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9 Reasons to Think Twice Before Installing In-Wall Speakers

In-wall speakers have surged in popularity recently as homeowners seek to enjoy immersive audio without visible speakers cluttering up their living spaces. The global in-wall speaker market is projected to grow from $2.1 billion in 2021 to $3.4 billion by 2028, driven by rising demand for home theaters and whole-home audio systems.[^1]

[^1]: Allied Market Research. (2021). In-Wall Speaker Market Overview, 2021-2028.

While the sleek, built-in look of in-wall speakers can be appealing, as a digital technology expert, I believe this type of installation comes with significant drawbacks that aren‘t always fully considered. In my years of designing and installing audio systems, I‘ve found that the realities of living with in-wall speakers often fail to measure up to buyers‘ expectations.

Before you start cutting into your walls, consider these nine reasons to exercise caution when it comes to in-wall speakers:

1. Sound Quality Limitations

The biggest strike against in-wall speakers is the inherent limitations they face in producing high-quality, full-range sound compared to well-designed standalone speakers.

In-wall speakers‘ sound is compromised by:

  • Small, shallow enclosures
  • Lack of a dedicated bass driver
  • Cabinet resonance and wall vibration
  • Obstructed sound dispersion

Independent testing has shown that even high-end in-wall speakers struggle to match the frequency response, soundstage, and overall audio fidelity of comparable bookshelf or tower speakers. In one evaluation, a $2,500 pair of premium in-wall speakers displayed audible cabinet resonance, rolled-off bass below 60Hz, and a 25% smaller soundstage compared to a $900 pair of standalone bookshelf speakers.[^2] [^2]: Sound & Vision. (2019). Heavyweight In-Wall Speakers vs. Bookshelf Speakers.

2. Difficult, Disruptive, and Costly Installation

Installing in-wall speakers is a major home renovation project that requires skill, tools, and a lot of time. The typical installation process involves:

  1. Cutting large holes in the drywall
  2. Running in-wall rated speaker wire through walls and ceilings
  3. Mounting and wiring the speakers
  4. Patching and painting the drywall

For a 5.1 surround system with in-wall speakers, the installation can easily span several days and create significant dust and disruption to your living space. Many homeowners end up hiring professionals to complete all or part of the installation.

According to HomeAdvisor, the average cost for professional in-wall speaker installation ranges from $200 to $500 per speaker, depending on the complexity of the wiring and wall construction.[^3] For an average 5.1 system, that adds up to $1,000 to $2,500 on top of the cost of the speakers themselves.

[^3]: HomeAdvisor. (2021). How Much Does In-Wall and In-Ceiling Speaker Installation Cost?

3. Lack of Future-Proofing

Technology evolves rapidly in the world of home audio. New surround sound formats, wireless audio standards, and "smart speaker" features are constantly emerging. But in-wall speakers are a long-term installation that is difficult and costly to change as technology progresses.

Wireless surround sound systems have become increasingly popular in recent years. Global sales of wireless speakers grew 19% in 2021 and are forecast to continue expanding at a 16% annual rate through 2025.[^4] These flexible, wire-free systems make it easy to add or reconfigure speakers as your needs change. But if you hardwire your surround system into the walls, you lose this adaptability.

[^4]: Research and Markets. (2022). Wireless Speaker Market Report 2022-2027.

Likewise, object-based surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X have specific speaker layout requirements to deliver the height effects and 360° soundstage listeners expect. If your in-wall speaker placement doesn‘t conform to these standards, you may be locked out of experiencing the full impact of these immersive formats.

As Joel Silver, founder of the Imaging Science Foundation, states:

"With the rate of change in audio delivery systems, locking a speaker system permanently within the walls makes little sense. In-walls can‘t be moved as room usage changes, can‘t take advantage of improvements to speaker technologies, and are expensive to repair or upgrade."[^5]

[^5]: J. Silver. (2022). Personal Communication.

4. Suboptimal Speaker Placement

Achieving an immersive, room-filling soundstage requires careful speaker placement. The ideal locations for speakers—especially surround speakers—are often not aligned with where you are able to or want to cut holes in your walls.

For example, Dolby recommends placing surround speakers:

  • Slightly behind the listening position
  • 2-3 feet above ear level
  • At a 110°-120° angle from the center speaker[^6]
[^6]: Dolby. (2022). Dolby Atmos Speaker Setup.

But in a typical rectangular room, the side walls where you would install in-wall surrounds are oriented at a 90° angle from the front soundstage. This puts the surround sound effects too far forward in the room and too close to the listener‘s head for optimal immersion.

What‘s more, the ideal height for surround speakers—2-3 feet above ear level when seated—often falls right at the height of windows in many rooms. You may have to compromise on placement and settle for less than ideal sound to work around the room‘s fixed features and layout.

