Are Tower Speakers Obsolete?
The biggest argument in favor of big speakers is that their large enclosures make them better at producing low bass. But a tall enclosure doesn't necessarily make low bass a cinch. Some towers have better bass response than others. In some cases, their bass response is room-dependent, and even then the bottom octave might not have the desired weight. Depending on the speakers and room, experimenting with boundary reinforcement will get you only so far. That's why most surround systems use subwoofers. Getting exactly the low bass response, tone, and speed you want is more of a sure thing when it's a matter of choosing, adjusting, and maybe equalizing one or more subs. Those who assert that only towers can produce satisfying bass just haven't listened to enough (or good enough) subs.
Another benefit of using smaller speakers with a subwoofer is that it relieves the main amplifier of the bass-making burden. That liberates the system dynamically, so that a peak bass moment won't suck power away from other frequencies and collapse the soundfield. It also makes the system more efficient in general, opening up more possibilities (and perhaps less costly ones) in your selection of receiver or power amp. A muscle amp can be a thing of joy, but like towers, it's not the best choice for everyone.
I should note in passing that speaker size is not the sole determinant of efficiency. A big speaker can be efficient, presenting the amp with an easy load; a small speaker can be inefficient, presenting the amp with a tough load. The key determinant is the efficiency or sensitivity rating, not size. Regardless of speaker size and efficiency, crossing over to the sub at the right frequency will make the amp's job easier.
It goes without saying that big speakers fare better in big rooms. That's where towers are most often the right pick, especially for a two-channel system. But if you live your life in medium sized or smaller rooms, clearly there's no need to bring in the heavy artillery. Like big objects in general—big furniture, big framed pictures—big speakers have a way of making a room look smaller. If the room makes you feel claustrophobic, your speakers might be part of the problem.
Big speakers can be obstacles to domestic tranquility. The much-discussed spouse acceptance factor favors smaller speakers over larger ones—just as it also favors stereo over surround, and cute little Bluetooth speakers over component systems. If you're loath to give up surround or component systems in general, downsizing your speakers may be the right move, especially if you want your system to be a part of—as opposed to an impediment to—family activities.
Would you rather spend your Sunday afternoons holed up in your man cave listening to your Easter Island monoliths? Or would you prefer to spend them in the den, watching a movie with your family members, generating memories that might warm your old age? If your home is large enough, and your moods diverse enough, you might enjoy having both a family-friendly system to provide fun for the whole household and a man-cave system to get away from it all. But if space and funds are limited and you have to opt for one or the other in a primary system, give some thought to what's best for the entire household. And rest assured that the best small speakers (assisted by subs) can make listening to music a blissful experience. In-walls have also made great strides in recent years, and with no footprint, they're the easiest kind to live with.
In case you were wondering, I don't use towers myself, at least at the moment. The Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v4 that I've been using for years is a chunky stand-mount monitor. It begins rolling off at 100 Hertz but still has usable bass response (the -3dB point) down to 59 Hertz. After that it needs sub reinforcement, though I sometimes do enjoy listening it to it full-range (or as close as it comes to that) in a receiver's pure direct mode.
Would I consider towers in the future? If I moved into a larger listening room, maybe. If I wanted to supplement my primary surround system with a cost-no-object two-channel system in a separate large room, undoubtedly. But for the way I live and work now—with a 19 x 14 x 9 foot listening room, the bedroom filled with review cartons, and a mandate to review 5.1-channel sets—smaller speakers are the right choice. Among other benefits, my current monitors can be stacked in a corner to make way for the latest review samples.
You, of course, are not a reviewer. Whether tower speakers are right for you is up to you. But do yourself a favor: Let go of ingrained attitudes, reflect on the way you really live and listen, and consider all the options. Tower speakers may not be entirely obsolete—but the notion that they're automatically the best option for performance-conscious listeners is definitely obsolete.
Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems.