How many speakers is enough?

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Choosing the right amount of speakers for your home entertainment system is like picking the firmness level for your side of a Sleep Number bed—in other words, it’s extremely personal.

The right speaker setup depends on your specific needs and what you want from your audio. You need to take into account space, volume (loudness), and how the speakers will be used. Do you have a big room or a small room? Do you live in an apartment or house? Do you watch a lot of movies or spend most of your audio time listening to music? How much money do you have to spend?

You get the idea.

Here are a few options to consider.

One for the space constrained

Don’t have room for multiple speakers and a separate AV receiver? The soundbar is your best option for small rooms.

Soundbars combine multiple speakers in a single unit. The most common configuration packs a center, left, and right speaker together in a long (often wider than your TV itself) bar. Many soundbars can also decode and process Dolby Digital and other such audio formats, eliminating the need for a receiver for such decoding duties.

Vizio’s $270 VHT215 soundbar includes a wireless subwoofer to help fill out the sound.

Within soundbars, you’ll find a huge price range. For $200 you’ll get a basic speaker that’s definitely an improvement over your HDTV’s built-in sound. Some, like Vizio’s $270 VHT215 add a wireless subwoofer to help round out the sound. At the high end, Yamaha’s $1900 YSP-4100 sounds as good as many 5.1 systems. It bounces sound off walls and furniture to create the illusion of surround sound.

Soundbars tend to work best for video—they create a wide field of sound that emulates the theater experience. For music fans, a Bluetooth speaker like the Jawbone’s $300 Big Jambox could meet your needs. It’s small, wireless, and gets loud.

Two for music lovers

If you listen to music more than any other audio, you don’t need five or more speakers. You really only need two. Music is made for stereo sound, and that’s how most of it is still mixed. So instead of spreading your money out over five decent speakers, pick up two really good speakers.

Stereo speakers like GoldenEar’s Aon 3 ($1000 per pair) bring better midrange tones to music, making it sound more like live music.

For $600 to $1000, you can buy a capable stereo speaker set. For that same money you can get a great pair of stereo speakers, like NHT’s Three ($800 a pair) or GoldenEar Technology’s Aon 3 ($1000 a pair). Well-made stereo speakers offer a full range of highs, mids, and lows. They reveal details in music that you’ve could easy miss with cheap(er) speakers. And they love to get loud—when you turn up the volume, they really shine.

Stereo speakers can handle movies, too. You just won’t get that encompassing feeling that multichannel sets offer, and that most sound bars attempt to approximate. If you find you miss the rumble from a 5.1 system, adding a subwoofer to a stereo speaker set can improve both movies and music with some additional low end.

Most bookshelf speakers require an amp or receiver, although you can also find powered bookshelf speakers such as the Audioengine A5.

Five for versatility

A 5.1 system like Definitive Technology’s $800 ProCinema 600 set provides versatility for movies and music.

A basic (5.1) multi-channel home theater system comprises five channels—left front, center front, right front, and left and right side or rear speakers—plus a subwoofer (the .1), along with the AV receiver needed to power everything. For all-around performance, a 5.1-channel system can’t be beat. It works for movies and it works for music—although unless you have music specifically mastered for surround-sound systems, you’ll probably want to switch your receiver to “music” mode, which uses just the left-front and right-front speakers and the sub. You’ll see a wide range of prices, but in general you can find decent sound in systems that start at $400, and you’ll hear excellent sound for $800 to $1500.

For best results, set up your 5.1 system in a medium-sized room. If the room is too small, those five speakers can overwhelm the space. Larger rooms will likely benefit from a more robust arrangement.

Seven or more for the movie buff

But wait—there’s more. Today’s high-end receivers can add more than seven speakers—and more than one subwoofer. You’ll see crazy arrangements like 7.2 and 7.4, 9.2 and 9.4, and 11.2 and 11.4.

If you love movies and don’t like going to the movie theater, this is closest you can get audio-wise. If you descend into this level of madness, expect to dedicate a room to home theater viewing—because you won’t have room to do anything else with it with all those speakers packed in.

If you want 11.4 sound, get ready to pay: Onkyo’s TX-NR5010 receiver costs $2999—and then you still need to buy 11 speakers and four subwoofers.

Where do those extra speakers go? In a 7.1 system, you add two additional “rear” speakers that go behind you. Newer audio formats such as Dolby HD (found on Blu-ray discs) mix the sound for 7.1 channels. In a nine-speaker set up, you add two more speakers to the front for height. In an 11-speaker system, you add two more rear surrounds for height behind you.

Height should make sound feel even more encompassing. It works best for effects such as helicopter fly-overs and rain. You’ll experience the benefit of these extra speakers if you use a surround format that can take advantage of them, such as Dolby Pro Logic IIz. This sound mode interprets the 5.1 or 7.1 channels of audio and spreads the front and rear channels among the extra speakers.

The extra subwoofers will likely provide a more noticeable change to your home theater experience (and possibly unstraighten all the pictures on the walls in the process). If you like your teeth to rattle, add more subwoofers. Although the bass coming from a subwoofer is non-directional, you might not get the most out of it if your room or furniture doesn’t allow for optimal placement. In that case a second (or third or fourth) subwoofer can overcome this deficiency.

A personal choice

As you can see, there is no “perfect” number of speakers in an abstract sense. But the general rule is, base the number of speakers on your space and how you plan to use the speakers. I start with the size of the room, then think of the types of audio I’ll be listening to in that space.

For most of us, 5.1 or stereo will fit the bill. Within a single home, you may need multiple speaker set ups, like 5.1 in the living room and a soundbar in the bedroom. Any number can be right, as long as at it isn’t zero.

[Michael Gowan writes about music and technology for Macworld, TechHive, and other sites. Follow him on Twitter @zebgowan.]

[Updated at 11:15am pacific to correct how music usually plays on a 5.1-channel system.]

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