Audio system setup is, I feel, as much an art as a science. I suppose one school of thought would insist that there’s only one way to get it “right,” like blueprinting a racing car engine, where every single part is dialed in to the exact manufacturing tolerances specified by the blueprints in order to yield optimum performance.
But, and especially since listening to our stereos is so often a solitary pursuit, I’m going to go with the perhaps unorthodox idea that the system is right when it sounds right to you.
But how do you know when your system is “right,” especially if you have limited experience in audio setup and your gear has limitations? What works for me is this: I have to get the setup wrong before I know I’ve gotten it right.
I can’t tell if, say, speaker placement or VTA or the spot where my listening chair is located is correct unless I can hear when things are clearly wrong first. Maybe wildly wrong.
Zen and the Art of Speaker Placement
In my opinion, speaker placement is by far the most important part of audio system setup. Pardon my Captain Obviousness but if you don’t get this right, your system will never sound its best.
But, and Dr. Floyd Toole and Dr. Sean Olive and other extremely well-respected speaker designers may yell at me for this (or maybe agree), I’m going to throw this out there. Perhaps there’s no such thing as perfect speaker placement. That’s because speaker placement involves compromises between bass response, soundstaging and stereo imaging, interactions with your room, listening position and those pesky real-world considerations like the size of your room, and its furnishings. The placement where you get the best bass may not be the best for soundstage, and so on.
I start with the speakers roughly where I think they should be and then move them far enough apart until I hear a “hole in the middle,” where the speakers sound like two separate sound sources rather than creating a seamless spread. Then I move them to where I think they’re right. Then I move them even closer together to where they start to lose the stereo effect. Then, apart again to where they should be.
In fact, this is the general principle in “getting it wrong”: by trial and error, find out the wrong placements, or settings, or other relevant parameters, note them, and use them as guideposts to avoid.
On to optimizing the bass response, which I do by moving the speakers closer together or further out from the wall. Thing is, this can affect soundstaging and imaging – and the placement where you get the best bass may not yield the best soundstage. Unless you’re blessed with a perfect room, you will likely have to compromise. Then, experiment with toe-in (the angle the speakers are pointed at the listening position).
I’ve seen some setup guides that insist that the speakers must be toed-in towards the listener. I’ve seen others equally insistent the speakers must be aimed straight out, with no toe-in. Which is right? You decide!
When I first started at The Absolute Sound, I made it a point to visit as many reviewers’ houses as possible to check out their setups. It was more a learning process for me than The Editor on High coming to bless their systems. One reviewer had those big MartinLogan CLS electrostatic loudspeakers – and they were toed out! When I asked him about this he said he’d spent a year setting up his speakers and, trust him, this was the optimum positioning. Getting it wrong to get it right.
Pay attention to tilt angle, the angle of the speakers from vertical. Most of the time you’ll be good with the speakers at vertical (or at their pre-set tilted position, like the Magnepan .7)...but try tilting them back and see what happens. Sometimes it improves image focus and tonal balance. Although, there are limits to wrongness...I’ve never heard a system sound better with the speakers angled forward. (And would you want to sit and listen with a pair of Infinity IRS V or Magico M6s leaning down towards you?) Finally, experiment with the position of your listening chair or couch. It matters. A lot. (I get really good bass response in the bathroom but I don't do a lot of listening there.)
The game has changed somewhat with the advent of DSP (digital signal processing) as applied to loudspeakers. DSP can correct for in-room frequency response anomalies (like areas of bass cancellation and reinforcement) and other issues. But as of now most people don't have speakers with DSP.
So if there’s no absolute “right” when it comes to speaker placement (and again, I might get savaged for this but I’m going to posit it anyway) how do you know when they’re optimized? When the tonal balance is right and the speakers disappear, and the sound is well-balanced, seamless and involving. It is a balancing act.
Those of you with exclusively digital front ends can skip this part – or read it and be glad you don’t have to go through these gyrations. In most cases, with tonearm/cartridge setup, getting the VTA (vertical tracking angle) and relatedly, SRA (stylus rake angle, or angle of the stylus to the record) right is absolutely critical. Too high, and the sound is too bright and thin; too low and it’s too bassy and indistinct. When it’s right, everything snaps into focus, and not just the tonal balance.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few with measuring instruments or have a dealer or friend who can provide expert setup, you’re going to have to do this by eye and ear. And dang, an optimum (generally recommended) SRA of 92 degrees can be hard to see, although if your vision is good enough you can see it with the naked eye. (I’m legally blind without glasses and ripe for cataract surgery but I can still see deviations from a perpendicular 90-degree SRA.) Conventional wisdom says start with the cartridge exactly parallel to the record and then go up and down, and/or follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. I do it by listening at vertical at first, and then going way up and down from parallel and hearing what it sounds like. Like, stupidly off. Then gradually narrowing in and “seesawing” until I hit the right spot.
