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Installing In-Ceiling Speakers in Insulated Ceiling

DCContrarian | Posted in General Questions on

We’ve had a couple good discussions lately about flush alternatives for can lights, so I thought I’d ask about a related topic — in-ceiling speakers. They suffer from all the same problems as can lights in terms of breaching the air barrier and disrupting the insulation, but they’re even worse because they’re typically bigger.

Any thoughts on how to proceed when speakers are requested?

Thanks.

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Replies

  1. Tom S | | #1

    Seal around the edge of the speaker so that it's airtight. A good gasket can do this as long as the fastening system is of good quality. A good seal is important for the speaker to perform optimally.

  2. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #2

    You can get back boxes for ceiling speakers. Use an appropriate back box for the speaker you have, then seal the box itself and seal the box to the drywall. The back boxes usually don’t have many holes to seal, so it’s not too difficult to seal them. I’d use foil tape to seal the back boxes. The back boxes help to improve sound quality both by providing a sealed air volume to work against (similar to how a non-porter speaker enclosure works), and they also keep insulation and other things from contacting the speakers cone and buzzing.

    Bill

    1. DCContrarian | | #3

      Thanks Bill.

      The back boxes I've seen are 8" deep for 8" round speakers. So that's a spot that's missing 8" of insulation.

      1. Expert Member
        Akos | | #4

        There are mud in flush mount speaker options. Not cheap, but clean and no issues with air leaks.

  3. DCContrarian | | #5

    A couple of things I'm learning:
    Speakers are sold as "in-wall" or "in-ceiling." Walls are typically framed with a minimum of 2x4's, and ceilings with a minimum of 2x8's, so in-wall speakers are 3.5 inches deep and in-ceiling speakers are 7.25 inches deep. So where displacing insulation is a concern it would be better to use "in-wall" speakers in the ceiling.

    The size and shape of the enclosure affects how a speaker sounds. In-wall speakers use the wall cavity as their enclosure and are designed assuming they will be in an enclosure that is 3.5x14.5. Generally they specify a minimum length, which varies by manufacturer but is typically 3 feet or so. All other things being equal a deeper box gives better bass response, which is why ceiling speakers are deeper. The enclosure should be virtually air-tight, with only enough leakage to allow for equalization as barometric pressure changes.

    So what I'm leaning toward is putting a wall speaker in the ceiling and boxing it with 1/2" MDF in an enclosure 3.5 inches deep between the ceiling joists. Above the box I might put a couple inches of polyiso board to make up for the lost insulation.

    1. Expert Member
      Malcolm Taylor | | #6

      DC,

      That' a good idea. An enclosure will also make changing out the speakers in the future a lot easier.

  4. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #7

    If you want ambient sound, why not go with a Sonos system? It gives you lots of flexibility in terms of locating or relocating speakers or adding things and delivers acceptable sound. In-wall and in-ceiling speakers entail a lot of compromises and generally deliver less than stellar sound (although Triad speakers get good reviews).

    If you are really into sound but don't want to spend a fortune, you might want to consider Siegfried Linkwitz's DIY active speakers. The LXmini is easy to build using parts from Madisound (or you can buy finished speakers from Magiclx521 in Germany). Or if you want a four-way design and have a large enough room, you can build or buy the LX521, which is said to rival some of the best speakers on the market.

    1. Expert Member
      Malcolm Taylor | | #8

      Steve,

      I did wonder about in-wall speakers. I'm old enough to remember when speakers were so big you could take the guts out and hide in the cabinet - and I haven't really kept up since. Are permanently installed speakers still a thing? Everyone I know has portable wireless ones. They seem to sound great.

      1. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #10

        Hi Malcolm,

        I'm just an audio hobbyist (kind of like with building science). But after 30 years of fiddling with lots of setups, I've concluded that sound reproduction involves lots of trade-offs and subjective assessments. Some people are perfectly happy with earbuds and low-res streaming. Some people won't settle for anything less than DSD recordings or vinyl played back on equipment that costs more than an average big city home.

