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Choosing a bookshelf speaker

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How to choose and buy a bookshelf speaker
A bookshelf speaker is any speaker you can fit on your bookshelf sounds like the right answer. However some bookshelf speakers are large enough to sit nicely on a stand or even the floor. (though we don't recommend the floor!)

The best thing to do is to look for a bookshelf speaker that fits both your size requirements AND your listening requirements. The beauty of bookshelf speakers is that you can usually find a size that will fit almost any situation. Bookshelf speakers usually fall in the range of 24 inches tall by 12 inches wide by 12 inches deep but can be much smaller than this.

Most bookshelf speakers can be used as a pair of stereo speakers for traditional music listening or as front channel sound or rear surround sound in a home theater setup. Some may be small enough to mount on a wall.

What makes a good sounding bookshelf speaker?
A good bookshelf speaker is one that fits your listening needs.

Sound
Sound is a very subjective topic when it comes to speakers. We recommend listening to bookshelf speakers in your home. Purchase them either in a store with a no hassle return policy or online from a vendor with a good return policy. Look for a return policy that also pays for return shipping.

Size
Find one that will fit on your shelf, stand or bookshelf without being crammed in. Speakers will sound very different depending on how close to the wall or shelf side they are. Make sure they have some breathing room.

Type of cabinet - Acoustic suspension, Front ported or Rear ported.A acoustic suspension speaker does not have a port (hole you see in many speakers either on the front or back) although this gives you some placement flexibility it may also diminish the bass or require more power to deliver the bass.

If the speaker is rear ported make sure you have some room for the port to "work". Placing a rear ported bookshelf speaker (or any rear ported speaker) right up against the wall will greatly diminish it's sound quality. (or at least alter it)

Front ported speakers have the port in the front which gives you some of the advantage of the bass producing port with more flexibility to place it closer to the wall.
More to come on choosing a bookshelf speaker next week.

For more on bookshelf speakers see Buying bookshelf speaker

Types of Woofers

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What is a Woofer and what does it do?
The woofer is usually the part of a 2 or 3 way loudspeaker which conveys the low frequency, or bass information. A woofer works like all loudspeakers by taking electrical signals from an amplifier which moves the speaker “cone” which in turn moves air and generates sound.
It is usually the cone material that is used in most speaker marketing material to get you to buy speakers.

The job of the woofer speaker cone is to be rigid enough to create the intended sound and stop moving as soon as that sound is over without adding any additional sound coloration caused by the cone material.

Common Types of material used in Woofers

  • Paper
    It is mistakenly believed that paper is an old fashioned way to build a speaker. This is not really true. Although paper does react to humidity and temperature changes some types of woofers sound wonderful made out of paper

  • Doped paper (usually with a plastic of some type)
    To get around the environmental issues many speaker makers add plastic and other materials to make paper speaker cones more “stable” and ridgid.

  • Polypropylene
    This is by far the most common material used in today’s speaker manufacture. It is stable, easy to work with and behaves very well. You’ll see many other plastic materials listed out there, mostly to make the speaker appear to be exotic.

  • Kevlar or other woven man made material
    Kevlar (a brand name) is a woven fiber material. These can have a high level of stiffness allowing the speaker to produce the sound and stop moving when it’s supposed to. Beware of the marketing hype that goes with this type of material. These speakers can sound very good but do need to be constructed and carefully built.

  • Metal
    You would think that since metal is rigid it would be the perfect woofer material. Metal can produce great low end sound but it is also not without certain colorations depending on the material and how it interacts with the rest of the speakers components.

Another important part of a woofer is the surround. A common and good surround is butyl rubber.

This is not an exhaustive list but does represent the most common types. There are hundreds of subcategories under each of these as speaker manufacturers try to differentiate their speakers and make them special. The question is do any of these speaker types sound better than the others?

Which speaker material sounds best in a Woofer?
As with any speaker there are many factors that go into a “great” sounding loudspeaker. The key is to not buy into the hype around any specific product. All of the above materials are capable of adding excellent low frequency music reproduction to a loudspeaker. Some of the factors that contribute to the overall quality of a woofer are:

  • The cabinet
  • The crossover
  • Ported or not ported. (a hole in the front of back of the speaker cabinet which increases ambient bass response)
  • Your listening environment
  • Your taste in sound
Of the 5 ways to judge a good loudspeaker and woofer your listening environment and your taste in sound are ultimately the most important. The best thing to do is find either a web site or local retailer that will let you audition the speakers you choose in your home. Speakers will sound TOTALLY different in your home than they do in the store.


The age old advice is to listen to music you know well when you first get the speaker home. The easiest way to judge is with your own ears. Remember you don’t have to pay a lot to get a really high quality loudspeaker, you just have to use your ears!

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