Five tips for buying new speakers

There are plenty of choices out there, so the first order of business is figuring out what you want.

No one ever said shopping for speakers is easy, so before you make any rash buying decisions, think about what kind of speakers you want. Spending time mulling over the possibilities will be time well spent. Or to put it another way, it's not about searching for the best speaker, the goal should be finding the right speaker for you. So without further ado, here are my top five speaker buying tips!

No. 5: What kind of speaker do you want?

Consider the possibilities: Single or stereo wireless speakers, wired stereo speakers, wired multichannel home theater speakers or a sound bar. Single wireless speakers are the most straightforward option; it's mostly a matter of finding one that best fits your size and budget requirements and setting your expectations for sound quality.

The ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speaker

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Stereo wireless speakers up the ante for sound quality over single speakers, but if you prioritize sound, I strongly recommend wired speakers that always, dollar for dollar, sound better than wireless speakers. There are no exceptions.

Multichannel home theater systems with five or more speakers, plus a subwoofer handily trump sound bars, because bona fide surround home theater systems produce a more room-filling experience, with far superior clarity and dynamic oomph.

Granted, sound bars are far more convenient to set up and take up less space, and they can deliver reasonably satisfying sound with movies, as long as you never compare a 'bar to a multichannel home theater! Frankly, there's no comparison; a multichannel home theater sounds so much closer to what the movie's sound engineers and mixers wanted you to hear. Sound bars cram movie sound into a single speaker, which is hardly an optimum approach.

If you listen to music more than you watch movies or listen to TV, don't buy a sound bar. A good pair of stereo speakers will sound so much better than any sound bar I've ever heard.

No. 4: How much do you want to spend?

Before you answer "as little as possible," consider this: a decent set of speakers can last a long, long time. So much of today's tech is disposable; when it breaks in a few years, you throw it away and get a new one, but wired speakers can last decades, so spending more upfront will get you better sound over the long run.

An Aiwa wireless speaker

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

No. 3: Size matters

Room size should strongly influence the size of the speakers you buy. If you have a tiny bedroom or den, stick with small speakers, but if your space is ginormous, get yourself some big speakers. This much I know for sure: regardless of the type of speaker -- wireless, wired, sound bar, bookshelf or tower -- bigger ones tend to make more bass and can play louder with lower distortion than smaller ones.

No. 2: Check out the company

If you've never heard of the brand of speaker you're considering, check out its Web site. Slick web design is nice, but look deeper and judge for yourself if the manufacturer is a serious company. Does it offer service for its products? How long has it been in business?

No. 1: Listen

Granted, it's so much easier to buy speakers online without listening to them first. Even so, listening before you buy is the best way to ensure long-term satisfaction. Of course, definitely use Audiophiliac and CNET speaker reviews to start the selection process.

If you can get to a brick-and-mortar store and compare a bunch of speakers, you'll quickly get a handle on what you like and what you don't. Also, seeing the speakers in person lets you better judge their build quality and size than looking at pictures online. When shopping at brick-and-mortar stores always bring a tape measure because speakers always look smaller in a dealer showroom than they will at home.

If you can't get to a store, the next best option is buying online, with the proviso that you can return the speakers if you don't like them. Still, that approach leaves out comparing a few speakers with each other.

I hope you found some of these tips useful, if you have any suggestions for speaker shoppers, add your two cents in the Comments section.

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