        In residential applications, I think wireless systems such as Sonos make more sense than hardwired in-ceiling or in-wall speakers. This is especially true for anyone who wants background or "party" music and isn't particularly focused on how the recording sounds. One nice thing about Sonos is it is easy to pack up everything and take it with you.

        (On a side note, I know a fellow who produces live-venue music as his old-guy hobby. And he listens to recorded music on a wireless Sonos system.)

        Large box (monkey coffin) speakers are still popular with the ever-shrinking numbers of older, white males who dominate the audiofool cohort. If you care about sound quality (and still have most of your hearing), it is hard to beat a traditional speaker.

        I moved away from these types of speakers because I always ended up finding extended listening sessions to be very fatiguing. The Linkwitz omnidirectional active designs don't use an enclosure, and I can listen to them for hours without the sound becoming wearisome. Another reason I went with these speakers (I have the LXmini, LXStudio, and am about to build the LX521.) is I noticed that a number of no-nonsense audio engineers were fans. Mr. Linkwitz died a few years ago, but his designs are still supported by a small number of dedicated fans.

        1. DCContrarian | | #11

          Thanks Steve. I was hoping someone would weigh in on the sound side.

          Interesting comment about listening becoming fatiguing. What I've found with in-wall stuff is that the target market is for home theater setups. I find those speakers have the treble boosted so dialogue is intelligible, and the bass boosted so that when the Death Star blows up or whatever it makes your bones rattle. I guess that's what most people want in a movie soundtrack. I find it tiring to listen to music with such a bright sound.

          I had a chance to listen to my older neighbor's stereo recently. He bought it in the 1970's, and said the speakers had cost him two weeks pay at the time. The sound was qualitatively different from what most systems sound like today, very clear and smooth. This is the way I remember music sounding!

          I will look into the Linkwitz designs.

          Thanks.

          1. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #19

            DCContrarian,

            I agree with you on the target market for in-wall speakers. It's really a response to the need for WAF (wife approval factor).

            If you decide to pursue Linkwitz speakers, consider setting up a listening session with a current owner (after your vaccine, of course). You can post a request at https://oplug-support.org/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=3142.

        2. BlueSolar | | #13

          Wireless might make more sense for people who don't care, and of course the cost of the install is much greater than just buying an Echo Plus or Sonos, but wired is always better than wireless, for everything.

          Wireless will drop a lot more, especially with consumer grade wireless routers. That's annoying in a listening session. And if you set up your house right with wired Ethernet throughout it's sort of natural to have wired speakers. Note that there's also more clutter with "wireless" because the kind we're talking about need to be plugged into a power outlet. Wireless devices also strain the wireless router, competing with other devices – it can be a huge boost to get a bunch of junk off the network. And in general, I think wireless should be discouraged because it forms wireless habits, and wireless habits lead to massive security vulnerabilities, e.g. SimpliFi, almost all wireless door cams, smart home stuff, etc. We should probably try to get people away from wireless solutions as much as possible.

    2. Jonathan Blaney | | #9

      I had in-ceiling speakers but switched to SONOS. With the SONOS system, there is no receiver or wires to deal with. It is all wifi, so much simpler. Wired systems are old school. The technology is moving away from wires.

      1. BlueSolar | | #12

        Wired is much more reliable and higher quality than wireless, and it also has the benefit of reducing load on one's Wi-Fi network. In-wall is sort of a special case that has its own advantages – if someone wants in-wall then wired is a given. Sonos also has an Ethernet port, which is why I like it over Echo Plus.

    3. DCContrarian | | #17

      The appeal of in-wall is visual -- no wires, no plugs, no objects in the room.

  5. BlueSolar | | #14

    I don't understand – is there something preventing you from just insulating it? This isn't a through-roof deal like a skylight or vent, so you would just throw insulation on top of it, maybe the same insulation it displaced. Is there a height constraint in the attic? If there's no constraint I would just blanket it in mineral wool or cellulose.

    I don't know if vibration is going to be an issue. If that's the case, maybe an air gap followed by a shelter of random used foam or some kind of rigged up mineral wool cavelet.

