If we only knew

June 9, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

There are few things in stereo reproduction as important as setup: how well your speakers are positioned, how accepting your room is, the choices you’ve made in placement.

I can’t count the number of times I have been able to wring a higher level of performance from what was thought to be a mediocre group of products by simply rearranging the setup. Or, how often folks reject a new product because it doesn’t fit into an already established concoction of kit.

If we only knew the importance of setup we would get far more benefit out of the electronics, cables, and speakers that grace our homes.

One of the problems we have is believing our setups are perfect for a given space when what’s actually true is they are optimized for the components that make them up at the time of installation and subsequent tweaks.

Change a component, change the setup.

If we only knew the true value of the setup we’d likely be making far different choices.

The next time you try a new piece in your system’s puzzle, consider the setup.

It may be the single most critical component in your chain.

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26 comments on “If we only knew”

  1. I consider this true mainly for speaker choices only.

    If you found the best place for your speakers, repositioning them just for frontend or amp component choices (which can make sense tonality-wise) means major compromises in imaging imo.

    1. I agree that for speakers it’s a must…for other audio gear I’m still skeptical. But it could be true for example if a new component gives you a wider and deeper soundstage. Then maybe it’s worth exploring speaker position once more. A newbie friend of mine experienced first hand the importance of speaker placement when I repositioned them for him in his living room. He has a big fireplace cheminy made of rectangular cut granite and it sticks out about 3 feet from the wall. His speakeres were set-up on either side of this column at about 18 inches from the wall. I proceeded to bring out the speakers 6 feet from the back wall. It didn’t look too bad since this room is large. After doing this, we played the same tune as when they were positioned before, and he went WOW. Before it sounded like mono, now it sounded like stereo. I tweaked the toe in until the image sounded about right and he was amazed on how much difference all this made.

      1. The mental block many high end audio system consumers have with adjustments made to speaker positioning and placement of room furniture is, it does not cost anything.

        How can anything of value or significance result from not spending money?

  2. There is a brand of speakers called Horning that are generally considered fantastic if they are positioned very carefully and you don’t flinch a muscle from the required position. There are plenty of speakers that are really quite accommodating and the manufacturer provides instructions as to how best to position them. The choice must be made in the context of domestic constraints. Make the right choice at this point and as far as I’m concerned 90% of the work is done.

    After that, there is an exponential relationship between the number of boxes/cables and the time wasted chopping and changing. I only have four main components (all-in-one box, server, turntable, speakers). Recently I set my objectives as low electrical noise and isolation from my bouncy floor. I found having these specific limited objectives was far more sensible than trying to squeeze incremental gains from changing from one expensive component to a more expensive one with no idea of the consequences. I found that choices became entirely what the product does rather than how much it costs. So isolation was a mix of relatively expensive Townshend products and very cheap acoustic foam. The most expensive was the power cabling and distribution block. The cheapest a couple of screws and a pair of old shoelaces to hang the speaker cables off the back wall and keep them off the floor.

    That said, no amount of tweaking will fix a server that has a poor power supply. An external power supply may benefit a simple device like a switch, but not a piece of complex electronics with multiple different power demands. You can’t always turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

  3. “If we only knew” the exact setup and speaker placement Paul McGowan used to voice his new lines of loudspeakers we would be able to decide if they would reveal also their full potential in our own listening rooms! 😉

  4. Paul,
    Once you have an accepting room and speakers placed correctly…. Should speakers be moved for each and every component swap in / out?

    Do you move the “V’s” every time you try a new Dac or operating system? Or have they become a fixed reference until all the BHK electronics have been upgraded or changed?

      1. So if I have true line source speakers above 400 Hz and placement is as good as I can get it…..

        Then is it fair to assume that components can be swapped with minimal, if any, speaker movement for direct comparison?

  5. If we only knew what factors of the sounds we hear create the illusion of distance and direction we would design sound systems entirely differently placing the speakers up against a wall to benefit from the bass reinforcement that position gives, using the reflections of the room and modifying the signal to recreate those factors and enlarging the location in the room where these effects are audible, even if the system could not duplicate concert hall acoustics. But we don’t. So trial and error is the best we can do with what knowledge we do have and the kinds of systems audiophiles build.

    The current method says adapt the room by modifying its acoustics, get the speakers into a position where the room acoustics have the least influence on what you hear, and hope that the recording has certain inherent elements in it that create the desired effect. The alternative is to engineer the system to adjust itself to the room and to add those elements into the signal to the degree they aren’t present to get the same result or better.

