Considerations for distributed audio in commercial installations


You see them everywhere; retail stores, coffee shops, bars and restaurants and more. Up on or near the ceiling, commercial loud playing background music. Sometimes you can hear them clearly, but many times they’re turned down to the point of being inaudible or there are large gaps in their coverage so they’re audible up close though they effectively disappear just a few steps away.

If you’re going to invest in a distributed audio background system, to do it right you first need to determine what your goals are. For example, you can set the system to deliver anything from Abercrombie & Fitch™ style in-your-face loud to “Is this thing on?” levels.

Is Abercrombie & Fitch™ still a thing? Should this be an H&M reference instead?


Do you want high fidelity including actual bass response or just frequencies limited to “acoustic wallpaper”? Do you want smooth coverage throughout the area or targeted sound areas with silent spaces? Determining these things and more should be a task you undertake with your sound contractor. They can tell you what equipment and installation will achieve your goals.

Here are a few equipment related concepts of which you should be aware:

  • Predictably generic in-ceiling speaker typically offers exceptionally mediocre sound quality. You can do better by using high quality flush mount models.
  • In general, the best sound quality will be achieved using enclosure type speakers (you know, speakers within a wooden, metal or plastic box). These aren’t simply ceiling speakers in a fireproof enclosure, but speakers designed with the enclosure for best performance. All things being equal, these are your best bet for quality sound.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the enclosure speaker is the less bass it will deliver. This can especially be a concern in very large spaces and/or spaces with lots of hard surfaces like tile and glass that will reflect sound and make the system sound more shrill and biting.
  • It is possible to get “fuller” sound by adding separate woofers to the system or interspersing larger, more bass capable speakers with smaller, limited range models. These don’t have to be true subwoofers, plumbing the depths of pipe organ bass notes. A good 8 or 10-inch woofer will deliver decent bass as a supplement to smaller satellite speakers.
  • Bass spreads in a non-directional manner so bass drivers can cover larger areas than the midrange and high frequency elements in the speakers.