Integrated vs. freestanding speakers

Ever wondered what the main differences are between integrated speakers and freestanding speakers? Amy Stoneham looks into it.

Audio is often a big part of a home project and it can be delivered in many different ways. Of course, it all very much depends on the client’s wants and needs as to what sort of speakers you install, but ultimately, the main element is that it delivers high-quality audio.

In this article, we look at two different types of speakers, what benefits they can bring to a space and the user, and what performance quality can be expected from them. Whether your client is an audiophile who wants the best of the best, or they want a wide-spread audio solution throughout the house, or maybe they want a mixture of both, I hope this report can give you some ideas of what to think about when choosing speakers for a project.

Standalone, floorstanding speakers, sometimes referred to as box speakers, are typically required when an audiophile enjoys listening to music in a dedicated space. Of course, floorstanding speakers can be used in other instances too, such as home cinema applications or living/relaxing spaces, or if the client is keen to have a visible statement piece.

Integrated speakers, or architectural speakers, are integrated into walls and ceilings and are often discreet or completely invisible. These are often used in many different circumstances. In-ceiling speakers are ideal for background music in places like kitchens and bathrooms but can also be used to deliver height channels in home cinemas or living areas. In-walls are used for much the same and can provide great surround sound for theatres and media rooms too.

In-ceiling speakers are ideal for use in places such as bathrooms and kitchens and can be retrofitted or installed into new builds. Image: Lithe Audio


It’s not always as simple as asking what a customer would prefer in their home. There are many considerations to think about and discuss with the homeowners when choosing whether to specify a pair of floorstanding speakers or integrated speakers.

“When choosing speaker type and placements, the first questions I would ask any end user is, ‘how do you see yourself using the room and what will you be listening to?’,” says Nick Fichte, global sales director at L-Acoustics Creations. “In a room like a kitchen, the answer is most likely going to be that the room will be used for preparing food and listening to the radio in the background. But then when the client hosts a party, they may want to have better quality audio. People will be spread around the room though and no one will ever be in the perfect listening position. With this response, you instantly recognise that an integrated solution would be preferred but that they will be hosting parties so equal coverage is important.”

However, if the space is being used as more of a dedicated listening room, the choice might sway towards floorstanding speakers. “The ideal audio experience depends on the intended use of the space,” advises Mike Kavanaugh, VP of international sales at Sonance. “If the client is interested in making audio the primary activity of the space, dedicated high-output speakers may be the best solution. The next question to consider would be how the client wants their audio to look in the design of their space. Floorstanding speakers may not fit the design and they may choose to select high-output architectural style speakers instead of floorstanding to preserve the intended look and feel of the room.”

“However, get all of that right, and a floorstanding speaker will deliver a more convincing experience than an installed one.”

As Kavanaugh pointed out, overall quality isn’t always the most important thing; sometimes the interior design of a room dictates whether the client can have speakers on show or invisible/discreet architectural speakers.

“Aesthetics can easily override any potential differences in performance between the two approaches,” explains Des Ford, technical marketing manager at Meridian Audio. “Some customers want to revel in the appearance of their loudspeakers and are keen to give them pride of place. The loudspeakers might be seen as high-quality pieces of furniture and are considered to be ornamental or even sculptural assets to the room.

“Other customers (and many interior designers) abhor the idea of floorstanding loudspeakers, equating them to necessary appliances or equipment which should be kept out of sight. Naturally, the potential disruption associated with the installation of in-wall loudspeakers can be a showstopper. A room which is being built or refurbished lends itself to having loudspeakers built into the walls or ceiling far more easily than a beautifully decorated and finished space.”

Another aspect that can affect the decision is the size and shape of the room and how much coverage is needed. “The size and shape of the room can impact sound in a huge way,” says Amit Ravat, managing director of Lithe Audio. “Ceiling speakers spaced evenly throughout an area will give room-filling audio throughout a whole space regardless of the shape or size of the room. Floorstanding speakers will give optimal sound to a focus area of the room.”

Ideal audio coverage for entertaining spaces. Image: Sonance

Nobody puts Baby in the corner

When specifying any speaker, positioning in a room is crucial to optimise its performance to the listener. Badly positioned speakers will impact how immersed the listener is in the content they are listening to, which is especially true when paired with on screen visuals in a home theatre or media room. The ultimate goal is that the listener forgets that the speaker is there, and they are transported to within the content, music or movie to get a really good overall experience.

Many consumers who buy their own speakers position them in the corner of a room because it’s the easiest place to put them in terms of space. But this isn’t the best idea in terms of audio quality.

