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The Setup: Speakers

What You Need to Know to Get the Most from Your Stereo, 5.1-Channel or 6.1-Channel System (Originally published in: Sound & Vision, May 2001)
By Frank Doris

You probably already know that good speakers are essential to putting together a high-quality stereo or multichannel music system or home theater. You can invest several months' mortgage payments in first-rate audio/video components, but without good speakers you're simply not going to hear your system's full potential.

When it comes to getting the best sound, though, owning good speakers is only half of the sonic equation. Let me emphasize this right at the beginning: Your speakers will only sound as good as your setup lets them! Poor setup can make even good speakers sound bad. On the other hand, careful setup can't transform a sub-par speaker into a sonic Superman. Cheap multimedia speakers, for example, are no more likely to reproduce the bass impact and musical detail of Dark Side of the Moon or Titanic than my Honda Civic is to win the next NASCAR championship.

Happily, there's nothing mysterious about setting up speakers. It does require a little bit of care and patience, but the principles are straightforward enough and they apply to virtually all systems and rooms whether you spend most of your time listening to stereo music or enjoying movies in surround sound. Best of all, our recommended steps to proper speaker setup don't have to cost you a thing, just some time and effort.

Space: The Final Frontier
The key difference between a proper and an improper speaker setup is that a proper one will give the sound a sense of three-dimensional space, as if the musicians are present in the room. When speakers are set up poorly and a good many of the stereo setups you've heard probably fall into this category the sound is spatially "flat," seemingly glued to the speaker grilles. There's virtually no sonic depth, width, or height no "soundstage," which is the illusion of hearing the various instrumentalists and vocalists spread around the room.

While it's hard not to get some sense of envelopment from a multichannel home theater system unless you aim the speakers completely at random! that doesn't mean you're getting a full, 360 soundstage or that magical sense of total immersion in the onscreen action that an optimized sound system can deliver.

idea tip suggestion solution
Helpful Hint When you experiment with speaker placement, use masking tape to mark a speaker's position in case you want to go back to an earlier position that turned out to be better than a later one.

Before getting to the nitty-gritty, I can't stress enough that the interaction between the speakers and the room is of fundamental importance. While every speaker has its own "voice," or sonic signature, how it actually sounds is nonetheless inseparable both from the room in which it's placed and from its position in that room.

All rooms have areas of bass cancellation, where a speaker's audible low-frequency output will be reduced, and of bass reinforcement, where the same speaker will seem to produce more bass, without changing anything else in the system. Cancellation and reinforcement areas are sometimes very close together, which is why moving a speaker less than a foot can make a big difference in its bass performance.

I'll begin by discussing how to set up a pair of speakers for stereo listening, since many of the principles covered also apply to setting up a multichannel system. Besides, even with five or more speakers, it's still a good idea to start by properly placing the left and right front ones.


wiringYour speakers must be hooked up to your receiver or amplifier with the cables connected in the correct polarity that is, the red (+) terminal on the receiver goes to the red terminal on the corresponding speaker, and the same with the black (-) connections.

Connections Are Everything
This is not optional: The cables between your speakers and your receiver or amplifier must be connected in the correct polarity that is, with the red (or +) terminal on the receiver going to the red (or +) terminal on the corresponding speaker, and the same with the black (or -) connections. (Speaker cables are usually either color-coded or have a ridge or markings on one side to make the matchup easy.) If you don't match the polarity at both ends, bass response and imaging will suffer.

Also, make sure your speaker cables are compatible with the connectors on both your receiver and speakers. Many inexpensive receivers and speakers use spring-clip connectors that don't accept the banana plugsor spade lugs found on some high-quality speaker cables. Binding postsaccept virtually any type of connector (except for some esoteric high-end types), including bare wire.

Symmetry, Imaging, and Soundstaging
Stereo and multichannel speakers will not "image" properly that is, place the singers and instruments consistently within the soundstage, each contributing to the overall mix from a specific distance and direction unless they're set up as symmetrically as possible. The more nearly symmetrical your setup, the better the imaging and soundstaging you'll get.

Stereo speakers and front left/right speakers in a multichannel setup should be positioned like mirror images of each other, either facing straight out or "toed in" toward the listening position at the same angle. You should follow any placement recommendations from the manufacturer, but some don't supply any, so a good rule of thumb is to divide the wall behind the speakers into thirds and place them at the one-third and two-thirds points, then move them an equal distance out into the room.

calculations speakersStereo speakers and the left/right front speakers in a multichannel system should be set up as mirror images, either parallel to one another or "toed-in" at the same angle. If possible, they should be the same distance from the side walls and from each other. Use a tape measure to make these measurements precisely. To place the speakers, divide the wall behind them into thirds and put them at the one-third and two-thirds points. As shown in the diagram (left), your listening position should be at the point of an equilateral triangle.

