Getting the Most Out of Your Sound
Several years ago, I set up my current home theater room. While it wasn’t scheduled to be equipped with multitiered stadium seating, faux Art Deco design, or a popcorn machine, I did have the luxury of setting it up strictly for movie and music listening. It didn’t need to be compromised to serve any other purpose.
Even before I started to set up my projector, I began by finding the best place for the speakers. But there was one important limitation: The speakers had to be far enough apart that I could place my 78-inch-wide projection screen between them. Not at all coincidentally, the choice of screen size was partially influenced by the spacing that good two-channel music listening requires.
Of course, not all of you will have this luxury. But the placement of the speakers and the placement of the listener effects the sound you’ll hear. While necessity may require that you set up the speakers close to walls, they will nearly always sound better if you position them at least a couple of feet away from the front wall and a similar (but not identical) distance from the side walls. (This does not apply to in-wall and on-wall speakers, which I won’t address here.)
General Placement Tips
The rules of thirds and fifths are often good starting places to determine speaker and listener placement. Position the speakers away from your walls at a distance that’s a multiple of thirds or fifths of the room’s dimension in that direction. For example, if a room is 20 feet long and 15 feet wide, locate the left and right front speakers 4 feet (one fifth) from the wall behind them and 3 feet out (one fifth) from the left and right side walls. Then, locate the main listening seat 4 feet from the wall behind the listener (12 feet from the plane of the front speakers) or 8 feet from the wall (8 feet from the front speakers).
Try displacing the center speaker just a bit from the center of the room dimension. That is, instead of locating it 7.5 feet from each side wall of a 15-foot-wide room, locate it 7 feet from one wall and 8 feet from the other. Yes, this will slightly disturb the setup’s symmetry, but it could result in smoother response from the center speaker.
If at all possible, avoid locating the main listening seats up against a wall. Because of a well-known room effect (standing waves), low frequencies are emphasized near a wall. This listening position will seriously compromise any attempt at smooth, well-balanced bass.
Sure, you will have a center-channel speaker, but don’t use this as an excuse to put the left and right speakers 15 feet apart. To provide the best combination of stereo spread, imaging precision, and coherence with the picture, a good rule of thumb is to position the left and right front speakers so that the distance between the two speakers is equal to or preferably a little less than the distance from each speaker to the listener. For instance, if your speakers are 7 feet apart, a distance of 8 to 9 feet from each speaker to the listener is excellent. You should avoid setting the speakers farther apart than the distance from each speaker to the listening position.
I recommend that you place the speakers at least 7 feet apart for any listening position that will be 10 to 12 feet from the screen of a one-piece television and no more than 10 feet apart. For a front-projection setup, you should position them no more than a foot or so to the left and right sides of the screen.
Many people sit too far from their TVs and speakers. For a 7-to-9-foot speaker spacing, I recommend that you sit at least 8 to 12 feet from the speakers. If you sit too close, the sound from each of the speakers’ drivers may not gel properly into a coherent whole. If you sit too far away, you’ll hear too much of the room. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll hear an amorphous blob of sound rather than a well-defined soundstage.
Compact speakers are often referred to as bookshelf models, but that designation is misleading. Most serious bookshelf speakers aren’t designed to be used in a bookshelf at all. Instead, they work best when you place them upright on good (extra-cost) stands and place them a couple of feet or more away from any nearby walls, including the wall behind them.
Set up the speakers so that their drivers are aligned vertically. This will provide the smoothest off-axis response. Horizontal center speakers are an exception, but this arrangement can compromise the performance. The horizontal driver configuration in most center speakers is driven by aesthetic and marketing considerations, not the best sonic performance.
Many audiophiles like to set up their two-channel systems with the left and right speakers aimed straight ahead. Some (but not all) two-channel setups sound better this way. This is fine for a single listener, but it can be a disaster for several people watching a movie. If you’re seated in front of the left speaker, it will fire right at you. On the other hand, you’ll be so far off axis of the right speaker that you’ll rarely be aware of it. For a more uniformly distributed soundstage, try to aim the left and right speakers directly at a centrally located listening seat, or even at a point in space a couple of feet in front of it. You won’t achieve perfect performance everywhere, but your family and friends will thank you anyway.
If there’s a deep, big-screen TV between the left and right front speakers, try to move the speakers out far enough so that their front baffles are further forward than the plane of the TV screen. This shouldn’t be difficult if you follow the recommendations above in regards to keeping the speakers away from the walls. If you keep the speakers as far away as possible from a TV, this will minimize acoustic reflections from the screen.
If you’re using a CRT TV, make sure your front speakers are magnetically shielded. For a modern digital television, such shielding is irrelevant.
Make sure you put your surrounds along the side or rear of your room. In particular, if you have a small HTIB system, don’t be tempted to forget the surrounds. The ambience and sense of space that properly positioned surrounds can provide can be even more impressive in an otherwise modest speaker setup than in a state-of-the-art system.
Place dipole surrounds directly to the sides of the main listening seats. For other types of surrounds, 110 to 120 degrees back from the front is recommended as the best location for a 5.1-channel system. But don’t be bound by convention. If your room is fairly narrow, you may find that side or near-side mounting makes the surrounds too prominent. Try moving them further back.
I could fill an entire book with advice on subwoofer placement. Suffice it to say, you can’t just plunk a subwoofer down anywhere and expect to get the best from it. Experiment. Try different locations and live with each of them for a while. Listen for smooth, uniform response and good low-frequency extension without boom or one-note bass. Some rooms will resist a good result more than others, but after a time, you should be able to arrive at a satisfactory setup in nearly any room.
Article by Darryl Wilkinson
If you ever have any questions about home cinema or hifi please never hesitate to contact us here at Savins Music and we would be delighted to help.