“Floorstanding speakers require space to ‘breathe’ acoustically and won’t reward being crammed into a corner or too close to an adjacent boundary,” clarifies Andy Kerr, director of product marketing and communications at Bowers & Wilkins. “Ideally, they need to be set up in a position that allows for a broad, deep and tall soundstage that can reward more than one listener with an effective stereo image and ‘sweet spot’. Furniture, floor type (sprung vs. concrete, bare vs. carpeted) and boundary construction (brick wall, timber wall) can all be relevant and influential factors. However, get all of that right, and a floorstanding speaker will deliver a more convincing experience than an installed one.”

Agreeing with this statement, a spokesperson for Sound United says: “Placement is important and some experimentation and expert advice is advisable to get the best results. For sure, corner placement is not recommended. Ideally the main listening position needs to be equidistant to, and in the middle of, the left/right stereo speakers.”

It’s not just corner placement that should be avoided either, as James Drummie, product manager at AWE Europe explains: “Speakers always sound their best when at ear level. This is where we expect sound to come from and our ears are designed to hear from directly in front of us. In-ceiling speakers are great for areas where you wouldn’t normally expect speakers, like kitchens or bathrooms, allowing background audio to be in those rooms where you don’t want, or can’t have, ear level speakers. For the absolute best audio, a floorstanding speaker is the solution. The whole thing is designed for outstanding audio, with the enclosure specifically designed to get the best from the drive units.”

However, Ford thinks that some floorstanding speakers can ‘fall short’: “One issue in some applications is that floorstanders are, well, on the floor! If the requirement is for sound to be produced at anything like head-height or above, almost all floorstanders literally fall short. Such use cases can include the surround speakers in a cinema system, not to mention any height channels. Similarly, in rooms where the seating or other furniture blocks the passage of sound to the listeners’ ears, integrated loudspeakers offer the option of getting the sound up into the air.”

In some places, one solution will simply work better than the other.

“Now more than ever, installed audio solutions can sound excellent when done correctly and can provide high fidelity audio as well as any traditional hi-fi box speaker,” admits Michael Johnson, global marketing director for Monitor Audio Group. “The main practical differentiator is the space/location where audio is required. Naturally, if the customer had a dedicated space and their criteria was indeed a music room where a two-channel stereo setup would be the ambition, traditional box speakers could outperform an installed system. Further, a tangible ‘social statement’ and appreciation of the speaker’s physical presence might also be required. After all, box speakers are art forms in many ways. Yet there are some locations that are too small for traditional box speakers, such as hallways, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. This is where custom installed speakers come into their own.”

Many audiophiles like to have their floorstanding speakers as a statement piece for dedicated music listening. Image: Bowers & Wilkins

Integrated speakers

Some think that performance and quality can be compromised with integrated in-ceiling or in-wall speakers which isn’t always true.

“At Sonance, we believe that we can achieve audio performance from some of our architectural style speakers that is comparable or even superior to many floorstanding speakers,” says Kavanaugh. “The right architectural solution of speakers and subwoofers can deliver premium performance with the desired aesthetic to match the design of the space, making the experience more impactful.”

As well as sounding great, integrated speakers definitely have a place in high-end homes and are ideal in home cinemas.  

“In-wall and in-ceiling speakers are an excellent choice for home cinema applications, especially for Dolby Atmos,” illustrates Kerr. “Mounted high in a ceiling, an installed speaker often benefits from a degree of natural delay that eludes more conventional speakers mounted on stands and closer to the listener. This is simply because of the greater distance between the output of the in-ceiling speakers and the listener’s ears when seated.”

Location is also important for integrated audio, as James Todd, senior global product line manager at HARMAN Luxury Audio Group explains: “Installing a speaker in the wrong location will result in poor sound throughout the room. All speakers (in-wall, in-ceiling or floorstanding) have superior performance on-axis (face on). The further off-axis the listener is, the flatter and muddier the sound will be. It is for this reason that in-ceiling speakers should not be installed into corners unless the speaker in question has a heavily angled tweeter to direct sound into the room.

“But bass can also be boomy or bloated in these locations without DSP tuning to remove the bass boost provided by the corner of the room. The worst thing that can happen is the action of an installed speaker causes a resonance or rattle from something else in the void, whether that be the wall itself or utilities that are within the same space.”

“Other customers (and many interior designers) abhor the idea of floorstanding loudspeakers, equating them to necessary appliances or equipment which should be kept out of sight.”

The main reason integrated audio solutions are so popular with end users is the fact that they don’t take up room and can be made invisible too. “The obvious benefit of in-wall or in-ceiling speakers is they don’t take up as much space as traditional speakers,” defines Drummie. “For home cinema, in-wall speakers are the perfect solution as they can be mounted behind the screen, so that sound comes directly from the image. With speakers around the screen, there can be a disconnect from sound to vision.”

