Have you ever been to a party without music? Chances are, guests clumped awkwardly into clusters of acquaintances, struggling to make conversation across awkward silent pauses. Then when some genius thinks to turn on the stereo, something magical happens—people relax. They start to circulate. Conversations start and flow easily. The room comes alive with laughter, cheer, and connection.
Music is miraculous in this way. Smart owners of restaurants and cafés know that it’s not a superfluous concern. Right up there in importance with crafting the perfect menu, getting the audio ambiance right is crucial to the raison d’etre of the dining industry—encouraging people to break bread in public with friends, colleagues, and loved once, and to have such a great time doing it that the resolve to come back and do it again.
Let’s dive deep into what it takes to create a great restaurant music system—the core concepts, the pitfalls to avoid, and the equipment that makes it happen.
Many restaurateurs went into the business because they love food and hospitality, not wires, amps, and speakers. That’s a whole different hobby.
The technical side of audio can seem daunting and opaque, but it needn’t be. There are just a few core pieces to a professional café sound system, and some of them you probably understand pretty well already.
Digging into the specifics can help you either — 1) pick and assemble the right restaurant audio system yourself, or 2) intelligently and effectively direct the professional you hire to do it for you.
Let’s start by understanding that electronic music is a signal—an electrical impulse that makes several stops on its journey to becoming music that you hear. Each piece of equipment represents a stop on that journey.
The sound source is whatever creates the musical signal. It could be a record player, CD player, MP3 player, or a music app on a smartphone or computer.
Lots of money and sweat goes into picking the more expensive elements of a restaurant audio system, but it all starts with a great signal. An old, flimsy record player will sound ancient on even the highest-end amp and speakers. The same goes for MP3s played on almost any device—MP3 audio is highly compressed and doesn’t have the warmth and depth of master sound formats like .WAV.
If you use your computer as your audio source, consider upgrading the soundcard. This upgrade is often an easy DIY project and much cheaper than investing in a new amp or speaker array.
When it arrives at the mixer, the signal is adjusted. A mixer can modify the balance of the signal, increasing the high-end, low-end, or mid-range frequencies to shape a final sound that is not too tinny or too boomy. In multi-speaker setups, the mixer can also adjust which speakers are louder and which speakers are softer, to help achieve uniform sonal coverage. For example, speakers placed close to diners may need to be dialed down to keep them from having to shout to hear each other.
Note that mixers tend to be omitted from smaller sound setups. Many receivers have an amp and a limited mixer built into the same unit. However, larger and more complicated multi-speaker restaurant sound systems often require a separate mixer to dial them in properly, especially if you expect to host live music or karaoke.
If the source creates the signal and the mixer shapes it, the amp boosts it, making it louder. Even large speakers will be insufficiently loud if the signal is not amplified enough.
How loud it can get depends on the electrical power of the amp, measured in watts (W). The rule of thumb is that you need 5W of amplification for every listener. A café with a capacity of 50 guests, for example, probably needs at least a 250W amp. A capacity of 200 guests suggests the need for 1000W or more.
Plan to devote a big chunk of your audio budget to obtaining the best-quality amp you can. It can really make or break the quality of your café sound system. A powered receiver with a lower-wattage amp can often be augmented by an external power amp.
The other big expenditure in restaurant sound systems is the speakers. Speakers translate the amplified signal into patterns of compressed air that create the sound we hear. Remember the film Alien — “In space, no one can hear you scream.” That’s because in space, there is no air to propagate sound waves.
Speakers also push in a certain direction with a limited coverage zone. Depending on the size and shape of your restaurant or café, you may require 4, 8, 12, or even more speakers to achieve uniform coverage.
Low frequencies usually require big speakers to push that much air. The biggest speakers are called “subwoofers.” Beware of speakers with smaller profiles that claim to offer rich bass. In many cases this just isn’t physically possible, although high-end speaker producer Bose is known for threading this needle (and charging accordingly).
Beware, as well, of lightweight speakers. At higher volumes, a lighter speaker will tend to shake, creating distortions or reductions in the fidelity of the air compression. Generally speaking, heavier speakers are not only more durable, but produce a cleaner sound.
Now that you know the parts of a restaurant music system, here are some other considerations to take into account:
Is your budget realistic, taking into account the quality of amp and number of speakers you need? Are you accounting for professional installation and wiring, if needed? How much café sound system can you afford? Do you need to kick it up a notch to really do your restaurant justice?
Many restaurateurs must adapt their restaurant or café audio system to the shape and size of the room, not vice versa. Where will your patrons sit? How far away from the speakers will they be? Will the speakers take up more floor or wall space than you can spare? Will they match with your decor or blend in easily?
Ideally, the sound your café music system makes is evenly distributed with uniform frequency (highs, mids, bass) all over the restaurant. How many speakers do you need to achieve this? Do you need a sophisticated mixer to get the balance of volumes and frequencies just right? The last thing you want is for the music to overpower some patrons while others can’t hear anything at all.
