The Case of the Invisible Speakers

For years, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers were the 98-pound weaklings of the speaker world. Lacking the muscle needed for realistic-sounding music playback - let alone action-movie soundtracks - they were ignored by anyone who took sound seriously.

But the once-ridiculed category has re-emerged, surprisingly pumped and ready to kick sand in the face of that conventional wisdom. Low interest rates and new-home construction have helped fuel interest in what's now called "architectural audio," since it's easier to wire a house for sound during construction. Homeowners are rolling the cost of these systems into their mortgages or construction loans, making them more affordable. Empowered by improved performance and revitalized by the architectural audio trend, "invisible" speakers are now credible alternatives for people who want good sound as well as an uncluttered décor.

Sales of in-wall and ceiling speakers are booming because more and more people want to enjoy music in places like kitchens, bathrooms, even hallways and foyers that have little or no space for conventional speakers. Add to that the explosion in surround sound driven primarily by DVD movie soundtracks and multichannel music, which require multiple speakers spread around a room, and it's no surprise that even enthusiasts are using in-wall and ceiling models as rearward surrounds in their systems.

There's another reason for the in-wall/ceiling renaissance. The trend favoring wide-open floor plans and clean, streamlined spaces over traditional rooms with 8-foot ceilings doesn't lend itself to big floor-standing or even bookshelf speakers. And everybody wants a flat-panel TV, which has only added to the demand for unobtrusive speakers.

"People who live in these open environments don't want to see bulky boxes on their floors anymore, unless they're into high-end audio," says Tom De Stio, director of custom sales at Harvey Electronics, based in New York City. Or as Barry Weiner, owner of Hudson Valley Home Media in Nyack, New York, puts it: "If you're looking for clean, unbroken lines, what could be less noticeable than in-wall speakers with grilles you can paint the same color as the walls? We've used in-wall and ceiling speakers exclusively in our last three installations, including one where we installed in-walls around a plasma display, with the surround speakers mounted in the ceiling over the sofa. That sort of installation is becoming increasingly common."