of music you typically play is probably the biggest consideration here. Rap, house, jazz, ambient – these genres tend to register deep tones frequently. If your speakers don’t get a lot of bass – a subwoofer will be your savior.

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Steven Williams
Steven is a Discogs employee and indie radio host residing in Portland, OR. Formerly a member of P.H.C., a found-object free jazz collective, he now spends his spare time learning bluegrass tunes on the mandolin.

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