Speaker placement for stereo music listening
Loren Barstow started at Crutchfield in 1999. After working a few years as a sales advisor, he moved on to become a writer and then an editor. He has written about televisions, Blu-ray players, speakers, and various other audio/video components.
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The placement and positioning of your speakers plays a large role in your system's overall sound and performance. Speaker placement can be especially critical in dedicated music systems, because it greatly affects tonal accuracy, staging, and imaging, as well as realistic sound reproduction.
While every system and room is different, we've put together some general guidelines to help you set up your stereo speakers for their best musical performance. You can also watch our video on speaker placement to get familiar with the basics.
First, find the right room
This is usually easier said than done since a room's dimensions and design are things we have little or no control over. But if you do have some options on which room you use, here are some suggestions to help you get the best sound:
- Try to avoid rooms with dimensions that are multiples, i.e., 8' x 16' x 24', since this increases the number of "standing waves." Standing waves are created when the sound waves reflected off a wall or other surface collide with sound waves coming from the speaker. This changes the wave's amplitude (volume), which in turn leads to dips and spikes in certain frequency ranges.
- Surfaces that reflect sound, such as windows and hardwood floors, add an artificial "brightness" to the sound and also reduce clarity due to too many reflections and reverberations. At the same time, thick carpeting, upholstered furniture, and similar absorptive materials reduce reflections, causing a lack of spaciousness. The goal should be a good mixture of absorption and reflection, which will give you a full, rich sound that's smooth and balanced.
- For an even more in-depth look at how your room affects your speakers' performance, check out our article on room acoustics.
Placing your speakers
Your right and left speakers should form an equilateral triangle with your listening position. This means your speakers are the same distance apart from each other as they are from you.
After you decide which room you're going to use, it's time to decide where to put your speakers. The natural tendency for most people is to place them up against the wall, especially if they're using floor-standing speakers. But you should fight that urge — you'll get better sound.
Placing speakers against the wall may improve their bass response, but it can make the midrange and mid-bass sound muddy. Bringing the speakers out from the wall by a foot or more will give you improved accuracy and detail.
Similarly, try to avoid placing your chair or couch up against the back wall. This results in poor imaging and boomy bass since the back wall reflects a lot of sound back into your ears. Bringing your listening position out into the room can improve midrange and mid-bass detail, while adding smoothness to the overall sound. If your couch or favorite chair needs to be against the back wall, adding a thick fabric wall hanging or cushions behind your head will help.
It might go without saying, but both speakers should be the same distance from where you're seated. A good rule of thumb is for your two speakers and listening position to form an equilateral triangle.
Toeing in your speakers can make a dramatic improvement in their sound.
"Toeing in," or angling, your speakers, instead of aiming them straight at the rear wall, can dramatically improve their staging and imaging by reducing reflections off the side walls.
Sit in your listening position and have a friend or two turn the speakers slightly toward you until a strong center image locks in. Listen for a wide soundstage with good focus, where bass is smooth and treble is detailed without being too "bright."
There are no set guidelines for how much toe-in is required since it depends on the speakers — just use your ears. You'll know it's right when you hear it.
If you're using smaller bookshelf speakers, place them on quality stands. Well-made metal and solid-wood stands resist unwanted resonance for improved clarity. Many stands and bookshelf speakers include self-adhesive rubber pads that are meant to be placed on the stand's top plate to isolate the stand from the speaker, which also reduces or eliminates resonance.
If placing your speaker stands on carpeting, vibrations can be reduced even further by using carpet spikes to isolate the speakers from the floor. Carpet spikes make the stands much more stable as well. Finally, make sure your stands keep the tweeter at your seated ear level. Since high frequencies are very directional, it's important that they're aimed well.
Even though they're called "bookshelf" speakers, it's not a good idea to actually place such speakers on a bookshelf because sound can reflect off the shelf and the wall behind them. However, if your setup requires you to place speakers on a bookshelf, here are a few things you can do for better sound:
- bring them as far forward as possible to reduce reflections off of the shelf
- give your speakers room — don't crowd other objects around them
- make sure the tweeters fire at your seated ear level
Adding a powered subwoofer
Systems with bookshelf speakers also need a powered subwoofer to handle the low-frequency sounds that smaller speakers can't reproduce. Just like with your main speakers, placing a sub against the wall or in a corner will increase its bass output — but you'll probably end up with muddy, "one-note" bass, since certain frequencies are accented and others diminished.
Subs can be placed almost anywhere, since low-frequency sounds are hard to localize. But to find the spot that's best for your room, try this trick: Put the sub in your listening position and play some music. With the sub playing, walk around the room until you find the spot where the bass sounds the best — that's where you place the sub.
Speakers and your room's décor
Below we list a few things to keep in mind, along with some ways to improve your sound.
Your room's furnishings are also a factor in your system's sound. Coffee tables placed between you and your speakers will reflect certain frequencies and absorb others. This is especially true of tables with glass tops. Tables made from fibers such as wicker are a much better choice, acoustically speaking. If you do have a coffee table with a glass top, covering it with a blanket when it's time for serious music listening can do wonders.
Make sure to bring the speakers far enough into the room so that their front baffles are closer to you than the front of the television, with the speakers on the sides of the TV (if your music room and home theater room are one and the same). Just as light bounces off your television's screen and causes annoying glare, sound will reflect off the sides of your TV. The sound reflecting off the TV can ruin a sonic image, just as glare can ruin a visual one.
Windows are the biggest sound reflectors of all, so you'll definitely want to address them. Hanging curtains or drapes can go a long way in absorbing the high-frequency sounds that glass reflects, allowing your system to sound much more natural. For the curtains or drapes to be most effective, they should be thick enough that you can't see between the fibers. Similarly, wall hangings offer an easy, attractive way to reduce reflections off bare walls.
Room treatment products, such as acoustic panels and "bass traps," are also available to tame rooms with too many reflective surfaces. Acoustic panels are typically made from special acoustic foam or better yet, fiberglass. They reduce reflections by absorbing the energy of the sound waves, and are meant to be placed against the wall. Bass traps go in the corners of the room and are designed to cure boomy, one-note bass. While room treatment products work well, they can stick out in a listening room that is also a family living space. Covering them with fabric is a simple, effective solution.
While optimizing your speaker setup can take a little extra time, putting in that effort now can go a long way in enhancing your long-term satisfaction. And feel free to experiment. In the end, it all comes down to what sounds the best to you.