5. Risk of Damaging Your Walls

Cutting into drywall to install in-wall speakers carries a not-insignificant risk of damaging your walls in the process. There is always the potential to:

  • Accidentally hit an electrical wire, water pipe, or air duct
  • Cut into a load-bearing wall stud and weaken its structure
  • Crack or chip the drywall
  • Create a shoddy-looking installation if you lack professional tools and skills

And if you ever decide to remove the speakers, you‘re left with gaping holes that need to be patched, sanded, and refinished. Even with careful repair, the patched areas may be noticeable, especially on textured walls.

Should your speaker ever malfunction and need to be replaced, you face the same risks and mess of in-wall surgery all over again. With standalone speakers, a repair is as simple as unplugging the old unit and connecting a new one.

6. Inflexible for Changing Needs

In-wall speakers are the antithesis of portable. Once they‘re installed, they are fixed in place, immovable without major renovation.

This presents several challenges:

  • You can‘t easily take them with you to a new residence
  • You can‘t quickly adjust placement if you change the room configuration
  • You can‘t use them to provide sound for outdoor gatherings on a patio or by the pool
  • You can‘t lend them to a friend for a party or rearrange them for hosting a movie night

With the growing popularity of open-concept living spaces and multi-purpose rooms, many people find they need to reconfigure their furniture and speaker placement regularly—whether it‘s orienting the seating for conversation versus TV viewing or moving speakers to accommodate a large gathering.

Standalone and even mounted speakers provide far greater flexibility to adapt to a household‘s changing needs compared to permanently installed in-walls.

7. Negative Impact on Home Value

In-wall speakers become a permanent fixture of your home. And while some potential buyers may see them as a valuable addition, others may consider them outdated or undesirable.

If the next owner isn‘t an audiophile or has different preferences in speaker type or layout, your carefully installed in-wall speakers could actually be seen as a negative that requires remediation.

In a study by the National Association of Realtors, only 12% of real estate agents said that a home theater system—including in-wall speakers—helped to close a sale. More than 40% said it made no difference in the sale, and 8% reported that it actually hurt the sale.[^7] [^7]: National Association of Realtors. (2019). 2019 Home Features Survey.

As Rik Moran, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, explains:

"In-wall speakers are a highly personal choice that not everyone will like. If they‘re not installed to a very high standard, buyers may see them as something they‘ll need to spend money to remove and repair, which can negatively impact the value of your home."[^8]

[^8]: R. Moran. (2022). Personal Communication.

8. Potential for Noise Bleed

The sound from in-wall speakers can sometimes be transmitted through the wall structure into adjacent rooms and living spaces. This is especially true for bass-heavy content like action movie soundtracks.

If noise isolation and privacy between rooms are a priority, in-wall speakers may cause issues. The last thing you want is for your late-night movie watching to wake up a sleeping child or disturb a neighbor in an adjoining apartment or townhouse.

Standalone speakers typically do a better job of localizing the sound to the room they are placed in. And because the low-end bass is produced by a standalone subwoofer, you have more flexibility to adjust its placement and volume to minimize transmitted noise.

9. Limited Upgrade Path

One of the joys of the audio hobby is the ability to continuously tweak and upgrade your system components as new technology emerges or your budget allows. But once you commit to cutting holes for in-wall speakers, you‘re locked into those units for a very long time.

If you decide you need more bass, want to add Atmos height channels, or are craving a wider soundstage, you have very limited options with in-walls. Upgrading even one speaker requires going through the whole installation rigmarole again—cutting new holes, running new wires, and repairing old damage.

And if your existing wire runs aren‘t in the right position or capable of accommodating additional channels, you may be looking at a complete overhaul of the system.

Given the rapid pace of innovation in audio technology, investing in an inflexible in-wall system that can‘t adapt is likely to lead to frustration and buyer‘s remorse down the line.

Consider Your Priorities

None of this is to say that in-wall speakers are never a good choice. For certain applications—like a dedicated home theater room where the layout is fixed or a whole-home audio system where unobtrusive looks are a priority—they can be an excellent option.

But for most people, the significant drawbacks and limitations of in-wall speakers outweigh the aesthetic benefit of keeping the speakers hidden. In-wall speakers involve major compromises in sound quality, placement flexibility, upgradeability, and resale value compared to high-quality tower or bookshelf speakers.

If you‘re contemplating in-wall speakers, consider your priorities carefully:

  • Is getting the absolute best sound your driving goal?
  • Do you foresee wanting to change your room configuration in the future?
  • Are you willing to deal with the cost and headache of professional installation?
  • Would you rather invest in a system that can adapt as technology and your needs evolve?
  • Are you concerned about the resale impact when you move in the future?

Depending on your answers, a system with standalone speakers will likely be a better choice and investment in the long run. While not invisible, today‘s speakers come in elegant designs that can blend in tastefully with your décor.

And with the rise of wireless audio systems and ultra-slim speaker designs, it‘s easier than ever to enjoy great sound without a tangle of wires or bulky cabinets.

So before you start cutting holes in your walls, consider all your options carefully. A little planning and forethought now can save you a lot of frustration (and drywall repair) down the line.