Ultimate Guide to Audio

You don't want to just listen to your favorite band – you want to experience them. And you know that your speakers aren't getting the job done. The sound doesn't make you feel like you're at a concert. It barely provides the bass and detail that you love.

Or maybe you've just purchased a new 85-inch TV, and the sound quality doesn't match the amazing picture. You don't want to buy a different TV, so what can you do?

A new home audio system could transform how you listen to media at home. The problem is that Googling home audio yields so many results that it makes your head spin. Where do you even begin? 

This guide will cover the basics of home audio, including:

  • What a home audio system includes
  • Factors to consider when buying a home audio system, including the potential costs
  • Smart speakers
  • Possible problems you may run into

Hive installs home audio across Tampa Bay, but we're making this guide for anyone interested in enhancing their listening experience at home. This guide is a general overview of home audio; the topic is broad and deep, and not all consumers need to know every detail. 

By the time you finish this guide, we hope you’ll feel confident enough to get the home audio system of your dreams. Let’s get started.

What’s in a typical home audio system?

Home audio systems can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be – something that's both good and bad. On the upside, if you don't want to do hours and hours of research, you don't have to. You can buy whatever wireless set is available at your favorite big box store, set them up according to the included directions, and call it a day.

But on the downside, if you want more than that, you’ll have to sift through information on things you didn’t even know existed. And even then, you might not end up with what you intended to get. 

We completely understand! There’s a lot of information out there, and not all of it is relevant to the average consumer.

Since home audio is a deep rabbit hole, we’ll focus on the three main categories of audio that the vast majority of systems have throughout this guide:

  • Source components - the device that supplies audio, video, or a combination of both
  • Amplifiers and receivers - a conduit between the source component and the speaker that allows you to decide on what you want to watch and listen to, as well as how loud you’d like it to be
  • Speakers and soundbars - a device that reproduces the sound coming from your source component and amplifier or receiver

Let's take a closer look at each of these before we dig into the details of choosing what you want for your system. 

Source components

Source components are the source of your sound and come in digital or analog options. You may have a digital component in the same room as you right now. They include streaming video devices like Roku and Apple TV, streaming audio like HiFi Rose, Sonos Port, Bluesound Node, or even your phone.  

Analog source components are things like turntables, CD players, or cassettes – in other words, something with a physical object that stores the music. For example, vinyl records have recently made a resurgence, and audiophiles view them as the best way to listen to quality sound.

Deciding which source component to purchase is based on your needs, which we’ll go into further detail shortly. 

Amplifiers and receivers

Amplifiers and receivers serve a similar function but differ in key ways. 

Amplifiers came first. When audio as we now know it was first developed, amplifiers drove a left and a right speaker – also called two-channel audio. However, receivers came into play as more people wanted better sound from their TVs.

Receivers are like amplifiers that can also deal with video and drive more speakers, allowing you to have a surround-sound movie experience at home. They're a good choice if you have several speakers or other equipment to drive. 

So essentially, a receiver contains an amplifier, but an amplifier doesn’t contain a receiver. Depending on what you need, you can go with one or the other.

Speakers

Traditionally, speakers were boxes that sat on the floor and came in sets of two, one playing the left channel and one playing the right. But today, speakers come in many different forms, meaning there's a speaker out there for every need. 

For instance, if you want a beautiful speaker that can sit on your desk, a luxury speaker might be what you need. Or, if you want your speakers to blend in with the rest of your home, you can choose in-ceiling speakers and have the grates painted the same color as your ceiling. 

We'll discuss the different kinds of speakers and their best applications below.

Soundbars

Just as receivers came around when we wanted a better audio experience while watching TV, soundbars came around as our TVs got thinner. The more sleek and thin a TV is, the less room there is for speakers that can deliver great sound. A soundbar enables a TV to have better sound.

Soundbars are typically as wide as your TV and sit below it. Within them are three speakers – one left, one center, and one right – to provide you with crisp, clear sound that your TV can’t alone.

How do I choose a home audio system?

Choosing a home audio system has several moving parts, so where do you start? And how do you select a system that actually works for you?

Ultimately, you should start with the end – what you intend to listen to and where – and work backward to choose your devices.

What do you plan to listen to? 

