The Pros and Cons of Floor Speakers

On June 9th 2016 » By Ed Selley

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For the most part, discussions about speakers on the Vinyl Me Please Blog have tended toward the smaller 'standmount' type design. These compact models are also known as bookshelf speakers for the very good reason that while they do their best work sat on a dedicated pair of speaker stands, you can also place them on shelves, windowsills and desktops if space is tight. Standmount speakers can sound superb but they also work well when the realities of modern life get in the way.

Of course, if you have a look around many speaker manufacturers websites, you'll note that their ranges don't end with standmount speakers. Most ranges of speakers- from the positively affordable to the entirely aspirational- will top out in a design that is intended to be placed directly on the floor with the cabinet itself providing the necessary elevation to get the drivers to the height they need to be at to be of use to you the listener.

Any discussion of the benefits of floorstanding speakers needs to start with the obvious but necessary proviso that if you don't have the space to sit a speaker directly on the floor in front of your listening position, it doesn't matter how much you might want a pair, there is absolutely no point in moving away from speakers that can be used in more constrained spaces. If youdohave the space, then floorstanding speakers can make a strong case for themselves.

If you've ever been in the same room as a grand piano being played with any degree of enthusiasm, you'll know that live music has a scale and energy that doesn't always survive the recording process. Even an acoustic guitar can be properly and impressively loud when required. Home listening will forever be a compromise in that you can't hope to replicate the scale of some performances from a single pair of speakers. This being said, if you are going to fool your brain into believing what your system is doing has a degree of realism to it, a good place to start is with a larger pair of speakers.

The reasons for this are straightforward enough. The lower the note, the lower the resonating frequency and the longer the soundwave. To reproduce lower notes without strain, you either need a large driver or an array of smaller drivers to hit these low notes. Now, therearestandmount (and to be clear, these are speakers that need stands rather than a bookshelf) speakers that mount some very large drivers indeed but these are the exception rather than the rule. Floorstanders find it easier to mount more drivers or larger drivers (or indeed both) and can then use the larger cabinet to tune them to produce lower notes than would be possible in a smaller cabinet.

Neither is this something purely for the benefit of bass notes. Floorstanding speakers can also use their greater cabinet size to make use of drivers tuned for specific frequency points. While a standmount will commonly divide into a tweeter and midbass driver, a floorstander has the option to add a specific midrange driver. Now, this isn't a guarantee of success- adding another driver means a more complicated crossover and more thoughts needed on the arrangement of the drivers so that they sound like a homogenous whole but done right, a speaker with a dedicated midrange driver is a fabulous thing.

Of course, you might be thinking that buying a bigger pair of speakers is going to need you to find a more powerful amplifier too but here the laws of physics play an interesting role in whether this is the case or not. It is perfectly true that some floorstanding speakers require plenty of power to strut their stuff but some other models offer a greater level of sensitivity than a much smaller standmount speaker. The reason for this goes back to the larger speakers greater ease at producing low notes. While you can subvert the laws of physics slightly and persuade smaller drivers to produce lower notes than you would expect, the sensitivity and efficiency of the driver tends to suffer as you do so. This means that some truly enormous speakers can reach very high levels on an input of a few watts.

The relationship between a floorstanding speaker and the room it is placed in can also be one that improves performance. As the speaker has no requirement for anything else to secure its connection to the floor of the room, the cabinet can be designed with this in mind and usually terminated in dedicated feet or spikes that allows it to be partially decoupled from the floor. While it can't work miracles- if your floor is a suspended type or thin enough to read through, there isn't a huge amount you can do about it- in most conditions, it should ensure you hear the speaker as the designer intended rather than the speaker and the item it happens to be sat on.

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On an emotive level, some larger speakers are finished and built to the sort of standard that most furniture can only dream of. Earlier this year, I spent some time with a pair of Focal Sopra speakers in my listening room. While they were sufficiently big that there was no means of hiding them away even if I'd wanted to, the sheer attention to detail, that had gone into their construction was such that they were a talking point. Even at more sensible price points, a good pair of floorstanders helps dress a room rather than fill it.  

Like most other parts of this pastime, choosing a good pair of floorstanders need not be incredibly expensive but equally, if you have money to burn, there's any number of companies to help you light it. The most important things to take into account is the amount of space you have to play with and the equipment you are going to be partnering the speaker up to. If your room is relatively small, it doesn't make much sense to go for a truly giant pair of speakers. In spaces like this, a speaker that uses 6-7 inch units might is likely to get on with the room better than a truly huge speaker.

Likewise, it pays to check the impedance and sensitivity of the speakers too with a view to finding a happy partner with your amp. Impedance is a measurement given in ohms and the lower the number, the harder the amp will be to drive. Any speaker that consistently demands four ohms or lower is going to require some fairly hefty amplification. Sensitivity is generally given as a decibel measurement that the speaker will produce with a single watt of amplified pink noise at 1 meter. Like the Richter decibels are exponential so a speaker with a given sensitivity of 85dB/w is going to be a lot less efficient than one with a sensitivity of 90dB/w under the same conditions. If you have an amplifier that produces a huge power output, it isn't likely to matter too much but for more real world applications, if you're going to be turning most of your amp output into heat, that rather defeats the object.

Finally- and this really applies to any speaker- if you can avoid buying blind, you're likely to find a more suitable product. Speakers are hugely subjective. Two models that have perfectly 'correct' measurements and performance can sound totally different to one another so getting the chance to try them before you splash out your hard earned is likely to result in a purchase that you keep for years. Remember to try a wide selection of music, try them at high and low listening levels and don't be afraid to bring your own amplifier along to try them with. Get it right and you'll be in a position to listen to a performance that delivers a bit more oomph.

Ed Selley

Ed Selley

Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.

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