In-Ceiling vs In-Wall Speakers: Buying Guide


In-ceiling and in-wall speakers are both popular options for homeowners looking to install high-quality audio systems in their homes for music and home cinema environments. They offer a discrete alternative to traditional floorstanding box or cabinet-type speakers while offering a more flexible layout design. Plus, unlike traditional freestanding floorstanding speakers, in-wall and in-ceiling speakers don't have to contend with the way the floorstander's cabinet interacts with floors or nearby walls that may cause unwanted reflections.

Recessed architectural installation speakers have an open-back design and, once installed, they utilize the installation cavity as the acoustic enclosure. In terms of the sizes and shapes of recessed speakers we often see the same aesthetic trends of other household items we find on our walls and ceilings. When you look at your walls and ceilings what shapes do you typically see? Doors, windows, picture frames, artwork, and mirrors are typically square or rectangular in shape. Now look up and compare the differences normally found between the wall and ceiling. Light fixtures, ceiling fans, and smoke detectors are commonly circular shapes. Therefore, when comparing in-ceiling to in-wall speakers it is no surprise that we find that most of those product offerings follow that same pattern: in-ceiling are generally round and in-wall are generally rectangular-shaped.

Can you use in-wall and in-ceiling speakers interchangeably? Sure. Some manufacturers are even going to market with speakers engineered to be used as both and calling them "in-wall/in-ceiling speakers". Just keep in mind in-wall speakers tend to be larger which directly impacts the sound they produce. Most in-ceiling speakers have enclosures around 6.5" in diameter, which helps them blend better with recessed light fixtures, but also narrows the sound field. Larger in-wall speakers have more room for sound technology and can produce a larger sound stage.

While both in-wall and in-ceiling serve the same purpose of producing sound in a room without taking up any floor space, there are significant differences between the two types of speakers in terms of design, installation, and sound quality. In-ceiling speakers are often used for multi-room distributed audio setups and home theaters systems. In-wall speakers are often installed near a TV or other audio-visual equipment. While both types of speakers offer similar functionality, there are some key differences to consider.

In-Ceiling Speakers

In-ceiling speakers are generally circular-shaped speakers designed to sit flush in your ceiling and made to stay out of sight. We have installed square-shaped in-ceiling speakers meant to blend well with square lighting fixtures typically found in more modern homes, but circular is the predominant shape you will find out there as they more resemble most recessed ceiling lights. In-ceiling speakers can be purchased individually or in a set and can be custom painted to match your ceiling color. For the most part, you wouldn't typically install just one in-ceiling speaker, unless you were building out a whole-home audio system and expanding music into a powder room or the like.

World Wide Stereo Custom Integration Project

Pros of In-Ceiling Speakers

Discrete installation

In-ceiling speakers are typically more discrete in their appearance than in-wall speakers as they are more compact in size. They are often mounted flush with the ceiling, which means that they blend in more seamlessly with the surrounding décor. And they can be custom-painted to really blend in. This can be especially important if you're trying to maintain a clean, minimalist aesthetic in your home. In custom installations of multi-room home audio or home theater systems, the choice to go with in-ceiling speakers is determined by how well they hide from view giving the impressions that the sound comes out of nowhere.

Zero Footprint

The fact that in ceiling speakers are installed in a cavity in your ceiling and sit flush with your wall means that they don't take up any previous floor space in your room. The flush mounted installation provides a sleek profile which is why in-ceiling speakers are the go-to option for whole home audio systems, allowing you to put speakers (and therefor music!) just about anywhere, regardless of your room size or configuration.

Immersive experience

In-ceiling speakers can provide a more immersive audio experience. Because they are installed above the listener's head, the sound can feel more enveloping, creating a sense of depth and dimensionality that is often difficult to achieve with traditional speakers. This can be beneficial for home theater setups, where the goal is to create a cinematic experience that transports viewers into the world of the movie. Dolby Atmos surround sound systems rely heavily on the overhead spatial sounds delivered by in-ceiling or “height-channel” speakers.

Cons of In-Ceiling Speakers

Challenging Installation

In-ceiling speakers can be more difficult to install than in-wall speakers, especially in retrofit applications. Because they are mounted in the ceiling, the installation process can be more complicated and may require professional assistance. Speaking from experience, it can be very challenging to get in-ceiling speakers into the exact position you want them in, especially if the room is already finished with sheetrock, paint, and trim.