You may have to adjust these distances for the most satisfying results, but it's a good placement to start. If your room setup won't permit equal distances, get as close as you can. Use a tape measure when making these and other measurements I'm not kidding when I say that differences of less than an inch will have an audible impact on imaging when you're using the highest-quality speakers. (Hard to believe, I know, but I've heard it happen.) Also note that the same rules apply whether the speakers are on stands or on the floor.

Take the room surfaces and furnishings into account as well. If one speaker in a left/right pair is next to a bare wall and the other is next to heavy drapes, the differences in how these surfaces absorb or reflect soundwaves will cause the two speakers to sound different, making accurate stereo imaging impossible. Use common sense, and adjust the room furnishings if necessary.

Speaker Placement Essentials
Finding the right location for your speakers usually means striking a compromise between the best imaging, bass, and overall tonal balance. To determine the best place to listen from, create an equilateral triangle with the left and right speakers at two corners and your listening position at the third. To perform the listening tests I'm about to describe, select some music CDs you know are well recorded, or use one of those recommended in Setup Discs.

First, adjust the distance between the speakers. Start with the speakers facing straight out (we'll take care of the toe-in later). If they're too far apart, you'll hear a hole in the middle that is, the sound will seem to collapse into the speakers, with a distinct lack of sound in the space between them. If they're too close together, the sound will become more monophonic, lacking stereo channel separation and a sense of depth. When they're placed just right, you'll hear a seamless, even sound field across the front of the room, even if the imaging and tonal balance aren't quite there yet.   

Next, optimize the distance between the speakers and the wall behind them, which will always involve a tradeoff. Locating speakers closer to a wall will increase their effective bass response but degrade imaging and spaciousness. Keep in mind as you experiment that nothing you do is going to yield killer bass from a bass-shy speaker or room-filling 3-D spaciousness from speakers that can't provide that kind of performance under any circumstances.

Because tonal balance will suffer if you place the speakers in an area of bass cancellation or reinforcement, you'll probably have to experiment with their distances from the walls to find the best compromise between tonal accuracy and bass punch. Tip: Keep notes and make temporary marks on the floor with masking tape. You might want to go back to an earlier position if a later one sounds worse.

Next, adjust the toe-in, or the degree to which the speakers are angled in toward the listening position. Exotic dipole speakers, such as planar magnetics or electrostatics, or bipole speakers that have separate drivers firing both forward and backward, are sometimes best placed parallel to the wall behind them that is, with no toe-in. With conventional direct-radiating dynamic speakers, start by aiming them toward the listening position, and then experiment with different angles until the instrumental and vocal imaging and the soundstage depth and width all seem to "lock in."

It's a good idea to enlist a friend as a second pair of ears during the adjustment process. And if at any time you start to feel confused or fatigued, stop and resume the setup when you're mentally refreshed.

Now for some final tweaking. Sometimes tilting the speakers up slightly will improve imaging and tonal balance but make sure that they're still secure on their bases or stands, not rocking precariously. Many speakers and speaker stands come with spiked or conical feet that can be easily adjusted for height. These pointy protuberances might improve imaging and bass definition slightly by helping stabilize the speaker cabinet. (Install them after you've determined the final location for the speakers.) If your speakers or stands don't have adjustable feet, you can place thin pieces of wood under the front corners.If you're using adjustable-height feet or stands, set them so the tweeters are at ear level when you're sitting in your listening position.

surround rear 6.1For 6.1-channel listening, set up one or two additional speakers along the rear wall, at the same height as the left and right surround speakers. Aim dipoles so the driver sides fire to the left and right along the wall (as shown at left). Direct-radiating surround speakers (not shown) should be aimed so they fire toward the front of the room.

I Think We're Surrounded!
If you're setting up a stereo music system, you can stop now and enjoy listening to your favorite CDs as never before in fact, the improvements will likely be so dramatic, it'll be as if you're hearing them for the first time! But if you want to set up a six-speaker 5.1-channel system, or a seven- or eight-speaker 6.1-channel system, read on.

As noted, many of the principles that apply to stereo speaker setup also hold true for the left and right front speakers in a multichannel system. However, there are three additional considerations: 1)You might have to move these speakers away from their "ideal" positions to make room for the TV or projection screen. 2) Many home theater installations mount the front speakers on the wall behind the TV, or along with the TV if it's a flat-panel or built-in model, making it impossible to move them out into the room as recommended above. Nevertheless, the front speakers should still be mounted with the tweeters at ear level, positioned far enough apart for a good stereo spread, and aimed toward the listening position for the best sound coverage. 3) The optimal position for the left and right speakers is relative to that of the center-channel speaker.

