Revolutionize Your Home-Theater Life With This One Weird Trick!!!

Okay, it won’t revolutionize anything. And it’s more of a suggestion than a trick. But it might just enlarge your home theater’s filmsound experience, at least somewhat, and it costs exactly zero and takes all of 45 seconds to implement (as long as nothing falls over). So here it is: move your front-main speakers further apart.

Yeah, that’s it. As I said, it’s not very revolutionary, or even particularly weird (they never are). But in every system in which I’ve tried it makes movie sound more immersive, more cinematic, more “bigger.”

Most of us choose the sites for our front speakers under the weight a couple of preconceptions. First, that the left/right speakers and the listening position should form a roughly equilateral, or slightly isosceles triangle (with the listener located midpoint on the shorter side); this one’s an artifact of the stereophonic era, when speaker-width was restricted by the hole-in-the-middle effect. (We’ve got a center-channel speaker for that.)

The second old notion is that the left/right speakers must stay within a near reach of the screen edges “to keep action on the screen.” I admit to having subscribed to this one, and to having repeated it more than once over the years. But you know what? With modern filmsound production it doesn’t seem to matter all that much: I’ve viewed a couple dozen movies in ultra-wide setup mode now, and I can’t remember even a single instance of excessive lateral-ness having pulled my attention off-screen. (To be fair, given the artistic quality of most films today, and the crappy repro quality of all the popular streaming options, I may simply have fallen asleep.)

So, how wide is wide? In my room, for what I think of as “big-sound” movie viewing I place my left/right pair within a couple feet of the side walls, which puts them about 14 feet apart rather than the 7-1/2 feet separation of my normal “music” setup. The reward varies from subtle to obvious: obvious on action sequences like the classic speeder chase from ROTJ, where the wider palette opens up the forest and makes side-spinning wipe-outs more dramatic; subtler on material like the batcave scene from The Dark Knight Rises, where the added breadth adds, well, breadth.

Try it, you may like it. You probably won’t like having to move heavy speakers back and forth three times a day for music listening, and even for most surround-music playback (where instead of hole-in-the-middle you get two-holes-off-center, instead), or the back injuries suffered in the lazy-man’s-load process of frog-marching speaker-and-stand in one go—ask me how I know.

Alternatively, given a receiver or processor equipped with Audyssey’s DSX surround enhancement, you could just set up permanent Side (and Height) channels. Which is what I’m thinking I’m likely to do as soon as I get out of traction.

bkeeler10's picture

So I also subscribe to the notion that the left and right channels should not be too far from the edge of the screen. And the reason is that I notice in many movie mixes that sounds coming from the extreme side of the screen (or just barely off-screen) are mixed hard to the left or right channel. This drives me crazy and takes me right out of the movie. I do have this problem because I have a 50" diagonal TV which is way too small for my 10' viewing distance. I have to make a compromise between decent soundstage width and avoiding distracting edge-of-screen effects. Do you not notice this when your speakers are two or three feet to the side of your screen?

bkeeler10's picture

To add to this, of course the solution in my mind is to have a very wide projection screen (say, 40 to 45 degree viewing angle for me) and place the speakers less than a foot (educated guess) from the edge of the screen. Even then, you're not likely to get beyond the 60-degree spread of an equilateral triangle setup. But I think that will give me a near-ideal combination of soundstage width and correct placement of sounds relative to the screen.

kevon27's picture

Dolby prologic IIZ
Audyssey DSX..

