How to Choose Floor Standing Speakers
The top performers in our review are the Klipsch Reference R-28F, the Gold Award winner; BIC Acoustech PL89 II, the Silver Award winner; and JBL ES 90, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 floor standing speakers.
The best home theater systems can simulate cinema-quality picture and sound in your home. This generally starts with upgrading your television, but that only takes care of the picture quality. TV speakers, even in the newest TVs, always underperform. Matching top-notch picture quality with equal audio performance requires more than a home theater in a box or a sound bar. A quality pair of floor standing speakers coupled with an AV receiver is the solution for a true theater experience at home.
Floor standing speakers, also called tower speakers, are responsible for most of the audio your system produces. These large speakers cover a wide spectrum of audio frequencies – usually from below 40Hz to above 20kHz. Because the speakers cover everything from low bass to ambient high frequencies, you can essentially buy a pair of tower speakers and an AV receiver and have everything you need for theater-quality audio.
We have compared floor standing speakers priced between $500 and $800 per pair. Most people shopping in this price range are putting together a home entertainment system. For full surround sound, you'll want to pair floor standing speakers with a quality pair of bookshelf speakers and place them on both sides of the viewing area. Adding a subwoofer to your system will give you floor-rumbling bass that only subwoofers can provide. All of these speakers are powered and connected by an AV receiver. If you plan on piecing an entire home theater speaker system together this way, it is best to have all your speakers from the same company and within the same series. Most of the floor standing speakers we reviewed are part of a series of speakers, so you can easily find matching bookshelf speakers and subwoofers. When you pair matching speakers together, they'll have the same sound qualities and timbre, which will give your sound system a uniform and natural sound.
Keep in mind that tower speakers aren't the only solution to upgrading your home theater's audio quality. Sound bars and boxed home theater packages also provide an upgrade to your television's audio quality. Tower speakers are more expensive and larger than both sound bars and home theater systems in a box, but they offer far superior sound quality.
One of the differences between HTIBs (home theater in a box) and sound bars is driver size. HTIBs and sound bars generally don't contain large enough drivers or the power to properly produce low-end frequencies. Many of these sound bars need to be coupled with an additional subwoofer to drive low frequencies – below 40Hz, where bass really thrives. HTIBs and sound bars will often sound thin and weak compared to tower speakers. If you really want to improve your home audio, floor standing speakers are the way to go.
Tower Speakers: The Tech
There are a handful of technical terms you should know before you spend money on these large speakers. These terms are frequency response, speaker sensitivity and impedance.
Frequency response is the audio range that a speaker can successfully produce. Generally, the wider the frequency response, the better. A wide frequency response is one of the main reasons to own stereo floor speakers. These left and right speakers reach low-end frequencies, often below 40Hz, and exceeding 20kHz. That nearly covers the entire spectrum of human hearing (20Hz to 20kHz) with one set of speakers.
Sensitivity is another important term to be familiar with. Sensitivity is the speaker's ability to convert power into sound. Generally, when a speaker has a high sensitivity (above 91 dB), it produces more volume and better sound quality with less power. The key is this: The less power it takes for your speakers to produce sound, the better the audio quality and the longer your speakers will last.
With speaker sensitivity, a seemingly small numerical change can make a large difference. This is because for every 3 decibels in volume increase, the power needs to be doubled. For example, a speaker with a sensitivity rating of 90 dB takes four times more power to reach the same volume as a 96 dB speaker. As you continue to increase the volume, the difference in power draw can become drastic. Speakers with a sensitivity rating of 91 dB or higher should be considered efficient speakers.
Impedance is an important factor when you are pairing a pair of speakers to an amplifier. Impedance is the speaker's resistance to electric current. You'll want to match the power rating and impedance of your amplifier with the impedance of your speaker. If you don't, you could damage both the speaker and the amplifier. An amp that sends too much power to the speaker can blow the speaker. An underpowered amplifier can damage the speaker and itself. If the amplifier is running at full power for too long, it can overheat and become damaged. It will also begin to produce distortion that will damage a speaker. These are reasons to make sure all the power ratings between your amp and speakers match.
Once you know these common terms, you'll have a better understanding of each speaker's specifications and how they relate to the speaker's overall performance. For additional information, take a look at our articles on floor standing speakers.
Floor Standing Speakers: What We Tested, What We Found
We compiled our audio performance scores from two different forms of testing. In our best attempt to remove all subjectivity, we recorded each set of speakers as we played a sine wave that went from 20Hz to 20kHz and used frequency analysis to see which speakers are the most accurate and provide the best sound quality.
For the second test, we had a head-to-head listening competition to see which floor standing speakers sounded best. We filled out a questionnaire as we listened to each speaker and compared the scores against one another. We averaged the scores from both tests to get an overall audio performance score.