  6. Off topic.
    This is your power grid. This is also what happened to the one in the Northeast region of North America in November 1965 due to loss of a single transformer in Niagara New York and again in August of 2003 due to loss of a single feeder cable in Ohio. It’s also some power distribution schemes in mission critical data centers where money was more important than reliability and why I was happy to leave a job as an engineering director. At least for data centers we can do much better than that and we can engineer other things to be far less vulnerable to this kind of failure by overbuilding to be fault tolerant. Still It’s fun to watch…. when it’s only dominoes.


    1. I have fond memories of both blackouts. Our neighborhood became as quiet as off-grid in Acadia National Park where I used to summer and we could see the Milky Way. We got out the camp stove for dinner and lived briefly in the time before electricity, and it felt really good.

      In between I built a couple of Faraday cages, spent a lot of time high in the Rockies, dove 100 feet beneath the sea and sailed 500 miles offshore. All these experiences disconnected from RFI were a different mental state.

      I look forward to a time when we replace RF wireless communications with optical or at least shielded cables and use high efficiency electronics with DC PhotoVoltaic power distribution. 5G is headed in the wrong direction, transmitters everywhere. RFI disrupts neural circuits.

  7. The best upgrade you can make to any system, IMHO, is a bottle of ear wax remover. I cleaned out my ears two days ago, and this 68 year old can now detect pitch changes up tp 12200kHz, and detect the presence of sound, but without pitch recognition, up to 12400kHz. Not bad for a guy my age!! But I bet doing the same would benefit you youngins too.

  8. Great Topic, Paul!

    “If We Only Knew”…If I only knew 3 years ago what I know now [simple wiring upgrades, full LP/HP separation, toe-out, monitor time-alignment, best room treatments & speaker placements], then I could have been enjoying my music listening room for longer with much greater satisfaction!!

    However, the steady journey has been enlightening, educational and productive. Believe now I can really appreciate the incremental improvements of each of the small-stepped actions that cumulatively, has transformed and transcended my current setup’s “LIVE” experience!! 🙂

  9. You must be reading my mind, Paul.

    I have suffered from having too much junk, stored in plastic tubs in my listening room. Once I made peace with the realization that most of what I was keeping in those tubs should have been thrown away years ago, I embarked upon my current project–to clean up the sound by the elimination of so many reflectors and absorbers. Indeed most of the crap in the tubs had taken a life on its own, and there was no reason to keep most of it.

    The tubs dictated speaker placement, which was never even close to proper. As I shovel out the mess, I have noticed the progressive improvement in sound. And I am anxious for the time next week when my Advents will get moved, and the sub-woofer properly placed. Two chairs, a Persian rug in the “sweet spot”, and a room free of clutter and stacked plastic tubes should be an eye-opening experience.

    Truly, an “affordable” solution measured in the cost of construction rubbish sized trash bags, and my time and labor.

    1. I find that filling a room with acoustically appropriate furniture and stored objects is better than any commercial acoustic treatments.

      My office is stacked to the ceiling with shelving full of recordings, recording gear, books, and musical instruments. The floor plan is aisles shaped like an E with five rows of shelves, most of the wall area is covered by irregular shapes so it is like being inside a full spectrum diffuser. Between the diffusion and bass leaks, there are zero audible modes.

      Plastic tubs are sub-optimal. Mineral filled polypro woofer cones can be done well, but not rectangular storage bins.

  10. Quite true specially if music is played loud. Music played softly requires less room treatment if at all because there is little reflected sound. This is why small rooms need a lot more room treatment as compared to much larger rooms depending on the volume at which music is played. How loud the music is played becomes very important. Take an optimally treated room and play the music much louder than it was played when the room was treated. The treatment will become inadequate. The size of the room plays a very important role too. Large speakers in a small room overpower the room much more easily than small speakers because of the amount of air moved. Regards.

    1. Acoustics tend to be highly linear at listening levels below the threshold of pain. If you experience a difference in acoustic percept with volume, it is an artifact. It is likely that at lower volumes the reflections are masked by the background noise, and secondarily they fall off the loudness curve.