    1. DCContrarian | | #15

      I have a couple of concerns. It's an unvented roof so I have just the thickness of the rafter, 2x12, for insulation. I also worry about air infiltration around the speaker, and loose insulation coming out of the hole if I ever have to replace the speaker. There's also the practical question of how to get the insulation around the speaker.

      From the sound perspective, I also want to do an installation that gives the best sound.

    2. Expert Member
      Zephyr7 | | #16

      I think the issue is air sealing the speaker the same way you would a recessed can light.

      BTW, Micca makes some pretty good ceiling (and wall) speakers for suprisingly low prices. I have some as surrounds. You can get back boxes from Parts Express.

      And I can tell you that sound system technology is NOT moving away from wires. The wireless systems are a new thing for a new market, people who want a decent system and an easy installation. The better systems will likely always run with wiring. I personally am not a fan of wireless systems in general. Waaay back in school I worked in a recording studio for a while and you get an idea what good sound can be from that. Audiophool territory is a just wasted money, there is nothing to be gained with crazy wire and fancy power cords. We ran our monitors in the studio with 12 gauge romex, which neither the analyzer or any of the staff could tell sounded any different from any other wire.

      Bill

      1. DCContrarian | | #18

        Wired objects seem to be a lot more future-proof. I suspect if in 20 years I have to replace a speaker, not only will I be able to buy a replacement but it will still have a red tab and a black tab on the back and will drop right in. Wireless systems, once one piece starts to go I'll probably have to pitch the whole system.

  6. DCContrarian | | #20

    Thanks to everyone for the input. It has focused my thinking. It seems like the insulation question is relatively simple, just put the speaker in a MDF box. So it has me thinking a different question, which is kind of astray from the subject matter of this forum, but I'll ask anyway:

    If I stipulate that I'm going to have a speaker in the ceiling, and it's going to be in an MDF box 3.5" deep, what is the way to get the best sound?

    From reading a bit about speaker enclosure theory, it seems that the key is to find a manufacturer who specifies an enclosure volume, or provides technical details that allow you to calculate the enclosure volume, and build the box that size. Anything else I'm missing?

    1. jkonst | | #21

      If you haven't tried already, AVS Forum might be a good spot to pose this question. Things are a bit more subjective in that world, but you may find some good advice there. Here are a couple of older, relevant threads:
      https://www.avsforum.com/threads/in-ceiling-speakers.547712/#post-5734801
      https://www.avsforum.com/threads/opinions-regarding-creating-a-better-quality-of-sound-out-of-ceiling-speakers.1249479/#post-18630713

      I'm interested to see your solution - I'll likely have a very similar question a few months from now...

    2. Expert Member
      Zephyr7 | | #23

      The ceiling speaker boxes are usually deeper than 3.5", so you might reconsider limiting yourself to that depth. Speaker boxes are mostly about enclosed volume, but then they get fancy if you port them. I can't claim to have expert knowledge though, and I've been told speaker design is a bit of an art as well as a science. It might be easiest to do what the commerical people do: build a back box similar in size to those commerically available, then put some fiberglass batt inside for damping.

      I agree you might get some good info on AVSforum. They tend to be pretty good about the "science" part (the "S" in "AVS"), and not go too far into audiophool territory. I've read a lot of info in that forum myself. Some of their equipment reviews are particularly good. I would suggest looking into the DIY subwoofer threads for basic info since there are a lot of people doing that, less people seem to be building their own wide-range speakers. The basic concepts are the same either way.

      Bill

    3. Expert Member
      Akos | | #26

      Most in-wall speakers don't provide specs for their drivers. The setup assumes essentially an infinite baffle type setup, similar to lot of car speakers. These don't tend to work well in sealed boxes or if you design a correct size one, it will be very large.

      Just quickly running through the monoprice 8" unit:
      https://downloads.monoprice.com/files/manuals/35459_Manual_181128.pdf
      The box needed is 0.6ft^3 but it won't produce much bass as the 3dB is at 100Hz.

      Ported response is better but now you need to find a spot for a port on the front. The ported box is 2x larger but can go down to 66Hz.

      Without actual parameters, it is next to impossible to size the enclosure correctly. You can always make the box extra big, but if you make it too small for the driver, bass and frequency response will be pretty bad.

