An Experiment in Speaker Placement

For a host of reasons – WAF, the placement of the cable box, the ability to walk through the room, and my desire to have my system someplace where it’s integrated with our home life, as opposed to be locked in a dedicated room – my system and speaker placement has never been ideal.

My room is 15x18 and ordinarily all of the gear is on one long wall with my listening chair backed against the opposing wall which leaves my head too far from the speakers. In general it leaves the system sounding ok on image width, but very flat and one dimensional front to back.

It sounds good, and of course I listen to it that way all the time, but I’ve been really curious to see if there was a better room setup.

A friend had e-mailed me the Cardas website, which among other useful information has a section on proper speaker placement ( which includes how to calculate your distances from side and rear walls, as well as where to put your chair, so I thought I’d give this a spin.

My wife graciously agreed to vacate the family room for the weekend, let me store the sofa in the kitchen, and make a pile of everything else in the corner so I could play with this.

And now it’s set up. How does it sound?

Well, for starters, all the essential qualities of my system are still there. The speakers have the same basic sonic quality and bass extension, the amp has the same clarity and the CDP has the same level of detail. All of which are good things.

The differences though are real and important, and I’ll say right now, beneficial.

To begin with, the scale of music is greatly improved. Image sizes actually approximate what they might sound like in a hall or club. They’re bigger and more appropriate to the music. A good example is Ahmad Jamal’s new record, ‘A Quiet Time’. If you haven’t heard this record, it’s among the best piano recordings I’ve heard in a while. It really does a great job of capturing the size, and particularly the weight of the instrument, and with the room set up this way the size of the instrument sounds remarkably close to what a real piano in the room would sound like.

Second, the speakers really disappear. Spendor S8s are good at this trick in most settings, including the way my room is normally set up, but the transformation seems particularly complete this way. Listening to Oscar Peterson meets Roy Hargrove and Ralph Moore there is nothing that seems to be emanating directly from either speaker. An adjustment in toe-in – pointing the speakers directly at the listening position – really locked the images into place across the width of the soundstage.

Which leave us with the final dimension: soundstage depth.

I would love to be able to say that I’ve acquired the ability to clearly estimate how many feet behind the saxophone the drummer is sitting, but I can’t. It’s not that obvious. Certain recordings that are known for their natural stage depth do in fact exhibit those qualities well. Alain Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi leaves the big kick drum well receded on the stage – not exaggerating it – but certainly making it more obvious. Another favorite for stage depth, Clifford Jordan’s Live at Ethel’s also exhibited good depth, however, unexpectedly, the entire sound stage, including the lead tenor horn sounded a bit back from the plane of the front of the speakers.

I think because the speakers are closer together than I usually have them, some recordings that sometimes seem overly baffled between instruments also seem to have a more natural presentation. Shelly Manne and His Men Play Peter Gunn – a personal favorite, fantastic recording and terrific performance from the early days of stereo on the Contemporary Label – sounds much more naturally organized.

But back to the depth question: yes, in certain passages instruments sound more properly receded that they do in my normal setup – pianos behind horns, etc. – but its much more subtle than that. With the instruments sized properly, with appropriate scale and weight, recordings that have room reverberations and depth exhibit them naturally. Those that don’t have those effects don’t suddenly sprout them. But the scale itself leads to a sound that has a more physically realistic, three dimensional quality. It sounds great!

My only complaint? Eventually my wife is going to come back downstairs and tomorrow I’ll have to put everything back where it works best for the household. But I’m going to enjoy it for a few hours first.
As mentioned by others, the room is everything. If you have not read Floyd Toole's book 'Sound reproduction' please do so. It will help you 'see' what your are hearing and offer some solutions. Also, take some measurements using some of the free soft ware that can be down loaded from the web. Putting an 'echo buster' behind your listening position would be a good first step. Sometimes the WAF can be accommodated by using room treatments only when you are actually listening. Look into the Acoustic Revive/Furutech stuff. As always, the 'final solution' is to get a dedicated listening room that can be solely engineered to best sound.
I have resorted to placing the sofa cushions against the wall behind the speakers to dampen resonances on occasion, but eventually someone wants to actually SIT on the couch.
Ahh, so she acceded to your idea. Well, that IS a different story, especially if your room has so many issues. Can't fault her there. Room treatments, as mentioned by others here, may be the way to a great compromise. Rives Audio will do an entire design set up for you. I haven't used them yet, but I likely will check them out in the near future. They've really done some neat stuff, you can see it on their website, and some people have had them do work in their virtual systems that are posted on AudiogoN. Have a look!
You can read books to give yourself a basic knowledge, but there is nothing like trial and error.
Also, with all of the recommendations for room treatment remember furniture and window treatments are room treatment too.
If you need to buy a commercial room treatment keep in mind ASC ( Acoustic Sciences Corp) makes the best products for Recording Studios, High End Audio, Home Theater, Soundproofing, Church Acoustics, Classroom Acoustics and the list goes on. I think they know what they are doing.
I have been using their products for years and I am thoroughly satisfied.