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Flush-mounted speakers vs. loose speakers: everything you need to know

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Building a home cinema often evokes resistance: too many speakers in the room and too many cables. Built-in speakers can be a solution just for those slogans. And they have other advantages.

Flush-mounted speakers are often associated with hip, modern dining rooms and kitchens where sound quality is not the most important. That picture is not entirely wrong, but at the same time it is too short-sighted. If you are about to build a home cinema it is even a very good idea to compare the advantages and disadvantages of installation against those of separate speakers.

A real home cinema experience

Or loose speakers are suitable for building a surround setup? Of course. The Bowers & Wilkins 600 and 700 series, for example, the Bronze-Silver-Gold from Monitor Audio, the Debut line from ELAC, the Spektor-Opticon-Rubicon families from Dali, the Q-, R- and Reference- series of KEF … So we can continue for a while. In terms of supply no problem and absolutely not in terms of quality. The best speakers in the world are separate speakers, just ask your inner audiophile.

But if you go to a real cinema, you will never see separate speakers in the room. Everything is built-in. Ok, that is largely because of practical reasons. After a few busy weekend screenings, separate speakers might already have been killed. But it is also because with built-in you can use the space to the maximum. Because built-in speakers fit into the ceiling and walls, the room volume is fully utilized. Loose speakers must maintain a certain distance from the wall and have a certain size themselves. The created surround landscape takes place in a smaller volume. That is not a problem if you have a large space, but with a smaller space you can provide a better experience.

Also because you could potentially better follow the maxims of Dolby. They stipulate that the distance from each speaker to the viewing position must be the same. In a living room that is usually a difficult one. You may have 3 meters distance to the front channels, but the rear ones are at 1.5 meters. And Atmos speakers on the ceiling are 2.8 meters high. Your AV receiver largely compensates for any distance differences, but with large differences it is more difficult. With installation you do not necessarily get rid of this problem, but you can more easily move the rearkanals a little further away from your couch. For Atmos channels, recessed is also the best choice, although it is built into a ceiling and the necessary cables lay a little more challenging than if you have a speaker in a wall.

For lovers of projection, flush mounting also offers a way to really get good center view. If you project really large, you are obliged to place a separate center speaker below or above the screen. However, the distance to the center of the screen can be so large that you can see that dialogues are coming from elsewhere. However, with an acoustically transmissive projection screen you can place a built-in speaker behind the screen, for a very natural result.

Placement of separate loudspeakers and built-in speakers

Buying a set of separate loudspeakers is only the first step in the search for a good sound. You also have to set them up correctly and (try to) eliminate all acoustic problems. The latter is a utopia in most living rooms. You have to work with what you have and keep it practical. Acoustic panels and the like are not so welcome, but you can already do a lot of the position of the speakers. The placement alone, after all, has a great impact on the sound. Getting it right right away is not easy. Fortunately, a big advantage of separate speakers is that you can still move them and experiment with the placement. For example, by changing the angle at which they are turned in, an act that makes your music sound brighter / more detailed.

That is of course a lot harder to install. Once in the wall, they are stuck in the wall. You have to think carefully in advance where they need to be – and hope that there are no practical reasons why that location is not possible (such as a power line running through the wall). Who has already renovated an old house can testify that you can discover the craziest things when you start cutting into walls. You will get the best result if you can involve installation in the planning phase of a new construction or renovation project. Incidentally, there are better built-in speakers that are able to partly ‘turn in’. They have tweeters that you can rotate to get straight to the listening position.

Basses

The flexibility you have in terms of placement at separate speakers in front of the work to install installation can for many people immediately the discussion settle. But what about arguments from the acoustic angle? In any case, with both types of loudspeakers you have to deal with reflections. Because built-in speakers are further away from the listening position, you could argue that potentially more reflection problems can arise. A disadvantage of separate speakers is that acoustic problems can arise due to the sound waves coming from the back of the speaker. Many speakers come with a bass port that points to the back, so the distance to the wall has an impact on bass reproduction. But even without a bass reflex at the back you can experience with a single speaker that a certain low frequency disappears due to the recurring wave, a phenomenon called speaker-boundary-interference. You can deal with this if your loudspeakers spread remarkably thin basses.

You do not have this problem with built-in speakers, although they have to deal with their own challenges on bass. Built-in speakers usually end up in a niche that is considerably smaller than the cupboard volume of a typical single speaker. That in any case limits what is possible in terms of the low.

A common problem is that a living room is not really big. If you want to keep separate loudspeakers at least half a meter away from the wall, they suddenly seem to be very close to the listening position. This is certainly not ideal for large floor stands, because at a distance of less than three meters the coherence of music can disappear. From real close you can hear the individual drivers, not the loudspeaker in its totality. Through the use of built-in you can win some distance. The distance that the speakers of the rear wall must be plus their thickness is converted into distance to the listener. Although that can indeed yield more reflections, you win in quality in a small room.

When you install it, you want to quickly get a subwoofer especially if you use the speakers for surround. There are built-in cubes, which require more work to build in than a small built-in speakers. For example, some models require a recess to transmit the over pressure in the integrated subwoofer into the room. It is of course possible to combine a separate subwoofer with built-in speakers.

Method of installation

The sound of a built-in speaker is strongly determined by how the loudspeaker is built-in. The differences that can arise from the materials that have been incorporated into a wall (such as insulation or air) are trying to get rid of manufacturers by a backbox, a box that is placed on the back of the built-in speaker. A well-designed backbox will reduce the transmission of vibrations on the wall. In any case, it is crucial that the speakers are firmly and airtightly attached. So suppress the tendency to improvise.

It is also good to know that there is such a thing as on-wall speakers, such as the Dali LCR models, Canton Studio speakers or the wall speakers from Totem Acoustics. These speakers hang flat against the wall, which is much easier to assemble. Nevertheless, they retain the advantages of installation, such as no neutralized bass frequencies and a large distance to the listening position. They are not completely inconspicuous, however.

Budget

Built-in speakers and separate loudspeakers can be controlled with the same electronics. The technical requirements are just the same. In larger projects with installation, however, work is often done with reinforcement in a rack, somewhere hidden away from view in the basement or storage space. Putting everything in a rack can be beautiful but also useful in a large project, especially when home automation is still needed. Rack products are often a bit more expensive than separate components.

Installation always costs more, simply because of the costs of assembly and installation. The correct installation of the cabling also carries a certain price. There must be drilled and cut, pipes are laid, and afterwards the wall has to be put back in good condition. To reduce the price (or to increase the margin), projects often opt for cheaper built-in speakers. This also happens when the installation of a built-in system is part of a much larger building project with many different parts, so that the final occupant does not always have insight into what is being placed. The quality differences between very cheap and more expensive built-in speakers are large, perhaps more than with separate speakers from different price ranges. Try to take this into account.

The question remains: can installation also deliver high-end performance? Still, speakers like the THX Extreme Home Theater line from KEF or the Phantom speakers are a good example of this. Of course, just as with separate high-end speakers, you also need to pay attention to all preconditions, such as reinforcement, cabling and assembly.

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