Now you’ve invested your hard-earned money in hi-fi equipment, it’s time to position it to get the best possible sound. Huw Price gets the measuring tape out…
No doubt about it, buying hi-fi equipment is fun and exciting. There are magazine articles to peruse, forum discussions to read, ‘best buy’ tables to consult and maybe even auditions at hi-fi dealers to arrange. However, the inconvenient truth is that you may not be getting full value for money if you don’t understand how to set up your system.
We could debate the pro and cons of shelving, interconnect cables and power conditioners ad infinitum (and in future issues, we most probably will) – but the successful implementation of any hi-fi system is, in the main, determined by speaker placement.
Just picture an owner proudly showing off exotic amps and a turntable that looks as if it belongs on a spaceship, with finger-thick cables leading to speakers sitting forlornly behind the sofa on deep-pile carpet. Does that sound familiar? Or perhaps even worse, does that sound like you?
When hi-fi reviewers talk about imaging, they mean a lead vocal that appears like an aural hologram dead centre between the speakers. They are referring to individual instruments that occupy discernible positions on the left/right stereo spectrum and a sense of audio space that has front-and-back depth. Systems designed to sound decent regardless of listening position are all well and good for pubs and restaurants, but at its essence, the experience of high-fidelity audio is about creating a three-dimensional sense of realism.
You simply cannot experience that sense of realism without optimising your speaker positioning and, quite frankly, you’d be better off listening through headphones.
So this month, we’ll be discussing stereo speaker positioning and, since the fundamentals apply regardless of how much money has been spent on the system in question, our suggestions can be applied by and benefit any listener.
This is perhaps the thorniest issue, because partners and family members might have different opinions about designing a room around a hi-fi system, rather than vice versa. After all, we’re generally talking about living rooms rather than dedicated listening rooms.
We’ll proceed on the basis of a favourably negotiated settlement.
Some prefer to fire speakers down the length of a room rather than across its width, but speaker location should really be determined by the primary listening position. Assuming it’s your sofa, you should picture your listening spot as one point of an equilateral triangle and position the speakers at the other points, so that each is exactly the same distance away from you.
If your situation doesn’t allow for an equilateral triangle and the speakers need to be wider or narrower, don’t worry, because we’ll address that later. Also, ensure that nothing is placed in between your speakers and your listening spot, and avoid placing the speakers in corners or closer than 30cm or so to a rear or side wall. Placing speakers on shelves or the top of furniture is never a good idea, but if forced to do so, bring the speakers to the edge – so you can avoid sound waves reflecting from the top surface.
High-frequency information is directional, so the best results are achieved when the tweeters are more or less level with your ears. If you have floor-standing speakers, they may be optimised for height already, but if you place ‘bookshelf’-style speakers on the floor, the tweeters will end up firing at your knees.
The solution is to buy a pair of speaker stands, with fairly decent ones available from around £100 per pair but, as with all things hi-fi, the sky’s the limit. Ideally, the stands will be non-resonant and that means they will be quite weighty.
To determine optimal stand height, measure the height of your ears from the floor in your listening spot, then measure the distance between the floor and your tweeter and subtract the latter measurement from the former.
If you don’t want to splash out on speaker stands, you can try using dense concrete blocks from a builder’s merchant – and you may well be pleasantly surprised with the results. You can even stack them to achieve the necessary height, but take care to avoid having the blocks scratch the surfaces of your floor
Basic Speaker Positioning
Begin by setting up the speakers in an equilateral triangle, where the distance between the speakers is the same as the distance between the speakers and the listening position – and with both speakers situated at equal distances from rear and side walls.
It’s essential for the tweeter to be more or less level with listener’s ear, which may require the use of improvised platforms, or dedicated speaker stands.
Floorboards, shelves and joists can resonate, which can skew bass response and waste acoustic energy. Stray vibrations can also annoy your neighbours and cause havoc with turntables. So a solid and stable base for your speaker ensures that the energy from your drive units is turned into sound waves rather than leeching away into the floor or setting the speakers in motion.
Some speaker stands are designed for filling with rice, dry sand or other materials to dampen resonance and inhibit vibration transfer. To further minimise unwanted energy transfer, it’s usual to minimise physical contact between the speaker and the surface it’s placed on.
Speaker spikes are commonly used by many hi-fi enthusiasts because they reduce physical contact to an absolute minimum. Spikes can be placed under floor-standing speakers or speaker stands. You may even place the spikes between the speaker and the stand, too, and they can be found quite cheaply.
Spikes are a virtually essential addition if your plan is to use
floor-standing speakers or stands in a carpeted room, to prevent them from rocking back and forth. With spikes on wood or laminate floors, you’ll also need to buy some floor protectors to avoid making unwanted holes and scratches.
Some people prefer ceramic cones between speakers and stands, but opinions on their efficacy differ.
Rubber and foam
Some tests demonstrate that plain rubber feet are more efficient acoustic decouplers – and bisected squash balls make for a cheap DIY alternative. Good results may also be obtained using high-density foam or rubber slabs.
Okay, it’s finally time to sit down and start listening. At this stage, you’re assessing the speaker setup, so choose pieces of music you know well. Begin by focusing on the lead vocal and the width of the stereo image. Ideally, you should get a wide image, with the vocal sounding solid and dead centre.
If tracks sound wide, but everything is either hard left or right and the vocal seems vague or recessed, the speakers may be too far apart. You have two options – either move them closer together, or leave them in position and toe them inwards towards the centre. If the vocal is strong but the tracks have a narrow or ‘bunched up’ quality, the speakers may be too close together or toed in too far.
How does the bass sound? If it’s sluggish or boomy, matters may be improved by moving the speakers further away from the wall. If the tracks lack weight, you can try doing the opposite. This is actually the fun part and an hour or so of critical listening and careful positioning and repositioning can dramatically improve the sound quality and imaging of any hi-fi system.
Of course, everything we’ve discussed here applies only to giving your speakers the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability. Treble response, imaging sharpness and bass tightness will also be influenced by the acoustic qualities of your listening room.
In fact, the listening room itself ultimately has a more profound effect on the way a hi-fi system sounds than your cartridge, DAC, interconnects and speaker cable combined. But we’ll have to save all that for another time.