The rule of thirds

August 9, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Rules are made to be broken and I cannot think of a better one to break than that of the Rule of Thirds.

When that rule is applied to loudspeaker setup it calls for the room to be broken up into thirds: 1/3 of the room’s longest dimension away from the front wall is where we place the speakers. That same measurement, as applied to the rear wall is where we place our seat.

What’s important to remember with this rule is that it is only a starting point. I don’t think that I have ever found a well set up system that actually adhered to the Rule of Thirds.

What this rule does, however, is emphasize the point so many of us seem to ignore. The importance of bringing the speakers out into the room.

Pushed up against the front wall, the stereo system hasn’t a chance of forming what I consider to be an acceptable soundstage.

Rules are made to be broken but only if they first serve as a starting point to which we pay attention.

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46 comments on “The rule of thirds”

  1. Is this endless shifting of loudspeakers also that troublesome for near-field listening set-up, Paul, compared to the far-field listening you are obviously referring to in order to get that “magic” (is that “soundstage” what you call magic???) – a loudspeaker designed for near-field set-up available of course? As far as I know this rule of thirds works quite good for near-field listening when the speakers are placed at the short wall and the distance between listener and the rear wall is much greater than the listening distance.

    1. Maybe I am just being thick this morning, Paul. I am not really focusing in on what you’re asking. The “magic” I always refer to is, indeed, a proper 3D soundstage. I call it magic because most people strive for it but rarely achieve it.

      Near field listening that I am familiar with is being within a few feet of the speakers and doesn’t really matter much as to room (which is the point of nearfield listening).

  2. Vale Olivia Newton-John (1948-2022)
    “Down by the banks of the Ohio”
    My God that’s 2 renown Aussie female singers who bit the dust this week.

    It is just a starting point, like starting a room with the golden ratio dimensions
    & working around that.
    When I had my exquisite holographic 3D home-audio rig back in the 1990’s I
    found that the ‘one third’ from my head to the back wall was not so important
    …it ended up being only about one foot.
    As always YMMV ✌

    1. She had me at Xanadu…” “…RIP Sweet Olivia!

      Like FR had, have achieved an amazing “Huge 3D Holographic Soundstage”. The sweet spot is just 12″ from the back listening wall (dampened end), stand monitors are 2ft from both front wall corners (live end) with natural room diffraction structures lining both side walls (component rack is on left side wall)! In this intimate dedicated 9ft x 10ft music room (11ft ceiling), I really have very little other options, but this stereo room Can sound expansive as a large cathedral or orchestral venue (genre/recording dependent)!!

      TigerFox anyone?!?

  3. Some speakers are designed to be placed close to the wall. I have a pair of speakers that has a great soundstage placed up against the wall, they have crosstalk cancelling.

    1. Crosstalk cancellation (XTC) is an absolute must for getting great soundstage! Even tiny stereo loudspeakers as they are embedded in a notebook or in those Bluetooth loudspeakers FoxL from Soundmatters will then create a jaw dropping soundstage when XTC is activated in the player SW.

  4. If I stuck to the rule of thirds, it would inevitably develop into the rule of half’s.
    Half for me and half for my newly ex wife.
    This is the rule to break. Others may disagree of course!

  5. I call it the rule of odd fractions, to minimize peaks. My speakers ended up long ago at 1/5 the room length while obeying the golden dimension to the side walls. Haven’t had to move them since.

  6. Seems to me that the things being stated as a rule (especially in audio) really turn out to be good starting points. The rule should be pick a starting point from one of the various ‘rules’ -then start working from there to find what sounds best to you with your equipment in that environment. Where and how far you go from there is up to you.

  7. The thirds rule just emphasizes the need for room behind the speakers and the listener. The relationship between the listener and the speakers is very dependent on many other factors. The main two being the dimensions of the room and the material on the walls, floor & ceiling. A rectangle with around 300 square feet is a good room to me. (14×22 with 10 foot ceiling) A lot more or less presents challenges.

    1. I am perplexed as to how a larger room presents problems. I have a 30′ x 28′ x 11′ room, however, the boundaries ( the walls and ceiling ) have many irregularities. I have never found the rule of thirds to work. I started with where I wanted the listening position, next with the equilateral triangle, after some adjustment it became an isosceles triangle ( 9′ x 11′ x 11′ ) and finally a bit of toe in. In a large room you forget about the boundaries, they are too far away to play much of a role.

      1. I don’t think I said there were problems. I think I said it is more challenging. A bigger room needs speakers and amplification that can manage the volume. There is a certain level of sound pressure required to get the “feeling” of a true presentation of the soundstage. Just my opinion. My speaker and listening position make an isosceles triangle 7x7x9.

