You are in search of a new speaker? A single speaker or a stereo system? Or even Dolby Surround? Oh wait, and it should be portable as well? Well, the audio industry has a lot to offer nowadays, almost too much. So if you are searching for a new “something” that can play music, this is your guide to reach some clarification on what product to look for.
There are tons of different types of audio products available in the market. Sometimes it is difficult to find out what benefits one product has over the other. Due to many different features and the fact, that audio products have been tailored to different usage situations, distinguishing between speakers solely by comparing their sound quality has become obsolete.
In this short article we are not comparing or recommending single products, but rather quickly guide you through the HiFi jungle to find out, which product category you should start looking in.
Therefore, we are also not addressing different price categories, but I’ll try to introduce a few systems from different price ranges to take as a reference when comparing speakers. In the end, you can buy “something” that plays sound for 10€. Nevertheless, a lot of people even spend more on their sound systems than on their car.
Let’s get back on track now! The current home audio market (excluding headphones) can be categorized in the following product groups:
Basically, looking at four simple questions might answer, which product category you should start looking in.
- Are you a sound freak?
The first question you should ask yourself is, how important the sound quality is to you. This is highly dependent on what your listening habits are. Take a minute to think about how and when you listen to music?
You primarily listen to music and you even see yourself sitting down to appreciate the sound for extended periods of time? Then you should get a proper stereo system adjusted to your room size and budget. One HiFi rule is, the smaller the speaker the more money you have to invest to get the same sound as from bigger speakers for less money. A few hundred bucks will give you a decent listening experience. Nevertheless, you can always spend more money. The so called world of “high-end HiFi” offers very nice audio systems like the Avantgarde Acoustic Trio loudspeakers which can easily cost more than 100.000 € - oh and in case you wondered, no, the amp is not included and costs another 10.000 €.
Every decent stereo system will also give you pleasure when occasionally watching a movie or TV. Don’t want to pass on multiroom? There are many solutions to integrate your stereo sound system into a multi room network via a bridge (e.g. XXX). Few high-end audio brands also offer multi room themselves, for example the scottish brand Linn. This way you can get an outstanding sound experience even with multi room, but - as you might have thought already - yes, you have to dig deep into your pocket.
Don’t worry, high-end is not the only way to go. Just keep in mind HiFi rule two: the increase in sound quality decreases with the amount of money spent. In other words, the difference between a 100 € speaker and a 1000 € euro speaker is huge, the difference between a 10.000 € and a 50.000 € might online be distinguishable for a well trained ear of an audio expert. A very good example of how far the high-end audio enthusiasts take it is cables: some people spend thousands of euros for silver cables and promise themselves a gain in clarity from it. In blind tests the same enthusiasts mostly can’t distinguish between a standard cable and a high end cable.
You were bored by the previous paragraph? Then there is a high chance you are a passive listener! You always like to play music in the background and are a big fan of listening to music. Nevertheless, you’d never sit down solely to appreciate your great sounding system. A compact audio system, a (flexible) multiroom system or even a good portable bluetooth loudspeaker will do the job for you. Which one to chose will be answered in the following questions.
- Do you want to listen from different sources?
You are nostalgic and don’t want to get rid of your CD collection? You want to connect your TV, Playstation or other devices to your sound system, or love the warm sound of your vinyls? Then most of the multi room or portable speakers won’t do the job for you. Dependent on the speaker you are using you’ll probably be limited to one connection only whereas an LP player will most likely need an extra phono preamp - you want to double check that before buying. For example, the two market leading multi room products Bose Sound Touch and Sonos Play only offer one single AUX-in.
If you want to listen to several sources and don’t need multi room, a compact audio system like the Denon F-109C or the Yamaha MCR series might be something for you. The offer (an) analogue audio input(s), subwoofer outlets and digital inputs. Need even more sources? Then only a seperate Amp will do the job. Dependent on your preferences, get either a stereo or dolby surround amp and you’ll have plenty of connection options to choose from. As stated before, integrating your preferred Hifi system into a multi room network can be done by separate multi room connectors.
- Room, apartment or house? (also include room size?)
Do you live in a small studio or single room? A spacious, open loft? An apartment or house with several rooms?
I mentioned a “spacious loft” because it’s not only about the size of the room, but also about how open the room is. Because it is more complicated than this, let’s just say a more open room can be seen as a bigger room size. HiFi enthusiasts often say “a speaker plays the room”, and it’s true. No matter how good your speakers are, if they don’t fit the room, they might sound shit.
--------- LEARN MORE ABOUT ROOM ACOUSTICS AND POSITIONING OF SPEAKERS IN THIS BLOG POST ---------
While a small speaker like the Sonos Play 1 might sound nice in a Toilet or Small Kitchen, it will not be able to bring music to your living room. (Again, this is dependent on your listening habits. You only want noises or soft music in the background? Then the Play 1 might be sufficient for you.) On the other hand, small bookshelf speakers can be sufficient for a small living room and might even sound better than a pair of floorstanders. If you are an active listener, no single multi room speaker currently in the market will make you really happy in a bigger room. And in general, it is definitely advisable to test any speaker in your home.
One more thing: I recently observed several people buying multi room speakers for single use only. A reason therefor might be that multi room products are lately heavily advertised. If you have a one room apartment and don’t plan to use multi room soon, I seriously advise against buying a multiroom speaker. Every small stereo system will give you better sound for less or the same amount of money.
- How flexible do you want to be?
You are always on the go or travel a lot? Your home is as flexible as your lifestyle? Or are your rather classic when it comes to your home? Radio in the Kitchen and bathroom, big sound system in the living room? But also, how flexible is your budget?
We all know by now, that the classic stereo system is the best for the active music lovers with a budget and enough room as well as a fixed listening spot. But what about the rest of us?
Our lifestyles become more and more flexible. So do our homes. Sometimes I want to listen to great sound in bed, next time while cooking and another time while laying on the couch. Many people don’t own TV’s anymore and therefore a fixed media compartment becomes obsolete.
That’s why more and more brands enter the market of flexible multi room audio: You don’t need a speaker for every room and can also take them with you every once in awhile. Sometimes they can even outplay fixed multi room speakers, but that’s not the rule. A very good example of such a speaker is the Libratone Zipp. It delivers great sound and is also portable, but also a little too big to take it with you outside. If you want to be even more flexible you need to get a small bluetooth speaker. The Bose Soundlink Mini delivers an impressive sound for the size and can also perform well in small rooms.
Flexibility, like so many other things, is also a matter of budget. Most flexible multi room speakers (not all though) might not outperform their plugged competitors yet, but they save you money, since you can just carry the speakers around and therefore don’t have to buy a speaker for every room. As said before, a few bluetooth speakers already deliver quite a decent sound quality as well, so if you are on the go a lot and only want to spend money on one single speaker, this might be your solution.