Or how to set up speakers
Did you ever experience a situation where the loudspeakers that sounded so great in distributor’s showroom after you bought them and placed them in your room sounded as if they were broken? If you did, almost certainly the reason for that was the acoustics of your listening room, and perhaps also the way you set up your speakers. Let me tell you how to avoid such situations.
A LOUDSPEAKERS SETUP in a room is a key element, equally important as a selection of the other system components. Below you will find some simple tips that will help you squeeze the most of your speakers. Most of these activities do not require spending a penny, some will cost you a bit.
When testing the Xiavan Perla Exclusiva speakers I spent a lot of time on activities that Wilson Audio calls fine-tuning. Not that Xavians require such action. It is exactly the opposite – these speakers are extremely “forgiving”, that perform very well even in acoustically challenging rooms and placed in quite a random place. I was so motivated to move, change, adjusted their setup because these loudspeakers sounded very well from the very beginning but with each small change in their setup they sounded better and better.
I would like to pass on my enthusiasm to you and awake your curiosity. Even though many of them are very minor adjustments, the result can be staggering. Everything I will write about are really basic things, it’s not some secret knowledge. Perhaps, however, properly systematized and presented in a slightly different, simplest possible way, it will turn into hours spent by you listening to music, sitting in front of the loudspeakers that you thought you knew very well.
First, the room
The loudspeakers create a two-part system with the room, and these two elements cooperate with each other for good and for bad. Therefore, the sound of the speakers depends on the distance between them, from the walls and from us, the listeners. All dimensions of the room are important, as well as what is located in this room. We have no influence on the dimensions of the room—unless we experience an in-flow of cash and can build a separate room or so-called room inside a room. I assume, however, that in your life, same as in my, money flows rather away than in…
In any case, the room is a given. However, you can adopt it to your needs. The point is to find a way to absorb sound wave reflections in a reasonable way wherever it is needed, and in other spots to diffuse them. The standard room correction rules for stereo systems (note: there are different requirements for home cinema systems) tell is to absorb the sound on the wall behind the system and to diffuse the sound waves on the sides of speakers and behind the place where listener sits.
To check the acoustics of the room, first select some mono recording, then a stereo one with an expansive space. Mono track could be one of Sinatra’s from one of the early albums, and stereo track say from Vangelis Blade Runner (Atlantic Records/Audio Fidelity AFZ 154, “Limited Edition | No. 2398”, SACD/CD, 1998/2013).
In real life, it’s much better to diffuse sound as much as possible, and the absorption may be somewhat smaller. Moreover, to achieve proper absorption and diffusion one does not have to use egg boxes, and our room does not have to remind you of a teenager’s room from the 1990s. on the one hand, or a professional recording studio on the other; neither extreme solution usually works best. You can use book shelves filled with books, magazines, knick-knacks, flowers. You can also use discreetly arranged, professional elements to change the acoustics, but I would treat them as something extra.
One should use a carpet on the floor. Floor covering is also OK, but it’s good to have various surfaces, i.e. some wood, and a bit of carpet. In sophisticated systems, the ceiling is often adapted, or at least part of its surface where the first reflection of the sound wave bounces of, the entrance door is damped and the windows are masked.
The Pylon Audio and Fezz Audio system during Audio Video Show 2018. Notice the diffusing elements in the middle, behind the speakers, and some absorbing/diffusing ones on the sides.
Several times I also saw absorbing elements, small rectangles, placed on the floor in front of the speakers. Do you remember the treatment of the Nautilus room in the Tulip Hotel last year, the one with a suspended ceiling? The result was incredibly positive! This, however, is an extreme solution—not necessarily something all music lovers can use.
Regardless of what you decide, go with one most important feature: you need to feel good in this room, otherwise even the best acoustic treatment will not make sense.
Now, speakers in the room
Let’s assume that we have prepared a room, without changing it into a man’s cave that no one else has access to. If this is the case, if nobody else feels good there, you should re-consider your choices. In any case, we did what we could with the room. Now you need to place speakers in it. Although it may seem that you can do whatever you want in this respect, real life proves that this phase of the process is subject to almost as many limitations as changing the dimensions of the room. Most often—though not always—we live among other people (families). The speakers are then the most hated element of the room’s decor. They do not fit aesthetically, they are always in a way, they introduce some chaos to the room, meaning something that others (read: partners) have no control over.
And so the loudspeakers very often end up placed very close to the wall, and their setup is dictated by the size of a TV set’s rack/stand, or some other piece of furniture. You need to try to negotiate, to introduce small changes, achieve some sort of compromise in something else, because it’s worth it. The speakers should generally be set up so that they are not closer to the back wall than—and it is still asking for trouble with the bass; about 20 cm. This is the absolute minimum and you need to fight for it as if your life depended on it. However, it is best if the a distance from the wall is between 40 to 90 cm, counting from their rear panel It will result in a much deeper and more accurate sound stage, that is, how the instruments themselves and the accompanying acoustics and effects are presented.
