You’ve conquered the setup of a surround-sound system. Those five or more speakers and a subwoofer or two have made movie watching so much more engaging and realistic. Your music sounds great powering through this multi-speaker arrangement, too. But there’s an even better way to listen to your song collection: A two-channel stereo setup is a great option for those who want their audio pure, pristine, and to sound as if they were sitting in a concert venue. “In the past, audio played a supporting role to video; now we’re seeing a market of people buying speakers primarily for the purpose of listening to music,” says Dennis Chern, eastern sales manager for speaker manufacturer MartinLogan. “It may still be popular to incorporate a TV into a listening room,” adds Ken Forsythe, vice president for speaker manufacturer Meridian America. “But in a listening room, the video is the accessory for the audio.”
Designing a two-channel listening room isn’t difficult; in fact, it’s usually a lot easier than putting together a surround-sound system. For starters, you’ll only need to find space for two speakers, instead of figuring out how to stuff in five or more. While most people will squeeze in surround-sound speakers by recessing them into the ceiling and walls, when you’re dealing with just two speakers, leaving them out in the open suddenly becomes aesthetically acceptable. Not to mention the fact that speakers sound better when they’re exposed rather than built in.
Don’t forget the subwoofer
Adding one to your two-channel setup will enhance the rich, deep bass of your music. Buying a subwoofer is often less expensive than purchasing speakers equipped for good bass response. You can buy smaller, less powerful, less expensive speakers and simply let the sub handle the bass.
Manufacturers like Meridian, MartinLogan, and others are making the “open concept,” even easier to adapt by taking an artistic approach to the development of their two-channel speakers offerings. These speakers—even big floor-standing models—can add visual interest to a space, complement the decor, and become a cosmetic showpiece—all while filling the room with beautiful music. Want a speaker finished in cherry wood to match the woodwork of your living room? It’s likely available. Or, how about a speaker in candy apple red? Those can be custom ordered. Whatever look you’re after—contemporary, traditional, modern, industrial, or whimsical—you can usually find it. Meridian, for example, offers customers the option of having their speakers painted in any of 270 different colors (for a 10 percent upcharge). “Many people go with two-channel because they fall in love with the look of the speakers,” says Chern. Adds home systems integrator Jason Bellanti from Spire Integrated Systems, of Troy, Mich., “We have a client who started out her quest for an entertainment space by wanting cool looking speakers (see photo above). “After her cosmetic expectations were met, only then did she start looking at the speakers’ performance value.”
And there’s no denying the performance quality of two-channel speakers. Manufacturers typically pack in the best materials and electronics in their reference-grade two-channel lines. In most cases, price will be indicative of quality, with high-end, floor-standing models starting at several thousands of dollars. These are the crÃƒ:¨me de le crÃƒ:¨me of speakers and are made to last a lifetime, says Forsythe. Still, there are budget-friendly options, including bookshelf models, which can be placed…well, on a bookshelf, or on a special speaker stand. The latter could provide a better listening experience, as you’ll be able to position them perfectly, unencumbered by the room design.
This “perfect” positioning could be described as an equilateral triangle, where the right and left speakers near the front of the room are placed equal distance apart from the couch or chair where you will likely be doing much of your music listening. If the distance between the speakers and the couch is longer than the distance between the two speakers, you can “shorten” up the triangle by angling, or “toeing in” the speakers toward the seating. Home systems integrators also recommend placing the speakers at least a few inches away from the wall. Exactly how far will depend on the room conditions, says Bellanti.
Despite this and other recommended design practices—having a good combination of hard (reflective) surfaces like hard-wood floors and windows and soft (absorptive) surfaces like draperies and fabric-covered couches; a rectangular-shape room—many two-channel speaker systems (which include processors and amplifiers) feature technology that allows them to be tweaked to compensate for less than ideal room conditions. “The objective is to make the room ‘disappear’ so it’s as if you’re hearing the original playback of the music,” Chern says. “There’s a lot of theory behind creating a top-notch listening environment, but it all really boils down to your personal choice, and how much energy and money you want to spend for perfection.”
Every little bit helps, though: In addition to proper speaker and seating alignment and a good mix of reflective and absorptive materials, you can add acoustical treatments to the room, install a power conditioner to ensure that “clean” power is feeding into your audio system, put the system on its own circuit breaker to minimize interference, and lay rubber pads underneath the speakers/speaker stands to minimize vibration.
The only missing element, then, is the music. Let your preferences guide you in your selection of audio components. If you’d like to move into the world of analog music, add a turntable to your system. If you already own a huge library of digital music or like the convenience of streaming, incorporate an AppleTV or some other type of media storage/streaming device. “It shouldn’t matter what kind of content you like or listen to—it’s the job of a two-channel system to make everything sound its best,” Forsythe says. “And the best way to feel confident about the speakers’ ability to handle your music is to audition them.” Go to a home audio showroom in your area, and simply listen. Choose a speaker that’s attractive to you visually and audition them with something that you’re going to be listening to at home. If that’s vinyl, bring an album with you; if it’s digital music, bring your smartphone. The salesperson at the shop should be happy to play your music through the store’s demo system and your chosen speakers. EH