Frequency Response Test
Each speaker was powered by the same AV receiver, recorded using the same microphone from the same distance at the same volume. To ensure each speaker was at the same volume, we played pink noise through the speaker and measured the volume with a decibel meter. After the speakers were calibrated to the same volume, we played a digital sine wave that goes from the lowest end of human hearing (20Hz) and progressed to the highest range of human hearing (20kHz). We recorded the speaker's replication of the sine wave and compared it to the flat signal produced by the sine wave using a frequency analyzer in our recording software. The most accurate home tower speakers create a frequency line that is similar to the flat line produced to by the digital sine wave. When a speaker produces a flat signal, the music or cinema audio is heard the way the recording engineer intended you to hear it. This is the overall goal.
We graded each speaker based on its ability to reproduce accurate low-range, mid-range and high-range frequencies. Optimum performance is a flat signal that resembles the digital sine wave. When a speaker displayed peaks and valleys in the audio analysis, it represents an inability to accurately reproduce the audio signal at the optimal volume. In these instances, the score was negatively affected.
Keep in mind that any frequency analysis is not an exact science. This test should be performed in an anechoic chamber. We did not record the speakers in a soundproof chamber. Our test conditions produced many variables that could affect speaker performance. Everything from the room conditions, size and microphone used can all play a part in the frequency analysis testing results. Use our testing results as a guide, but know that our grades are not absolutes. Keep these variables in mind as you evaluate each speaker.
We compared the speakers against one another in a head-to-head listening test. We connected the speakers to the same AV receiver and used the decimal meter to make sure that speakers were playing at the same volume. We listened to Radiohead's "A Punchup at a Wedding" to test the speaker's clarity and Bassnector's "Sideways" to test the speaker's bass response. We used a rendition of Felix Mendelssohn's "Venetian Gondola Song" to test dynamic range, and finally we used a clip from "Star Trek Into Darkness" to see how each speaker would perform during action movies.
As we listened to all of the music and movie clips, we filled out a questionnaire that scored each speaker on its performance. We compared the scores against one another to determine the best overall sounding speaker. This type of testing is subjective by nature, which is why we combined this score with our frequency analysis test, so you can have the most information possible to determine the best tower speakers.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained all of the units in our comparison in house, some by loans from the manufacturer and some by purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Floor Standing Speakers: Other Things to Consider
Outside of audio quality and matching the power ratings for your home floor speakers and to your amplifier or AV receiver, you should pay attention to the drivers and binding posts on your speakers. Driver size directly correlates to the speaker's ability to produce different frequencies. Binding posts are used to connect your speakers to your receiver and are important in the transfer of power from the amplifier to speaker.
The larger your drivers, the better chance your tower speaker will produce quality low-frequency sound. Generally, one large driver is better than multiple smaller drivers. Drivers with a diameter of 8 inches or larger will generally produce the best bass tones.
You'll notice that some speakers have five-way binding posts while others have three-way binding posts. This refers to the number of ways you can connect speaker wire to the speakers. Five-way connectors can connect speaker wire in five ways:
- Pin connectors
- Banana plugs
- Wire wrapped and clamped to the post
- Lug terminals
- Bare wire inserted
You'll also notice that some speakers have gold-pated binding posts. Gold is a highly conductive material and helps the transfer of electricity from your amplifier to your speakers. The better the connection from your amplifier to your speaker, the better power signal, which equates to better sound quality.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
The Klipsch Reference R-28F is our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner. This speaker system outshined the rest in our listening test and performed well in our frequency analysis testing. The back of the speaker features five-way, gold-plated binding posts so you can get a strong connection between your speakers and amplifier. This speaker also has the highest sensitivity rating in our lineup. When you combine a 98 dB sensitivity rating with high-quality audio, you get the best tower speaker in our lineup.
The BIC Acoustech PL89 II is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner. Like the Klipsch, this speaker boasts a 98 dB sensitivity rating, meaning this speaker doesn't need much power to produce high volumes. This speaker also fared excellently in both our listening tests. This speaker has three-way binding posts on the back of the speaker, unlike the Klipsch that features five-way binding posts, meaning there are fewer ways to connect speaker wire to the back of the speakers. This shouldn't make or break your buying decision, but it is a small factor we took into account in our rankings. Both speakers sound great, and if you decide to go with the BIC instead of the Klipsch, you won't be disappointed.
The JBL ES 90 is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. This tower speaker features a four-way design and is the only speaker we reviewed that has five total drivers. This is due to the speaker's super tweeter that helps to enhance high frequencies. It features a 91 dB sensitivity rating, which is better than the majority of the speakers that we tested, but not as efficient as our top two speakers. This speaker was impressive in our listening test with sharp and definitive sound quality. You'll be pleased if you choose this speaker for your home entertainment center.