        1. You are certainly write about bigger speakers and more power to handle the volume. I took me a while to learn that lesson. I assume you are using more toe in than I am.

      2. Tony, my room average width, average depth and average ceiling height is about the same as yours, and the walls and ceiling planes have varied angles. Rather than placing the speakers 1/3 out into the living room I get great imaging and uniform bass with the face of the speakers about 4 feet from the front wall, and the listening position about 14 feet from the front wall. But in other much smaller rooms my speakers have imaged great only 2-1/2 feet from the front wall. The speaker design has a lot to do with how sensitive they are to placement.

  8. I’ve heard of this rule before but haven’t figured this out:

    I have a 1.5’ deep built in cabinet/bookshelf. So I measure for the 1/3 starting at the wall or the cabinet? The cabinet has books and sone of the audio gear. Does it make a difference if I leave them empty right behind the speakers?

  9. I subscribed to TAS back when HP began recommending “his” rule-of-thirds for speaker placement. He talked about that as if he discovered it.

    Being among the older faithful readers here, yes, even older than Paul, I remember seeing similar references prior to HP. B&W produced a set-up brochure with detailed recommendations for speaker placement relative to the front and side walls, as well as position for the listener’s seat. That included the one-third position.

    It can work well in some situations, but it is not a universal “rule”. That depends on the dispersion characteristics of the speakers and the shape of the room.

  10. Yes, the #1 thing in speaker setup is getting the loudspeakers out into the room, which is generally limited by room size, room decor, the wishes of one’s partner, and the audiophile’s decision to prioritize a loving relationship over a stereo system.

    The second most important thing is getting the listening chair at or within the “critical distance,” which is where the reverberant sound from the room is equal in level to the direct sound from the speakers. I’ve always called this “nearfield listening,” but an acoustical expert told me that’s a bit of a misconception. In studios, “nearfield” means listening to nearfield monitors on the bridge of the console; in the home, audiophiles tend to think of “nearfield listening” as sitting uncomfortably close to the speakers. For me, sitting at the critical distance is the best way to listen critically. Calculator here:

    The third most important thing is setting up the speakers and listening chair in an equilateral triangle. I have a rule (also made to be broken), called the “Rule of Eights.” Start with the speakers 8′ apart and the chair 8′ from each speaker. If that’s at the critical distance, you’re golden and you can start tweaking by listening to reference tracks with good soundstage. I happened to check my setup last night when audiophile friends were over. One said that the “sweet-spot” chair was too close to the speakers, so he wanted to move it to an equilateral position. I took out the laser ruler and showed him that the speakers were 7′ 7″ apart at their centers, and that each of his ears was 7′ 7″ from the nearest speaker. He mentally adjusted and later on said that the soundstage was huge, focused and solid.

    1. Here’s the secret… In Paul’s Ask Paul post of July 16, he said the book will be out in a few more weeks. I saw somewhere else that it’s shipping in the box with a pair of FR-30s. That’s a pretty salty price if all you want is a book.

  11. Speaker design plays a huge role. My Duntech Sovereigns are not ported and sound great from the corners of the long side of a room. The low-end of ported speakers wanders all over depending on placement. The rule of thirds works well very with them.

  12. I agree with Paul about moving the loudspeakers away from the front wall to allow a soundstage to develop. For me that sense of depth facilitates my suspension of disbelief.

    I think the “Rule of Thirds” is a reasonable place to start. In a 24.5’ long room I can place the speakers up to 9’ away from the front wall.

  13. The speakers I have with passive crosstalk cancellation sound horrible when pulled out more than 6″ from the wall, on the other hand my apogee duetta 2’s sound better the further they are placed out into the room. I had the apogee’s about 7′ from the wall for best sound in my room.

  14. Through much trial and error, my speakers ended up almost exactly half way into the room, about 9 1/2 feet from the front wall and I’m close to the rear wall with diffraction behind me. They are open baffle/dipole and this position is the best for spaciousness and low end energy. Recently came across a website that mentions this type of setup, I was not under the impression that I had discovered it but it’s nice to see it formalized somewhere, so I know I’m not too far from accepted setups.

  15. I believe a lot of open baffle dipole speakers probably sound better pulled out into the center of the room, but not too many manufacturers would admit that because it doesn’t work for most buyers.

  16. Actually very little. I have Sopra 3’s and they don’t need much. They intersect near the back wall behind me. It’s a very full and open presentation.