      Compounding factors are in your hearing. If you live in an urban or suburban environment, the noise pollution will raise your threshold of hearing and you will never learn to hear low level echoes. Human hearing is capable of extracting echoes from a 20dB noise to signal ratio. When you know what waveform to expect from the leading edge of the direct sound, you can learn to correlate the echo waveforms- BUT ONLY if you hear consistent, coherent acoustic sound sources in consistent acoustics with low background noise during childhood.

      We tend to be much better at decoding speech in noisy, reverberant environments (Cocktail Party Effect) because we all grow up listening to people speaking in the room for hours a day. OTOH few people hear acoustic music daily during their development years, and loudspeakers are evolved to scramble off-axis phase so their echoes in the room are not coherent.

      If you can’t hear the effects of room treatments at low volumes, the indication is check your noise floor, replace your speakers with ones that have flat frequency and phase response at all angles and get a concert subscription.

  11. “The mental block many high end audio system consumers have with adjustments made to speaker positioning and placement of room furniture is, it does not cost anything.”

    Yes—I continue to struggle mentally with the fact that my 2-1/2 most substantial audio purchases in the last several years have amounted to about $150 total:

    • Jim Smith’s “Get Better Sound” book and DVDs: $60

    • UMIK-1 measurement microphone: <$100

    • Room EQ Wizard (aka “REW”) software: free

    Also very beneficial as a learning tool was the $200 MiniDSP 2×4 HD, which allows crossover configurations to be manipulated easily and almost infinitely.

    I was like a guy who buys a new car every year or two; now I’m a guy more likely to open the hood. And as I’ve slowly absorbed this information, everything about my audio system—and thus the musical enjoyment it brings—has improved. My only regret is the thought of how much gear, which “didn’t work for me,” would have worked if only I had been up to working it.

    1. I did the same about 4 years ago (although I bought a usb microphone form my local pro store for about $65) and found my speakers were very accommodating as regards placement, as longs they were about a foot from the wall and toed in at least 10 degrees. I found that whereas most rooms have bass peaks that MiniDSP units can tame, I had a small dropout around 80-100Hz. Taming peaks is OK, but boosting dropouts is not clever.

      Personally, the best thing I ever did was move the stereo from firing down the room to across the room. That cost nothing.

      I can’t accept the idea that changing any component would lead to having to move the speakers. I must admit this post by Paul, like many others, is a bit like a horoscope – you can read into it what you want. A few specific examples including diagnosis and solution would be nice.

      1. WRT the idea that one might reposition speakers in response to a source component or amplifier change, the first post after Paul’s is especially noteworthy: tone and imaging (at the really precise, pinpoint end of the spectrum) often seem to work against each other, forcing a compromise in speaker positioning (separation distance, toe-in, etc.). And as every compromise in a highly resolving audio system hangs in a delicate balance, a change in circumstances upstream could (should) inspire a change — or at least reassessment and confirmation — of circumstances downstream.

        1. “Pin-point imaging” is an audio delusion that is produced in response to your ears “breaking in” to artifacts of the speaker cepstrum, polar frequency and phase responses and sub-optimal room acoustics. This is why it is so sensitive to minor changes like toe-in, preamp, cables,etc. and why audiophiles argue more than they agree about which systems possess it.

          The most consensus about soundstaging depth, width and height is that they come from speakers with small, sharp edged baffles that inherently have measurable and audible temporo-spatial distortion from edge diffraction. Then there are people that prefer electrostats or planars because their ears are broken in to them instead. But again, it is the flaws in the projected sound waves that produce the perception of space in a brain that is starved for REAL stereo.

          Consider that 99% of all recordings use the FAKE stereo of pan pots on mono tracks. Look at even live recordings of orchestras and the stage is usually littered with mono spot mics feeding dozens of separate recording tracks. Real stereo is best approximated by a single pair of microphones direct to your speaker pair – mixing is spatial distortion.

          Think about a violinist playing a solo or cadenza – the violin moves and typically sweeps fairly large angles for expression, much more than toe-in criticality. Does the aural image of that violinist shift around the stage? HA! NO! QED.

  12. Sure enough. But since when is a firmware within-version update call for a change of setup like a component change? That is, how do you explain Directstream users with 3.0.6 needing to test a wide variety of cables to find one that hides that firmware version’s treble emphasis?

  13. So true. The room and speaker placement have enormous changes in what we hear, much more then swapping out a component. Adding a new component will never improve the sound as much as proper positioning of the speakers within a room.

    Move the V’s? Is someone talking about their Vandersteens?

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