A few basic concepts to get the best sound out of your listening room.
With all the time, money and effort spent buying and putting together the hi-fi components of your dreams, if your speakers aren’t positioned properly in your listening space, your goal of achieving the best possible acoustics will remain elusive. All speakers are built differently. As such, each pair has unique placement specifications. At the same time, your listening room has its own dimensions and layout. Most often, proper speaker placement for any given room is achieved by trial and error. The fix can be as easy as moving your speakers closer to your listening positions or doing the opposite: pulling your chair or sofa closer to the speaker themselves. But other variables come into play when plotting for your own sonic sweet spot.
Below, we offer tips on how to best attain optimal fidelity in your listening room. With any luck, the pointers here will help enhance your sound with a few relatively simple tweaks that will allow you to inhabit your own audio Nirvana.
Before you start moving around your speakers around your listening area, first try to figure out where you will be situated in relation to your setup. Identify the ideal listening spot — called the focal point or the center of the space — where the sound will be most balanced. You will want to be in the exact middle and approximately 5 to 10 feet away from your primary speakers. With two-channel arrangements in particular, it’s crucial to maintain a balance between the speakers in order to give equal weight to each channel. Otherwise, you run the risk of one channel overwhelming the other, muddling sound quality and drowning out nuances in the recording.
The importance of symmetrical speaker placement for near field listening, especially in small to medium sized rooms, is hugely important for optimizing stereo sound quality. For the truest stereo image when setting up for a 2-channel speaker system, the pair of speakers and your head should form three points of an equilateral triangle. The listening position is determined by the “center to center” distance of the speakers from each other and the distance to the listener’s ears. It does not refer to the room dimensions in any way.
The “toe-in” is the way you aim your speakers, and there’s no specific answer to how much adjustment your specific system will require. Some speakers require none at all, but most will show notable improvements in overall sound quality and imaging when they are slightly toed-in towards your listening position. Be forewarned: too much toe-in will neutralize the stereo imaging to the point where you hear two independent speakers. It is very important that both speakers be equally toed-in.
The simplest way to accomplish this is with a measuring tape. It’s also helpful to have a partner help with this procedure. Start by toeing the monitors one inch in. Listen to some good recordings — such as anything with a wide dynamic range — and pay attention to the stereo imaging. Increase the toe-in to two inches and repeat. Did the sound waves become more pin-pointed and detailed? You’ll want to do this several times using various measurements, depending on the types of music you listen to. Feel free to experiment. The goal is to make the sound field as life-like as possible.
Given their inherent size, bookshelf speakers allow for many placement options. They can be positioned on stands, put on a rack or a desk, hung from the wall or ceiling. They can even be put on an actual bookshelf. As with any speaker, try to create an equilateral triangle between the speakers and your seated position.
Bookshelf speakers are widely used in custom installations where the speakers are fitted into wall units, with excellent results, and can often provide an even richer, more full-bodied sound. Nonetheless, try to isolate your bookshelves as much as you can, leaving as much space around them as possible.
As with any speakers, they need room to breathe. The more space they have around them the better. Place them at least six inches out from the back wall and try to keep them away from anything that could potentially be an obstruction. The ports that are built into these things are usually in the back, which allows for the airflow that controls the speakers bass response. Giving them space will only maximize their performance.
Pro tip: bookshelf speakers should never be placed on the same rack or shelving unit as your turntable. If you do, the speakers will resonate sonically through your turntable and vibrations will play back through the speakers themselves. You do not want this. As well, because bookshelves and cabinets are usually located close to the wall, situating speakers on them will generally reduce the soundstaging and imaging performance of loudspeakers.
Generally these are the biggest speakers you can buy for your home. They stand somewhere between 3 and 8 feet tall and need a lot of space to get the most out of them. This usually means a larger room, as they should be given room both behind and to the sides. A good estimate is at least two feet from the back wall and a foot from the side walls. This “boundary loading,” as it is called, will ensure proper bass dynamics with the least amount of speaker reflection and reverberation.
Tower speakers are powerful but if they are too close to the walls they will create too much bottom end and be boomy. Not good. Speakers work in tandem (stereo), so the equilateral triangle rule remains the goal for optimum sound performance.
The room itself has a huge impact on sound. Rooms are constructed with a range of materials and each has its own distinctive sound architecture. More often than not, your listening space hasn’t been designed for optimal acoustic sound dynamics. While there isn’t really anything you can do with the inherent dimensions of the room, “room treatments” are available to make the sound in your space as good as it can be. Fortunately, furniture, rugs, curtains and even plants can help control a room’s reflective echo chamber, but these things alone are not enough to properly control most listening environments. This is where “room treatments” come in.
For obvious reasons, the sound reflection off of bare hard surfaces does not resonate and is never your friend. A rug placed near the speakers or, ideally, carpeting, will sound better than hardwood or concrete floors. Carpeting will help control that bounce off the floor, and is by far the best way to dampen sound reflections.
Isolation vs. Spiking
Audiophiles like to put spikes and cones under everything. They look very “pro”, and while they add a certain cool factor to the aesthetics equation, in many cases they do more harm than good. Plywood sub-floors are, in many ways, similar to acoustic guitars in that they can act as a resonating surface. Spiking a speaker — placing pointed “feet” on the speakers — to this type of sub-flooring, whether it has hardwood, tile or carpeting, creates a large vibrating sound-box. This is especially true with subwoofers. However, spikes work wonders if you have carpet over concrete and will go a long way toward minimizing vibration and enhancing your sound.
Sound Panelling Diffusers
Walls are giant reflective surfaces. Windows, mirrors, artworks with glass frames and even your television are even worse. Furniture, bookcases, curtains, drapes, non reflective artwork and/or anything that absorbs sound and breaks up that flat wall surface will help minimize a room’s reverberation and improve your acoustics in a big way. One of the other best ways to reduce this echo chamber effect is to get sound panel diffusers. Diffusers are a room treatment that breaks up the room’s reflection through, as the name suggests, diffusion and sound dissipation.
All speakers and listening rooms come in all different shapes and sizes. The best way to determine how to glean the best sound from your set up in any given space is to experiment. Along with the tips provided here, be open to the idea of moving your speakers around to find the best sound for them within your listening room. Using the equilateral triangle as your baseline, there is much tweaking to be done, whether it be “toeing-in” your speakers, throwing down a rug or adding some simple acoustic panelling. By trying out some of these different speaker positions and room treatment techniques, you should be able to find what sounds best for you.