Getting started

May 9, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

We all want better sound but where do you start if you’re not getting all you hope for?

If imaging or tonal balance is off, do you work with the speakers or the electronics? If your speakers aren’t disappearing or the music is presented in your lap rather than on a proper soundstage, do you tweak setup or change cables?

It is difficult to know where in any complex system to start.

My advice has always been simple (though often not very satisfying).

At the beginning.

It may seem obvious to some, but if you don’t have the basics of setup: AC power, room tweaks, and speaker placement then every effort at improvement is more a Band-Aid than a fix.

I have helped countless audiophiles get a handle on their systems by pulling their attention away from the tweaks and back to the basics.

Getting the fundamentals right—especially the initial speaker and listening position—is critical to every system.

Getting started on fixing weakness when you haven’t first addressed the basics is like trying to shore up a teetering house with chewing gum and baling wire.

Fundamentals first.

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9 comments on “Getting started”

  1. That’s most logical & trivial: start at the beginning. But the beginning is found in the recording process and the fundamental basic of 2-channel audio is to feed the ears with the signal of the 2-channel microphone. The most logical consequence: cancel the inherent inter-loudspeaker crosstalk (two (!) loudspeakers create the sound of a single (!) sound source (voice, instrument)) producing unwanted comb-filter effects! As acuvox always has explained: the normal stereo-listener is trained & accustomed to the specific stereo-sound that he doesn’t notice these effects anymore.

  2. It’s hard to get to get the fundamental basics correct before you have something to listen to.

    Unless you’re building a residence around a predesigned listening room, the best you can do is some calculations on optimal seating and speaker placement, as a starting point. Even then don’t count on them being ‘spot on’ just a rough starting point.

    The only way to know about your AC and whether it is ‘clean enough’ to start with, is to either hire a consultant to measure under real world load conditions or pay the price for a power plant(s) big enough to run what you hope to someday have.

    So we’re back to the chicken and egg scenario, or in some cases the cart before the horse. You can’t improve on a sound system you don’t have yet. If starting from scratch and building a system pieces at a time, then starting with the biggest power plant (or 2 or 3 of them since you don’t know what you’ll end up with down the road) may not be the most logical 1st choice.

    Going all out on room design and theoretical placement initially doesn’t equate to great initial sound either.

    So I think it becomes a derivative process based on where one is at in their audio journey, and where they want the journey to end.

    Equipment, Mains AC, room & placement…. Put them in the order that makes sense to you and jump on and off the carrousel when ever you want.

    1. I meant to use iterative process instead of derivative – apparently Apple knows better than me.
      BTW… What’s the definition for a ‘proper soundstage’?

  3. It’s really true, it’s complicated. Usually we find ourselves with houses already built, so the first step is to look for a place that can be geometrically suitable and proportionate to the size of the speakers. It must subsequently be made not very reflective from an acoustic point of view. It starts from there. Then from the positioning of the speakers, perhaps, as Cardas said, forming a “golden triangle” between the listening point and the speakers. this is the starting point. Then everything else …

  4. I guess at least 90% of us have houses that were built and do not have a designed listening room. What piece of gear depends the most on room placement. Obviously the speakers, so you start there. You go to your computer, you start with Power Point ( or whatever Mac people use in place of it ) and make a floor plan diagram ( be sure to have a grid on ) and then after reading a few articles on speaker placement ( I think you can find one in Paul’s book ) you play around with speaker placement using Power Point.

    Once you have a good idea where the speakers go put the real speakers there ( have one or two friends help you if the speakers are really heavy ) and make small adjustments until you get them dialed-in.

    Here are some additional thoughts on how to get started:

    Better speakers often come with casters that can be used to position them and then switched out when you think they are in the right spot.

    If you have spent more than ~$10K on your speakers the dealer you bought them from should install them, be sure this is part of the deal.

    Sometimes you will not have to worry about where the speakers go. If you have a high WAF then your spouse ( or your significant other ) will decide where the speakers go.

    1. In addition to WAF, there is also CRF (cat resistance factor). I had already seen my floor-standing speaker falling when a cat jumped out of it … And suddenly I knew – the speaker must be screwed to something solid (large bookcase). And this solves any position tuning. I was lucky – I still managed to achieve the “disappearance” of the speakers and WAF also improved with the switch to smaller speakers + SB.

  5. Good cables and speaker positioning are a must. But then you work your way back starting with the speakers amplification and source components. All very important. What might be the least important still needs to be adequate or acceptable.

  6. In the beginning
    There was this turtle
    And he was all alone
    And he looked out
    And saw his neighbor
    Who was his mother
    And he climbed on top of neighbor
    And lo, she bore him in tears
    An oak tree
    Which grew all day
    And then fell over
    Like a bridge
    And underneath the bridge
    There came a catfish
    And he was very big
    And he was walking
    And he was the biggest that he had seen
    And such were the fiery balls of this fish
    One of which was the sun
    And the other they called the moon . . .
    — The Firesign Theatre (1971)

    Or words to that effect, I’m pulling this up from increasing glitchy memory.

  7. Lying and misleading are two different things. I remember amplifier advertising from the past, back in the last century, aimed at potential novice new customers. Back when 100 watts per channel was a magical, gold bar there were eye catching, bold type statements in advertisements that said, “100 WATTS PER CHANNEL”. But, down in the fine print for the specs was the power listings with the ohms of resistance and levels of distortion. The amp could produce 100 watts per channel at a very low ohm level. With the 100 watts came high distortion. Sometimes they used ‘peak’ power that could only be reached for a split second but not maintained for any length of time. It was not an outright lie but it was a misleading advertising statement.

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