Fine Tunes #1

John Atkinson recently forwarded me an e-mail from reader Daniel Sandmeier. Eight full months after moving into a new home, Mr. Sandmeier had finally experimented with speaker placement. He was flabbergasted by the result.

"I think I just got 2000 bucks' worth of difference. Moved the [Paradigm 7se Mk.III] speakers two more feet from the back wall, toed 'em in a little, and Radiohead exploded from my humble setup."

So what compelled Daniel to e-mail Editor Atkinson? "Everybody knows about speaker placement. What I want is more info. I want to know basics, I want to know advanced formulae. I want to know how to set them up just right. (At this point, I'm guessing from the tidbits dropped in your reviews.) Could we get a little setup basics column? Please?"

Well, Daniel, your prayers have been answered—J-10 hears you. (Now would be a good time to run screaming from the room.) In the coming months I'll explore the vagaries and vicissitudes of system setup and maintenance, how to get the best sound from your system without spending any money. I'll train my beady eyes on the complete care and feeding of your high-end system: How to set up speakers, running cabling to best effect, how to organize your components, and other pressing issues. Together we'll fine-tune your equipment and coax from it the finely coded musical messages therein.

Let's begin with the room. There are really two types of listening areas: dedicated rooms for the well-heeled and the unbetrothed, and those that are, of necessity, dual-purpose in nature. (I'm told that some audiophiles actually have a life, and that it takes place in what's called the "family room." I'll look that up.) Your space must meet certain basic criteria for decent sound. Remember, you're listening to your speakers and their interactions with the listening space. First, you simply have to get the speakers out from the rear wall and some small distance away from the side walls. And if you give it half a chance, the floor would love to resonate along with your speakers; let's try to avoid that, shall we? It's advisable to get the speakers up on spikes or cones of some kind to better couple them to the floor. Use carpet-piercing points for thick shag, or rounded-point cones like DH Cones or Black Diamond Racing kit for scratch-prone wooden floors.

Plunking an enormous television between the speakers is Frowned Upon. Well, if you must...but set the speakers up in an arc with their baffles forward of the offending CRT, and toe them in toward the listening position (as they should be set up for home theater anyway). The closer you place your speakers to the rear wall and corners, the greater the bass reinforcement. Minimonitor-type speakers may benefit from the boost, but full-range floorstanders can become congested and boomy due to the pernicious effects of standing waves. (I'll go into more detail, do the math, and cover certain basic formulae for speaker placement in upcoming "Fine Tunes" installments.) Back-corner placement also kills the enlivening sense of spaciousness, imaging, and depth.

Now take my pal Dan Billet: "No tubes, never!" he'd declared. A slow brainwashing ensued. Queried "Tubes, Sir?" whilst shopping for a preamp at a Long Island audio dealer, he reputedly shrugged his shoulders and bleated, "But of course!" He went home with a Conrad-Johnson PV9 to drive his McIntosh solid-state amplifier. He says he likes the way the Mac looks, but he loves how the PV9 sounds. He even changed a tube without incident.

But, like Daniel, he was really clocked when we pulled his speakers away from the back wall and toed them in. A major shock to his system, as it were. We also moved his listening chair back and forth until the soundstage locked in and the bass smoothed out. Try this yourself; it's like setting VTA on a turntable—you'll know when you get there. While you're at it, play with toe-in. Use the amount of the inside cabinet face that's visible at the listening position as a guide to keeping the speakers at matched angles. You're looking for a compromise between focus and solidity of image with soundstage width and depth. With the soundstage comes air and spaciousness with which to hear the acoustics, say, of the original recording venue. This stunning and involving quality of high-end presentation—imaging—can lead to musical contact on more levels than most people expect, but are more than ready for. It's what shocks so many of them on first contact with high-end sound.