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
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
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'
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.
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.
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
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 Everests Master
Handbook of Acoustics.