Since it handles most of the dialogue and up to 60% of the other sonic information in a movie soundtrack, the center-channel speaker is the most critical part of a home-theater speaker system. While different manufacturers recommend slightly different setups, a good rule of thumb is to mount the center speaker atop the TV, slightly behind the front L/R speakers (assuming they're not wall-mounted) and no more than 2 feet above or below their tweeters. Some manufacturers recommend placing the left, center, and right front speakers in an arc, with all three equidistant from the listening position.   

You can also place the center speaker below a TV or projection screen, although on top is by far the more common position. Wherever you place it, the speaker should be aimed toward the listening position to produce the best frequency response there. Some models tilt up or down or have a support you can adjust for the correct angle.

surround rearDipole surround speakers should be placed alongside the listening position for best results and are usually mounted on the side walls, slightly above the listener. Position the driver sides so they fire forward and backward, with the "null" side of the enclosure facing the listener. They should not be aimed directly at the listening position.

Next come the left and right surround speakers. The rules here are a little different than for the front speakers because the surrounds are typically used to create diffuse, ambient sound in order to heighten the illusion of an all-encompassing sonic environment especially with movie soundtracks. Many surround speakers are dipole or bipole designs that radiate from both front and back to enhance the sense of spaciousness.

But multichannel DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD music recordings tend to sound best when you use direct-radiating, or "monopole," speakers, since they often have smoother frequency response than dipoles and a less diffuse sound quality.

What kind of surround speakers should you go with? If you plan on using your system primarily for movies, I recommend a dipole or bipole design. If for music, use monopoles. If you want the best of both worlds, there are a few receivers that let you switch between two pairs of surround speakers.

Surround speakers should be placed to either side of the listening position and slightly to the rear not in the back of the room unless absolutely necessary. They are usually mounted on the side walls, but placing them on stands works just as well. Avoid aiming dipole speakers directly at the listening position, since this will weaken the sense of a diffuse sound field. These speakers are best placed with their driver sides facing forward and backward, with the null side of the enclosure pointed toward the listener. Monopole speakers, on the other hand, are best placed on the side walls facing toward the listener but above ear level.

6.1-Channel Sound
A number of 6.1-channel formats have appeared recently: Dolby Digital Surround EX and two flavors of DTS-ES (Extended Surround) Discrete and Matrix. Each of these formats adds a back surround channel to the usual home theater configuration, using one or two additional speakers (and amplifier channels) to create a more realistic, quasi-360 sonic environment and smoother pans between the surround speakers.

listen to bassOne way to set up a subwoofer is to place it at the listening position, at the same height as the listener's head. Then move along the boundary of the room with your ear at the same height where the subwoofer will be, listening until you find the place where the bass sounds "tightest" (not boomy or mushy). Place the subwoofer there. (Don't place it too far away from the main speakers, though, or the imaging may be inconsistent.)

If you're one of the lucky ones who own a 6.1-channel receiver, you'll want to set up your additional speaker or speakers along the rear wall, at the same height as the left and right surround speakers. If you opt for dipoles, have them fire to the left and right along the rear wall, with the null toward the listening position. (If this isn't satisfying, you can even try rotating them so that they fire toward the ceiling and floor.) Direct-radiating speakers should be aimed forward.

I'm Gonna Add Some Bottom
No home theater system is complete without a subwoofer for the powerful sonic impact and realism that only true low-frequency extension can provide. It's sometimes said that you don't have to be as fastidious with setting up a sub as with your main speakers because frequencies below around 100 Hz are nondirectional. This isn't entirely true (unless you're planning on putting the subwoofer in the bathroom). Placing the sub in a room node will eliminate much of the bass, while placing it in an area that selectively reinforces bass might make it sound boomy. Experiment with placement for best results, and use common sense don't place a sub too far away from the main front speakers or the imaging may be inconsistent.

I generally recommend starting with a corner placement and moving away from that only if you can't get proper balance using all the system's bass-management controls. Another approach is to set the subwoofer on a table at the listening position, so that its driver is at the same height as the listener's ears. Then go around the room on your hands and knees, listening to the bass at the same height that the subwoofer will be at once it's placed on the floor. Once you've found the spot where the bass sounds "tightest" (not boomy or mushy), place the sub there. 

