Are Tower Speakers Obsolete?

For some, tower speakers are an article of faith. Many audiophiles wouldn't consider going without them—either folded into a 5.1+ system or as a standalone two-channel system. For some of those listeners, owning a pair of towers is the right decision, and I wouldn't be foolhardy enough to try talking them out of it. But for others, floorstanding speakers are just one option among many, and not necessarily the best one. In some primary systems, smaller-scale monitors or satellites would be more appropriate; for some secondary systems, soundbars or standalone audio products make more sense. As I discussed in a previous blog, choice of speaker size depends on both needs and personalities.

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.

pw's picture

So yes , this finally happened to me too. I have just so much audio equipment that like a mature cell it split into two. The TV room has the Logitech THX Z5300 with the Furman Elite power conditioner. The quite nice Furman mostly filters boxes and modems of the Roku variety, not the beefy mono blocks and tube electronics.
The garage (Man Cave) now has the rebuilt B&W towers (Focal Mid's and Tweeters), MonoBlocks set up correctly, with 1 foot of XLO speaker wire and an exotic 10 foot RCA interconnect, twin subwoofers and a Dared Tube preamp. I'm "stealing" the Bluray player to be my new CD source.

And you know what, both the systems now sound way better. The audiophile equip was being wasted in the TV setup. And the Logitech was not being used with the TV. Go figure.

K.Reid's picture

Mark, I suspect some of your colleagues at S&V and Stereophile disagree of even mentioning that towers are "entirely" obsolete. I know that the editor and writers of The Absolute Sound would disagree. Would Mike Fremer abandon his Wilson Maxx or Jonathan Valin abandon his Raidho towers...I think not. It's nearly akin to saying records are "nearly obsolete". Would Mikey's part company with his Continum Calburn or Or Valin his Walker Procensium Black Diamond? Short Answer- No. I have listened to some great sub sat systems like Steinway Lyngdorf and it's great but does not compare to a Magico Q7, YG Acoustics Sonja, Wilson Alexandria, KEF Blade, or MBL 101 or Burmester B100 to name a few. Yes, these are flagship products, but that is the point. They bring one closer to the music/movie than any sub/sat can do. In small spaces and modest budgets, sub/sats are great but do not expect them to perform anywhere close to a reference tower. I suspect Alon Wolf and Peter McGrath would agree that towers are nowhere near close extinction.

zman's picture

My room is close to your dimensions. 19'5" by 14'6" height is 7'8".I have psb silver i's at times and other times psb GB1's on 24" stands. Could I ask you for a couple recomended placements for my speakers? Sometimes I use my Focus Audio FC8's, they have rear ports. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I love this hobby. sincerely, Jerry Zaleski

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I don't like side-wall interaction, so I use asymmetrical long-wall placement, with lots of clutter along the side walls, and sit fairly close. I also keep my speakers fairly far out from the wall, with baffles nearly three feet away in the front left and right speakers (slightly less in the center, since the front three speakers are arranged in an arc). But what works for my room may not be best for yours. Experimentation is the only way to find out for sure what's best. I experimented with speaker placement along every one of the room's walls until I arrived at the one that sounded best (least of all possible evils). It took years.