Kavanaugh adds: “Integrated architectural speakers allow a client to lead with design and audio coverage. This provides many options for selecting an audio solution that won’t compromise the design and experience in a space. The placement can be spread throughout a space and the size and shape can be selected to match the other design elements of the room.

“Contrastingly, floorstanding speakers are great for people who want to have a dedicated listening experience where design is not a priority. The performance is directional and intended for a specifically positioned audience, which may be ideal for someone wanting to just sit and enjoy music.”

Having speakers installed into walls and ceilings can also minimise the risk of damage. “A traditional speaker can be vulnerable in households with small children or large boisterous dogs (or both),” says Kerr. “Integrated speakers are discreet, robust, easy to live with, don’t take up undue space, aren’t vulnerable to kids, pets or guests, can offer a cohesive sound over a wide space (depending on installation type), and can be very effective in a home cinema.”

It is also crucial to think about the logistics of installing integrated speakers as this can sometimes affect audio quality and other factors.

“Floorstanding speakers have a cabinet at the back, which will have been tuned and optimised for the cones and drivers to deliver high-quality audio,” explains Ravat. “Ceiling speakers on the other hand will have an open back, and the ceiling cavity will have a huge impact on the sound. Using acoustic hoods will reduce the impact giving a back to the speakers for the drivers to have a reduced air volume to punch the sound harder. Each speaker will have its own cubic volume to deliver optimal audio. It is all down to the skill of the installer selecting the right products to build a rounded ceiling speaker system for the room and client.”

Ford adds: “If the loudspeaker doesn’t have its own enclosure, it uses the wall or ceiling void as its ‘cabinet’. Such voids very rarely make for good results. A self-contained design with its own enclosure avoids this issue. Meridian integrated loudspeakers use a suite of technologies to maximise sound quality within a self-contained enclosure, providing reliable and repeatable results every time.”

However, Fichte suggests that loudspeakers can benefit from being installed in a wall or ceiling. “When you place some speakers in a wall or in the ceiling, you can actually use the surface to increase performance and efficiency of some loudspeakers. In fact, we have different presets for some of our products when they are used in-wall or in-ceiling to take advantage of the physics of in-wall or in-ceiling placement.”

Installed audio solutions can also be ideal for installing behind a cinema screen. Image: AWE

All about that bass

A consideration when choosing between floorstanding speakers and integrated audio solutions is whether the bass performance will be sacrificed with an integrated solution. Floorstanding speakers act as an all-in-one solution with a subwoofer built in to deliver strong and booming bass, but architectural speakers can’t always achieve this. However, they can be paired with integrated subwoofers to mitigate some of that.

“It can be problematic achieving the same output as a floorstanding speaker from an installed alternative,” admits Kerr. “A backbox, essentially a speaker enclosure inside the wall, helps to counter that. However, it’s rare for any backbox to have the same volume of air available to it as a regular speaker because of space constraints. For that reason, we typically create installed speakers that are restricted bandwidth and are designed to be used with a subwoofer for a ‘full-range’ presentation. That has other advantages too, in that it reduces the output of the enclosure in the wall and so minimises risk to crack plaster, etc.”

Todd also recognises that bass can be compromised with an integrated solution and also suggests that with this type of solution is hard to retrofit. “A floorstanding speaker has a cabinet designed and tuned to work with the speakers in it to produce all sounds, including bass. But an in-wall or in-ceiling speaker is normally not installed into a tuned enclosure. It will be installed into a wall or ceiling void which is never the same twice and is not designed as an acoustic component. So, bass performance is not predictable.

“There are solutions in the form of in-wall or in-ceiling enclosures, the best of which will require installation before the wall or ceiling is closed with plasterboard and so are not retrofittable. These will perform better but incur the additional costs of the materials and installation. And even then, a floorstanding speaker is likely to produce more bass, more easily.”

Contrastingly, although bass can sometimes be slightly compromised in an integrated solution, floorstanding speakers can sometimes convey the opposite problem.

Todd continues: “With any speaker, the room has a significant impact on bass sounds and a speaker that produces more bass is more heavily affected. The room will have specific bass resonances that are linked to its length, width and height. This can be treated with measurements and DSP correction using tools such as Dirac Live which will significantly improve the overall sound quality in any system.

“When you place some speakers in a wall or in the ceiling, you can actually use the surface to increase performance and efficiency of some loudspeakers.”

“Floorstanding speakers sound their worst when placed tight into a corner, so this should be avoided. Bass can be improved by leaving space between them and any wall behind them. The bass performance can be tuned by listening to the bass performance of the speakers at different distances from the wall behind to find the best bass – and that is best bass, not most bass!”

