How to listen to speakers

Now don’t get snarky. The truth is most of you are listening to improperly set-up speaker systems in one or more egregious ways, such as:

  1. The space saver: Both speakers on one side of a computer monitor, facing the listener.
  2. The tall stack: One speaker on top of the other. One facing toward the left and the other toward the right.
  3. The empty shelf: Speakers placed on whatever empty space is available on a book shelf. Usually not horizontally aligned, and not evenly spaced in relation to the listener.
  4. The well intentioned: Two speakers on an entertainment unit, evenly spaced but usually too wide or too narrow for a good stereo image.
  5. The who gives a…..: Putting speakers in any given place, like opposite walls or corners of a room.

Now you are saying: “Okay wise guy, where should I put them?” Either that or thinking of telling me where I should stick my own, but after this, I guarantee most of you will want to run out and purchase your own audiophile grade speaker systems, and will never want to listen to headphones again.

The listening Room and Reflections

Before I get into the placement of the speakers, the first thing to consider when enjoying music is the room itself. The sound of the room is every bit as important as the sound of the speakers. Recording engineers know this, and would not advocate for a musician or groups of musicians to record in a small or inappropriate environment. Mastering engineers use specially tuned environments to minimize the sound of the room and diffuse or absorb the wall reflections as the sound bounces from flat surface to flat surface.

Not everyone can spend time, effort, and money building a high end listening room, but there are a few tricks one can use to maximize the experience.

  1. Listen facing the short wall: If the room is rectangular (hopefully it is not square, which is the worst possible sounding room shape) you should face and place the speakers along one of the shorter walls. The idea is that the first reflection is the strongest, and you want to minimize that as much as possible by making the rear wall as far away as possible.

  2. Walls and corners are not your friends: Speakers like open spaces. Try as much as possible to place the speakers as far away from a wall as you are able. The area behind or to the side of a speaker system is extremely volatile and will warp the sound by creating a pressure zone. Think of cupping your hands over your ears, and how that changes the sound, never for the better. Similarly, you should never place speakers inside a book shelf or any enclosed environment. The bookshelf will act as a resonator and amplify certain frequencies that only correspond to the closed space.

  3. Diffuse and Absorb: Now in studios, we use special products called 1 or 2 dimensional Quadratic Residue diffusors and materials designed specifically for audio frequency absorption. But that may not be practical to purchase for your living room. Diffusors break up the direct reflections, delay certain frequencies and disperse them randomly. Absorbers affect mostly high frequencies and inhibit their ability to reflect.

    What can you use? For diffusion, the most obvious down and dirty device is a bookshelf, filled with many different sized books and trinkets to break up sound waves. The most common place to put a diffusor is the rear wall (or the ceiling above the listening position, but that doesn’t seem practical in this case now does it?). Results may vary, but it is better than nothing.

    For absorption, you can take your pick. Heavy curtains, a plush couch, a thick rug or all of the above. A great idea is to stick some sound absorbing material on the front wall behind the speakers, the side walls, and in all the corners of the room. The idea is not to completely dry out the room, but to remove the effects a flat, hard surface has on the reflective sound.

The Speakers and the Listener

Now to the topic at hand. Where you sit in relation to the speakers is critical for the experience. The most common speaker angle is 30 degrees off center. This is the standard developed during the earliest days of stereo recording, and is what the great Tonmeisters used to develop stereo microphone patterns and techniques to create an accurate soundscape.

The easiest way to set it up is to imagine an equilateral triangle; the speakers being two points in the triangle and the listener the third. This is the ideal position. The speakers may or may not need to be angled toward the listener. That depends on the diffusion characteristics of the speaker’s tweeter. It if is too directional, there may be a very small “sweet spot” and you will need to focus the speakers on a smaller point. If you are the only person who will be enjoying the music, angle them toward you and enjoy. If not, put the speakers closer to parallel and find a good compromise for all the listeners.

The tweeter (the smallest driver) should be at approximately ear level, or at least pointing directly at the listener. It is the most directional of the drivers which may or may not include a mid-range as well as a woofer.