  17. Yet another example of Paul McGowan futilely shouting into the void. Observe –>

    “I have a pair of speakers that has a great soundstage placed up against the wall”

    “Even tiny stereo loudspeakers as they are embedded in a notebook create a jaw dropping soundstage”

    These people – as with most hominids crawling around the planet today – have no idea what the term “soundstage” as used in audio actually means, or what it sounds like. None. Zero.

    To most of these folks, “soundstage” just means “some blob of sound appearing somewhere”. That’s it. Paul’s just – putting it uncharitably – pissing in the wind.

    The Holy Audio Prophet – the most revered figure in audio presently – a ferocious advocate of low fidelity and the lowest fidelity – Art Dudley – repeatedly railed against the recreation of a realistic soundstage. He denigrated, ridiculed, and excoriated anyone who dared to suggest even the existence of a soundstage in home audio sound reproduction.

    More proof of the First Law of Audio:

    When you hook it up and turn it on — sound comes out. Period.

    Rock on.

    1. Thelard Newman,
      All you have done here is to show all of us that you have never been
      fortunate enough to hear/experience a proper, holographic 3-D sound-
      stage with pinpoint imaging like I have…specifically from 1993 to 1999.
      Maybe one day you will be fortunate enough to hear it.
      I too was sceptical about a home-audio rig being able to reproduce a
      3-D soundstage; until I experienced it.

      Best of luck there Newman 😉

    2. Neward,

      You are committing an elementary logical mistake. Just because you cannot hear a soundstage does not mean that we cannot hear a soundstage.

      The fact that one reviewer may agree with you does not cure your logical fallacy.

      1. Dear Ron Res and other naysayers:

        Apparently, my post has confused readers. You’ve come to the exact opposite conclusion than the one I was making. It’s my fault, cause my writing’s so poor.

        So, in the simplest, lowest common denominator, high school dropout language, I’ll clarify that what I was saying was that most listeners – including those posting here – can’t hear a soundstage, have never heard an actual soundstage, and they have no idea what a soundstage actually is or what one sounds like.

        I did NOT say that I couldn’t hear a soundstage.

        To prove my point, I quoted two replies from the top of this thread.

        When you see a sentence with this punctuation —> ” ” <—-that means that the sentence in between those marks is quote of something someone else has said. [At this point, let me know if you need help with multiplication, long division, or all of those big words you don't know].

        Are you with me so far? Feel free to read those sentences again if you still have questions, or the soft, gray matter encased in your cranium is persistently leading you toward stray, suspicion-minded, qanon conclusions.

        So, the two replies that I quoted were by the poster calling him/her/itself "Invalid", and the one calling him/her/itself "Paulsquirrel.

        I quoted them to demonstrate that most hominids – that'd be people – can't detect a soundstage, don't know what it sounds like, and have never heard it properly reproduced.

        I then went on – and this's probably where I lost everyone, cause this point required reading comprehension that's demonstrably beyond your capability – to further drive my point home by illustrating that the most popular audio writer today – so beloved that his admirers have elevated him to the status of a prophet – the Holy Audio Prophet – has systematically campaigned against the recreation of a soundstage.

        The point about the Holy Audio Prophet was NOT that I agreed with him. I emphatically don’t. The point about the Holy Audio Prophet was that he couldn't hear for crap, and that the reason he's so widely admired was because his admirers can't hear for crap either, so they support, love and agree with him because he expresses in public what they think and feel. The parallel to politics today's uncanny.

        Whew. That much thinking and braimwork [yes – braim] makes me drool, but….

        I concluded by showing that the First Law of Audio was proven in the statements made by Invalid, Paulsquirrel, and countless youtube channels, such as Recordology, to wit:

        When you hook it up and turn it on — sound comes out. Period.

        As they say at Marjorie Taylor Greene rallies, I'd rather be dumb and in heaven than smart on earth.

        Rock on.

  18. “…need a ‘third’ option for your final statement…”

    Nope. Everything fits precisely.
    I said “The parallel to politics today’s uncanny…the Holy Audio Prophet [couldn’t] hear for crap, and [that’s] the reason he’s so widely admired […] because his admirers can’t hear for crap either, so they support, love and agree with him because he expresses in public what they think and feel.

    That’s amazingly like a significant portion of the the population today, who support, love, and agree with a certain political figure, and that population insists that science is a lie and that the US should and must become a theocracy. Their idea is they’d rather go heaven then adhere to science while living on earth. The two are exclusively separated to them, and qanon tells them it’s so.

    Stay dumb and rock on.

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