Also bass performance will improve. The perception of low sounds depends on the place where the speakers are placed, so you should move them in 5 centimeters steps to find a spot where the bass is least excited (boomy), but still dense and extended. In genera, the farther away from the walls, the lighter the bass is, but also the clearer, the closer to the wall, the more bass is there, but it gets slower. Usually, you need to find a compromise.
Where you sit is equally important, or how far you sit from the wall behind you. The principle is similar to speaker set up and the worst variant is the one that is the most common one, that is, when the sofa/chair we sit in is placed against the wall. In a sense, it’s as if we were placed the speakers against the wall. Ideally, the listening position would be at least 50 cm from the wall behind us.
For this phase, I suggest choosing recordings with low tones playing a key role. As for classical music we can choose Bach, it always works, however, there two other even better albums for this purpose: Verdi, Choruses, preferably on the XRCD24 version from Lasting Impression Music (Decca / Lasting Impression Music LIM XR24 018, XRCD24, 1964/2007) and Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra (I propose the version with Herbert Karajan from 1983: Deutsche Grammophon / Polydor KK POCG-9357, “Gold Karajan,” Gold-CD, 1984/1993). Electronic music will be greatly represented by Aquavoice with their Silence album, and popular music by Starboy from the The Weeknd.
In both cases—i.e. in the realistic and optimistic variant—it is worth to use some treatment on it. I use Vicoustic panels, which look like a natural decoration, and not like acoustics treatment. However, other option that will work well too are always bookshelves and or shelves with CDs. In general, any uneven surface, diffusing elements are welcome.
Placing speakers apart
We’ve already discussed basic issues. In addition to setting the speakers on the listening axis, we need to take care about their distance from side walls. The farther away from them the better and one should consider some 30-40 cm being the minimum distance. It is important that the distances from the wall behind speakers and from the side walls differ from each other! Whenever possible, the acoustic surroundings of both speakers should be the same, that is, that both speakers should be placed at a similar distance from the side walls.
However, this may be another “mission impossible,” and even in my case this condition has not been met—the left speaker is placed near the side wall, and the right one has an empty space next to it. This causes a slight tonal imbalance and a stronger sound coming from the left speaker. I got used to the former, and I correct the latter by moving the right speaker closer to the listening position by about 5 cm. This is not an ideal solution, but rather a compromise between what would be perfect and what real life allows me to do, a quite good compromise I might add.
Also in this phase, one should have a mono recording handy. But stereo one will work equally well, as long as it features a small number of instruments. I propose two CDs: Close-Up. Vol.1, Love Songs (Amanuensis Productions | Cooking Vinyl COCKCD521, CD, 2014) and Peter, Paul and Mary, In The Wind (Warner Bros. Records/Audio Fidelity AFZ 181, “Limited Edition | No. 0115,” SACD/CD, 1963/2014).
Also the way of space presentation is changed. Crossing the axes in front of us, that is, toeing the speakers in, we improve the sound focus and instruments placement— everything is then more accurate and more “visible.” But at the same time we close the soundstage between the speakers, i.e. it goes far into terms of depth, but it is narrower. It can be remedied by placing the speakers 50-60 cm wider apart. If the axes cross far behind us, the soundstage will expand, but it will also be “blown out”, i.e. precision of instruments placement will be much lesser.
Using the second method one tilts speakers vertically backwards. This can be achieved adjusting the spikes (front ones should be longer). Even a 1 cm tilt results in a tonal change—for sweeter and more pleasant one. In this way, we reduce the amount of sounds reflected from the floor, and—surprisingly we often—also improve phase alignment of the drivers. The first method works best with speakers with narrow front baffles, and the second one with virtually any type of design.
After taking care of a room, setup and setting speakers apart it’s time for fine-tuning.
So we have reached a moment when at first glance everything is as it should be—room is acoustically reasonably well prepared, speakers are set in such a way that they do not cause family feuds, and we are sitting at a good distance both from the speakers and the wall behind us. This is, of course, a fairy tale, a utopia, but let it be. I assume, however, that we like the sound, we are satisfied with it and we are love to listen to music. In a word; we are in a good place.
And only now can we proceed with fine-tuning. It’s a procedure consisting of small changes in the speakers positioning and in what they are placed on. When setting up speakers relative to each other and to the walls, we tried to do it properly and accurately. Now we can do it even more accurately and methodically.