Does your multi-speaker setup require multiple outputs from the amp or mixer? Do you require an input for a 3.5mm “headphone” jack? A quarter-inch “instrument” jack? A USB or SD card input? An input for a karaoke microphone? Are the inputs easily accessible? (Front panel, back panel, etc.)
Are any components of your café audio system tempting targets for thieves and easy to steal? Do the wiring or placement of speakers present any safety hazards? Trip hazards? Electrocution hazards? Falling-object hazards?
With less need for professional installation, as well as fewer things to break, secure, camouflage, or trip over, wireless restaurant sound system solutions are attractive options for restaurants and cafés. Commercially-available wireless technologies come in two flavors:
WiFi: Great signal range, but compatible with fewer devices.
Bluetooth: Small signal range (10M or less) but highly compatible across devices.
A configuration booming in popularity is to connect your receiver to a nearby device (computer or smartphone) by Bluetooth, and then have the receiver transmit to a far-flung array of speakers via WiFi.
Here are some common restaurant sound system mistakes to avoid …
Pay close attention to how the café audio system performs at different positions within the restaurant. Patrons seated too close to the speakers may find the music too loud. You might want to invest in a mixer that can dial back any speakers that must be positioned close to a seating area.
Look as well for any “dead spots” where you can barely hear the music at all. You might want to add a speaker or point one of your existing speakers more in the direction of the dead spot so patrons seated there won’t miss out on the ambiance.
Without attention to mixing, the sound coming out of your speakers might be too tinny or piercing (excessive high end) or too boomy and fat (excessive low end). See if any of these frequency problems exist at any seating position within your café. Consider adjusting the mix to avoid an unpleasant audio experience for your guests.
“Stereo” audio is divided into left-and-right channels that distribute to two speakers. When you position yourself perfectly between the two speakers, this results in the highest fidelity of sound quality, creating a “spatial” sense to the music that resembles being in the room with the band or orchestra, taking in different information with each ear.
The problem is, even if you have only two speakers, patrons will be seated at different distances from each speaker, meaning they may hear way too much of one instrument and way to little of another instrument in the musical mix. For this reason, most restaurant audio systems use “mono” signals—just one channel. It’s a less “present” than stereo, but less confusing.
An exception exists if you use speakers that have left-and-right channels built into a single unit, which can create spatial sense without the need for two speakers and which can be heard through only one ear.
Looking for the best sound system for a small restaurant, café, or coffee shop? Here are some high-quality, cost-effective café sound systems to consider …
Sonos have quickly become a go-to wifi solution for multi-speaker environments. Just search for the music player in your Sonos app and add the service – connecting is easy and the sound is great for small and medium sized restaurants and cafes.
Sonos also recently (10th of March) announced that they will supply cafes, coffee shops and offices with a subscription solution for speakers (currently only in Netherlands and Seattle – but keep an eye out when they release the service in your country).
Bose is famous for packing punchy bass into small packages. This all-in-one café speaker unit is bluetooth-enabled to pair with your favorite devices.
Orbitsound Airsound fixes the stereo problem by providing left-and-right stereo capability in one speaker. Several of these café speakers positioned around a small café will provide admirable stereo coverage.
This all-in-one café speaker/amp/receiver creates a warm, clear sound from CDs, AM/FM radio, and bluetooth-enabled devices.
Sharp has created a smart-looking, affordable miniature café sound system with a classy tuxedo finish and FM, CD, USB and Bluetooth sourcing capability.
The venerable pro-audio company offers small restaurants an easy-to-use café speaker setup that can play CDs, AM/FM, USB data sticks, and connect by Bluetooth, broadcasting to speakers that charge by USB.
This well-rounded, affordable café music system by Yamaha creates a surprisingly full sound from a pleasingly compact unit.
If you need to go big with your restaurant audio, here are some top-of-the-line selections for 2020.
Audio Pro Business is easy to install, effortless to use. With great sound, reliability and flexibility it is a system for your store, office, restaurant or hotel. By using the already existing Track lightning system in your space, you can easily add AudioPro Business and connect a transmitter to any available sound source to play instant, wireless music.
For restaurants that need a lot of coverage, this Custom Audio package offers a whopping twelve high-quality speakers, multiple inputs, and a user-friendly knob interface to make sure that no customer misses a note.
The Bar A70 adapts the Airsound stereo-in-one speaker concept to a larger platform. Several of these bars positioned around your restaurant will provide discerning patrons with a lush stereo audio experience.
For restaurants that want their speakers to hide in plain sight, these low-profile speakers can be mounted in the ceiling and outfitted with flush-mount grilles that you can paint to match the rest of the ceiling. This restaurant audio system unfortunately only comes with two speakers and requires pro installation, but you can purchase more speakers separately for wide-area coverage.
This bad-boy receiver is Bluetooth-compatible and comes with eight large Rockville speakers, perfect for a big restaurant or bar.
GetMusicAt works great with all these speaker setups, regardless if you have a small café or a large restaurant – it’s the same flat fee for everyone!
One fee only that brings you total access to our entire catalogue filled with ready made sounds and playlists. No hidden fees, only great music!