      If you really want to sound nerd out on in-wall, I would get a kit for the mounting hardware but replace the drivers and crossover with ones that can work well in a sealed enclosure. This would also let you spec parts with better off axis performance which is important for this application.

      1. DCContrarian | | #28

        Akos --

        Are you getting the 0.6 Ft^3 and 100 Hz cutoff from the specs or from calculations based on the specs?

        Thanks.

        1. Expert Member
          Akos | | #30

          I ran the speakers specs from the PDF (Vas, Qts, Fs) through one of the on-line calculators for the box size and F3dB. Without those numbers, impossible to guess at box size except building a big one.

          I'm hoping that somebody did the proper engineering on these not just bolting a driver to a mounting plate. This would mean that it was most likely designed for a 2x4 wall 16oc 8' heigh. That would put the enclosure size at about 2.8 ft^3.

          1. DCContrarian | | #32

            Around here we fireblock walls at 48" so the wall cavity would be half of that, 1.4 cubic feet.

  7. Tom S | | #24

    Personally I prefer 3.5-4" of exterior insulation on an unvented roof, which would make your concerns a non-issue.

    Anyhow, you're missing a key detail here. You can make larger box sizes without them being uninsulated. Placing insulation in speaker boxes is common for internal dampening of resonances. If you built an 11" deep box you could easily half fill it with polyester batting, which is commonly recommended for enclosure resonance. I wouldn't build the total enclosure volume less than 1cf though.

    And good quality speakers built into the ceiling (particularly if angled) are definitely better than all this Sonos / Bluetooth stuff. My bathroom is the only living space I'll compromise with using wireless products.

  8. Drew Baden | | #25

    Hi. My name is Drew and I have a speaker problem.

    Like others, I have enjoyed a variety of speakers in my lifetime. Ive spent lots of money in speakers through my lifetime and have a few (about 10) spare pairs throughout my house. I’ve had floor standing, sub/sat systems, compact home theatre In a box systems, in ceiling, the Sonos speakers and more. Some of my favorites I have built myself.

    +1 on movable speakers! If you’re anything like us you won’t be happy with any speaker for more than a few years and you’ll be itching to play with a new sound system. While the concept of moving air is the same, don't forget that speakers have changed in technology over the years and will continue to evolve. That evolution might be tomorrow. The sound produced from something like a Bose wave radio still amazes me. I too remember the days of needing a speaker produced by a pipe organ manufacturer to achieve low bass but things have changed. Why limit yourself to a fixed in-ceiling speaker? It could be swapped but you’d need to find a good fit in the future. Why compromise your building envelope?

    I like to take one of my Sonos speakers out to the gazebo over the summer where I practically live in the warmer months and enjoy it there for relaxation, entertainment and parties.

    Having said that, I must admit that I do currently have in ceiling speakers but I don’t use them much. A huge benefit is not having a standing structure in the place where a speaker would sit.

    1. Expert Member
      Zephyr7 | | #27

      >"I too remember the days of needing a speaker produced by a pipe organ manufacturer to achieve low bass but things have changed."

      You still need something big to get good low-frequency sound reproduction. There is no sneaky way around that, it's physics and has to do with wavelengths which get larger for lower frequencies. You can do some tricks (like the Bose Wave radio), but there are limits to what can be achieved that way. You're not going to be able to get down to the really low 20Hz or lower stuff with a small speaker.

      Back in my studio days, we used to call Bose "Better sound through marketing", a play on their slogan. They make some good-quality products, but there are much better options out there for less money.

      Bill

    2. DCContrarian | | #29

      Hi Drew.

      This is a room for a person who is an artist. Artwork on the walls will be by the resident. The furniture will be custom-made for the resident, from pieces of wood individually selected by the resident. The fabrics on the furnishings will be designed by the resident and custom-woven.

      Dropping a random wooden box into this environment would not be acceptable.

      1. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #31

        You might want to look at Salk Speakers. Jim Salk makes exceptional “box” speakers and will build them any way you want. I had the SongTowers, and the were a great budget speakers. The Wow1 Monitors are well reviewed and relatively compact.

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