Audiophile 101: Choosing Your Speakers

Audiophile 101: Choosing Your Speakers

Whether you’re looking to build a 2-Channel listening space or enhance your home theater, choosing the right speaker configuration for the space is usually the first step. The speaker configuration will determine what amp you need and potentially other acoustic treatment options for the space. With that in mind, let’s look at the basic options you have for creating your listening space.

Audiophile 101 MartinLogan Speakers in Living Room

Loudspeaker Terminology

There are a few key bits of terminology that will you when shopping for speakers and help you get you through this guide:

  • Loudspeaker: Because “speaker” can be used to either describe a single driver or a complete multi-driver unit, often the term “loudspeaker” is used to describe any speaker unit composed of multiple individual speakers or drivers
  • Driver: The words “speaker” and “driver” are often used interchangeably to describe the individual speakers or transducers within a single “loudspeaker.” To alleviate confusion, we typically refer to the individual speaker components as drivers.
  • #-Way: A multidriver loudspeaker can be described as “2-way.” “3-way,” “4-way,” etc. based on the number of drivers it has. For example, the Focal Theva No2 is a 4-way loudspeaker because it has 4 drivers: two woofers, one midrange, and one tweeter. The MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL is a 2-way loudspeaker, because it has 2 drivers: a single woofer, and an electrostatic driver for the mids and highs.
  • 2-Channel: A setup with only two main channels – left and right – configured primarily for music. The vast majority of music has been recorded and released in stereo – even in high resolution formats – and for a dedicated listening space, a pair of great speakers might be all you need.
  • Surround/Home Theater: A setup with any number of additional channels beyond Left and Right. Modern Audio/Video Receivers (AVRs) can support configurations with as many as 20 separate channels.
  •  MartinLogan Center Channel Speaker

    Main Channels

    While there are a number of options, including subwoofers, wall and ceiling mounted speakers, add-ons for Dolby Atmos, and the like, your main front speakers will be the most important part of your system – and if you’re doing a 2-channel system, they’ll be the complete system. Your two primary options for front mains are Bookshelf and Floorstanding speakers.


    Bookshelf speakers are the most basic form of loudspeaker. They’re typically 2-way with a single full-range dynamic driver and a tweeter. Bookshelf speakers excel in smaller spaces, but can work in a variety of room sizes. Outside of bass performance, they can be highly competitive with similarly priced floorstanding options, though there’s a much higher performance ceiling for floorstanding than bookshelf loudspeakers.

    “Bookshelf” can also be somewhat of a misnomer as you’ll get the best performance with the unit out in the open, either on a stand or resting on a desk with some space to breathe around it. And because they’re less sensitive to the specific space and placement in the room, bookshelf speakers can also work as surround channels to add onto a floorstanding system. Some bookshelf designs, like the MartinLogan Motion MP10 are designed specifically as auxiliary speakers and not intended to be a standalone main channel.

    The smaller size of bookshelf speakers limits bass output, so it’s typically best to pair bookshelf speakers with a subwoofer to truly capture the full range of the music. A bookshelf plus subwoofer system will still retain a greater level of flexibility with smaller rooms. Bookshelf speakers are recommended for “near field” spaces – where the listener will be 3-4 feet or less from the speaker, or rooms under 150 sq ft.

    Audiophile 101: Focal Theva Bookshelf Speakers


    Floorstanding speakers are typically full range, meaning that they cover, bass, mids, and treble, and also often dedicate at least one driver to each region of the audio spectrum. One of the advantages of floorstanding designs is that a larger frame means more room for a greater number of drivers. The resonance of larger speaker cabinets can also improve the bass response.

    A great set of floorstanding speakers can represent an incredible full-range music experience, but depending on the genre and space, you may want to consider using a subwoofer as well to extend the bass and increase the sense of physical impact. Floorstanding speakers can serve as a standalone 2-channel system, or as the centerpiece of a surround system – as long as you have the space for it.

    For a strict 2-channel system, you would want to consider floorstanding loudspeakers if your room is larger than 150 sq ft, and definitely use floorstanding for a room that’s larger than 200 sq ft. If your room is smaller than 100 sq ft, bookshelf speakers will be better as you want to provide 18”-24” of wall clearance to most floorstanding speakers, and have at least 5’-6’ between the speaker and listener. So you’ll typically have a hard time finding optimal positioning for floorstanding speakers in a smaller room.

    Audiophile 101: MartinLogan Floorstanding Speaker

    Loudspeaker Type

    Recommended Room Size

    Recommended Distance to Listener




    “Near Field” Desktop, or rooms up to 150 sq ft.

    2-8 ft.

    Flexible positioning, can be used as mains or auxiliary speakers

    Less bass extension, can’t fill larger spaces


    Minimum of 100 sq ft. for 2 Channel, 150+ sq ft. for surround

    5-10 ft.

