Are In-Wall Speakers Right for You?

The Pros and Cons of Using In-Wall and In-Ceiling Speakers

A Russound in-ceiling speaker installed in a drywall ceiling, shown without its perforated metal grille. Brent Butterworth

The giant speakers we audio enthusiasts like usually won't pass muster with those who care more about how a room looks than how great the sound is. Fortunately, there's a simple solution: in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, which mount flush in a wall or ceiling and thus don't take up any floor space. You can even paint or wallpaper over the speakers to make them look like part of the room.

But to be honest, in-walls and in-ceiling speakers aren't always such a simple solution.

Installing them means cutting holes in the walls or ceiling, requiring either a homeowner skilled at DIY projects, or the services of a costly custom installer. There's also the complication of running wires through walls and, usually, a lot of drywall dust. Of course, you can't go cutting holes in the walls unless you own the home. And last, many audio enthusiasts feel, rightly or wrongly, that in-walls and in-ceiling speakers aren't capable of high-quality sound.

In this article, I'll help you figure out if in-walls or in-ceiling speakers are the right choice for you. I'll give you some idea of what's involved in the installation, plus some tips on finding the right person to do the installation for you, if that's the way you choose to go.

Just to get an idea of how in-walls work and what they sound like, check out our in-wall speaker reviews.

Do They Sound Good Enough?

Let's get the sound quality issue out of the way right now.

I've always wondered how many of the audiophiles who deride in-walls have actually heard a good pair. I have tested several dozen of them, and many were excellent. If you install them right (we'll get to that) and choose a good speaker, the only thing you'll sacrifice in a stereo setup is that the sound might not be quite as spacious.

In-ceiling speakers, though, are definitely a sonic compromise. The sound comes from above your head, which doesn't seem natural. Although there are a few great-sounding ceiling speakers, most sound rather rough and lo-fi.

Can You Install Them? And Should You?

Installing in-walls isn't for the faint-hearted. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who hasn't done a lot of fairly heavy-duty home improvement. You'll have to cut holes in the wall with a drywall saw or Roto-Zip, first making sure there aren't any studs or pipes where you planned to mount the speaker.

Then you'll have to run the wires through the wall, possibly having to drill through the firebreak (the stud that runs horizontally in the middle of the wall). Then you'll have to drill through the studs at the floor or ceiling. Then you run the wire through the attic or the basement and bring it up through the wall near your equipment rack. And you'll have to finish the connection with a wall box and a speaker connector panel.

In-ceiling speakers are a little easier because you have to run wire through only one wall. Here's some more detailed info on how to do wire runs through walls.

There's not much you can do to improve the sound of in-ceiling speakers, but there are lots of ways to get in-walls sounding better.

Do whatever you can to reinforce the drywall above and below the speaker; vibrating drywall tends to give in-walls a boomy, bloated sound. I like to cut a couple of 6-inch bits of 2x4 and wedge them into the wall behind the drywall, with a little bit of white glue or woodworking glue on the edges to hold them into place. Also, stuff the wall with attic insulation, which will absorb the sound coming off the back of the speaker and help minimize the transmission of sound into the room on the other side of the wall.

Sound hard? It is, but I'd rather install in-walls than do most home plumbing jobs.

Getting Qualified Help

If you think this job might be too tough for you, it probably is. So you should contact a qualified audio/video installer. Of course, we all know how tough it can be to find a reliable contractor. The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association offers a free referral service that will list installers in your area and show you their qualifications. You can also ask your neighbors if they have anybody good they can recommend.

Serious audio enthusiasts almost have to use the services of an installer. Most of the really good in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are available exclusively through custom installers. Of course, you'll almost certainly pay more for the speakers than you would if you got them at a home improvement store or bought them online.

You'll also pay for the installation. Costs can be all over the map depending on the installer, the construction of your house, the speakers you choose, and where you live. To give you an idea, though, it usually takes me about three hours to install a pair of in-walls, and maybe two hours to do a pair of in-ceilings. I have a ranch house, though, and ranch houses are the easiest to work on because it's just one story and all the wires run through the attic. Running wires on the ground floor of a two-story slab home takes longer.

What Should You Buy?

If you're doing your own installation, you can find a pretty good selection of name-brand in-wall and in-ceiling speakers online, at sites like Crutchfield.com and BestBuy.com. You can also find some great deals from more budget-oriented vendors such as OutdoorSpeakerDepot.com.

Be sure and get plenty of CL3-rated speaker cable, too. Do not use standard speaker cable. CL3-rated cable uses a non-flammable jacket. With standard speaker cable, if the jacket is flammable and you have a house fire, the speaker cable works like a fuse, carrying the fire all through your house in minutes.

No matter what you think of in-walls, they do have one undeniable advantage to keep in mind: You won't have to listen to complaints about the way your speakers look.

Do you have in-wall or in-ceiling speakers? Do you like them? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Image of in-ceiling speaker by Brent Butterworth