AB Sets Up His System For the Last Time Ever (Hopefully)

I spent about sixteen hours last weekend studying a rainbow of frequency anomalies and the subdivisions in which they lie. Why? Because I am an audiophile, and it is fun. Also, it’s my job.

After reading the all-encompassing Audio Glossary at Stereophile.com from front-to-back, I rewrote the glossary as a bulleted list reflecting an organized critical listening process to utilize in the future.

Sections include ‘Midrange: 160—1300Hz,’ ‘Soundstaging and Imaging,’ and the seductive ‘Pleasurable Excess’. In the process, I got to know words I thought I understood a little better, learned about sonic situations like a chocolaty sound, comb filtering, and the venetian blind effect, and drew out differences between words that seemed similar but are not quite, such as “accuracy”, a qualifier to describe how truthful a system is to recreating the incoming signal but not necessarily how much the system sounds like the real thing, versus “realism”, a term used to describe a system’s sound only if the recording being evaluated is truthful to the acoustic event. So if you have an accurate system and put on a recording that captures an excellent live performance and true timbres of the instruments in a pleasant-sounding acoustical space, you’ll be just as happy as a pig in… well, you know what.

I am reminded of the Innovative Audio Room at the 2013 New York Audio Show.

On the other hand, a very accurate system may not be the best playback situation for your less-than good quality recordings.

After concluding “AB’s Reverse Audio Glossary”, I wished to reassess the sound of my own system, but before digging into my system’s strengths and flaws, the Usher S-520s needed to be set up to optimal conditions.

Using JA’s article “Getting the Best from Your Loudspeakers”, I began the repositioning process.

The first step in JA’s article is to form an equilateral triangle with your loudspeakers and listening chair. The speakers were positioned 82" apart at the length-wise corners of a Persian rug. My listening chair formed the third apex of the triangle 82" away, centered between, and facing the two loudspeakers. The left loudspeaker was 35" from the left sidewall. The right loudspeaker was 17" from an Ikea Expedit LP shelving unit. Both speakers were 49" from the rear wall.

After getting my speakers and chair in the most perfect equilateral triangle possible, JA tells me to use the Golden Ratio (1:1.618) to establish distances from the speakers to the surrounding walls. Bah!

By multiplying the distance of the speaker’s woofer from the floor (27") by 1.618, I got a recommended sidewall distance of about 43". By multiplying the recommended sidewall distance by 1.618, I got a rear wall distance of 69.5". One can alternate whether sidewall or rear wall distance is furthest as long as the Golden Ratio is consistent for all three lengths. I thought my speakers would look funny pushed so far into the center of my room, as this formula required me. Also, the Ikea Expedit would keep them from being centered within the room making it look even sillier. I decided to see how it would sound as is—82" apart with unequal distances from the sidewalls. My laziness manifested itself as a desire for aesthetics.

Time to put on Editor’s Choice.

The S-520s' low frequency extension reaches to 55Hz per specification. Listening to the bass decade warble tones (Track 21) confirmed this with a sharp roll-off by 50Hz. On Track 19, a chromatic scale from 32.7Hz to 4186Hz, my speaker re-boosted in volume around the 65Hz marker as it was making its decline. Listening to "You Don't Love Me" from Side Two of the Allman Brother’s At Fillmore East, there was an extra punch to Berry Oakley’s bass that did not allow his fretwork to flow with ease from note to note. Rather, it hung across the beat just little too much on each pulse.

I tried to rationalize, “What’s not to love about a little mid-bass boost?”

Listening throughout the week, an imaging issue emerged. While the soundstage extended deeply to the left corner, the soundstage to the right was not quite as extended. I theorized that near-wall reflections from the Ikea record rack both behind and to the right of the speaker were the cause. Fortunately, the record rack has wheels. I moved the Expedit behind my speakers and placed my turntable, phono preamplifier, amplifier, and CD player atop it.

This left me curious. Without the big piece of furniture to the right, my speaker’s distances from the sidewalls could be consistent while keeping the speakers centered in the room. It was time to try the Golden Rule speaker placement.