It’s not just bass that can be affected with integrated solutions, as a spokesperson from Sound United points out: “With this kind of mounting, the wall and/or ceiling will act as a much larger ‘baffle’ (front panel) than a traditional speaker cabinet thereby affecting the sound stage. The sound will dissipate more than a conventional speaker and become less focused. Clever design can mitigate this, and in-wall speaker designers have put a lot of thought into this in recent years.”

Italian creator, Marcelo Burlon makes a lifestyle statement with L-Acoustics Creations Tahiti 2.1 in his signature colour, Country Blue, as featured in international architecture and design press. Image: Bratislav Tasic

Relocating speakers

Buying any audio equipment is a commitment, usually due to its size and cost, but also logistically. Integrated speakers cannot be moved easily, and neither can most floorstanding speakers.

“Integrated loudspeakers keep floors clear and therefore increase flexibility for the position of other items in the room, such as furniture and ornaments,” explains Ford. “When the loudspeakers are integrated seamlessly into the control structure of the home, everyone in the household can benefit from their performance without having to ‘switch on the hi-fi’. Some users really like the effect of being immersed in sound without the obvious presence of large floorstanders; they report that it’s easier to disassociate what they are hearing from the kit that is producing it, always the aim for a good loudspeaker design.

“However, the biggest issue can be the need to build integrated loudspeakers into the fabric of the house. Once installed, integrated loudspeakers are not easy to move! A decision that a TV would be better if it were on a different wall is complicated by the fact that the loudspeakers are likely to need to be reinstalled.”

In addition to this, installing speakers into walls and ceilings is much more complex than floorstanding installation. It involves construction that can ruin the design of a finished room.

“Installation needs to be planned and cable runs and space for amplifiers need to be made,” says Ravat. “Fitting later can be difficult for most traditionally wired systems.”

There are exceptions, such as Lithe Audio’s ceiling speakers which have amplifiers and connectivity built in, making installs easier in new builds as well as retrofit scenarios. Ravat continues: “Lithe Audio offers active ceiling speakers from simple Bluetooth models to multi-award-winning Pro Series multiroom models which deliver ease of install that just need power via PoE or from any 240/110V power feed, making them easy to retrofit in most applications.”

Johnson recognises the complexity that installed speakers can bring but also thinks that the benefits outweigh that when an integrated solution will work best for the customer. “Invisible installed audio solutions are attractive for many reasons, such as interior design and even well-being. It allows flexibility to support multiple individuals’ needs and requirements around a single home environment.

“However, they can be difficult to install, depending on the home. And then potentially costly and can be quite a significant upheaval. All that said, much of the pain can be removed by finding the right installer!”

This doesn’t have to be an issue though with careful planning at the start of a project, especially with a dedicated room such as a home cinema or media room, to get placement right first time.

“Placement of speakers is the first thing to think about,” highlights Fichte. “Stereo music is based on a left channel and a right channel. If you are doing in-ceiling and the room is multi-purpose then it is often difficult to position the speakers in an optimal place for all applications. When planning in-wall you need to think about the room holistically. What may be the best location for a speaker may not be the best location for interior design. Perhaps the client wants to have a picture hanging or a piece of furniture on a particular wall which may also be the optimum place for a loudspeaker.”

“Integrated architectural speakers allow a client to lead with design and audio coverage.”

Kavanaugh argues that retrofitting integrated speakers doesn’t have to be too complicated: “Many architectural style speakers are available with the ability to retrofit into the surface. There are some that would be easier to install in a new home build, but there are plenty of options that can be installed as retrofit as well. Retrofit speakers are simple to install by simply cutting out the surface using a template and then inserting the speaker and engaging gripping locks or toggle feet around the speaker to secure it in place.”

Johnson adds: “If a customer has the ambition and budget a retrofit is naturally achievable. Though of course, the job could well be more complex and therefore more expensive to deliver. New builds have many advantages, due to modern construction techniques and ease of installation access, potentially!”

Some customers like their speakers to be on show as an art form. Image: Meridian Audio


Sometimes a choice doesn’t need to be made. Integrated solutions can be combined with floorstanding speakers in some cases, particularly popular in multi-purpose media rooms.

A spokesperson from Sound United concludes: “A combination of in-wall speakers for the main channels and in-ceiling speakers for the height channels can work well for a home cinema installation, and to some extent for multi-channel music. For those who want the very best music performance, then a combination of floor or stand mount speakers for the left/right stereo channels and in-wall/in-ceiling speakers for the other channels offers a good option. The choice just needs to be made about the centre speaker, which can be either type depending on the room layout and construction, and the AV furniture being used (if any).”

Main image: An integrated audio solution in a living room can save valuable space. Image: Meridian Audio

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