Speaker Placement, Imaging and Soundstage (2 Channel)
Today we’re going to quickly talk about home theater speaker set up and listening. It’s important to realize that other than your speakers, the most important thing determining musical quality is where you place your speakers, and your seating position in relation to those speakers. Sadly, with little commercial interest to defend the crucial role speaker placement plays, this subject is often neglected… So, with that being said, let’s talk about it a bit!
If you have a newer receiver with some type of auto room set up and calibration setting, you are off to a good start, but correct speaker placement will only further enhance that for the best performance.
Speaker Placement and Bass Response
Room placement will have quite an impact on the bass performance of your speakers, but this not only depends on the type of speaker you have, but also how close to the rear and side walls they are. Generally speaking, when thinking about placing your speakers, try and keep the tweeters around the same height as your ears will be when you’re seated. So, for bookshelf speakers, try and place them on a stand if you can.
(Notice the height of the bookshelf speaker compared to the tower. The tweeter height is almost identical.)
With tower speakers, ideally you’d want those at least 2 feet off the rear wall if you have the room as this will help tighten up the bass performance. Also, try and avoid corner placement if you can, unless your speakers are specifically designed for this (which is rare). Corner placement is ok for subwoofers, but that’s another discussion all together.
Now, what I’d recommend is to play a good quality recording that has a steady bass line. When the music is playing, walk around your room and you may be surprised in just how uneven the bass response can sound in different areas. You’ll find that as you move the speakers closer to the wall there will be more bass, and less as you move them further away. What you’re listening for is even bass that is fairly even, but also clear and strong, but tight- not boomy or droning. This will take some critical listening on your part, but be patient and you’ll find a sound that is most accurate and to your liking. Trust your ears!
A worthy pair of speakers can perform an amazing illusion reminiscent of watching a 3-D movie. When correctly placed, a three-dimensional sound stage magically appears between your speakers. Instruments and sounds appear to come from locations where your eyes tell you there’s nothing! This isn’t magic, its physics! Making this happen dramatically requires getting many things right – good stereo material, controlling room reflections, good speakers – but most importantly, getting your speakers and listening area set-up properly. Fortunately, this is pretty easy:
- The listening area needs to be right in the center of both speakers. Use a tape measure if you want to get really accurate.
- The distance between the speakers should be 75% to 100% of the distance that you are from them. I like to think about making an equilateral triangle between your speakers and your seating position.
- As I mentioned, you’ll want to keep your speakers at least 2 feet away from walls and the floor (tower speakers are OK on the floor.) Don’t worry too much if this isn’t practical, if you move them closer to the wall, the virtual soundstage will still appear – it just won’t have the same depth.
- Likewise, you’ll want to keep your listening area more than 2’ from any walls or large reflective objects.
- It helps to have a room that deals well with sound reflections – sound absorbers like rugs and drapes, sound scatterers like bookcases and “things” all help.
Soundstage and Imaging with Surround Sound 5.1/7.1
We briefly talked about how with a good pair of speakers, fine tuned room placement and a great stereo recording, you can recreate an amazing 3 dimensional soundstage and stereo image of sound that magically sounds like it’s coming from in between both speakers. Try it, this is awesome!
Now, what about home theater 5.1 set ups? Well, as you can expect, this is different than the first two because instead of trying to recreate a 3-D image and soundstage with only two speakers, we just add more speakers with a specific role of reproducing the 5.1 movie soundtrack and making “surround sound”. Generally a surround system consist of 5 or 7 speakers, (two front, a center channel and surround or surround back speakers, plus a subwoofer for the low bass) Speaker placement is still very important for a surround system, but not for creating a sound stage, but for placing you, the listener in the middle of all of those speakers. Aside from placement of surround system, level calibration and subwoofer adjustment are going to be where you spend the majority of your time, fine tuning your system.
One should never forget that the whole idea is to create a room for enjoyment – making sensible compromises in the name of comfort or aesthetics is certainly no crime. Besides — your spouse won’t let you get away with putting those speakers in the middle of the bedroom anyway.
Moving gear and couches around isn’t fun or glamorous. Which is why many of the guidelines we discussed are aimed at helping you position things well with a minimum of “experimentation” But once you have completed this important (and free we might add) exercise, you’ll be amazed at how good your system sounds. Most importantly, trust what your ears enjoy!