By David Gibbons
Revised Nov, 2013
There appears to be a strong urge towards mounting speakers in the ceiling for well-to-do folks who are aspiring to "classy" home theater, particularly in rooms that are not completely dedicated to being home theaters. Certainly this makes the speakers much less conspicuous, and likely much more in tune with interior decorating concerns.
It is just necessary to realize that the decision to mount the speakers in the ceiling will forever cripple the ability of your home theater to produce a realistic soundscape.
In a home theater that is designed for a good listening and viewing experience, the sonic image produced by the sound system occupies the same place as the image provided by the display. (The sound appears to come from the picture.)
Ceiling mounted speakers will never allow this to occur. It is not possible to make sound waves make a right turn as they come down from the ceiling to your ears. This means that when you listen in a theater with ceiling mounted speakers, the sound comes from the ceiling. Close your eyes, and listen. Where is the sound coming from? The ceiling! To make the picture and sound match, you're going have to move the display up to the ceiling. No problem. . .
Let's get a little more technical - When sound comes out of normal speakers, it spreads out from the front of the speaker in a fan shape. However, the highest frequencies do not fan out very far. The lowest frequencies do fan out quite widely. When the speakers are mounted correctly around the display (television) and are pointed at the prime listening position, the sound arriving in that location is properly balanced between the high, middle, and low frequencies produced by the speaker. When ceiling-mounted speakers in the front of the room are pointed down towards the floor, the highest frequencies are beamed at the floor, not at you. There are ceiling-mounted speakers which have "pointable" tweeters which can SOMEWHAT correct for this problem, but only at the high frequencies.
Further, imagine that someone mounted a television facing down from the ceiling at the front of a room with mirrored walls and floor. You would see reflections of the picture of the television at various points on the front wall and floor, but only have a from-the-side direct view of the television. That is what happens when you have a downward pointing set of speakers in your home theater. The direct sound is unbalanced, and it is mixed-up with a bunch of reflections from the front of the room.
If you just CANNOT stand the thought of speakers sitting on stands or shelves in the room, at least consider in-the-wall speakers, which can be placed around your display to properly locate the sonic image where it belongs.
Now, ceiling-mounted speakers have their uses. If you want to provide an even coverage of sound throughout a large room or series of rooms, evenly-spaced speakers should be mounted in the ceiling, as this gives the best shot at covering the entire room area evenly with sound.
If you think about it, it's the same thing as with lighting. You can place one large high-powered lamp in a corner of the room, or you can place much smaller lighting fixtures evenly spaced across the ceiling. The lights in the ceiling provide much more even, pleasant, and direction-less light throughout the room.
However, the home theater DEPENDS on having sound which is very uneven and directional, to provide the sonic illusion that you are located at a specific spot inside the action of the movie.
Some of the good folks who install home automation, custom home electronics, or home intercom and music systems come from a historical perspective where providing even coverage of spaces in the home with sound is a good thing. Alas, then they can unfortunately misapply the "put all the speakers in the ceiling" technique to home theater installations. They may have decades of experience and success with ceiling mounted speakers, so why try something different?
If you are dealing with such a company, and they're not comfortable with placing speakers appropriate for home theater around the display, find someone who specializes in doing home theater to install the home theater speakers. It might end up that you have speakers in the ceiling for intercom and general music along with the home theater speakers, but the two sets of speakers are doing very different jobs.
Surround speakers will suffer a little less from being ceiling mounted. Still, for the best surround sound experience, freestanding (best,) shelf-mounted (next best,) or wall-mounted (next-next-best,) speakers will always do a better job of providing a realistic rear surround effect. To be fair, if you find the ‘generalized’ surround sound provided in regular movie theaters pleasing, ceiling mounted surround speakers are able to do that.
Bless their CAD software, but architects are probably another force for ceiling-mounted speakers. They can plan their spaces and rooms for you with much more confidence of the final appearance when they get to put the speakers up out of the way. The architect also may have been trained to place the speakers above for best general room sound coverage. If an architect tells you that ceiling mounted speakers are the way to go for your home theater, please also keep the above information in mind.
July 2005 by Papaguy Designs Email the Webmistress!