Final Setup
Just finish three more vital steps, and you'll be ready to enjoy first-rate sound at home. In a multichannel home theater or music setup, you have to configure the receiver to match your speaker setup, time align all the speakers in the system, and balance their levels. All of this is done using your receiver's speaker-setup (or bass management) menu.

The menu will ask you to select either "small" or "large" for each of the five main speakers (usually by pairs for the L/R front and surround speakers). These settings refer to the speakers' bass-handling ability "small" for satellites with limited output below 80 Hz and "large" for full-range speakers with true output below 80 Hz (generally large tower speakers).

soud presure level meterUse a sound-level meter to calibrate the volume of your speakers. Don't do this by ear. Stand behind the listening position and hold the meter at the same height as the listener's head, with the microphone pointing up so that the sound from all the speakers in the setup moves over it.

With the "small" setting, all bass is directed to the subwoofer, freeing the main speaker from the demands of reproducing low-frequency effects as well as deep-bass musical notes. With virtually all 5.1-channel home theater setups and all THX-certified speaker systems you'll get the best sound by selecting "small" for all five main speakers and "on" for the subwoofer. When in doubt, use the "small" setting.

(Listening to DVD-Audio multichannel music, however, is a different matter. As David Ranada showed in "Confirmed: DVD-Audio's 'Base-Less' Rumor," every DVD-Audio player so far and almost every receiver capable of accepting the six-channel input from a DVD-Audio player lacks the bass-management capabilities to play DVD-Audio discs properly on a subwoofer/satellite system. Until hardware manufacturers address this issue, you'll need five full-range speakers if you want to hear exactly what's on a DVD-Audio disc.)

For accurate soundstage reproduction and image placement, it's essential that you time align the speakers so that the sounds from all of them arrive at your ears at the same time. Enter the distance of each speaker from your listening position, and the receiver will automatically set the correct time delay.

Balancing speaker levels is also easy. As your receiver sends test tones to each speaker, use a sound-level meter to measure the volume. (A few receivers come with measuring devices, but you can buy a meter at RadioShack if yours doesn't have one.) Stand behind the listening position and hold the meter at the position of the listener's head, with the microphone pointed toward the ceiling so that the sound from the speakers passes over it. Adjust the level settings for each speaker, using the receiver's remote control, until they're all at the same volume with the test tones. Note: You can not do this accurately by ear.

Well, if you've carefully followed all of the steps above, you may now prepare to be amazed even astonished at how much more realistic your home entertainment system sounds. Great sonic performance is in the details, and a great speaker setup will take your system to a level of sonic quality you might not have thought possible. Happy listening! S&V

Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman

While not perfect Chapman's vocals are a little too bright and the bass too prominent this recording is excellent for quickly and reliably determining differences in speaker setups.
Eric Clapton

A superb, clear, detailed, wideband recording featuring many acoustic instruments and hits like "Tears in Heaven" and "Layla."
Art Davis
A Time Remembered

An exceptionally natural, direct-to-two-track purist audiophile recording that sounds as if the musicians (including Herbie Hancock) are in the room in front of you.
Michael Hedges

This CD of mostly acoustic guitar, accompanied by occasional bass, vocals, and percussion, has astonishing clarity, resolution, transient response, and dynamic range.
Bireli Lagrene
Blue Eyes

Phenomenal presence, dynamics, and punch along with exceptional resolution. Oh, yeah Lagrene is an unbelievable guitarist, and he's brilliantly recorded here.
Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 24 Eugene Istomin/Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz

Heavenly music, sumptuously recorded. If this CD doesn't sound lush, sweet, seductive, and spatially expansive, your speakers just aren't set up right or you have a big problem with the rest of your system.
George Strait
Chill of an Early Fall

Solid country music from one of the genre's most solid performers, with tracks like "If I Know Me" and "Chill of an Early Fall" that feature Strait's warm, complex voice and richly detailed instrumentation.

These music DVDs are better suited for checking out your surround sound system than almost any movie soundtrack.

The Will Smith Music Video Collection

This'll give a workout to your surround speakers as well as test the system's overall bass response. The mix comes to life with direct-radiating surround speakers placed at ear level.
James Taylor
Live at the Beacon Theater
Various Artists
VH1 Divas Live/99

Front-stage vocals such as on these DVDs are more telling than movie dialogue when it comes to the tonal quality and placement of a center-channel speaker.
Vienna Philharmonic
New Year's Concert 2000

This program of waltzes and polkas sounds extraordinarily realistic when speaker levels are correctly balanced, especially with dipole surrounds placed above ear level.

(Originally published in: Sound & Vision, May 2001)

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