In a perfect world we’d be able to carve a hole in the wall or ceiling, shove in a speaker and call it good. They’d look fabulous and sound pristine. Although installing speakers into the walls and ceilings isn’t rocket science, custom electronics professionals agree that there’s a lot more to it than plunging a knife into the drywall, especially if you’re looking for a quality listening experience.
Vibration is a common issue that plagues built-in speakers. Basically, when music pumps through the your speakers the surrounding surface, like sheetrock, can shake—never a good thing. CE pro Drew Balsman of HD Media Systems, Cape Girardeau, Mo., tames the vibration by requesting that the contractor apply an “absurd” amount of adhesive on the two wall studs of the planned speaker location. This will hold the drywall firmly in place while the speaker plays. Of course, an application of adhesive to studs can only happen during a major renovation or new construction. Additionally, Balsman stuffs interior walls with fiberglass insulation, choosing a rating of either R35 or R40. The insulation that’s already in the attic will suffice for in-ceiling speakers, he says.
Backboxes are another tool CE pros commonly use to contain the sound, and to also maximize bass output and reduce wall resonance. Simply put, a backbox is a structure (plastic or wood) that’s built around the backside of a speaker. Some are available as accessories to add to any type of speaker (or for a certain brand and line of speakers). These will typically add around $100 to the cost of a speaker. The other option is to buy a speaker that’s “enclosed,” or “sealed.” These speakers come prebuilt with a housing to encase their backsides. Enclosed speakers typically cost twice as much as “open” speakers, and are used primarily for applications where sound quality and minimal noise transfer are important. In many cases, especially for ceiling installations, a less expensive open speaker will perform just fine.
Speaker backboxes from Niles and Sonance.
A sealed or enclosed speaker from Triad.
When dealing with the ceiling—and speakers without backboxes—it’s best to install speakers within the same joist cavity, suggests John Lattion of Creative TSI, Calgary, Alberta. This will allow the speakers to share the same air space, and therefore produce a similar sound. “When speakers occupy different joist cavities, you’ll end up with two (or more) different sounds,” Lattion says.
As a final tweak, consider adding a digital signal processor (DSP) to your whole-house music system, suggests Robert Gilligan of Engineered Environments, Alameda, Calif. “You can put in a backbox, a great amplifier and great speakers and still encounter problems with the audio output.” A DSP, which sits between and audio switcher and amplifiers, allows CE pros to make “surgical adjustments” to the system so that those in-ceiling and in-wall speakers perform optimally, no matter where they are located or what’s inside the joists or studs. DSPs are used in commercial installations, typically, but Engineered Environments also them in many of its residential installations. A DSP will add about $2,000 per listening room to the cost of your music system, says Gilligan.
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.