I brought the speakers out 69.5" from the rear wall and placed them 43" from the sidewalls. The speakers now commanded a third of my room. My equilateral triangle got smaller, and the sweet spot only had room for one.

My imaging improved as the soundstage extended evenly to both sides, and the resonance at 60Hz was nullified! Berry Oakley now played with force but without overhang. Yet, I would still have to compare the two positions and see if there were any sonic benefits from the wider but less-than-Golden speaker placement.

Before I did that, I checked to see which tweeter positioning I preferred in the Golden Ratio speaker set up. The Usher S-520s have tweeters in their top corners, rather than being centered providing the listener with two options: tweeters on the inside of your array or on the perimeters. They both sound different. With the tweeters on the inside, there was a touch more forceful air and brightness to Carole Wincec’s flute on Track 3 of Editor’s Choice, Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major, but with the tweeters on the outside, I preferred the wider and deeper soundstage and how I could better identify the lateral placement of instruments.

Pushing the speakers back to their old position, I was immediately struck by the seeming subtraction of body to instruments. Midrange energy diminished. While the distance of the actual speakers made the experience a bit more concert-like, placing me a few rows back rather than within the music, the absence of body to the cello in Mozart flute quartet was disappointing. Though the Golden speaker set up was less pleasing to the eye and commanded more space in my room, it was much more agreeable to the ear. Frequency response was more balanced, the soundstage was more immersing, and instruments were easier to locate within the image.

I was a happy, happy audiophile. This is first time I've ever been truly satisfied with my system as a presentation of the hi-fi experience.

jimtavegia's picture

When you do that it automatically means there will be at least one more time.   You might agonize over it more if you THINK it is the last time.  ( I can almost hear Sam Tellig's evil laugh. Or is it Vincent Price?) I did listen to Thriller yesterday. 

Bill Leebens's picture

....you're now well and truly LOST. ;->

Ariel Bitran's picture

getting sound right is FUN.

otaku's picture

Sounds like your room is about the same size as mine (10x12 feet).

I had the speakers (Infinity Primus) in the same positions you had and they sounded good.  After reading your post, I tried moving them in, using the Golden Ratio. They wound up very close to my chair, and I thought that the sound was too harsh, so I put them back.

Maybe the Golden Ratio works better in a large room, but I think they position too close in a small room.

Ariel Bitran's picture

I'm now sitting pretty close to my speakers admittedly. my room is 16x11.5.

i found in the golden ratio set up, i could draw back my volume a good bit compared to how i normally listen. 

Psychedelicious's picture

Everything you did is proper tweaking. Just a healthy reminder of what a major component the room itself is.

dalethorn's picture

Great work - do you think you can organize all of those notes into some kind of spreadsheet etc. so you can maybe build a database of several speakers and room configurations? I ask because there are lots of articles about experiments in setting up this system or that one, but hard to draw comclusions from random exampes. On the other hand, if you published a guide at some future time that had many detailed examples with technical data supporting those examples, your data could prove to be a major help guide for people who don't want or need to start from scratch.

Ariel Bitran's picture

Hi Dale,

I started reviewing my system this past Saturday using the glossary. (I won't be able to continue this Saturday as I will be at a pool party...THANKFULLY.)

While my audio glossary is incredibly helpful as a reference and roadmap for myself, I don't think it would do justice to the gear being analyzed to be charted out in a matrix  since every component is built around strengths and compromises to create it's sonic character as a whole. Individual pieces may not tell the whole story of a compoonent's sound when broken down, but I will consider your suggestion should it be applicable to my future processes. I still think you can expect specificity to come from me similar to what you could read in a matrix but in the form of descriptive sentences.

Also, it seems it would be better to highlight the actual set-up process rather than test out a bunch of different setup scenarios for each component so I spend more time listening than tweaking.

What this will definitely lead to though is me posting a review of my system sometime in the next few weeks. As I continue to analyze gear, readers can refer to my reference sound and pinpoint the exact changes that I heard in system when switching out individual components.

Also, I highly recommend taking a gander at this chart that JA created and used as part of his Richard Heyser Memorial Lecture at the AES. Without looking at it, my glossary ended up surprisingly similar in structure to the sound quality judgments JA lists here.