Can I have surround sound that isn't ugly or obtrusive?
October 13, 2011 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Can I have surround sound that isn't ugly or obtrusive?

I am moving into a 1928 character cottage with my fiance. It has been preserved with all the awesome woodwork, coved ceilings, plaster walls and Batchelder tiled fireplace. In our current apartment, we have a Sony flat screen that came with its own dvd player/receiver and surround speaker set up. It is really ugly. To have the speakers that go behind us, there are little stands that look like mic stands.

Perhaps we need to upgrade to a different system, I'm curious to know if there's a way to keep the character of our 1920's home and have a hidden or less obtrusive surround system. I don't care about it but my fiance loves having it so much.

When it comes to stereo components and speakers, I don't know very much. My fiance knows even less! I was the one who actually set up the speaker system because my fiancee couldn't do it.

I have seen there are consultants that will come to your home and suggest the right system for you. What do you think about services like this? I am in the Los Angeles area.
posted by dottiechang to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, there are in-wall speakers you can purchase. I'm sure it's not cheap to install. It looks a lot nicer, though.
posted by Falwless at 12:34 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is pretty much why they invented Bose cube speakers. They're expensive and not that great sounding, but they sure are tiny speakers.
posted by smackfu at 12:35 PM on October 13, 2011

You can get one of those 'soundbar' things--it's a long skinny box full of speakers which mounts under the tv and trickily bounce sound waves off walls to make it sound something like surround speakers. This is a compromise. You can mount the surround speakers to the walls themselves, rather than using the little stands. This, too, is a compromise. Neither one sounds as good as individual speakers, surrounds mounted away from the wall and at listening level, minimal cable runs, etc. Don't think that 'compromise' is a bad word here--there's nothing wrong with balancing aesthetic considerations with financial and other ones, or with weighing the way the room looks when you're watching a movie with the way it looks during the 90% of the time that you're not.

I think that services like the ones you describe are for rich people and/or people who really really don't want to do it themselves (it's not especially complicated, and the information is readily available (avsforum and hometheaterforum are good places to look)).
posted by box at 12:37 PM on October 13, 2011

We felt the same way about the appearance of most audio equipment and ended up choosing some of these lovely speakers from Axiom.
posted by heatvision at 12:38 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Surround sound, in my opinion, pretty overrated. If you don't have a decent setup, speaker levels set properly, distance and position set properly, the equipment set up and hooked up properly, then in general regular ol' stereo is far preferable.

If it's not aesthetically offensive to you, I'd just get a decent pair of stereo speakers and not worry about it.

The one exception is video games. Sometimes surround sound is pretty important in pinpointing the position of enemies, etc.
posted by The Lamplighter at 12:40 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can get in-wall speakers which might be more aesthetically pleasing, but you're trading off the aesthetics for actually damaging the woodwork in order to install them. Personally I don't think that's a great tradeoff. Twenty or fifty years from now, when nobody cares about surround speakers (or at least not your old speakers) anymore, those holes in the walls will still be there.

So, better IMO to get something small and high-tech-looking like the Bose and just live with them out in the open. At least then you can get rid of them when something better (like a synthetic-surround system that actually works well) comes along.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:41 PM on October 13, 2011

I sympathize with you My husband is an audiophile (to tell you the truth, I am too, but I refuse to have my home look like a bachelor pad); we compromised by installing a soundbar above the large flat screen tv in the living room and an easily hidden subwoofer on the floor. For intense music listening, we use the spare room with the (ugly) 7.1 speaker setup that he prefers.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:43 PM on October 13, 2011

Just hide them. Get a small end table, add a potted plant or lamp, and put the speaker next to it. Sure, if the speakers are a black square on a white wall, they'll stand out. Same with purpose-made speaker stands.

I have a bookshelf where speakers are wedged in here and there between books and assorted knickknacks; they're virtually invisible.
posted by supercres at 12:44 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Could you find period-correct furnishings and hide the speakers in them? I'm imagining a credenza with a screen front, speakers hidden inside...or and tables with speakers inside.
posted by Elly Vortex at 12:52 PM on October 13, 2011

Building on Supercres' and Elly Vortex's ideas you could also paint or otherwise finish the speakers in a way that will match the decor better.
posted by VTX at 12:58 PM on October 13, 2011

You could use transducers(like these) to turn some foam-core board, thin plywood, etc into speakers that can be hidden behind paintings or other framed things on the wall. Or mount them to bookshelves or other types of furniture.

I haven't tried it myself, but would love to some day, and the cost of admission is low enough that even if it doesn't work out, you're not out much. Just have to disguise/worry about wires.
posted by owtytrof at 1:01 PM on October 13, 2011

I'll second the Bose cube speakers. I suggest you find a store near you; go in and ask for a demonstration.
posted by Specklet at 1:02 PM on October 13, 2011

I disagree with the comment that surround sound is not worth it. You put in a DVD or Bluray in a dark room with surround sound and it's better than the theater (comfier chairs!).

