Getting centered

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As part of my promised occasional setup tips, I thought it might be good to go to step two in system setup, where we focus on the phantom center image. Remembering that the goal for proper stereo imaging is two fold: the loudspeakers should disappear and the phantom stage is always behind the loudspeakers,we should then get started using our Rule of Thirds procedure. Position the speakers so they form a perfect equilateral triangle, with your listening position the third point in the triangle. This means if you are 8 feet away from the speakers, then they should be 8 feet apart and slightly angled in towards your listening position (but never closer than 3 feet from each sidewall). Do not use spikes or tiptoes at this point. Make sure there is no room correction devices in play. I always start with a simple female vocalist of which I have several. I set the volume to the exact level necessary to make sure her voice isn't too big or too small. What I listen for is a perfect, palpable image placed approximately halfway between the rear wall and the loudspeakers. It should be three dimensional and floating perfectly in space as if it were a holographic image. If the voice is diffuse or too wide, toe in the loudspeakers (point them towards you at an angle) a degree at a time until she pops into focus. If she is not well behind the loudspeakers, move the speakers away from the rear wall a bit to increase depth. If the tonal characteristic of her voice is thin (without lower midbass), move the left and right speakers closer together until you get just the right tonal balance (the closer the speakers are together, the better midbass coupling you get from the speakers). Be careful not to go too close because the size of the soundstage will get too small. Moving the speakers closer to the rear wall will improve bass and fulness but decrease stage depth. Find the perfect balance. If she sounds bright, too one-dimensional or too low in height, tip the loudspeakers back about the same distance as a CD case thickness (hint: use a CD case to slip under the front for now). Add more cases till you get it right. Once she is perfect, then move up to more complex music with a good center image. I use a Diana Krall piece that has drums, bass, piano and the singer. Repeat the above tips until the group sounds correct. Keep moving up to larger pieces, making minor adjustments to balance the presentation, finally going back to the original piece making sure you haven't lost any ground. When you get it right, the imaging extends beyond the room and certainly the loudspeakers themselves on the right piece. My final check for everything correct is almost always one of Keith Johnson's Reference Recordings. They are a perfect reference. Get that right and everything else falls into place. This setup process is fundamental and I go back to it every single time I setup any system, even an existing system that has gotten out of tune. It's a wonderfully great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
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Paul McGowan

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