How Intrusive Is Your AV Gear?

Audio products bring us joy. They also get in the way. (That goes double for hard-copy software. And triple for LPs, much as we love them.) In fact, though the magazine's reviews discuss fidelity, features, and even ergonomics, they rarely discuss how a product might bulk large in your home. Reviewers simply assume that readers will consider the product category, look at the picture, maybe check the dimensions, and reach their own conclusions. But intrusion is a major way in which products relate, or fail to relate, to us.

Despite being dead set against ratings in general, I thought it might be interesting to rate technologies and product categories for intrusiveness in the same way that I rate individual products for performance and other parameters. Five stars is least intrusive, one star is most intrusive, and I've tried to use the full five-point rating scale, exaggerating for effect.

Channel Check

Dolby Atmos, DTS:X 7.1.4 with Ceiling Speakers: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The ceiling mounts or in-walls necessary to make this work take dedication. As in, a dedicated room. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers have no footprint, which theoretically would rocket this category from one star to four or five, but they do require hiring pros and poking holes in walls, which is another form of intrusiveness (albeit temporary).

Dolby Atmos, DTS:X 5.1.4 with Atmos-Enabled Speakers: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
As surround installations go, 5.1.4 done this way is really no more intrusive than plain old 5.1. By bouncing height channels off the ceiling, Atmos-enabled speakers have the same footprint as any other kind of floor speakers. And the extra cabling for the height channels runs alongside basic 5.1 cabling.

Stereo: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Old-school audiophiles point out that two speakers in the front of the room eliminate the intrusiveness of surround speakers and subs. They have a point. ("Aha," Steve Guttenberg is probably saying.)

The Transducer Factor

Large Towers with Audiophile-Approved Positioning: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
These may suit a dedicated listening room where nothing changes much. For a multi-purpose room, big towers take up a lot of space and make cleaning a pain. As a reviewer, I avoid them altogether for several reasons, one of which is that my room is tightly packed and constantly changing (and also serves as home office).

Mini-Towers or Stand-Mount Monitors with Audiophile-Approved Positioning: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
These (can) have slightly smaller footprints and are easier to move when needed.

Mini-Towers and Stand-Mount Monitors Against the Wall: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Speakers don't sound their best when shoved against the wall. But they are easier to live with.

Sat/Sub Sets: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Like the Cambridge Minx system pictured above. These are suitable for smaller rooms, and yes, there are some that sound good (see our Top Picks under Compact Speakers).

In-Walls, On-Walls, Bookshelf Speakers on Bookshelves: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The lease intrusive speakers are those with no footprint at all. The installation of in-walls is extremely invasive (temporarily), and on-walls somewhat invasive, but shelf placement is not invasive at all. Speakers, even so-called bookshelf speakers, are at an acoustic disadvantage on shelves, but that disadvantage becomes an advantage for the room. A fair trade? Think of how much more your spouse will love the room when you've gotten all those darned speakers off the floor.

Amp It Up

Doghouse-Size Mono-Block Amps and Preamp: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A big amp in the middle of the floor with wrist-thick cables snaking to a rack is the kind of thing that graces a man cave (or breaks up a marriage). With tube amps, drop to half a star. This is where the wily home theater audiophile picks up extra points by banishing his rack of amps to a closet.

A/V Receivers: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
AVRs pick up a star by doing a lot in a single chassis, but let's face it, they're still bears to install, and they require a 5.1 or better speaker array as well as a rack. You might pick up another star by opting for a stripped-down system with only, say, a universal disc player and a cable box. Things get messy when you start adding turntables and legacy components.

Stereo Integrated Amps and DAC-Amps: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Cut down to two speakers, don't go crazy with the legacy components, and this could be a nifty little music system.

Active Soundbars and Soundbases: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
For something other than a primary system, self-powered soundbars and consoles relieve stress on the room compared to component systems and have minimal footprints. Bump up to five stars if you wall-mount the bar.

Wireless Speakers: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This product category liberates the listener from components, racks, and things on the floor. It's not an audiophile choice. But how many people are audiophiles? And how many audiophiles are audiophiles all the time, with no room in our lives for casual listening in the kitchen, powered by smartphone?

Rocket in Your Pocket

Audiophile Signal Source and Full-Size NC Headphones: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
That hi-fi player sculpted from a billet of aircraft-grade aluminum may look great and sound even better, but it weighs heavily in the pocket of your shirt or jacket. The same would apply to a music player bungeed to a high-end portable DAC-amp. Full-sized headphones (noise-cancelling or planar) offer the best sound but don't travel in a pocket. A carry-on or briefcase, maybe. Head-fi audiophiles gladly pay the price.