We have in-wall speakers and some bigger ones, and I love the in-wall speakers; they aren't obtrusive at all, unlike the ones standing on their little pedestals looking ugly. But my husband's an engineer, and noted where all the wiring and studs were in the house when we built it, so he could easily put the in-wall speakers up.

In other words, it might be tough to manage if you haven't planned ahead for it. Plus, you have this beautiful woodwork (I'd love to see a pic of the layout).

So hiding the speakers, either by putting them in period furniture with screens in the front (I've seen this done), or using the smaller speakers or sound bar, might be easier for you.
posted by misha at 1:28 PM on October 13, 2011

Speaking of speaker furniture, these are cool.
posted by misha at 1:31 PM on October 13, 2011

To do away with the wires:

1) Soundbar, from Yamaha or Polk. Does an OK job.
2) Polk and Bose makes a wireless single-speaker backstage, which can be combined with a decent set of L/R and center channel speakers up front. Better than a soundbar.
3) There are a number of wireless surround sound transmitters, such as those by Soundcast... all you need is an outlet near your speakers to power the transmitter. Can look kind of nerdy if you don't take care to hide the speaker + transmitter.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:33 PM on October 13, 2011

Wireless speakers are not any good.
posted by The Lamplighter at 1:34 PM on October 13, 2011

A friend of mine owns a very deliberately-designed-restaurant and they've hidden small modern speakers inside hollowed-out antique speaker cases.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:36 PM on October 13, 2011

If you decide to look at the mini-speaker world, consider the Mirage MX 5.1 set. The Mirage MSRP is almost twice what I paid for mine, and I got a modern surround receiver thrown in when I bought it, so shop around. Reviews of the set are very positive on the whole.
posted by galaksit at 2:03 PM on October 13, 2011

ZVOX makes a nice soundbar in various shapes. It may not give you the performance of a dedicated speaker system but it provides very nice sound and is hideable. The value is good since it's online-only.
posted by iamscott at 2:13 PM on October 13, 2011

Imagine a graph with sound quality on one axis, and classy appearance on the other axis. For your chosen price point, there's a line connecting mid-sound to mid-appearance, and how you install the system slides the point of compromise back and forth along that line, but you can't get better appearance while maintaining sound, or better sound while maintaining appearance, until you throw more money at it.

Installing your current setup, for example, you could do it by the audiophile's book and have speakers on posts by the sofa, or you could tuck the wires up to the ceiling, run them along the crown molding, and hang the speakers on whatever wall is nearest the point the install guide says to put the stands. To get them out of the line of sight, you'd hang them "too high" and angle down a bit.
posted by aimedwander at 2:27 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I still think that surround sound falls apart when you start making compromises to things like positioning, putting speakers in wall, etc. Just get two decent front speakers and maybe a subwoofer -- you'll be way better off.
posted by The Lamplighter at 2:54 PM on October 13, 2011

As with so many things... Hidden, good sound, or reasonably-priced: pick two.
posted by supercres at 3:04 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know most classy speakers are glossy piano black, but are there any brands that use varnished wood or wood veneer finishes? Those would look good in a bungalow.

Like Tivoli has some nice looking stuff in wood finishes, although they are quite pricey and more along the lines of a tabletop radio than standalone speakers.
posted by smackfu at 3:22 PM on October 13, 2011

In the case of surround sound, I think the center channel is the most important for most content. See if you can live without the rears. A soundbar is pretty unobtrusive and would sound decent. If you really need the rears, I would go for in-ceiling speakers.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:40 PM on October 13, 2011

We have in wall speakers in our TV room. I love them, the entire TV set up is installed flush in walls with no visible cables. It's great. We hired an A/V expert to do the design and install for us and am totally glad we did it. We paid him by the hour and bought the equipment at regular rates; I would not hire an A/V guy who sold me a whole package.

In-wall speakers have notably less good sound. Half the sound quality of a speaker is the enclosure; with an in-wall speaker you've got a mediocre enclosure. I was OK with that compromise.
posted by Nelson at 4:06 PM on October 13, 2011

We have in-wall speakers at home; my dad painted the cover to match our walls when he installed them, and the effect is very unobtrusive.
posted by cp311 at 5:06 PM on October 13, 2011

Depending on your taste - and their availability - these Libratone speakers may do the trick for you.
posted by birdsquared at 6:19 PM on October 13, 2011

Thanks, I love seeing all these different fancy options! My fiance is obsessed with racing cars which also means playing video games of car racing, watching movies about car racing, etc. He loves the surround for stuff like this.

For those that wanted pictures, I only have two hastily shot ones from escrow period.

This one is of the area where the TV will go

This one is the wall opposite where the TV would go and where any speakers would be if we decided to put them in the wall. I don't have a photo of the middle of the room where the fireplace is.

Hope that helps you visualize my problem. I wish I had a friend that was an audiophile dork that could come over and just tell me what to do but alas, I am lacking.