Smaller Sound Field

Because in-ceiling speakers are smaller, they produce a weaker sound field than in-wall speakers. That is why they are generally used in the ceiling for added dimensionality in a home theater setup and not simply used on their own.

Reduced Sound Reflection

By installing a speaker in your wall or ceiling, you are minimizing the number of reflective surfaces the sound waves have to bounce off of which results in clearer, less distorted sound.

Top In-Ceiling Speakers

When selecting an in-ceiling speaker, the size of the speaker you are choosing is very important. Common sizes are 6-inch and 8-inch but there are some 4- and 10-inch models as well. 8- and 10-inch models tend to have a deeper bass, whereas 4- and 6-inch models are easier to fit into tight joist bays. For consistency purposes, I am going to stick with 6” models for recommendations. My personal favorites for in-ceiling speakers include: the Focal 300ICW6 for overall quality and performance. This speaker can technically be used for in-ceiling and in-wall use. Coming in at a close second is the Bowers & Wilkins CCM663 due to the clean bass response and high frequency reproduction. For systems on a budget, I recommend the Klipsch PRO-18RC, though they are only available to consumers when working with an integrator.

In-Wall Speakers

In-wall speakers provide exceptional sound quality while taking up zero footprint in your room. In-wall speakers are usually rectangular in shape and nest into a cavity so they sit flush within the wall at or around eye level and can be custom painted to match your wall and decor. In-wall speakers are generally used as left and right channel speakers and can also be used as rear speakers for a surround sound system in a home cinema environment.

Focal In-Wall Speakers in a World Wide Stereo Custom Integration Project

Pros of In-Wall Speakers

Easier installation

In-wall speakers tend to be easier to install than in-ceiling speakers. We say easier, not easy, they still require installation (cutting, running wires, etc). But, because they are mounted in the wall, they can usually be installed more quickly and with less challenges than in-ceiling speakers. This can be especially beneficial if you're looking to set up a home theater or multi-room audio system with the least out of pocket cost. Of course, if your walls are solid, then you may want to consider on-wall speakers. On-wall speakers are similar to in-wall, but they are mounted to the surface of the wall and will generally protrude slightly into the room.

Discrete installation

Like in-ceiling speakers, in-wall speakers can also be custom-painted to match your wall color.

Zero Footprint

Like in-ceiling speakers, the flush-mounted installation of in-wall speakers means you don't have to sacrifice floorspace to deliver exceptional audio quality. The flush mounted installation provides a sleek profile, perfect for home theater environments and home media room applications.

Flexible layout design

In-wall speakers can be more versatile than in-ceiling speakers in terms of installation options and varieties for your needs. They can be placed at various heights and angles to optimize the sound for the room, they can also be installed in the front, back, and even sides of the room. Additionally, in-wall speakers are often available in a wider range of sizes and styles, which means that you can choose a speaker that best fits your specific needs. The variety of different in-wall speaker configurations can be overwhelming if you don’t know specifically what you are looking for. Unlike floorstanding speakers, in-wall speakers allow for more flexible placement within the room, taking up zero footprint within your space. This means you don't have to move furniture around or clear space to ensure optimal audio. Many premium in-wall speakers swivel while allow you to adjust the direction of the sound towards the listener.

Reduced Sound Reflection

By installing a speaker in your wall or ceiling, you are minimizing the number of reflective surfaces the sound waves have to bounce off of which results in clearer, less distorted sound.

Better Sound

In-wall speakers are larger than in-ceiling speakers and therefor have better, room-filling sound. If deciding between in ceiling or in-wall speakers in a home theater setup, prioritize the in-wall speakers first. The synergy when you have both though is where magic happens.

Cons of In-Wall Speakers

Large Size

In-wall speakers are larger and therefor more noticeable than in-ceiling speakers. Even if the grills and trim are painted the same color as the walls (common practice for many installations), being at eye-level makes them more visible than in-ceiling speakers, which may be a drawback if you're trying to maintain a minimalistic aesthetic in your home. Additionally, because in-wall speakers are mounted at ear level, they may not provide the same sense of immersion as in-ceiling speakers. However, most traditional 5.1, 7.1 or even Dolby Atmos home theater systems require the use of speakers placed at ear-level to create the proper home theater environment. Our recommendation is always to have both: in-wall and in-ceiling speakers in a home theater setup to get a truly immersive experience.