Spikes and spacers
Let’s start with elements that many people forget about—spikes and spacers used under them. I’d like to begin with these elements because one should start the process from them.
Simplest possible spacers, usually delivered in a set with spikes by loudspeakers manufacturer
Manufacturers supply speakers and stands for speakers together with a set of spikes we should place them on. Most often these are the cheapest spikes available, and same goes for the spacers. The latter are usually too small to make sense. The simplest change we can make is replacing the spacers. There are a lot of different products available on the market, but I would like to recommend three of them. The first ones are small spacers made by the Japanese company fo.Q (Carbon Spacer CS-01). They are made of carbon fiber. In the center they feature a hole, so it will be easy to place spikes on them.
The second option are Acoustic Revive SPU-8 spacers, made of brass, and the particular alloy was selected to achieve certain sound modification. They do not look great, but they deliver in really big changes to the sound—try them yourself, you’ll be surprised. And it’s best to try them with the CPU-4 pads made by the same company. These were made of “active” material, i.e. piezoelectric, designed at the University of Tokyo. On the one hand, they help the feet not to slip, and on the other they calm the sound a bit.
Acoustic Revive SPU-8 spacers
Let’s listen to the changes that these elements introduce to the sound using the disc with high resolution sound (I mean the sound quality, not the signal parameters during the recording). If you want to use classical music, I recommend the Falla’s The Three Cornered Hat (Decca / Esoteric ESLP-10003, “Master Sound Works. Limited Edition,” SACD / CD, 1961/2008), if jazz is your thing use Jazz at the Pawnshop. Vol. I, II & III by Arne Domnérus (Proprius / Lasting Impression Music LIM UHD 071 LE, 3 x UltraHD CD + DVD, 1976/2012), and a pop proposal; Histoire de melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg (Mercury Records / Universal Music France 277 825 3, “Deluxe Edition” 2 x CD + DVD, 1971/2011).
And there is yet another manufacturer of this type of accessories—the Korean company HiFistay. In addition to the feet for electronic components we tested, they also offer outstanding, brilliantly made spike spacers in the Ballerino Souleir series. Have a look at their website (HERE) to see what professionals have to offer. However, such quality costs a lot, and although all previous spacer are not cheap either, these cost as much as small stand-mount speakers.
You can also choose a solution from a completely different category—instead of a spike + spacer system you can use anti-vibration feet that as a coupling element use not a spike, but a ceramic ball (less frequently a metal one). Such feet are manufactured by recently reactivated German company finite elemente, as well as by Polish firms: Franc Audio Accessories with their Ceramic Disc Fat Foot and Ceramic Disc Slim Foot and Pro Audio Bono with their model called Ceramic 7 SN. There is also a variation combining a spike and lossy elements, like the the Kepler feet from Divine Acoustic.
The Pro Audio Bono Ceramic 7 SN feet with Acoustic Revive CPU-4 underneath; this is probably a coincident, but they do feature the same diameter.
Now it’s time to move speakers closer and further away from us—first one of them, then the second one. Do it in 1 cm increments. Move one of the speakers by this distance and sit down to listen to two or three tracks. Start with a vocal recording, because our hearing is most sensitive to the voice. While listening pay attention to the fact whether the voice is exactly in the middle between the speakers and whether it is full, that is, has a good definition and is properly rich. It should be large, but located somewhat behind the line connecting the speakers.
Let me recommend the Chet Baker’s Baker’s Holiday on SACD from 2004, it’s a great release (Chet Baker, Baker’s Holiday, Limelight Records/Verve Records B0003279-16, SACD/CD, 1965/2004).
Move one of the speakers until you find a spot where all these elements will come together without impairing spatial aspect of the presentation. The big band accompanying Baker should be spread on stage and placed rather behind the vocalist. We choose the depth of the soundstage and its width by toeing the speakers in or out—this time use as small as 5 mm increments. It’s a painstaking process, but you will see that you will find spots where everything will suddenly “click” and the performance will simple be better than before.
Leveling | The elements of the setup that is often omitted is the leveling of the speakers. This should not be a very critical aspect of the setup, because the room introduces changes a few orders larger, but—just like with setup—even small improvements accumulate into something that cannot be otherwise achieved. Get a small spirit level and precisely level one speaker first, in both axes, and then the other one. When it is done repeat the fine-setup again—this time it will go much faster.
MICRO-MACRO, or a summary
Now you can surely see, that nothing I described is a revelation, everything should be already known. However if you find and of my tips helpful it will make me happy. I also hope that it will inspire you to perform your own independent experiments. Do not diminish the impact of small steps, because although each of them is really small, together they can give you an effect that some achieve by spending much more money.
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Images: Wojciech Pacuła