    Best possible sound quality and full range sonic delivery

    Need larger space for optimum sound, more sensitive to placement in the room

    Other Speaker Types

    For some setups, you’ll have your 2-Channel main speakers for music, and that’s it. But many modern setups are a blend of audiophile music enjoyment in two channels, and home theater surround sound. In other cases, you may be using a 2-Channel audiophile configuration, but you need that extra .1 with a subwoofer to fill out the bass.

    Audiophile 101: MartinLogan Motion XT Speaker Collection


    A subwoofer is designed to deliver the lower and subbass part of the frequency spectrum exclusively. Typically subwoofers operate alongside a crossover which only sends all sonic information below a certain threshold to the subwoofer. The crossover should be set in conjunction with your main speakers to avoid muddiness. 

    As HiFi technology has improved over the years, and music has included more and more low frequency information, the subwoofer has become a key part of any audio system. If you’re building a home theater system the subwoofer is an essential piece, as movie sound effects frequently extend deep into the subbass regions to deliver a physical rumble and immerse the audience in the experience.

    While a great set of floorstanding speakers can offer excellent bass depth, they can’t match the depth and physical delivery of a great subwoofer. If your main speakers are bookshelves, then a subwoofer is an essential piece to make sure you’re experiencing the full range of the music. In a near-field listening environment with bookshelf speakers, you’ll want to use a smaller subwoofer like the MartinLogan Dynamo 400. In large spaces you’ll want to use something much larger or possibly use multiple subwoofers (either left and right or front and back) to fill the space with physical bass.

    Center Channel

    When you move from a 2-channel system designed primarily for stereo music to a home entertainment system the center channel is perhaps the most important addition to your system. Center channel delivers dialog for movies and TV along with vocals and key instrumental leads in surround mixes of music performances.

    While it might be tempting to use a single bookshelf speaker as a center channel, a true center channel will be specifically tuned to emphasize dialog without overpowering the balance of sound, and will also usually have dual midrange drivers to deliver more accurate bi-polar imaging.

    Wall-Mounted and Architectural Speakers

    There are a variety of types of speakers that can be mounted on your wall, and some wall-mounted speakers are essentially full-fledged floorstanding or bookshelf speakers with the added capability of being mountable. While performance can be excellent, larger wall-mounted speakers need to make some compromises, specifically in the bass, since you won’t have the typically preferred wall clearance or spacing.

    While many audiophiles take pride in speaker setups that provide a commanding presence and are the centerpiece of the room decor, there are other cases where you might want a more discrete option. There are also situations, like installing speakers in an outdoor space or a more traditional theater design, that require something other than tall floorstanding loudspeakers spread across the landscape. This is where things like architectural, in-wall, and in-ceiling speakers come in.

    While most enthusiasts can set up a listening room with traditional speakers, wall-mounted options can be a bit more challenging. In-wall or in-ceiling speakers in particular need the sort of precision cutting and behind drywall wiring that demands professional installation.

    When selecting different components for larger setups, selecting components that complement each other becomes major considerations. A subwoofer that’s too big for the space or that overpowers your speakers will sound bloated, a center channel that’s too small can result in vocals or dialog being drowned out. 

    Speaker Type




    2-Channel and Home Theater

    Room size, matching crossover with main speakers

    Center Channel

    Home Theater

    Matching with main channels

    In-Wall / Architectural

    Home Theater and Sound Reinforcement

    Placement, installation

    Audiophile 101: Focal Theva Collection

    Source and Amplification

    The last piece of your puzzle is how you’re actually getting music to your loudspeakers. While your typical soundbar can simply plug into a TV via HDMI, optical, or analog output, these sorts of setups require additional amplification. Your source could be a TV, Record Player, Digital Audio Player, or any number of devices, and once you’ve decided on the specific speaker configuration, you’ll need to select an amplifier with the correct outputs and sufficient power to drive them.

    In a 2-Channel system, it’s generally pretty easy, as you’ll just need to match the power rating provided in the specifications for your loudspeakers. The biggest complication will typically be ensuring that you’ll have the correct wires to connect everything (“banana” and bare wire being the most common.) In a surround system it can be slightly more complicated as you’ll have different size speakers with different wattages, and you’ll need to be sure that the output for each channel is correct.

    Using an AVR or other integrated solution is very common in surround systems, however a greater variety of components is the norm for a 2-Channel setup. For an vinyl setup, you’ll typically have a separate phono stage and power amp – possibly a pre-amp as well – to connect to the speakers, while for a digital setup, you’ll have a digital source, like a CD Player, Streamer, or Digital Audio player, along with a DAC and power amp.

    The Bottom Line

    Loudspeaker setups can be incredibly complicated, with main channels, subwoofers, and any number of additional channels. Or it can just be two loudspeakers sitting on your floor. Whether it’s for 2-Channel or home theater, the most important part is finding the right speakers and configuration for your listening space and needs.