What is the Best Speaker Placement for Optimal Sound Quality?

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Speakers are an essential part of any Hi-Fi system and enable us to enjoy audio associated with our favorite movie, series, or musician. The science around the speaker placement is an issue that usually gets ignored.

It’s like, “Oh, bass, cool”
You know how you make the bass better?
Crank the bass up (yeah)
You wanna make the kick drum better?
Just crank the bass up
And it’s like, “No, not really”

A quote from the song Glimmer by Tame Impala

Sound is created by vibrations moving through the air in the form of pressure fluctuations. Space, depth, width, and height all play a role in perceiving sound. And can all vary depending on how you set up your speakers within a room, not to mention how the dynamics of a room alone can alter sound if the right precautions are not taken into consideration.

With this guide, we will go through some of the fundamental theories of space, how it affects sound and how you can best utilize your space and speakers for optimum volume. To gain accurate sound without overextending your hearing time with loud volumes to compensate for poor dynamics and harsh reverberations.

Space and How it Affects Sound

The main factor affecting sound quality involves how sound waves bounce around the room. We have stated how vibrations are a vital component in the formation of sound. These vibrations can react differently within a room depending on the space and speed they hit the area or objects within—for example, the walls in your living room. 

Within that same room, if you were to play the same sound in an empty space versus a fully furnished space, there would be a noticeable difference that the human ear can interpret. The term best used to describe this phenomenon is called reverberation. While reverb can enhance the sound in some scenarios, in most cases, it will distort it and create an unpleasant listening experience. So even before we place speakers in the room, we have to be careful in choosing the type of room that will be applicable for what we want. 

The downfall of reverberation is that when sound is continuously being produced, it builds up from repeatedly bouncing off walls and crossing over other sound waves produced in real-time. This affects the clarity and quality of the sound being produced from the speakers, impacting your hearing experience.

Studio Space Versus Household Space

Remember that a recording studio doesn’t have the same features that a living room possesses. A living room will have more furniture, while recording studios are mostly clean empty rooms that cater to groups of people and musical instruments.

There are two methods that can help eliminate or decrease sound from bouncing within the room and achieve our goal. These two methods are called acoustic treatment and soundproofing.

Acoustic Treatment

We try to achieve acoustic treatment in our living rooms and beginner studios because very few spaces have the physical qualities that accommodate true sound. The core elements of acoustic treatment are absorption and diffusion. With the help of acoustic foam, one can reduce the amount of echo produced with these items in a studio setting.

Acoustic Foam
An Example of Acoustic Foam

Diffusion keeps sound waves from being directed in one area so that there aren’t any hot spots in a room. Diffusion makes any room appropriate and useful for recording or monitoring sound with a high degree of accuracy. Essentially these acoustic foams act as the furniture of the studio room in comparison to a living room where space is filled. Furniture helps with the absorption of excessive vibrations that have bounced off walls in a living room. Essentially, it has similar properties to acoustic foam to absorb sound waves bouncing off the walls within a room. 

Soundproofing

On the other hand, soundproofing has a different use in comparison to acoustic treatment. In summary, acoustic treatment aims only to control sound reflections within the room and improve your sound monitoring use. Soundproofing is intended to minimize the level of sound that travels in and out of your room. In other words, the noise produced within the room will not escape where it can be heard by your neighbors, for instance, and any noise coming from outside the room will not travel in. Professional studios and theaters are spaces where you experience the benefits of a soundproofed room.

  • The materials used to achieve this are acoustic foam, only on a larger scale. 
  • Most cinemas are carpeted and not for the sole purpose of comfortability, but to improve the soundproofing on the theatre.  
  • During the construction and design of cinemas, theatres, or studios, they added extra mass and density by applying drywall that contains damping compounds. This ensures additional protection against noise transmission.

Additional solutions include adding soundproof windows that can be very helpful in an urban setting and inserting Z-shaped resilient channels that can be put in place during the construction of a room to create what’s known as a decoupled wall. This effectively stops sound waves from passing through the wall.