You might love podcasts, but do you really need a 7.1 surround sound speaker system plus a subwoofer to enjoy it? Probably not. Getting the right size system for your needs will allow you to get the most out of it without wasting money on components you don’t need. 

Since there are so many options, it’s easier to think about whether you’ll be listening to something actively or passively rather than getting into too many specifics early in the game. 

Active listening is when listening to something is your primary focus. You might want to give an artist’s new album your full attention, and if you’re watching a movie, you want the audio to be crystal clear and immersive.

Some components you may want to consider if you plan on actively listening to your system are:

  • Surround sound speakers
  • Soundbars
  • Receivers
  • Turntables

But listening to something is a background activity for many, which is called passive listening. If something else is your focus – like cleaning the house, working, or enjoying time with friends – then you’re listening to something passively.

If listening is more of a background activity, some things you might consider buying are:

  • 2.0 speakers
  • Wireless speakers
  • Integrated speakers

Of course, you can choose whatever set-up you want. If you want surround sound to listen to the news, you absolutely can. 

Where do you plan on using it?

Where you plan on using your system is almost as important as what you plan to listen to. Some equipment is better suited to different spaces.

Consider the:

  • Environment
  • Size of the area where you’d like your system to go

Environment

Your system has to be suited to your environment. Take outdoor audio systems – outdoor speakers, like rock speakers, are built to withstand the elements in ways indoor ones aren’t. Also, some walls may not have space for in-wall speakers near where you spend time, forcing you to put them in a location where you can’t hear them as well.

Add if you'd like a wireless system, you need to consider whether your wifi signal is strong enough to reach your entire home.

Keep the space's temperature, humidity, and, if applicable, its ability to get strong wifi in mind when going through the next categories so you can pick equipment that can function well in your home. 

Size of the area

The size of the room determines how much power your system needs to provide. Sound is like water – you need more of it to fill a larger space and, by extension, more powerful equipment. 

Choosing how powerful your equipment should be can get technical, but a simple rule of thumb is that the bigger and heavier the receiver or speaker, the more powerful it will be.

You can also have audio in multiple rooms, called multi-room or distributed audio. Multi-room audio allows you to listen to one kind of music in multiple rooms, or different types of music in various rooms. 

Choosing your devices

Continue to work backward when deciding on your devices – speakers, then amplifiers or receivers, then source components.  

Speakers

Once you know what you plan to listen to and where, you can determine the best speakers for you. For instance, you'll need more than two speakers if you decide on a 7.1 surround sound set-up, and a soundbar might be enough for you if you just want your TV's sound quality to improve.

You’ll also want to think of the type of speaker you want. This is another situation where you could easily get lost in the sea of options. Here are a few options that cover the gamut of what people typically use their audio systems for.

In-wall or in-ceiling speakers

In-wall or in-ceiling speakers are hardwired speakers placed in your walls or ceilings. They're a great option for people who want their speakers to blend in with the rest of their home since you can paint the speaker grate to match your walls or ceilings.

Invisible speakers

Invisible speakers are even more hidden, placed behind your home's drywall. However, this affects the sound quality; they're best for spaces where music will be in the background, like a dining room.

Bookshelf speakers

Bookshelf speakers are designed to go anywhere except the floor – bookshelves, of course, desks, tables, or anywhere else you can imagine. They’re typically smaller, so they can’t pack as big of a punch with sound, but they’re a great option for a speaker that doesn’t have a big footprint.

Floorstanding speakers

Floorstanding speakers have a much higher sound quality than the other speakers on this list. They're larger, which allows them to create better bass and sound than a smaller unit. Depending on your needs, they can be bigger or smaller, and many can be moved just as easily as a bookshelf speaker.

They’re a good choice if you want high sound quality with some flexibility on where they’re located.

Portable speakers

Portable speakers are exactly what they sound like – small speakers that you can take anywhere and fit in your bag. Many of them connect via Bluetooth, like the Beats Pill+. While they’re great to take along, you won’t get the same bass or sound quality as you would with a bookshelf or floorstanding speaker.

