Speakers: Where Do I Put Them?

Several years ago I was just setting up my current home theater room. While it was not scheduled to be equipped with multi-tiered stadium seating, faux art deco design, and a popcorn machine, I did have the luxury of setting it up strictly for movie and music listening. It didn't need to be compromised to serve any other purpose.

Even before started to set up a projector, I began by finding the best place for the speakers. But there was one important limitation: they had to be far enough apart to allow for placement of my 78" wide projection screen. Not at all incidentally, the choice of screen size was at least partially influenced by the spacing required for good two-channel music listening.

Only after the speakers were set up was the projector brought in.

Not all of you will have this luxury, of course. But both the placement of the speakers and the placement of the listener(s) affect the sound you'll hear. While necessity may require that speakers be set up close to walls, they will nearly always sound better if positioned at least a couple of feet away from the wall behind and a similar (but not identical) distance from the side walls (this does not apply to in-wall and on-wall speakers, which we are not addressing here).

A few years back, home theater designer Russ Herschelmann wrote several columns on this subject for the pages of the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. Without going into the depth of detail that Russ presented there, here are a few suggestions inspired by those articles:

General Placement Tips
• The rules of thirds and fifths are often good starting places for determining speaker and listener placement. Locate the speakers away from walls at a distance that's a multiple of thirds or fifths of the room's dimension in that direction. For example, if a room is 20 feet long and 15 feet wide, locate the left and right front speakers 4 feet from the wall behind them and 3 feet out from the left and right side walls. Locate the main listening chair 4 feet from the wall behind the listener (12 feet from the plane of the front speakers) or 8 feet from the wall (8 feet from the front speakers).

• Try displacing the center speaker just a bit from the center of the room dimension at its sides. That is, instead of locating it 7.5 feet from each sidewall in the 15-foot wide room above, locate it 7 feet from one wall and 8 feet from the other. Yes, this will slightly disturb the symmetry of the setup, but could result in smoother response from the center speaker.

• Avoid, if at all possible, locating the main listening seats hard up against a wall. Due to a well-known room effect (standing waves) low frequencies are emphasized near a wall and this listening position will seriously compromise any attempt at smooth, well-balanced bass.

Front Speakers
• Sure, you will have a center channel speaker, but don't use this as an excuse to put the left and right speakers 15 feet apart. To provide the best combination of stereo spread, imaging precision, and coherence with the picture, a good rule of thumb is to position the left and right front speakers so that the distance between the two speakers is equal to or preferably even a little less than the distance from each speaker to the listener. For instance, having the speakers 7 feet apart, and 8-9 feet from each speaker to the listener is excellent. Avoid setting the speakers farther apart than the distance from each speaker to listening position if at all possible.

• I also recommend placing the speakers a minimum of 7 feet apart for any listening position that will be 10-12 feet from the screen of a one-piece television, and no more than 10 feet apart if you can help it. For a front projection setup, position them no more than a foot or so to the left and right sides of the screen.

• Many people sit too far from their TVs and/or their speakers. For a 7-9 foot speaker spacing, I recommend sitting no more than 8-12 feet from the speakers. Sit too close and the sound from each of the speaker's drivers may not "gel" properly into a coherent whole. Sit too far away and you'll hear too much of the room and, if you're really unlucky, an amorphous blob of sound instead of a well-defined soundstage.

• Compact speakers are often referred to as "bookshelf" models. But that designation is misleading, as most serious "bookshelf" speakers are not designed to be used in a bookshelf at all. Instead, they work best when placed upright on good (extra cost) stands and located as described above--a couple of feet or more away from any nearby walls, including the wall behind them.

• When possible, set up the speakers so that their drivers are aligned vertically. This will provide the smoothest off-axis response. Horizontal center speakers are an exception to this, but they can involve performance compromises. The horizontal configuration of the drivers in most center speakers is driven by aesthetic and marketing considerations, not the best sonic performance.

• Many audiophiles like to set up their two-channel stereo systems with the left and right speakers aimed straight ahead, and some (but not all) two-channel setups sound better this way. That's fine for a single listener, but a disaster for several listeners watching a movie. If you're seated in front of the left speaker, it's firing right at you while you'll be so far off axis of the right speaker that you'll rarely be aware of it. Instead, for a more uniformly distributed soundstage try aiming the left and right speakers directly at a centrally located listening seat, or even at a point in space a couple of feet in front of it. You won't achieve perfect performance everywhere, but family and friends will thank you anyway.

• If there's deep, big screen TV between the left and right front speakers, try to move the speakers out far enough that their front baffles are further forward than the plane of the TV screen. This shouldn't be difficult if you follow the recommendations above about keeping the speakers away from the walls. Keeping the speakers as far as possible from a TV will minimize acoustic reflections from the screen.

• If you are still using a CRT TV, make sure your front speakers are magnetically shielded. For a modern digital television, such shielding is irrelevant.

• Do put your surrounds along the side or rear, where they belong. In particular, if you have a small HTiB (home theater in a box) system, don't be tempted to forget the surrounds. The ambience and sense of space that properly positioned surrounds add can be even more impressive in an otherwise modest speaker setup than in a state-of-the-art system.

• Dipole surrounds must be placed directly to the sides of the main listening seats for best results. For other types of surrounds, 110-120-degrees back from the front is often recommended as the best location for a 5.1-channel system, but don't be bound by convention here. If your room is fairly narrow, you may find that side or near-side mounting makes the surrounds too prominent. Try moving them further back, or even in the back of the room.

• We could fill an entire book on subwoofer placement and not say everything that can be said. Suffice it to say here that you just can't plunk the subwoofer down anywhere and expect to get the best from it. Experiment. Try different locations, and live with each of them for a while, listening for smooth, uniform response and good low frequency extension without boom or one-note bass. Some rooms will resist a good result more than others, but after a time you should be able to arrive at a satisfactory setup in nearly any room.