By Michael Perez (Audio Arkitekts)
Choosing your favorite speakers, amplifier, and components is essential to enjoying your sound system. The proper placement and positioning of the speakers in your listening environment are just as important as the products you buy. Many do not take the time to figure out the best way to configure their two-channel stereo positioning. The location and direction of your speakers will seriously impact the musical image and sound, as will the room’s layout.
The Sumiko Master Speaker Setup system has been the gold standard for speaker placement for many years. John Hunter and Stirling Traile of Sumiko developed this process over 20 years ago to help retailers get the most out of the speaker lines they carried in their stores. Bob Robbins, introduced to HiFi in 1974 as a young man, visited Sumiko while working with Soundings HiFi in Denver, CO, and received a massive dose of self-discovery. After training with Sumiko, he realized that all the hoopla surrounding HiFi, the hype around components, and the overall marketing fluff was immaterial in comparison to the art form that is proper speaker placement. Bob took what he learned from Sumiko and developed his elevated principle, The Art of Rational Speaker Placement. Bob offers an in-home placement service and an online guide if you decide to DIY the proper placement of your loudspeakers.
As fun and effective as a master set can be, if you are just starting out and want to give it a go on your own, that is fine as well. However, consider that changing the positioning of your loudspeakers can deliver significant variations in how your music sounds. It’s a challenging discipline to teach because there aren’t two of the same listening rooms. So, I always encourage you to experiment with placing your speakers and tweaking them slightly to find the best positioning for your room. Moving them just a few inches or angling them in just a little can offer precise and audible improvements in the performance of your loudspeakers.
Initially, you’ll want to place your speakers in front of the longest wall in the room you have chosen for your listening area. You want to have an equilateral triangle setup so that the distance between your listening chair and the speakers is the same as between both speakers. This symmetrical layout will ensure that each speaker reaches your favorite chair simultaneously and that the music is in sync. The speakers should also be placed the same distance from the adjacent walls so that any reflections reach your listening chair simultaneously. This is just an initial placement because eventually, once you begin adjusting your speakers, you may prefer them toed in or facing forward. Perhaps one speaker sounds better, more toed in than the other. This is an incredible discovery in subjectivity for you, the listener. It also throws away any standardized method for speaker placement because every inch you move the speakers will directly affect the sound.
The distance from the rear wall that the speaker will sit in front of is dependent on the type of speaker you have chosen. Different types of speakers like rear ported, front-ported and acoustic suspension will all react differently to the acoustics inside the room and often will need to be placed at different distances from the rear wall to achieve better results. Generally, speakers with rear ports could sound muddy and boomy if you place them too close to the rear wall. The nearby boundary or rear wall will magnify all of the bass energy exiting the rear port hole. This results in bass notes playing at the wrong volumes, covering up intricate details from the rest of the musical performance. Sealed or acoustic suspension speakers can be easier to place closer to a rear wall if you are confined into a smaller space.
You will want to place the speaker at least eight to twelve inches from the rear wall to start. You could end up with the speaker several feet away from the wall after you finish placement. Moving the speaker away from the wall is good practice because diffraction from the speaker cabinet can cause some of the sound energy to hit the wall behind the speaker. This sound is then reflected toward your listening position with a shift in the phase that can interfere with the sound directly coming from the speakers. So, to accomplish this, you will want to slowly pull out the speaker from the rear wall, inch by inch. This is mainly to adjust the bass response within the room and ensure that it is synchronous with the other frequencies that the speaker is providing.
Since every room is different, there is not a golden blueprint for this process. However, some of the factors that should be considered when moving your speakers are overall aesthetics, room treatments, clutter in the room, the type of speakers you are working with, the density of the wall behind you as well as the general type of music and volume you’ll be listening to. Start with one speaker, let’s say the left, get that speaker exactly where you want it to be, and then continue to the right speaker and do the same until you have a perfect image in front of you. The goal is to have both your speakers working with one another instead of against each other. It’s not a complicated process; it’s just time-consuming. Select a song as a reference that you are comfortable with and that can accentuate all frequencies well. Bob Robbins recommends Rob Wasserman’s Ballad of the Runaway Horse as a good reference tool for placement.
Another good practice is to tilt your speaker backward slightly. You’re trying to aim the tweeter a tad above or below your ear—off-axis. Tilting the speaker back and above your ear will open the soundstage and offer an airier presentation. I found that the KLH Model 5 speakers are very endearing and easy to place because they have an acoustic suspension design that makes them much more manageable when controlling the low-end frequencies during placement. However, their stands also come somewhat tilted backward, providing a more agreeable and broader soundstage.
What if you do not have much room to work with? Perhaps you live in an apartment or have designated a small room as your listening area. Working with a square room is tough because being in a confined space, let’s say a room that is 12×12, can create a bit of muddiness in the music reproduction because all sound waves will bounce off the walls at the same frequencies at the same time. If you have a rectangular room, choose the longer wall when placing your speakers. Now, before you go out and buy the largest speakers you can find, remember that in a smaller room, bigger loudspeakers can sound awful because the room might be too small for sound to disperse properly. Even though you may have a smaller room, use acoustic treatments to help with the sound. If you have hardwood floors, consider a rug. If you have window blinds, invest in acoustic curtains. Of course, acoustic treatments are the best solution to dampen reflections and prevent sound waves from bouncing off the walls if you have wall space.
Once you have found that sweet spot at your listening chair within your sound system, I would take a piece of painter’s tape and mark precisely where your speakers are situated. If you ever have to move them for whatever reason, you have a proper point of reference as to where to place them, so you don’t have to repeat this process on the same speakers. Every speaker has a sweet spot where it provides the most unmistakable, most realistic vocals, the finest deep clean bass, clearest sound staging, and perfect sound delivery to your listening chair. Your job now is to find the best ones for you.