Home audio starts with your listening habits. Are you an active or passive listener? Do you prefer music in a specific space or like it to follow you around your home? Everyone falls into one of 3 categories:

  1. 50% are Passive Listeners: Music is strictly background. It’s noise. Quality is not a concern and an entry level device as small as an Amazon Echo can suffice.
  2. 35% are Active Listeners: Music can be background or the focal point. Detail and noise elimination require a higher level of sound. Think Sonos, Bose, etc.
  3. 15% are Audiophiles: Music can be background but is often the focal point. Discriminating taste calls for every detail to come through, while completely eliminating noise even at high volumes.

 


 

Pro tip 1: Unlike TVs which get skinnier and lighter every year, the physics of sound requires bigger size and weight to keep quality with bigger sound. This rule can be bent slightly but any company claiming huge sound out of a small speaker is either lying or riddled with noise. The benefit to this physical limitation? Unlike those skinny TVs, quality speakers will hold onto their value for decades.

 


 

Once you’ve decided what kind of listener you are, what are the options?

All-in-Ones

Passive, Active, Audiophile

  • Benefits: Low entry point, no installation required, and easy to link multiple speakers wirelessly.
  • Challenges: Hard to connect local sources (designed for streaming), limited look, and doesn’t integrate with other components you might have.
  • Conclusion: The easiest in for passive listeners and the most affordable (but visually and sonically compromised) solution for active listeners.

 


 

Pro tip 2: Sonos has the best control interface on the market, but their built-in amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters are mediocre. Coupling Sonos CONNECTs with higher end speakers and amps is how you get the best of both worlds. This is our approach every time.

 


 

Bookshelf

Passive, Active, Audiophile

  • Benefits: Big sound in a relatively small package, can pull double duty (play music and connect to your home theater), and can be elevated with a quality amplifier.
  • Challenges: Requires shelf space and wiring can be difficult to hide (exponentially so when linking multiple rooms.)
  • Conclusion: A sensible single-room approach for active listeners and entry-level audiophiles.

 


 

Floor-Standing

Passive, Active, Audiophile

  • Benefits: Premium sound, gets the most out of both vinyl and lossless (with the right components), and offers visually stunning finishes via careful craftsmanship.
  • Challenges: Requires ample floor space, and active listening can require active setup and sound tweaking.
  • Conclusion: The ultimate approach for audiophiles who see audio as an investment and centerpiece rather than a frivolity.

 


 

Sound Bars

Passive, Active, Audiophile

  • Benefits: Elevates sound from your TV, and can imitate multi-directional sound by packing and aiming many tweeters.
  • Challenges: Few options can be custom-sized and encased to match your TV dimensions and look, hiding wires is crucial, and sound quality is capped due to compact depth.
  • Conclusion: Great for the avid TV watcher but a flawed solution for music listening (Sonos is the exception for its easy pairing to other speakers.)

 


 

In-Wall / In-Ceiling

Passive, Active, Audiophile

  • Benefits: “Omnipotent” sound with zero clutter, location flexibility without visual impact, and increased reliability and responsiveness compared to wireless.
  • Challenges: Better suited for new construction (retrofitting is disruptive), vibration requires meticulous installation, and subwoofers require depth.)
  • Conclusion: The hands-down best approach to whole home audio with a spectrum of looks: (a) grilles flush to wall, (b) discreet round or square openings that match your lighting cans, and (c) invisible behind a thin layer of compound.

 


 

Pro tip 3: True invisible speakers spread a 1/8″ – 1/16″ compound over the grille, which does impair sound slightly (more if not spread evenly.) Brand impacts quality more than usual in this category, and the best we’ve heard in a blind listening test is Stealth. For discreet opening it’s Sonance DOS.

 


 

Outdoor

Passive, Active, Audiophile

  • Benefits: Adds backyard or rooftop ambiance, blends the line between indoor and out, and can be aimed inward to avoid bothering neighbors.
  • Challenges: Finishes and wiring must be made for outdoors, speakers must be hidden amongst plants (our pick: Sonance SLS) or wall-mounted (our pick: B&W AM1s), and outdoor control requires network extension.
  • Conclusion: An under-appreciated approach to elevating an outdoor space, which performs brilliantly with a landscaping approach (just avoid rock speakers – they don’t fool anybody.)

 


 

Pro tip 4: Subwoofers are an extremely effective way to turn any category into a more immersive listening experience. The biggest challenge here is isolating the vibrations. For in-wall we recommend Sonance VP. For living rooms we recommend Leon’s Aaros (lies flat under couch) or James’ PowerPipe (hides between floor joists.) For outdoor we recommend Sonance SLS (buried underground.)

 


 

What do you want to play on your speakers?

If you stream all of your music you’ll want to determine how important lossless audio is to you. Just like an image on your TV can display at 480p vs 1080p, music has a resolution. Spotify defaults to 160 kbps and can be increased to 320 kbps, while TIDAL streams at 1411 kbps.

If you’re playing local sources like files on a hard drive or vinyl, you’ll want to consider how you’re going to send that local source to multiple locations.

 


 

How do you want to control it?

While the growing preference for music control is voice, know that there are still some pretty big limitations. Spotify for example will not yet allow Alexa or Google Home to request specific songs – only artists and playlists. Also, while the technology that listens out for your voice is fantastic, it’s not a miracle worker and will struggle to hear you over loud music.

In practice the most convenient method for control is an App. Sonos is our first recommendation for audio-only solutions for its intuitive control over playlists, room grouping and cross-platform search. When tying  other systems in the home we recommend an umbrella App such as Savant or Control4 for their ability to provide a single interface for music, lighting, security, environmental controls, etc.