Good speaker placement is one of the cheapest upgrades you can make to your system and something that you can really benefit from spending a little time on. No two pairs of speakers are exactly the same in terms of what works best but there are some basic guidelines you can follow.
The first is simple enough. Are your speakers jammed up against the wall? If so, they really shouldn’t be. A very small number of speakers are designed with a view to being used this way (and if they are, you will almost certainly know about it already) but the vast majority are not. Place them too close to a wall (often referred to in manuals as a ‘boundary’) and their bass response will be boomy and uncontrolled. Generally, the larger the speaker, the further away from the wall it should be placed but a very simple rule of thumb is that at least 30 centimetres should be left between a speaker and a wall.
For speakers to create a good stereo image, they need to be a reasonable distance apart. But what’s reasonable? This depends on the size of your speakers, their distance from your listening position and the size of the room but a good place to start is two metres apart. Try to have a listening position that is roughly equidistant between the two speakers and at such a distance that you can draw an equilateral triangle with one line between the speakers and the point extending out to you. It is unlikely that any conventional pair of speakers will sound bad if you do this – certainly there may be some further improvements possible but pretty much every speaker will deliver a believable stereo image with this arrangement.
Good old Pythagorus
If your listening position makes the triangle a little flatter than equilateral, or if the speakers are further than two metres apart, you may find that putting some toe-in on the speakers improves the sound. Angling the speakers to fire inwards can result in a more precise central image. Results of toe-in are very dependent on the speaker, if in doubt, check with your dealer or the manufacturer for their thoughts or, better still, do some experimenting. Around 10 percent toe-in is a good place to start.
Having placed your speakers on the correct axis, it will be equally beneficial to ensure they are at the right height. Once again, this will vary depending on a number of factors, some of which are within your control and some which aren’t. Start with your tweeters at roughly the same height as your ears when you settle down to listen. As with the two metre rule, this is simply a good starting point to work from. Even more so than toe-in and overall placement, there is some variation in what height various speakers work best at and personal preference plays an important part. Some large speakers will have their tweeter above ear height whether you like it or not and, unless you use a beanbag for your listening chair, some very small ones will always be below. Work on the principle that this will almost certainly have been taken into account by the designers.
The lesson here is that there is no single perfect 'hot take' that applies perfectly to every speaker but there are some basic guidelines that can be adapted to almost any situation. Furthermore, it will never hurt to experiment with your own speakers in your own room because there will be variables that are specific to your system and your space.
Soundstage in action
Dead Can Dance Rakim.
All versions of Rakim are incredible but the live version that opens the Toward the Within album is truly astonishing. Place your speakers correctly and the venue and performers simply come alive as if you have a front row seat.
My Baby Love Dance
This is described as a ‘live’ album but it’s actually the band (the best band you’ve never heard of incidentally) playing together in a studio. With decent speaker placement, the energy of this performance and the location of the bandmates becomes completely self-explanatory. (Main image)
Talk Talk The Rainbow
The opening to one of the greatest albums of all time is a masterpiece of tone, subtlety and restraint. Naturally, the effort that went into its stereo image is no less obsessive and it can sound almost enveloping when your speakers are located correctly.