Some general tips to keep in mind while shopping for speakers are:

  • The bigger and heavier the speakers, the more powerful the sound will be.
  • Ensure you have the appropriate ports to connect it to an amplifier or receiver
  • Think about all of the places where you want to use them to ensure you get ones that are capable of delivering the sound quality that you’d like

Amplifiers or receivers

Deciding between an amplifier and a receiver is also a matter of what you plan to do with your audio system. Do you want better audio in your living room to create a theater experience at home? In that case, a receiver is the perfect choice. It has the necessary ports to support multiple speakers and a TV.

But you might only need an amplifier if you have a simple two-channel speaker set-up. Some amplifiers also have speakers integrated into them, called integrated speakers.

A few key things to look for when choosing an amplifier or receiver are:

    • Its weight - the heavier the device, the more powerful it is
  • Its ability to power your speakers - determining the amount of power your amp or receiver can drive is fairly technical, but you can always ask a pro about what amplifier or receiver fits your speakers. Or you can use the rule of thumb that heavier is more powerful
  • Warranty - a more reliable device will have a longer initial warranty
  • Release date - the more recently released the device is, the more likely it is to be compatible with the most cutting-edge speakers and source components

Source components

There are more options for source components than ever – your phone, Bluetooth speakers, TVs, streaming devices, and more. But we'll do what we did before  – start with the media you want to consume and go from there. 

For instance, if you want an immersive movie-watching experience, you'll want a TV capable of connecting to components that can drive a surround sound system. But if you want to listen to an album and get the most out of every nuance, consider buying a turntable.

Or do you want something beautiful to play music while you work? A luxury wireless speaker might be the answer.

No matter what you choose, remember to get a source component that:

  • Has enough ports to connect to the amplifier, receiver, or speakers you’re interested in
  • Has enough power to drive whatever you connect to it
  • Can play the form of media that you’ll be consuming

Smart audio systems

We’ll talk about this in more detail below, but determining whether you’d like your home audio system to be smart, and how you’d like to control it is something to think about when buying your equipment. 

Make sure that your devices can be connected to a smart hub before you buy them, and more importantly, that they can work together with any other smart home technology you have. Ensuring that your system integrates is something that a smart home installer can help with if you don't have the knowledge to do so. 

What about sound quality?

When people think of audio systems, they think of the quality of the sound the system produces. But you can’t pin that on just your speakers or your amplifier. Your system is only as strong as your strongest component. 

That doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to get good sound. Invest in the best possible equipment within your price point. 

Cost

The price of audio systems can range from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. You can truly find an audio system at any price point.

But that makes pinning down a budget for each component difficult. Here are the ranges we typically see for different kinds of systems:

  • Soundbars: $300 - $400, up to $1000-$1500 per zone (the area where speakers work together)
  • Surround sound: $2500 - $3000 per zone (including receiver and speakers)
  • Home theater - $10,000 to $200,000+ (application, projector, receiver, etc.)

Speakers and smart home technology go hand in hand. With the number of wireless options and smart home systems available, it’s easier than ever to control your speakers from anywhere. 

The most common options to make your speakers smart are:

  • Bluetooth
  • Smart speakers
  • Smart home systems
Bluetooth

Bluetooth is one of the most common ways to connect speakers with a source component. For instance, if you want to play something from your phone for your friends, you can quickly connect it via Bluetooth and start playing whatever you want. 

It’s a great option for those who want a quick connection anywhere they go. However, there may be some issues connecting or maintaining a connection, which you can troubleshoot by looking at the manual for that specific device.

Smart speakers

Speakers can do more than play music. Many speakers can have their source component, amplifier, and smart connection all in one.

Devices like Apple HomePod or Nest Smart Speakers can stream audio you can control from your phone or with voice commands. They can also control other aspects of your smart home, like your lights or security system.

They’re a great, easy option, especially if you already have devices in the manufacturer’s ecosystem. You won’t need multiple devices or the associated work to make them connect.

Smart home systems

Smart home systems can connect your various devices into one hub. With the tap of a button or a swipe in an app, you can turn on your music, movie, or podcast. 

You can also create scenes by integrating your sound with other elements of your smart home. For instance, you can create a “good morning” scene that raises your shades, turns on your lights, and starts playing music all at the same time.