Not just wide but you can get High...

mikem's picture

Having just re-configured my system (once again) I placed my l/r speakers closer together and was wondering why the sound was so different. Size wise I do not have that much space to move the speakers further apart. I just remember the old adage of the front speakers being placed symmetrically possible to the sweet spot, the golden triangle. After reading Dan's article (I really wish he'd stop screwing my system up) I re-positioned them farther out and toed in slightly. I then calibrated my system via Pioneer's MCACC but did not listen to anything until today. The only response I have to offer with this new arrangement is the L/R speakers seemed to have more presence and the center channel. However, I cannot tell if the new speaker placement caused this or the MCACC was the causative factor. I will say that I have also used Disney's WOW! calibration cd and a Radio Shack meter and the results on both procedures were pretty close. So, as any certifiable nutsy audiophile I will speak wonders about my new setup and enjoy it for a while - and then pull it apart and wonder why it "doesn't sound right." My wife (who fortunately lets me do whatever i want in the HT room) asked me the other night why I'm always doing this and my response was, "Why do you keep changing recipes on me"? That shut her up for about an hour:).

livengood1's picture

I think that this is a bad idea. First, as mentioned, it ruins the stereo effect for music listening. Second, the closer you bring the speakers to the side walls, the worse it will sound, in most instances. Sidewall reflections are very detrimental to both imaging and accurate timbre. If you need to do this to enjoy movie sound, why not just use the extra channels to create phantom width? Then your music listening will not be ruined when you listen in stereo.

movieskinny's picture

I recently got some friends of mine to widen their listening experience, and they were amazed. They were constantly looking at the corners of the room for the slamming doors off screen or the creaky stairs to the left of right in a spooky movie. Sounds in a movie happen in a much larger space generally than your living room. Movies really do need more space to stretch reality.

I recently helped some friends upgrade an existing in-ceiling surround system, and it is now one of the best I've heard in a while, but the front surrounds are too close to get any really separation of sound effects.

Sound can be a huge part of a movie. Some movies, like Office Space, are not surround sound centric and could be enjoyed with only the center channel playing. Another item that is not mentioned in the article, how big are your speakers, either sonically or physically? You may need weak speakers closer to your center channel or sub-woofer. Good quality speakers, I've found, can generally be placed anywhere along the front latitude. Distracting sound or holes in the sound stage also take place with rear speakers even more so, but that was also not mentioned. We are in our living rooms, not perfect like the movie theater with arrays of speakers and no holes. A good center channel speaker should be strong enough to overcome hole-producing dialogue or effects. We do need to be practical. Also not mentioned, the majority of home theater receivers in homes cost $300 or below. Great receivers can be had used now. Spending over $1000 gets you something that is light years better than $300. Imagine a $300 car vs. a $1000 auto, BIG difference. These factors can make these sound stage questions moot too. Many movies before 2000 have terribly adapted Dolby soundtracks that no sound system can fix.

Horror and action movies really benefit from a wide sound stage. Musicals, maybe not. Two movies come to mind that have great surround in a widened arena. Air Force One, and Days of Thunder were some of my first Dolby Digital movies and can sometimes get your head moving to follow the race cars or jets as they circle the sky or track. Empty shell cartridges hitting the plane decking from your left/right or behind is definitely tactile sound at its best. Cramping your sound stage reduces this effect by seismic magnitudes. Best demo track in a movie, is the crashing ice crystal asteroid field floating in space from the Titan AE movie(great animated movie). If you have a good sub-woofer(really good), it is gut wrenching.

Another suggestion for people on the fence about music versus movie sound and how to set them up. I have made this placement before for folks. Get some nice good size stereo speakers for music(in stereo mode) and place them just a little bit away from the screen for movies but still close enough for music. If you don't tweak them properly they can be a little overpowering in a surround setup. All good amps let you do movie sound and stereo for the purist. Those purists, you know who you are, vinyl maniacs with tubes, they need their stereo sound. I have a Cd from an artist called Robyn(not Mahler) and I put that on to demo music on surround sound, and it is transformed into surround sound bliss with her voice emanating from all corners.

The answer to this question is definitely a personal one, but trying to make your system go wide or deep may not work. Dollar wise, this usually means spending a few more bucks to have more flexibility. Cheap sound systems are generally always limited to being joined at the hip in a tighter sound stage so the flaws do not become glaring. Bose systems make the wives happy, but are very limiting in their audio. We guys can't always have that huge Polk or Klipsch dream machine. Trade offs abound.