Here’s an example. The cartridge I use in my main system now, a Grado, sounds best at about 2 degrees below parallel. 2 degrees looks like the back is way too far down, and ordinarily you might not even be inclined to go there. But there’s no question this is the absolute, unquestionable right spot in my system. Don’t have a protractor? You can print one out from the internet. And your ears are accurate evaluation tools.
Same deal for tracking force. Cartridge manufacturers typically have recommended stylus force settings. So how the heck are you supposed to know the optimum setting in your rig? Right, go back and forth from too much to too little, wrong to wrong to...ahhhhh. Even setting the anti-skating can be a “thing.” Conventional wisdom says set it to match the tracking force – but there are those who say no anti-skating is the best. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Sensing a theme here?
Of course, you’ve now set the VTA/SRA right for that particular record. Since different records have different thicknesses, the VTA/SRA will be wrong for some of them. And if you have multiple copies of a record you like to use for setting VTA, use the same particular record every time! Different pressings can sound different – just ask Tom Port of Better Records or anyone who’s been doing this for a while. (Noooo...how much is that Qobuz subscription?)
Good and Bad Vibes
After the fundamentals of a system are taken care of, including cable selection (I'll get to that) the next step is to typically tweak the system or better performance through the use of vibration isolation or dampening devices, such as speaker spikes and cones or elastomer discs that go under equipment. The idea is to eliminate unwanted vibrations that can “blur” or defocus the sound, either by routing the vibrations away from the components (spikes and cones) or dissipating them (dampening devices).
However, there are those including the late Art Dudley who opined that such devices robbed audio systems of their “life” and excitement and that it might be wrong to use them. So...will your system sound more accurate due to vibration control, or will it sound more pleasingly colored without such products, or is vibration control taking all the "color" and liveliness out of your rig, or does any of this make a darn bit of difference? You be the judge.
For the record, I’ve tried any manner of these devices and other tweaks, and they’ve worked, sometimes dramatically. Other times, as in the famous episode of The Twilight Zone: “No change! No change at all!”
I’ve found that speaker cables and interconnects can make a difference in sound quality, especially in a high-resolution audio system. (The reasons why, or why not, are the subject of another article. And for the record, cable manufacturer Audience is one of my clients.) Conventional wisdom opines that cables should add no character of their own and just happily pass audio signals along. Also, that the best results are obtained with sticking to one manufacturer’s brands for the entire system. The reality is that cables can add a sonic signature, interacting differently with different combinations of components and speakers.
But I confess – I’ve mixed and matched cable brands within a system, mostly to use them as “tone controls” to roll off or brighten up a system. I’ve even taken the devil-may-care risk of installing cables in the wrong direction! This can be an endless rabbit hole. Just look at the color of my hair.
As I mentioned in Issue 108, “Confessions of a Setup Man: You’re Grounded!” I’ve tried system grounding techniques that were conventionally wrong. And I'm not recommending any of them. But, they worked. Hey, I’ve been doing this for so long I have nothing to hide when it comes to my audio system setup experiences.
In wiring up a system, correct system polarity should be observed. (See J.I. Agnew's article on observing correct polarity in vinyl mastering in this issue.) That is, the speaker terminals should always go positive to positive, negative to negative, or else bass and imaging will suffer. (Unless your preamp inverts polarity, like my Audible Illusions Modulus 3. Then you have to flop the speaker connections at one end only.) However, some records have their polarity reversed, perhaps the most famous example being XTC’s Skylarking. At first, people wondered why it sounded so awful. The mistake (in the mastering of the record) was later discovered and corrected in subsequent pressings. Sometimes wrong is just wrong.
To further complicate matters, many multitrack recordings were done with the recording mics having different polarities from each other. Some preamps have a handy polarity reversal switch for just this reason. Either that, or you can do what the late Enid Lumley, still the undisputed queen of audio tweaks, used to do – note the polarity of each record in your collection and flip the speaker terminals accordingly.
There are still some things I haven’t tried, like deliberately selectively torquing speaker mounting screws (an idea that popped into my head the last time I tightened them), or putting toilet paper over tweeters to tame their highs. Oh wait. I’ve done that. More than once. I even experimented with the number of sheets. Yes, I know, my speakers aren’t the only things in my household with screws loose.
I keep an open mind. Because when you get your system right, everything locks in and it transforms from a mere collection of appliances to a magical time travel machine that puts the performers into the room with you and blurs the line between reproduction and reality.
To paraphrase Luther Ingram: if loving that is wrong, I don’t want to be right.