Try as much as you can not to have any objects between yourself and the speakers, this included oversized coffee tables. Any flat, reflective surface will negatively impact the sound.

The Speakers Themselves

Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny computer cones to massive multi driver arrays. Most people should look into something in a midsize design, with two or three drivers. In many cases, the right speaker will negate the need for a subwoofer, which 9 times out of 10 only serves to add rumble for movie special effects, and are completely inappropriate for music. Adequate subwoofers for music production cannot be found in you standard 5.1 surround kit. The problem is, most tiny speaker systems have inadequate low frequency strength to reach the bottom two octaves in acoustic music.

The woofer size will ultimately determine the bass response of the system. Don’t be fooled by advertising that claims by those mini systems makers (I won’t use real brand names, so let’s just call them “Dose”). Small speakers cannot reproduce bass adequately. Here is a breakdown of common woofer sizes.

<= 1 inch: You will such tiny speakers in portable devices such as smart phones and laptops. As you are well aware, they are completely inadequate for listening to music in any context. 1 inch is the most common size for tweeters.

2-3 inch: This is the most common small speaker size that you will find in cheap computer speakers and even some “high end” marketed “Dose” mini speakers. Some are even considered “full-range” drivers, meaning they are design to replace both the tweeter and woofer. The problem with this is the frequency response is usually ragged, distortion is high, and the low frequencies are almost non-existent, requiring a subwoofer to complete the setup. These are fine for media systems, but not great for serious music listening.

4-5 inch: Some of the best full-range designs are in this size, but the same problems arise in the frequency response. In conjunction with a tweeter, many 5 inch designs make for great near field monitors. Near field means close to the listener. If you plan to listen to speakers only at your computer, this is the size you should be contemplating. A lack of low frequencies might be prevalent, so you still may need to consider a sub.

6-7 inch: AKA the “audiophile” speaker. For some reason, this is the magic number for low distortion, and good clarity. It allows for a relatively low frequency point in a tweeter crossover, which is ideal, and if the speaker cabinet is designed well, the low frequencies can reach in the area of 30Hz with good strength. 6 ½” is the most common size in high end designs, and are available in all budgets.

8 inch: A favorite in studio monitor designs. No subwoofer needed. There is a sacrifice in upper midrange response, as the tweeter crossover range may be too high for the driver to accommodate smoothly. In most cases the added low frequencies are not enough to justify the tradeoffs from using a 6 ½- 7 inch system. 8 inch designs are really only considered audiophile grade if used with a dedicated mid-range driver.

10-15 inch: This speaker size is only appropriate in subwoofers and high powered 3-way loudspeaker systems.

Speaker Designs

The Box

The Drivers

Baffle Angles

Since the depth of the driver will be offset between a shallow tweeter and a large woofer, there is a possibility of vertical phase delay between drivers. Some active, or powered, crossovers can address this issue by implementing phase correction, though many passive speakers will be physically designed to vertically align the speaker drivers, either by angling the front baffle, or recessing the tweeter until the drivers line up. Some near-field monitors will even be designed with a horizontal tweeter placement in relation to the woofer, the added distance of the tweeter offsetting the added depth of the woofer. This is of minimal importance in most cases, but is a nice design touch if you can find it.

Behind the scenes

To state the obvious, not all speakers are created equally. The cone material, the magnet size and the construction are vital to a good speaker system. Tweeters are made from various materials from mineral fibers, to ceramics, aluminum, and even precious metals such as beryllium. Woofers are either made from paper or other pulps to Kevlar and Aluminum. The idea is to maintain as much stiffness as possible while allowing the greatest linear frequency range. The best test of a good speaker is simply the listening test. Avoid small woofers, cheap brands, and design gimmicks. A good speaker will not have awkwardly placed/rear facing drivers or complicated baffle designs. Also remember, like any fine instrument, the best speakers will have a settling or “Burn-in” period. Long hours of moderate level music will make them sound even better.