Some high-quality brands include:

  • Control4
  • Sonos
  • Apple Homekit

But a smart home that requires several remotes or apps to work can be more of a hassle than a help. Ensuring you work with an experienced smart home integrator will help you create a smart home controlled in one central hub.

DIY vs. Pro Installation

You’ve decided to get a home audio system – congratulations! Now you need to figure out how you’ll have them installed. 

Deciding whether to do it yourself or go with a professional installer is largely based on how large and complex it is. The bigger the system, the more suited it is to being professionally installed. But at what point is it too complicated for the average person to do it themselves?

Ask four questions to determine whether you should do it yourself or hire someone:

  • Hardwired or wireless?
  • What components will you have?
  • Will you connect it to your smart home?
  • What’s your budget? 

Of course, you can have a professional install anything you'd like. It's all a matter of what you're willing to pay for or if there's a company that can handle your needs. 

 

Is it hardwired or wireless?

Hardwired systems have a lot of advantages over wireless, but many hardwired systems require deeper knowledge, manpower and even minor construction to work properly.

Hiring a professional is best for systems that are more complicated, like in-wall speakers, surround sound, and systems with receivers that need to be programmed. But you can easily set up wireless speakers yourself by following the manufacturer's instructions. 

 

What components will you have?

Again, this goes back to how complicated your system will be. If you have a TV and a powered soundbar, you can probably install it yourself. But if you want an extensive system, work with someone who knows the exact cables you'll need and the potential pitfalls that can result when you don't have the right connections between components.

As we'll get into, not connecting the devices properly is the root of most problems people have with their audio systems. So choose your installation method wisely.

 

Will you connect it to your smart home?

Integrating your sound system with your smart home makes it even easier to enjoy. But integrating it properly may be beyond your skill set.

If you have many devices from different brands, having a professional who can make it all work together from a single hub would be invaluable. But if your entire home automation system is one brand, you can do it yourself more easily.

 

What’s your budget?

A home audio system can be a huge investment. But as we said before, the price range for audio systems can be all over the map, depending on how large or complex your system is. 

But if you do it yourself, all you need to worry about is the cost of the equipment. Professional installation comes with the cost of labor and installation, an added cost on top of the cost of your equipment. 

If you'd like professional aid, start by asking people you know who may have used an experienced integrator in the past, or look for one on a site like Houzz, Angi, or Thumbtack. If you ask them the right questions, you’ll find someone who fits your needs. 

If you have a more modest budget and would like professional installation, consider going with a smaller system rather than a large system with lower-end equipment. The quality of your system is key to fully enjoying it. 

Potential problems with audio systems

Turning on your TV and realizing your sound doesn't work is incredibly annoying. Even more annoying? Trying to figure out where the problem is coming from and how to fix it, especially on your own. The details of speakers can be complicated for someone relatively new to the field. But luckily, your home audio's potential problems can be boiled down to connections – are the different components of your system compatible? Are they connected in the right ways? If not, you might run into some issues. Some common issues with your sound could include:
  • Your speakers producing distorted sound
  • Audio coming from only one side of your system
  • Your speakers not producing sound at all
You don’t always need to call a pro when your system malfunctions. Some quick troubleshooting tips are:
  • Making sure your connections are tight
  • Rebooting the machine

Ready to build your dream audio system?

Now you have the basics of home audio, and you might want to get started. As we've said throughout this guide, begin with what you'd like to listen to and where, then pick your devices. 

If you aren’t sure which manufacturers to look at, some brands we commonly suggest are:

  • Klipsch
  • Stealth Acoustics
  • Bang and Olufsen

If you’d like to know more about how Hive can help you with your home audio, you can check out our service page or contact us here to set up a free consultation. We’re also available for any other smart home needs you may have. 

PLAN YOUR PROJECT

Transform your living experience and unlock the full potential of your home in Tampa with Hive's exceptional home automation solutions—contact us today.
Request Pricing
Shading
Lighting
Home Theater
Security
Home Automation
Speakers
Cameras

PLAN YOUR PROJECT

Transform your living experience and unlock the full potential of your home in Tampa with Hive's exceptional home automation solutions—contact us today.
Request Pricing
Shading
Lighting
Home Theater
Security
Home Automation
Speakers
Cameras

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