Wall of Sound
In-wall speakers deliver explosive sound in a very small, out-of-the-way package
Big, boxy audio speakers make nice plant stands, or a handy place to pile up CD cases. But in an age when you can slim a TV to a mere 4 inches thick and hang it on the wall, those bulky boxes don't make a lot of sense. That's why many homeowners are opting instead for in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, which deliver high-fidelity sound without cluttering up the living room. "People don't want to see speakers—and they don't want to dedicate the floor space," says David Allen, vice president of product development for manufacturer Martin Logan.
Tucking speakers into wall and ceiling cavities does more than just reclaim square footage:?It also gets rid of unsightly wiring snaked along baseboards and in tangled webs behind the TV. "And," adds Allen, "there's no worrying about the color of the speaker veneer matching your interior."
Small Speaker, Big Sound
Most in-wall speakers don't rely on the typical wooden housing to transmit sound. Instead, the compact units— each of which includes a small tweeter for high frequencies and a large woofer for bass (some have midrange drivers for in-between frequencies)—fit between studs and use the wall cavity itself as the speaker box.
Though sound quality can vary depending on wall construction, a well-engineered in-wall speaker is as capable of producing as realistic, even as spectacular, a sound as any floor speaker, says Mark Bryn, a technical support executive at German speaker-maker Canton.
Like freestanding speakers, in-wall units are typically sold as a pair, which is what you'll need for an average-size living room. But unlike freestanding models, these can't easily be moved around, so proper placement is critical. To assure full coverage, audio experts use the equilateral triangle rule: Speakers should be about the same distance from each other as they are from the primary seating area.
For the best sound, the tweeters should be lined up at about ear level while you're sitting down. If that gets in the way of your favorite painting, you can mount the speakers higher or lower on the wall; just be aware that you'll trade off a bit of sound quality for aesthetics. Some speakers have pivoting tweeters, which allow you to mount them where they're less visible and still direct sound toward the listening area.
Figuring out where on the wall the speakers will go is the easy part. Cutting the holes and snaking the wires from the amp to the speakers is a little more challenging, but if you've ever run phone line behind a wall, you should be able to handle it. Manufacturers try to make it easy, including installation templates and all the mounting hardware you'll need. Most specialty audio retailers can also provide professional installation services.
Once you've determined where the holes will be, it's a matter of cutting the drywall, fastening the support brackets, and connecting the wires. In fact, hard-core DIYers may be disappointed that there won't be much call for the power tools. "In the case of Sheetrock, it should be very easy," Bryn says. "A $5 drywall saw from the hardware store will do it." With the brackets secured and the speaker in place, all you'll see is the removable cover, which can even be painted the same color as the wall.
Keeping the Sound Where You Want It
Anytime you put loudspeakers into a wall cavity, chances are there's someone on the other side of the wall who isn't interested in hearing Barney's sing—along DVD. Because speakers work like small pistons, vibrating and pushing compressed air through space, it's inevitable that some of the sound is going to bleed through the back of the wall. You can minimize that seepage by using fiber—glass batting, poly fill (similar to pillow stuffing), or dense adhesive rubber sheathng around and behind the speaker. "You want to put these materials against any surface that will vibrate within the wall cavity near the speakers to keep the wall from becoming a soundboard," Bryn says.
Some manufacturers put speaker components in an enclosure, known as a back box, which helps contain sound but also limits the ability to kick out deep bass and volume, since the speakers have less air to push around. "Before installing these kinds of speakers," says Bryn, "you just need to be aware of who or what's going to be on the other side of the wall."
Perhaps one day soon even that won't matter. Engineers are working on technology that will turn windows into speakers, using a glass—mounted sound—throwing contraption. But until then, hiding your woofers in the wall is the next best thing.