How Sound Waves Travel

Factors You Should Consider When Setting Up a Room

  • A good setup can impact the effective long-term mobility of your space. What I mean by effective mobility, is that when you are changing and adding to your room, you still have the assurance of good acoustics. One of the biggest factors you should be mindful of is choosing a room that will not remain empty. Furnished rooms decrease reverb because the time and distance for the soundwaves to travel are less.
  • Avoid large rooms if you don’t have enough material or furniture to help eliminate reverberation. Smaller rooms are easier to soundproof and do not need a lot of material and furniture to allow this to happen.  
  • Wooden floors are a big no-no; sound reflects upwards from the floor, creating excess noise that distorts the sound. The alternative would be to choose a carpeted room because the material surface absorbs sound. A room full of absorptive surfaces keeps the sound from reflecting, producing a more dead room sound.
  • In an ideal room, there aren’t more than the standard four walls: the more walls, the greater chance of longer reverberation. Even classrooms are set up to accommodate room acoustics, so why wouldn’t you want to afford that luxury within your own home. Here are some of the ANSI standards required for all classrooms within the United States. This information can help you visualize your approach to the space available to you.

Steps You Should Consider When Placing Your Speakers 

After choosing your ideal space, you can follow these instructions to help optimize your speaker’s performance.

Equilateral Triangle
  1. The blueprint of any speaker placement starts with the equilateral triangle. The fascination with the equilateral triangle and speaker placement is that all sides represent an equal distance between the listener and sound system, creating a sonic balance.
  2. Once the system’s formation has been created, it is key to note that the speakers must be two to three feet away from any wall. The separation between the speakers should be 4 to 8 feet in distance. Overall, this will help alleviate the sound from being too bass-driven. 
  3. Within this sonic space, there shouldn’t be any objects within this sonic space between the speakers and yourself. Again, this is so that sound is not reflected or blocked by objects such as vases or other accessories.
  4. Don’t set your speakers on the floor unless they are floor-standing tower speakers. Usually, smaller speakers, such as bookshelf speakers, should be placed on stands or shelves. Many stands are designed to help absorb reverberations and prevent excess noise.
  5. The height of your speakers should be situated at the same level as your ear.
  6. Rotate and tilt the speakers to where the main focus will be. This is called toe-in. While it may look good for appearance, don’t orient your speakers parallel to each other. It won’t let your system sound good in terms of stereo imaging. 

Why do These Steps Matter?

It all comes down to controlling stereo imaging and sound reflections. A balance between the speakers and listener allows for accurate stereo imaging. Stereo imaging can be best described as the width of the sonic output of a particular song. Proper speaker placement allows for the opportunity for the speakers to produce the impression of sounds coming and going from different areas within the room. There is poor stereo imaging if your hearing experience feels like it’s coming from 1 signal point (mono). This is usually related to the sound system being positioned inaccurately. All these steps are vital in getting the most out of your speakers and improving your listening experience on a daily basis.

Stereo Imaging

Optimum Speaker Performance 

It is important to note that the following steps are not definitive and that these guidelines are adaptable to the type of space available to you. Attaining great sound from your speakers involves trial and error. It is important to play around within the parameters of the guideline to find that sweet spot.

Between the different variables of sound waves, frequencies, acoustic treatments, and your sound system, you will find that all of these elements are intertwined in bringing out the best performance of your speakers. Even with the most expensive speakers, you will not get the quality and clarity you deserve if it is placed in an environment that will not produce its best sound. 

This article hopes to showcase that the point of reference for clarity and loudness does not come from increasing the volume of your speakers. By understanding the science behind sound reflection and the byproduct (reverberation), you will be able to identify the acoustics of any room you walk in, good or bad. With this information, you’ll be able to manipulate any variations that do not appease you, and you’re listening experience. 

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Author: Tariro Dzama

DJ, producer and developer of the creative platform Mestashi. Tariro began developing his skillset of performing behind the decks from the tender age of 16. Having established himself over the years in the Cape Town music scene through playing at the most iconic clubs as well as releasing forward-thinking productions independently. His name has been next to various industry veterans such as DJ Fresh, Dean Fuel and Chris Taylor to name a few.

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