While choosing quality components is important for any audiophile setup or home theater, speaker placement is equally important to the end result. The location and direction of your speakers will impact the musical image and timbre, as will the shape of the room and its contents.
In small rooms, which most home theaters and listening rooms are, it’s important to remember that sound waves don’t just pass directly from speaker to listener—they also bounce and reflect. Depending on how the room is constructed, sound from one speaker can impact a listener from several different directions. Also, different frequencies behave differently in a room, and both placement and décor can improve or detract from the sound. In addition, flutter echo due to parallel surfaces can be problems in small rooms.
If speakers are located too closely to walls, certain low frequencies may become exaggerated; these frequencies may be dictated by a room’s dimensions. This is one of the reasons it’s usually recommended to not place subwoofers in corners. Conversely, if a listener is seated in the voids between speakers, certain sound frequencies will be muted to the hearer. Moreover, if speakers are placed too close to large reflective surfaces, then mid and high frequencies may reflect and interfere with the sound coming directly from the speakers.
In-ceiling speakers are a special case in the audiophile setup. Because holes need to be cut into ceilings and wires run long before the speakers are connected, getting the placement correct early is both more difficult and more important, and this usually requires a professional. Sound disperses from an in-ceiling speaker in a circular pattern, and that will vary based on the room’s ceiling height. To avoid dead spots or “nulls” or sound volume differences, in-ceiling speakers need to be placed the proper distance apart so that the soundstage overlaps. A person moving throughout the zone should never have a sound gap. The overlap should occur precisely at the head height of the average person. Likewise, speakers placed too close together won’t image well in stereo.
Years ago before the development of the home acoustics field, many music enthusiasts set their systems up by using the “golden triangle” rule, which said a listener’s seat should be equidistant apart from his speakers.
That rule is still a good starting point today. If speakers are too close together in relation to the listener, it narrows the system’s soundstage, while speakers that are placed too far apart aren’t able to create a cohesive soundstage. Of course, all this depends on the specific speaker dispersion pattern, room acoustics and listener preferences.
Another setup rule is called “toe in.” Toeing in is a method in which speakers with directional tweeters are aimed in a manner to create a stereo image versus pointing the speakers “straight ahead” for a more spacious soundstage. Toeing in ensures tonal and spatial balance, but the process to achieve these traits can often reduce the amount of treble reaching the listener’s ears. So in some cases, speakers with directional tweeters might need to be aimed either straight ahead or even 2 feet in front of the listener.
Finding the right balance for an audiophile setup can be a process of trial and error. Professional acousticians will use tools like sound pressure level meters, real-time analyzers, levels and lasers to achieve perfect results.
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