Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, Location

Written by Russ Welton

Over here in the UK there is a common phrase heard that “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” That may well be true for some. Yet, something that is truly significant for all of us, is where we live. This is determined by so many factors and we do our best with whatever restraints have been imposed upon us, and exercise our permissible freedoms when and where we can.

We attribute relative value to the location of where our home is. Sometimes you hear it said by realtors that the three most important things to consider when buying or renting a property are location, location and…you guessed it, location.

And this holds true to a large degree in our home hi-fi set ups. The location of where we seat ourselves and set up our speakers can have a profound effect on our listening experience and the value we place on what we hear. For me, listening to music is like spending time with life-long friends and enjoying their company. The transportive effect is like going home, or to familiar places, ones that we are able to summon up and touch base with in a reassuring way. Perhaps this is more important than ever before for our well-being and mental stimulation.

Eikon IMAGE1 system.

To that end, given that we as individuals are more localised than ever before because of pandemic restrictions, I have set about reappraising my hi-fi system. The intention is to really get the best out of what it has to offer and liberate it by adjusting acoustics here and there, tweaking tweeters, badgering my bass and cajoling connections to optimal effect.  Yes, it’s true that speaker positioning and location are just a component part of the acoustic presentation, but here we have some scope for control and tailoring our tone that can be truly rewarding to us as active listeners rather than simply passive hearers. Let’s make our music captivating, enthralling and more engaging.

Now before I pay heed to the complaints that “I just don’t have any room to play with,” or, “my speakers can’t go anywhere else,” both of which I completely sympathise with, let’s ask ourselves a few questions.

When was the last time you read the speaker manufacturer’s recommended positioning instructions in their manual? Be honest now. Was it…never? You may be more conscientious than I’m giving you credit for, and for that I apologise, (like a Brit). But the reason I mention this, is simply that you may be pleasantly surprised by what you read. I say maybe because perhaps their recommendations may compound some of the restrictions you have to work with if the recommendations suggest you place the speakers yet further into the room.

On the other hand, the opposite may be true. It may be the case that it actually gives you the opportunity to improve your soundstage, and/or open the room to achieve a fuller sonic presentation and overall better result, if the manual suggests your speakers are more optimally designed to be placed closer to the rear wall and/or closer to each other than they currently are. Find out for certain. And you may have more flexibility than you thought.

Often one of the limitations of speaker placement is their footprint. After all, speakers have to occupy physical spots on the ground. Speaking of the ground, is it the case that your speakers are the type that should be stand-mounted but are literally placed on the floor? This may seem like an extreme example to Copper readers but I’ve seen it. If you or a significant other insist they have to be on the floor, (or you want to keep pets from knocking the speakers over), will they take spikes? This may allow you to adjust the angle and tip the speaker back a few degrees, allowing the drivers and especially the tweeter to direct the sound upwards toward the spot where you listen rather than into the sofa.

In some cases, tilting speakers back can yield sonic improvement.

Speakers that are designed to be placed on stands really should be, though. This literally puts them on a pedestal and transforms their projection into something close to, or how the speaker designer intended them to be used. Granted, you may have to take into account a slightly larger footprint for the base of the stand, but sometimes the footprint may in fact be smaller. A tip which is known to veteran audiophiles but may be new to others is that many speaker’s stands can be mass-loaded, meaning, filled with an appropriate medium such as sand or a dedicated product like Atacama Atabites. In addition to the fact that you may find the stand and speakers are physically more stable than before, your bass response should be tighter. Making the stands sturdier will result in less speaker cabinet vibration and resonance along with improved definition of musical details. You could call it a more “planted” or “reinforced” sound.

Atacama Atabites, inert filler for speaker stands. Atacama Atabites, inert filler for speaker stands.
If your speakers are floorstanding towers, do you find that the tweeter height is not at the same height as your ear level? (Meaning, the height of your ears above the floor.) If not, can you adjust the height of your speaker to more accurately match the height of your ears when you are sitting in your primary listening seat? Most towers have a degree of height adjustment, which may help improve the on-axis signal directivity toward your chosen listening position.
Having the tweeters at or close to ear level is desirable. Courtesy of Audio Den, Nesconset, NY. Having the tweeters at or close to ear level is desirable. Courtesy of Audio Den, Nesconset, NY.

When looking around hi-fi stores with the plan of listening to, and potentially purchasing new speakers, I have found it surprising how many floorstanding speakers simply don’t design for the tweeter to be at ear level – or even close to it. We are all physically different, but the design brief for some of these models may more readily account for aesthetics and visual appeal over sonic perfection, or manufacturing budget restraints as opposed to achieving the best high-frequency directivity possible. Being conscious of this means we can accommodate for it to some degree and if we own such a speaker, hopefully minimise the compromise in design.

Do you own a multichannel home theater or music system? If so, the placement of the surround speakers shouldn’t be an afterthought. If possible, and you’re not restricted to putting the surround speakers on stands or elsewhere, it’s advantageous to mount the speakers on the wall, two or three feet above your listening position. Doing this can help to reduce the localising effect of the sound and make for a more immersive and natural listening experience. You have the added bonus of opening up more floor space and getting around your room more easily without bumping into your coffee table or treading on poor Fido’s tail yet again.

Look sharp: adjustable speaker spikes, a favorite of audiophiles everywhere.

It’s good to have a goal. What are you hoping to achieve from your audio system? To help answer that question it may be good to reflect on the type of sound you know you like to hear. What are your tastes in music and what will most sympathetically lend itself to enhancing those characteristics? Do you love a flatter tone for jazz, a mid-scooped tone for rock and metal, a super dynamic range for orchestral music or perhaps a vocal richness in your singer songwriter albums? Think of these tonal characteristics simply as a reference point for your future EQ shaping.

Perfect “accuracy” or “neutrality” in sonic reproduction may not be your goal because of what you prefer to hear. When I was younger, I personally had a penchant for a brighter and more trebly tone, which was not to everyone’s taste. As I got older, I appreciated more warmth and rounded out midrange while keeping undesirable boxiness at bay. Although we don’t possess the sound engineer’s actual ears, we do have our own personal preferences and tonal tastes.

Rather than being lost at sea, crystallising your references by identifying what you like in specific recordings will really help you in establishing your sonic bearings and the direction you want to go. You then have something to aim for when improving your sound rather than blindly making adjustments to “optimise” your tone in the hope of overall betterment. There’s a lot you can do to EQ your sound. And remember, the speaker designer has already done a lot of this work for you.

In our next installment we’ll look more at how we can best set up our speaker locations and make them “disappear” sonically. As long as we’re somewhat or largely confined to our homes these days, let’s maximise our opportunity to get the most out of our music listening.

Tilting speakers back can work for guitar amps too! A Marshall 4 x 12-inch speaker cabinet with the top two speakers angled.

Header image courtesy of Audio Den.

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