The Setup: Speakers

You probably already know that good speakers are essential to putting together a high-quality stereo or multichannel music system or home theater. You can invest several months' mortgage payments in first-rate audio/video components, but without good speakers you're simply not going to hear your system's full potential.

When it comes to getting the best sound, though, owning good speakers is only half of the sonic equation. Let me emphasize this right at the beginning: Your speakers will only sound as good as your setup lets them! Poor setup can make even good speakers sound bad. On the other hand, careful setup can't transform a sub-par speaker into a sonic Superman. Cheap multimedia speakers, for example, are no more likely to reproduce the bass impact and musical detail of Dark Side of the Moon or Titanic than my Honda Civic is to win the next NASCAR championship.

Happily, there's nothing mysterious about setting up speakers. It does require a little bit of care and patience, but the principles are straightforward enough and they apply to virtually all systems and rooms - whether you spend most of your time listening to stereo music or enjoying movies in surround sound. Best of all, our recommended steps to proper speaker setup don't have to cost you a thing, just some time and effort.

Space: The Final Frontier The key difference between a proper and an improper speaker setup is that a proper one will give the sound a sense of three-dimensional space, as if the musicians are present in the room. When speakers are set up poorly - and a good many of the stereo setups you've heard probably fall into this category - the sound is spatially "flat," seemingly glued to the speaker grilles. There's virtually no sonic depth, width, or height - no "soundstage," which is the illusion of hearing the various instrumentalists and vocalists spread around the room.

While it's hard not to get some sense of envelopment from a multichannel home theater system - unless you aim the speakers completely at random! - that doesn't mean you're getting a full, 360° soundstage or that magical sense of total immersion in the onscreen action that an optimized sound system can deliver.

Helpful Hint When you experiment with speaker placement, use masking tape to mark a speaker's position - in case you want to go back to an earlier position that turned out to be better than a later one.

Before getting to the nitty-gritty, I can't stress enough that the interaction between the speakers and the room is of fundamental importance. While every speaker has its own "voice," or sonic signature, how it actually sounds is nonetheless inseparable both from the room in which it's placed and from its position in that room.

All rooms have areas of bass cancellation, where a speaker's audible low-frequency output will be reduced, and of bass reinforcement, where the same speaker will seem to produce more bass, without changing anything else in the system. Cancellation and reinforcement areas are sometimes very close together, which is why moving a speaker less than a foot can make a big difference in its bass performance.

I'll begin by discussing how to set up a pair of speakers for stereo listening, since many of the principles covered also apply to setting up a multichannel system. Besides, even with five or more speakers, it's still a good idea to start by properly placing the left and right front ones.