One of the most overlooked aspects of a two-channel hi-fi system, or a multi-channel surround sound system is speaker placement. If you happen to be lucky enough to have a dedicated listening or theater room, getting the best sound will be easier. While it’s always sexier to talk about buying a new amplifier, a phono preamp, or another component, a little time moving your speakers will yield huge results. But we’re guessing most of you have your living room to use as a listening room, so we’ll help you tweak things accordingly.

We’ll put our emphasis on setting up a pair of speakers in a traditional two-channel system for now. These principles apply to a surround sound system, but this is a different listening experience and works with more speakers. Because most surround/home theater systems usually use some kind of sound processor in their central core, precise speaker placement isn’t quite as critical as it is in a two-channel setup.

Even a nice set of bookshelf speakers can bring out the best in your hi-fi system if placed right.

Regardless of your listening area, achieving a great listening experience isn’t out of your reach. You may have heard some talk about acoustics. Most records, movies, and game soundtracks are produced in some kind of recording studio environment with calibrated speakers and careful attention to acoustic detail. More often than not, the engineer’s sweet spot is at a console sitting close to a pair of monitor speakers, or perhaps even headphones.

We’ll concentrate on your room a bit, then move on to deciding if you have the right speakers. Also, think about where your listening position will be – is it flexible enough to move with where the speakers need to be placed? Or do you have limited flexibility?

Our biggest goal, whether we are dealing with stereo speakers, or surround sound speakers is recreating a sonic space that feels as close to the real thing as possible. “Soundstage” is a very common audiophile term referring to how wide the apparent image, or field of sound the speakers in front of you create.

Bass is the Place

If you’ve ever been to a large venue to see a concert, in addition to the high sound pressure levels created, the low frequencies (i.e. the bass) are pretty massive. You can only bend physics so far, the smaller the room, the less bass you can generate in it because those sound waves are big in comparison to the midrange that makes up the human vocal range and high frequencies you find with stringed instruments, cymbals, and the like.

Those of you that have been to a music festival may have noticed that the sound quality is usually a lot better than indoor venues. This is because outside, there are no walls to deal with, bouncing the sound around. The more sound bounces around, the more definition you lose in the listening environment. Reflected sound is a real problem when trying to reach optimum speaker placement.

There are a number of different approaches to get great sound quality in a room. One good way to strike a balance between the front wall, back wall, and side walls is to start with your speakers in an equilateral triangle placement between the speakers and your listening chair, or couch. If you can, place your speakers an equal distance apart, and then an equal distance to your listening chair from the tweeter.

Ear level and speaker height are vital to getting the most of your audio system at home.

Floorstanding speakers are almost always built so that the tweeter will be close to the height of your ears when you are listening. Bookshelf or monitor speakers require speaker stands, so if possible, choose stands that will achieve the same thing. Get those tweeters as close to ear height as possible. If you just can’t do this, make sure your speakers have adjustable feet or spikes that will allow you to tip them back slightly.

Regardless of whether you have floor-standing speakers or stand-mounted speakers, the best place to start is to optimize your speaker setup for the best bass response in the room. Before we begin, let’s double-check one thing – phase. It’s important that when the music signal makes it to your speakers the speaker cones in both loudspeakers move in and out together. If one moves in while the other moves out, there will be a cancellation effect and you’ll barely get any bass at all!

This is easy to check. If you look at the back of your amplifier and speakers, you’ll notice red and black connections, or binding posts (black is – and red is +). Most speaker cables have leads on the end with red and black. Just make sure everything is red to red and black to black all the way through and you’re good to go.

Back to the triangle. Get your favorite bass-heavy track ready to go, whether streaming or playing from your turntable, so you can really hear what your speakers are doing. Start with your speakers about six feet apart and about three feet out from the back wall. Move them closer to the wall until the bass is too prominent and overpowering, then come back out from the wall until it sounds “just right” to you. You want plenty of extension and weight, but not boom. Next, move the speakers further apart until the stereo image breaks up into distinct left and right. Again, bring them back in just a bit.

Fine-tuning Your Speaker Placement

speaker placement

Experimenting with the toe-in will maximize the mid-range and treble response. You can spend a lot or a little bit of time here. The more effort you put in, the bigger and broader the soundstage will feel. If your speakers or speaker stands have adjustable feet (and/or spikes) this is where you can really fine-tune the sound by adjusting the backward tilt, or rake of the speakers.

The quickest way to hear this effect is by moving your head up and down from your normal listening position, paying close attention to the treble. If things sound open and clearer, moving away from your normal listening position, you will either have to adjust the feet so the speaker tilts up ever so slightly or perhaps even a bit forward. Nearly almost always, a little bit of rearward tilt will be all you need.

At a certain point in all this, you’ll notice that the actual feeling of sound coming from two boxes disappears, and you feel a lot closer to the music. That’s when you know your work is done.

Do you Need a Subwoofer?

Short answer: You need a subwoofer. If you require more bass, and have the room, adding a subwoofer (or two, or six) will dramatically extend the frequency response of your system and offer up bass that you truly can feel.

Subwoofers can go just about anywhere in your listening space, as the deepest bass frequencies are not directional. Typically, for best results, placing a subwoofer in the room’s corner, or slightly off-center in the middle of a room will give the best results. This gets a bit more complicated with multiple subwoofers, but again, you can’t go wrong with corner placement.

Nearly all subwoofers have a crossover control, to determine where the subwoofer kicks in, and level control. The key to a proper subwoofer placement is to achieve a seamless blend with your main speakers. That way, it doesn’t just sound like boomy bass coming from a cube in the corner. Again, you know you have it right when you just have deeper, more extended bass. We will cover the subwoofer setup in detail in a future article.

What About Multi-Channel Speaker Placement?

multichannel speaker placement

If you have a multi-channel theater system, just break it down to optimizing the front channels, then doing the same for the rear pair. However, movie soundtracks place a lot of critical dialog and “height” information through the center channel. Try and place the center channel speaker as close to the physical center of the room, and as close to directly under the screen as possible. Check out this Sonus faber guide on different types of speaker setups.

A little time spent on a lazy afternoon optimizing speaker placement will yield great results. You might be surprised at how much more musical information is locked inside the grooves of your vinyl records or in the digital stream of your favorite song that can be revealed with solid speaker placement.