GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "How To" Archives

Published May 1, 2002

 

The Best Things in Life Are Free: Speaker Placement

Speaker placement. It's such a dull-sounding phrase, yet by knowing how to properly place speakers in your listening room, you can dramatically improve the sound of your music system without spending a penny. You can turn that dull thudding noise in your living room into a sweaty John Bonham slamming his drums in Led Zeppelin's anthemic "Rock 'n' Roll" by properly placing your speakers. Or that shrill flock of birds you hear whenever you play your Dixie Chicks CDs can turn into, well, the Dixie Chicks. That "dull phrase" can be one of the most exciting changes you can make to the music you listen to at home.

A lot of us make the mistake of taking the good speakers we buy and simply putting them down in the first convenient spot that occurs to us once we get them home. Luckily, the speakers are movable. With just a bit of information, a little time, and a little help, you can place the speakers where they'll sound their best.

Before we get started on just where to move those speakers, here are a couple of things to remember when you're actually doing the moving.

The most important consideration, always, with speaker placement (or equipment upgrade or anything else you might do with your system) is that it makes you happy. If your speakers sound best to you buried beneath a week's dirty laundry, so be it. But do yourself a favor: try repositioning them before deciding what sounds best.

There are tons of theories about how to place speakers, nearly all of which have a common precept: that you and your speakers will form an invisible triangle. That is, each of your two speakers will be separate points on the triangle, with you, seated in your favorite comfy listening chair, being the apex of the triangle. In most cases, the three of you will form an isosceles triangle (a triangle with at least two equal sides) because the two speakers will be equidistant from you, but closer to one another than they are to you. However, it isn't important that you force your speakers and yourself into an isosceles triangle -- your system might sound best if you and the speakers form an equilateral triangle (one in which all sides are equal).

Whether you find yourself sitting in an isosceles or equilateral triangle, your speakers should be equidistant from you, and, hopefully, both speakers will be sitting at the same height. Having your speakers at different heights slightly varies their tone, meaning that the sound of the speakers you paid good money for will be somewhat cheapened. The sound might be overly bright (lacking in bass) or bass-heavy or unnecessarily muddy or any number of other acoustical maladies that you didn't bargain for. Your ears are really sensitive listening devices -- changing height (or distance from you) by a few inches can make a very discernable difference in sound.

If you doubt that's true, try a simple experiment. The great part of this experiment, and of moving speakers in general, is that you don't have to do squat. You just sit and listen and decide what sounds best, while a friend (a very good friend) or a loved one (someone who really, really loves you) moves the speakers around. Okay, now play something nice and simple (a solo voice or instrument) on your system while seated in your favorite listening spot. Do nothing but listen to the music carefully for a full minute. Now have your friend place one of your speakers higher than it normally is. If it normally sits on the floor, simply put the speaker on a chair, for instance. Now listen again and notice the difference in tone between the two heights. If your speaker usually sits on a wooden floor, you'll probably hear more bass when it's on the floor than when it's on the chair. That's because surfaces like walls, floors and ceilings augment certain sounds. If your speakers are on the floor, raising them will give you a brighter, livelier tone.

Since a speaker's sound is affected by its proximity to the floor, walls, and ceiling, you can see why it's a good idea to have both speakers at the same height off the floor, the same distance from the room's side walls and walls behind them, and the same distance from the ceiling -- all of these factors can make one speaker sound different from its mate.

Now we're ready to start figuring out where you and your speakers will be in your listening room. We'll begin with a really simple, effective way of establishing the distance between you and each speaker and between the speakers themselves.

Working the angle

Here's how it works: you and the speakers will form that invisible isosceles triangle we mentioned, with the two equal lengths of the triangle being the distances from you to the speakers. To find the distance from speaker to speaker, simply multiply the distance from you to either speaker by .667.

For example, if the distance from you to either of the equidistant speakers is 10', the distance from speaker to speaker is 6' 8" (or two-thirds of the 10').

This won't tell you where to put the speakers in your living room, but it'll give you a rough idea of the size of the triangle you and your speakers will be occupying. Now let's place you and your speakers.

EZ3 > O (no)

Remember when your math teacher in seventh grade warned that someday you'd regret not paying attention? Well, that day still hasn't arrived. The math employed in this method of placement is nice 'n' easy.

Give this formula a try if your system is in a rectangular room. The formula is intended for an idealized "golden cuboid" -- a room 10'H x 16'W x 26'L -- but it'll work in your rectangular room also.

To determine how far to place your speakers from the side walls (these are the 26’ lengths in the golden cuboid), simply take the room width (16') and multiply it by .276. Doing so will give you a distance from the side wall to the center of the speaker, or 4' 4.992".

To determine how far to place your speakers from the front wall (the wall you face when seated in your listening position), simply take the width of the room (16') and multiply it by .447. After punching the appropriate buttons on my calculator, I see that the distance from the front wall to the front of the speakers is 7' 1.824".

There you have it. Each of your speakers is 4’ 5" (rounded off) from the opposing side walls and 7’ 2" from the front wall. And if the speakers are each 4' 5" from the side walls, that means they're 7' 2" from each other. Using the isosceles-triangle formula from above, you can easily figure out exactly where to place yourself so that you can begin to really enjoy your music system. Almost.

All the right moves

The thing with all speaker-placement formulas is that they're a starting point, not a finishing line. When you've done the mathematical exercises, measured and placed the speakers and yourself, you've really just begun the process. It's almost certain that you're going to have to make compromises between the placement formula we've suggested, or any other formulas and methods you're likely to come across, and the reality of your listening room. Lots of people simply don't have enough open floor space to place speakers four feet from each side wall and seven feet from the front wall. Even while compromising, however, you can strike pleasing balances between your needs for more stuff than a listening chair and a stereo system in your living room, for instance, and your desire to have good-sounding speakers. Listen carefully as you and your friend move your speakers in a symmetrical, systematic fashion -- toward you, away from you, toward each other, away from each other, etc. -- carefully marking with masking tape where the speakers sounded best, worst, warm, boomy, and so on. The more precise, methodical and incremental your approach -- moving your speakers and/or listening position an inch or two or three at a time, while keeping track of what the changes do to the sound -- the happier you'll be with the speakers that will probably sit in your preferred spots for quite some time.

Remember, as you're moving the speakers around, that if you want more bass in your system, you'll want the speakers a bit closer to your walls (or floor if you have them on speaker stands). If you want less reinforcement of the low frequencies, move the speakers further away from the walls (and floor, if applicable).

Another way to change the sound of what you hear in your listening position is by employing toe-in. Toe-in is simply aiming speakers toward the main listening position rather than having them point straight ahead. Again, this should be done symmetrically so that your speakers maintain an acoustical balance. Toe-in affects the mid- and high-range frequencies, so if you'd like to brighten the sound of your system, give it a try.

Placing the bass

If, when you've finished placing the two speakers and your listening position, you still have a subwoofer to put down somewhere, here's a helpful trick. Place the sub in your listening position and walk around it, pausing in different places, noticing where the bass sounds best. Afterwards, simply reverse positions: you reclaim your listening position and the sub sits where the bass sounded best.

More sources

If you'd like to read more about speaker-placement formulas, including the one suggested here, go to onhifi.com and see the archived Features section (www.onhifi.com/features) to read the four superb columns on speaker placement by audio guru Wes Philips.

A good essay on small-room acoustics, by Glenn D. White, can be found at www.audiocontrol.com/techpapers/techpaper107.pdf   And if you want to get really technical about the subject, look for F. Alton Everest’s Master Handbook of Acoustics.


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