So you’re installing speakers into your ceiling and your insulation is costing you some room. What do you do? Does it matter? How you handle your insulation will impact your sound, but more importantly, you may be wondering if it's dangerous for the speakers to come in contact with insulation.
In-ceiling speakers can come in contact with insulation because the insulation is fireproof by design. However, there may be impacts on the sound quality of the speaker depending on how much contact there is.
You can do a quick and easy install with a lot of insulation contact, that may muffle higher pitches but preserve a good bass response. On the other hand, you may decide to make something to protect the integrity of your speaker’s sound more intentionally, like making a custom speaker box (our guide). There are also less labor-intensive options.
And whether or not you're installing a budget option like the Micca M-8C (an Amazon), or a higher-end set of speakers like the SONOS Architectural in-ceiling speakers (also on Amazon), you may be more or less concerned with the final audio quality. You may also be wondering if using in-ceiling or in-wall speakers for surround sound (our guide) would influence your decision here. These details and more are discussed below.
Anytime we’re installing electrical equipment in an environment that is not ideal, we want to ensure that we minimize the risk involved. A regular speaker generally uses the same amount of power as an incandescent light bulb. This isn’t a lot of power compared to motorized appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators, but it is enough to start a fire.
Fiberglass insulation, even if directly touching the speaker’s electrical terminals, is not a fire hazard. Cellulose insulation, sometimes called blown-in insulation, is treated with fire retardants and requires a lot of heat to ignite. The point is, your speaker will probably not cause a fire because it’s touching your insulation.
What a speaker touching insulation can do is change the "color" of your sound. The increased pressure on the speaker may hurt the higher-frequency sounds and amplify the lower frequencies. It will also have an effect on the sound known as compression.
Compressed sound amplifies the quieter frequencies and quiets the louder frequencies to balance out the sound. Since your ceiling speakers are likely not your primary speakers, you may want this as a compliment to your regular surround sound. This sound will be warmer with better bass response for your surround sound.
If your in-ceiling (or in-wall) speakers are your primary speakers or your only surround sound speakers, it may be worth creating space between the insulation and your speaker. This will give your speaker the full range of sound which you’ll want for explosions and soundtracks.
Before beginning any of these methods you will need to place your speaker. You want to strike a balance between an appropriate place to put your speaker for your home theater sound and a location where there are no wires, plumbing, or joists behind the drywall.
You should first explore the space above the ceiling to determine where wires, plumbing, and joists are. Joists can be avoided by using a stud finder.
To do this, begin by selecting a location where you want the speaker to be on your ceiling. Drill a hole in the middle of where you’d like the speaker to be and insert a bent coat hanger through the hole until you stop feeling resistance.
Go back to the space above your ceiling, and find the location where the hanger is poking through (you may need someone to hold the hanger in place while you do this). Determine if there is any plumbing or wires. If there are, patch the hole in the ceiling and repeat the procedure in a different part of the ceiling. If the area is clear, you’re ready to remove some insulation and install your speaker.
Be sure to check the placement of all of your speakers first before you begin cutting away insulation and installing any speakers. A speaker unable to be placed in one area of the room may impact where you put the others.
Be sure if you're doing anything with your insulation that you wear gloves and safety glasses. Fiberglass and other insulation materials can cause skin and eye irritation so, before you start following any of the instructions below, be sure you have the right personal protective equipment.
One concern with insulation is that the insulation’s soundproofing properties will color and dampen the sound. As described before this can be a positive thing if your in-ceiling speaker is not a main or primary surround speaker. Otherwise, this will damage your sound, dampening sound effects and other sharp sounds.
To avoid this effect, you can simply remove a square (or rectangle) of insulation larger than the speaker’s face. To be safe, it’s good to leave yourself about a half-inch of room on each side of the speaker so it can vibrate properly.
To remove fiberglass insulation, first, use a pencil to outline the face of your speaker in the area of the insulation you intend to have your speaker. If your speaker is circular, draw a square with the sides tangent to the circle. Next, measure a half-inch away from the rectangular outline on two different points on the left side and draw tick marks.
Connect these tick marks and extend the line beyond them to about an inch above and below the speaker outline. Repeat this process for the other sides.
Now that you have a rectangle outlined, you are ready to cut into the insulation. Using a utility knife, cut along the square or rectangle that formed from drawing the lines. It may require several cuts to go all the way through the insulation. Remove the square or rectangle of insulation, and follow your speaker’s installation manual.
If you have blown-in insulation as many attics do, you will need to construct a speaker box to get the same effect as removing a square of fiberglass insulation. Blown-in insulation will also give you less of a dampening effect because it is made of loose particles.
This approach is appropriate for lower levels of a multi-story home. Using this method where the ceiling abuts a roof or uninsulated attic, you may lose a significant amount of climate control in your house.
If you’re less concerned with sound quality and more concerned with keeping your home properly insulated, you can choose to remove a section of insulation that is speaker-sized. To do this with fiberglass insulation, outline your speaker with a pencil. Use a utility knife to cut the outline into the insulation.
Remove the section of insulation, and test the size of the hole by inserting the speaker, back first, into the hole. If the hole is too small, shave around the outline, and retest. Install your speaker as normal.
A speaker box is the only option you have when it comes to blown-in insulation. It is also the best option for keeping your home insulated while maintaining your sound quality, as you can put insulation over the top of the speaker box.
To construct a speaker box, get some plywood and a few lengths of 2 x 8 lumber (this assumes your speaker is shallower than six inches). Trace your speaker’s face onto the plywood. If your speaker is circular, draw a square with sides tangent to the circle.
Next measure three inches away from the rectangular outline on two different points on the left side and draw tick marks. Connect these tick marks and extend the line beyond them to about an inch above and below the speaker outline. Repeat this process for the other sides.
Use a saw to cut out the resulting square or rectangle. Measure the length of one of the sides of the plywood and cut lengths of 2 x 8 that are one and a half inches shorter than the sides of the plywood.
Put one of the lengths of 2 x 8 on the face of the plywood along the outside with the short end touching one side of the plywood. Nail the lumber into place from the other side of the plywood. Repeat by installing the next piece of plywood with the short end touching the side that has room left by the previous length of lumber.
Determine the placement of your speakers and remove an insulation square as large as the plywood of your speaker box. Make sure the speaker box fits snugly inside. Install your speakers as normal, then slide the speaker box into the insulation. Cover the speaker box with insulation.
It’s not easy to choose which approach to use in removing insulation for speaker installation. Besides sound quality, the climate is likely going to be the deciding factor. The cheaper approaches remove insulation from your home, causing it to lose heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.
If you live in a location that has extreme weather, you may want to seriously look into making a speaker box or tough out the insulation touching the speakers. It’s not the end of the world.