You may be surprised to learn that other than the speakers themselves, probably the most important factor in determining the sound quality of your setup is where you place those speakers. For example, each room boundary (wall or floor or ceiling) that your speaker gets close to can increase the bass output by 6dB. This change in the frequency response is many times more drastic than the difference between even an entry level receiver or high end amplifier. Since speaker location is so critical, we’ve put together a guide on how to place speakers to optimize them for two channel stereo listening.
Speaker placement will affect two main things – bass performance and stereo image or “soundstage”. But let’s not forget about the overall aesthetics and livability of your room. We’ll look at these separately, but keep in mind that these three objectives may compete with each other so that optimizing one could be at the others’ expense. Compromises are to be expected.
Finding the Sweet Spot For Bass Response
Room boundaries affect the bass so significantly that there are fairly specific guidelines in terms of where to place your speakers in order to get the best possible sound from them. Here are a few guidelines that will keep your speakers sounding tight and well defined through the bass frequencies.
- Small speakers should be on stands or a bookshelf so that their tweeters are close to ear level and their backs near to the wall behind it. If they have an air vent on the back, they should be kept a couple of inches from the wall.
- Tower speakers should be placed 1-2 feet (or more) from the back wall.
- Corners should be avoided. Two exceptions are speakers designed for corners, which are not common, and subwoofers (see our blog on subwoofer tips and tricks for more about this).
- Avoid left / right symmetry, especially with respect to corners, halls and sidewalls.
When evaluating bass performance by ear, listen for balance and evenness. You can always bring the level of deep bass up or down by moving the speakers closer or further from walls and corners. It’s a little harder to get the bass even so that some bass notes don’t dominate while others disappear, and so that the bass character is fairly constant as you move around the listening area. Try putting on a CD with a strong, repeating bass line and move around the room. You may be shocked at how uneven the bass can be. Try repositioning the speakers until the bass is fairly even and listen for a bass quality that is strong but tight, not boomy or muddled. If you’re using subwoofers you still might want to experiment with the front speaker placement and pay special attention to the midrange frequencies that make vocals sound rich and full. If you do notice that the midrange sounds thin, try moving the speakers a little further out into the room.
Creating a Realistic Soundstage
These days most audio systems are set up for multi channel home theater use – but the front speakers are asked to perform double duty when you play a stereo CD. The front left and right speakers transform themselves from a supporting role handling off-screen effects to the lead performers. And a worthy pair of speakers can perform an amazing illusion reminiscent of looking through a 3-D ViewMaster™. A three dimensional stage can magically appear between thespeakers — instruments located precisely where your eyes tell you there’s nothing! Of course getting this to happen with a sharp focus requires getting a lot of 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 equidistant from both speakers. Use a tape measure to be really accurate.
- The distance between the speakers should be 75% to 100% of the distance that you are from them.
- Keep your speakers at least 2 feet away from all reflective surfaces (tower speakers are OK on the floor). Sometimes this proves impractical, especially with the wall behind the speakers – if you move them closer to this 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 like windows, coffee tables, really any hard surface.
- It helps to have a room that has controlled the sound reflections – sound absorbers like rugs and drapes, furniture and really just more decorations and stuff in the room will all go a long way to taming the room.
- You may want to experiment with the angle of the speakers to really dial in the stereo image. One method of doing this is to use a recording with prominent vocals. Angle the speakers in slightly until you hear the vocals coming from the middle of the two speakers when you are sitting directly between them. When angled properly, it should sound like your center channel is playing even though only your front left and right speakers are the only active channels!
When these stereo speakers revert back to their home theater roles, proper placement will help them integrate seamlessly with the center channel and surround speakers. Additionally, this effect will not be limited to one “sweet spot” like the stereo soundstage described above, but can be shared by others who are nearby. If you’d like to read more about the placement of the other speakers in a surround setup, check out our blog post here, which also has takes a look at the relative benefits of stands or wall mounts.
Looking at the Big Picture
Of course, most of us don’t have dedicated rooms for audio so it’s likely that you may have to compromise ideal audio performance with room livability. Let’s face it, putting your speakers in the doorway was probably never going to fly anyway. However, if you follow the above rules of thumb as closely as possible, it will go a long way to ensuring you get the most out of your stereo speakers, with minimal trial and error. The most important thing to remember is to trust your ears and have fun! As always we wish you happy listening and feel free to give us a call or shoot us an e-mail with any questions!