THANK YOU for your suggestions.
posted by dottiechang at 6:48 PM on October 13, 2011

Assuming you can get access into the ceiling above that room, you can mount the speakers on brackets hanging from the corners of the ceiling - just run the wires up the inside of the wall behind the system (you mention that you are adding outlets there, so this could be done at the same time) and then bring them out behind the speakers. You can either buy commercial speaker brackets or just make some from flat bar aluminium to save money.

Despite all the theory that the speakers should be at listening level etc, I installed a system in my home this way and it sounded better than when the speakers were on the stands provided. The speakers were not too obvious (about 3 times the size of the Bose cube ones, so still fairly small.

If the speakers are black, you might want to paint or cover them to make them less obtrusive. This may include replacing the cloth covering on the front if they have this.

Bose cube speakers look cute and are reasonably unobtrusive, but they are very expensive and sound like crap.
posted by dg at 9:38 PM on October 13, 2011

How much is your budget?

Personally, in your situation, I'd get a home-theater receiver and a decent quality soundbar. Enjoy your setup like that for a few weeks, and see how happy you are with it. (Just because you have a 7.2 receiver doesn't mean you have to hook up anything but the front left and front right channels.)

If you find it lacks bass, you can get a subwoofer to help out. If it has to be small, something along the lines of the Paradigm MillenniaSub -- but keep in mind if you're willing to have a larger sub you can get better sound for less money.

Then you could also try out surround speakers and see if they're worth the clutter -- any good home audio/electronics dealer should be happy to let take home some speakers for a few days. Or at least have a return policy.

I don't really trust home theater installers. They are essentially salespeople working on behalf of the manufacturers, making commissions based on how much they can sell you. They will try to guide you towards items they make the largest margin on.
posted by Hither at 11:27 PM on October 13, 2011

Does your house have a picture rail? I have this speaker package in my vintage bungalow. I'm happy with both the sound and the look of them. A picture rail does a pretty good job of hiding the wires for the satellite speakers around the room.
posted by easilyamused at 2:57 AM on October 14, 2011

Oops, didn't see your photos, no picture rail, and my link didn't work, but maybe it will give you some ideas.
posted by easilyamused at 3:17 AM on October 14, 2011

A GREAT site for surround sound articles and reviews.Here is one for wireless systems-which more and more manufacturers are offering.As well-a link for sound bars.You could audition any system your interested in at any decent audio store.

BTW many times their reviews have complete component tear downs-inside and out
posted by plumberonkarst at 9:14 PM on October 14, 2011

Sigh, the plot thickens! I had an electrician out this week to fix a malfunctioning light and learned that my 1928 cottage is still 75% knob and tube system with the old cloth covered wires. He pulled apart an outlet and showed me what it looked like. Yikes! The cloth was just flaking off of live wires. If I want to be able to sleep at night, I need to bring my house up to code and that means re-wiring almost every outlet and light in my house. Good thing I haven't moved in yet.

Of course, the home inspector says he couldn't see the evidence of the crumbling knob and tube system even though the electrician found it in 30 seconds!

My surround sound speaker project may have to go on the back burner while I work on other priorities! I will keep taking your suggestions though, for future reference!
posted by dottiechang at 7:39 PM on October 15, 2011

dottiechang, if you have to rewire, ask the electrician about in-wall speakers when they start doing the wiring!
posted by misha at 9:48 PM on October 15, 2011

And wiring network cables. It can be a lot more helpful thank you might think. Depending on your neighbors and the construction of your house, the wifi coverage / interference may make reliable signals difficult.
posted by reddot at 7:46 AM on October 16, 2011

Yes, if you're opening walls anyway get the electrician to pull some network and audio cables so later you can do the nicely wired home theater system of your dreams. Make sure your electrician understands he can't run a low voltage cable right next to a power cable.
posted by Nelson at 9:34 AM on October 16, 2011

Hey guys,

Given our new budgetary priority of re-wiring our house (every outlet, light, etc), I have decided to go with a more affordable soundbar option. I am thinking about the Yamaha YSP 2200 but I need help understanding how it would work. It has really good reviews and we've both realized that we don't need true surround.

If there's anyone on here that has one or that has a similar system that can comment, that would be great.

I want to have the TV, dvd, xbox, radio, record player and some sort of way to listen to streaming mp3s all in one place playing through the sound bar. Do I need a separate AV receiver and would one work with this Yamaha set up? I am sorry if this is really obvious or a silly question, I just don't know very much about this stuff and my brain is very tired from the home remodel. I appreciate your help.

The input/outputs on the Yamaha YSP-2200 are as follows:

HDMI 3 in / 1 out
Digital Optical 2 in
Digital Coaxial 1 in
Analog Audio 1 in
Composite Video 1 out

It kind of looks like I don't need an AV receiver if there are 3 HDMI inputs. Is that right?
posted by dottiechang at 12:50 PM on October 23, 2011

Ok, I realize I need more analog audio inputs so I am thinking of using a mini mixer for that.
posted by dottiechang at 8:03 PM on October 23, 2011

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