Requires installation

Even though we find in-wall speakers to usually be simpler to install than in-ceiling speakers, they still require installation. This means cutting into the wall, running wires, and properly mounting the speaker boxes. And, if you ever want to upgrade your speakers, this may require tweaking the installation with additional cutting and patching depending on the measurements and specs of your new speakers.

Top In-Wall Speakers

The sheer diversity in terms of class of in-wall speakers varies immensely. For example, the Bowers & Wilkins CWM7.4S2 is a behemoth in comparison to many others. Clocking in at 24 inches tall it packs two 4-inch cone drivers, and additional two 4-inch bass drivers, and a 1-inch dome tweeter. For top-shelf, unsurpassed performance, that model is tough to beat, which defines it’s price.

To remain consistent, the in-wall “favorites” I have selected will all feature similar dimensions (roughly 12-15 inches high by 8-10 inches wide) and feature a single driver/woofer and tweeter. Given those parameters, Focal wins for me with their 300IW6 in-wall speakers due to their adjustable aluminum/magnesium tweeter and punchy flax cone woofer. The Bowers and Wilkins CWM663 in-walls take the number two spot for me. My budget-friendly choice goes to Klipsch with their PRO-18-RW (available to those working with an integrator). Honorable mention goes out to the JBL Synthesis SCL lineup of in-wall speakers as they offer impressive variety to compete with the likes of Focal, Bowers & Wilkins, and Klipsch.

How to choose the right speakers?

To create a full-fledged 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos home theater environment with “hidden” speakers, it requires a combination of both in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. The seven speakers that make up the “7” in 7.2.4 include the Front Left, Center, Front Right, Surround Right, Surround Left, Rear Right, and Rear Left speakers placed around the perimeter walls of a room. These would all typically be in-wall speakers if the desire is to not have any exposed floorstanding or surface mounted speakers on the walls. The “.2” refers to two discrete subwoofers. Finally, the “.4” refers to in-ceiling speakers. They are classified as “Atmos Height Channels” that refers specifically to two pairs of overhead speakers that create the enhanced immersive experience that Dolby Atmos is known for. While considered the pinnacle of most home-theater configurations, 7.2.4 isn’t the only way to deploy this combination effect.

Another common setup is 5.1.2 which features one less pair of in-wall surround channels, one less subwoofer, and one less pair of overhead height channels.

In terms of sound quality, both in-ceiling and in-wall speakers can offer excellent performance, but there are some differences to consider. In-ceiling speakers are typically better at creating an immersive, surround-sound experience, while in-wall speakers may be better suited for delivering crisp, clear sound for music or dialogue. This is because in-wall speakers are mounted at ear level, which can provide a more direct and focused sound. In-ceiling speakers are often designed with a wider dispersion pattern to create a more diffuse sound that fills the room. This is why in-wall speakers are more commonly used for the front left, right and center soundstage and in-ceiling speakers are typically designated as Atmos height channels. This ultimately depends on the specific models of speakers you choose, but it's important to keep these differences in mind when making your selection.

7.1.4 Dolby Overhead Speaker Setup

7.1.4 Dolby Overhead Speaker Setup

5.1.2 Dolby Overhead Speaker Setup

5.1.2 Dolby Overhead Speaker Setup

Final thoughts

In summary, in-ceiling speakers are more discreet and can provide the necessary height channels for the latest in spatial audio experience, but they are often more difficult and expensive to install. In-wall speakers are easier to install, more versatile, and can deliver a more focused sound, but they are usually more noticeable and less immersive. Ultimately, the decision of which type of speaker to choose will depend on your specific needs and preferences, as well as the layout and design of your home. For new construction, where sheet rock walls and other obstructions do not prevent getting wires in place, I highly recommend in-ceiling speakers, especially for multi-room distributed audio solutions. For home theaters and retro-fit solutions, where getting a wire into the wall is easier than getting into the ceiling, in-wall speakers are the way to go. For a true Dolby Atmos spatial home theater environment, a combination of both in-wall and in-ceiling speakers is recommended to get the most out of your surround sound receiver’s capabilities.

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