Smartphone and Foldable Headphones: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Getting your smartphone to handle music is the choice of millions. The flea amp in that flat form factor may not be clean or powerful enough to accommodate the best headphones, though even high-end headphone makers are improving sensitivity to be phone-friendly. There are plenty of good over-the-ear headphones that fold up. This system gains a star if you substitute high-quality balanced armature earbuds, or better yet, earbuds custom-molded to the shape of your meat flaps.

Sixth-Gen iPod Nano and NC Earbuds: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I'm getting all model-specific here because the old 6G nano is the only nano with a postage-stamp form factor, similar to all generations of shuffle. This is my flying rig, along with an old pair of Sony MDR-NC11 noise-canceling earbuds. The player fits in the leather-like pouch that came with the buds and the pouch is small enough to travel in any jacket, shirt, or even jeans pocket.

So what do you have to say about how electronic products intrude into your life? If they intrude a lot, is the intrusion worth it? Are you considering something that would intrude less?

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.

JustinGN's picture

I think the only things I would consider "intrusive" in my small apartment space are the subwoofer and the AV Rack. The B&W 600 series speakers look quite nice in the living area, and don't really stand out as A/V equipment off hand. The subwoofer,, I wish I could hide that thing. It's a big cube on the floor jutting out around a corner. The rack is in a closet currently, but once I get shelving for it, it too will be out in the open and kinda fugly. Perhaps I can turn it into a standing desk? I dunno.

All in all, though, modern A/V gear looks downright sensible and stylish in almost any room. Personal opinions may vary, though.

brenro's picture

I currently live in a large house (4800 sq. ft.) which was a comfortable place to raise my children. My family room is the primary room for TV viewing and has all in wall/in ceiling speakers and an AV receiver tucked into a rack that doesn't look like a rack to make the wife happy. I also have a dedicated theater room with a projector and large tower speakers and a rack full of AV gear. However, it's a windowless room where all viewing is done in relative darkness so the appearance of all the gear is not a factor. My living room contains my last, most intrusive, and favorite system. Two channel only but with ML Prodigies taking up space well inside the room each with an adjacent sub (they are dipoles after all) and mono block amps sitting on their own stands adjacent to another stand full of more equipment. The wife complains often of being unable to clean around this gear but also spends quite a bit of time sitting in front of it with her eyes closed. My dilemma is this: we're down to our last kid who is soon to be leaving the nest. We will no longer require or even want to stay in this large house and will be looking to downsize. I see us in a house half this size and with just one sound system to serve all purposes. Obviously, it will need to be multi-channel for movie/TV watching but I'm not eager to give up high quality music for the sake of aesthetics. That is the main reason I follow this site, trying to stay up on the latest trends, gear, designs, etc.

prerich45's picture

Everything is intrusive....but that room is for the HT anyway so it's not intrusive to the room itself.

dommyluc's picture

My couch is 90" long, and one of my end tables is 36" square. And my sub is considered "intrusive"? At least my sub does something. My couch just SITS there, that lazy bastard!

Mark Fleischmann's picture
The year is still young but I think this will be Comment of the Year for 2016.
dommyluc's picture

Oh, Mark! You, tease, you!

canman4pm's picture


Tedd's picture

The av gear is in a Middle Atlantic Slim5, outside the home theater, n an av closet. Speakers are behind an acoustically transparent screen and front wall. Surrounds are in-wall. And the projector is in a hush box, buried in the back wall.

AV-guy's picture

Tru-dat’ ...You bet your sweet bippi that size matters though in many cases it doesn’t... As for me, in my den the sofa-pit is the most intrusive followed by the solid wood desk that was given to me from my good neighbor Bob. When Bob received out of town guest he’d ask if he could show off my media room & I’d do the same at his house for his great (USMC) Marine room in his basement. – On another note visitors usually think that my six foot 1.7 Maggie’s are simply panels but everyone that gets a listen through the Marantz AV & Magnepan speakers is very pleased and all tell me to turn it up. Maybe if I ever get that lake house I’ll upgrade to the larger 20.7’s but the surrounds will be in-wall to save a little space.

Nashidah Khan's picture

Considered many things, this definitely is not intrusive. I think one can get pretty used to it with time.
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