Other than your speakers, the most important thing determining musical quality is where you place the speakers in your room.
Speaker placement affects three things: bass performance, virtual sound location (sound stage and imaging) and the livability of your room. We’ll explore each of these separately, but keep in mind that these three objectives may compete with one another, so optimizing one could be at the others’ expense. As in any relationship, you can expect to make compromises.
Room boundaries affect bass so much that speakers need to be designed for a fairly specific location within a room in order to keep the bass in balance with the rest of the sound. So the first rule is to put the speakers where they’re meant to go. If the manufacturer isn’t clear about this, trust your ears—but here are some rules of thumb that should get you pretty close.
- Small speakers should be on stands or a bookshelf so their tweeters are near your ear level and their backs are near to the wall. If they have an air vent on the back, they should be kept at least a few inches from the wall.
- Tower speakers should be placed about two feet (or more) from the back wall.
- Avoid corners. Two exceptions are speakers designed for corners (these are rare) and subwoofers.
- Avoid left and right symmetry, especially with respect to corners, halls and walls. It’s OK to have your speakers symmetrical with each other, but make sure they’re not exactly symmetrical to the room.
When evaluating bass performance by ear, listen for balance. You can always bring the level of deep bass up or down by moving the speakers closer or farther from walls and corners. You’ll want to keep the bass fairly constant as you move around the listening area. Try putting on a CD with a strong, repeating bass line, and move around the room. You may be shocked at how uneven the bass can be. Reposition the speakers, and listen for a bass quality that is strong but tight, not boomy or droning.
If you’re using subwoofers, you might want to experiment with the left and right placement of your speakers, concentrating on maintaining the mid-bass richness so that male vocals don’t sound thin or lack body. If you notice this loss, try moving the speakers a little farther out into the room.
A worthy pair of speakers, when correctly placed, creates a three-dimensional soundstage. Instruments and sounds appear to come from locations where your eyes tell you there’s nothing. This isn’t magic; it’s physics. Making this happen dramatically requires getting many things right—having good stereo material, controlling room reflections, using good speakers—but most important is getting your speakers and listening area set up properly. Here are some tips.
- The listening area needs to be exactly in the center between both speakers. Use a tape measure if you want to get really accurate.
- The distance between the speakers should be 75 percent to 100 percent of the distance that you are from them.
- You’ll want to keep your speakers at least two feet away from walls and the floor (tower speakers are OK on the floor). Don’t worry too much if this isn’t practical; if you move them closer to the wall, the virtual soundstage will still appear—it just won’t have the same depth.
- Likewise, you’ll want to keep your listening area more than two feet from any walls or large reflective objects.
- It helps to have a room that deals well with sound reflections. Sound absorbers like rugs and drapes and sound scatterers such as bookcases all help.
- Some speakers are better at dispersing sound than others, with smaller speakers often having the advantage.
Moving gear and couches around isn’t fun, which is why many of the guidelines given here are aimed at helping you position things well with a minimum of experimentation. But once you have completed this important exercise, you’ll be amazed at how good your system sounds.
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