We have finally reached the end of our series of articles on how to improve the sound quality of your system without upgrading anything.
I have described various tweaks in part II but the biggest improvements can be achieved simply by moving the speakers slightly. It will cost you absolutely nothing apart from a bit of time.
The method I’m about to describe works best with standard dynamic speakers. I haven’t tried it with bi-poles, flat panels or more exotic designs.
In any case, check the documentation of your speakers and adjust placement accordingly. Coaxial speakers for instance such as KEF uni-Q shouldn’t be toed in as they sound better off axis.
When placing speakers, you should only need a few things:
If like me you think that for speakers, bigger is better, you will need a lot of elbow grease to move them!
Make sure that you get an extra pair of hands to help you.
Mine weights more than I do so you get the picture…
Most speaker manufacturers recommend putting the spikes at the end. I choose to disagree! Spikes can totally change the sound balance and not just with bass. I can’t explain scientifically but trust me, it does.
The obvious problem is that it is extremely hard to move heavy speakers when they have been fitted with spikes. Because we need maximum accuracy, lifting and moving without impaling your toes is important!
If your speakers are installed on a wooden floor or tiles, you will need floor protectors anyway. In this case, you should be able to slide the speakers gently.
With carpets it isn’t an option. I still use floor protectors but I temporary put something under them such as a book with a thick cardboard cover (one at the front and one at the back).
Make sure that the book is as thin as possible because it will affect the height of the speakers. I have used hardback comic books with great results.
With this tip, you should be able to place your speakers easily and down to a few millimetres.
First, you need to decide where you are going to put your speakers. Should you go for the longest wall or the shortest one? It all depending on your kit and the acoustics of your room.
If you have an understanding partner, experiment as much as you can otherwise stick to the only “allowed” location.
In my previous house, I had to move my system to the opposite wall because the bay window was causing an enormous bass suck out.
Once you have decided where the speakers are going to be positioned the tuning can start.
Ideally most speakers should be placed well away from walls (side and back) to avoid any reflections. If they are too close to a wall, there will be an excessive amount of energy in the bass which is bad. That’s why most methods recommend to get the bass right first and worry about the rest later.
As a rule of thumb, you should be able to walk freely around the speakers. If you have to squeeze past in any direction then it is almost sure that you won’t get the best results.
There are many methods which show you how to achieve the best sound possible. I myself use the method described by David Wilson also known as wasp (Wilson audio set-up procedure).
It enables you to quite rapidly discover the area where the speakers should perform at their best.
The idea is to use your voice to see how it interacts with the room. Get someone to sit where your listening chair is positioned. Start with your back on the back wall where the left speaker will be roughly located and move away while talking. I usually read a book to make the process easier.
The sound of your voice should become clearer to your “listener” as you move further inside the room. If you are too far way from the wall, your voice shouldn’t sound as natural.
Mark the floor with masking tape where your voice starts to sound the most natural and where is starts to degrade again. You should end up with 2 parallel lines.
Once this area has been defined, repeat the procedure but this time with the side walls. Start close to the wall and move away perpendicularly slowly. If all goes well, you should have a rectangular area market on the floor. Repeat all the above steps for the right channel.
Put the speakers in the middle of each rectangles and start playing some music. Make sure that your system has been nicely warmed up before you work on the fine tuning.
The first thing to adjust is the bass. Keep the speakers parallel to the walls with no toe-in. Most people incorrectly use bass heavy tracks for this but it isn’t how it is done. Stay away from recordings of pipe organs, drums and the likes (for this you’ll need a subwoofer Ed.) . Find a nice bass guitar line going up and down the scale. If modern music isn’t your thing, try cello instead.
The amount of bass between each note should be the same. If a note is louder, try moving the speakers away from the walls. If the bass becomes too thin, move the speakers back or closer to the side wall. Move the speakers by a couple of inches increments. Always make sure that both speakers remain symmetrical and levelled.
The distance between your ears and the speakers should be identical. Use a spirit level to make sure both sides are flat. It isn’t too important for bass tuning but it is critical for the midrange and the treble.
Try a few different tracks with this method until you are happy. Once the bass has been properly tuned, you will probably think that there isn’t as much as what you are used to but surprisingly it is correct. We are after quality not quantity.
Most systems produce too much bass at some frequencies and too little at others. It is great if you like techno music but not so good for us audiophiles.
Before I start explaining in more details how tune the midrange and treble, I’d like to discuss what we are actually trying to achieve especially around the sound stage.
Unless you are setting up your speakers with a piece of music you have recorded yourself, it is impossible to know exactly how it should sound.
An excess of side reflections can create an artificially generous sound stage. Too little and it will sound 2 dimensional.
To illustrate the benefits of controlled reflected sound, simply connect your best pair of headphones to your Hi-Fi. Pick a spacious recording of symphonic music for instance with a large orchestra. You should notice that the sense of depth your normally experience with your speakers is greatly reduced. There is no reflected sound with headphones because the room doesn’t come into the equation.
I have ran experiments with absorption materials on the side walls and the sound stage did collapse so in my case, it had a negative impact in the room. Because we are trying to get a realistic amount of depth, getting the right amount of reflected sound is important. Too much and large orchestras might sound great at first but you will quickly notice that instrument placement isn’t as accurate.
I found that swapping between recordings of symphonic orchestras and a single instrument or singer can help find the right balance.
If there is too much reflected sound, the singer’s voice will sound hollow and hard to locate.
The whole process can be confusing so my first recommendation is to not try to do everything in one day. Find a spot you are happy with and stick to it for a few days. Play as many different genres of music as you can.
If you are not fully happy then try to change something. This method will give you a baseline to work from and moreover it will give your ears enough time to tune in. Experts can do this in one day but I cannot…
I need more time to get used to the sound.
First impressions can be deceiving anyway, that’s why I strongly believe that you should take as much time as possible.
A typical example would be an excess of treble. At first, you might believe that you can hear a lot more details (i.e. it isn’t dissimilar to turning the volume up in a way) but after a while you will find the sound tiring.
So what can you do to tweak the midrange and treble?
Moving the speakers slightly back or forward and closer or further from the side wall will change the quality of the midrange and treble like it does for bass.
The other factor is the amount of toe-in given to your speakers.
Results vary drastically depending on the speakers but as a rule of thumb if a voice in the middle lacks definition, increase of the amount of toe-in. With too much, the voice will sound too “small” and spacial effects will be reduced.
Another thing to consider is the height of the tweeters relatively to your ears when seated. If your speakers are very tall, you might need to tilt them down slightly especially if your chair is low.
The easiest thing is for you to move up and down while sitting on your chair and see if things improve or degrade and then adjust the spikes.
All these changes can impact any of the previous steps, so you will have to re-check the bass etc…
Don’t forget to measure regularly the distance between the speakers, the walls and the listener’s ears to make sure that the speakers are perfectly symmetrical.
With a bit of work, you should achieve a much cleaner sound with a realistic amount of sound stage.
The purpose of this article was to introduce you to DIY system tuning while having fun.
If you want to go further there are many books and web sites available to help you out.
I hope that I have managed to convince you that high-end audio isn’t just about how much you spend on your equipment but how well you system has been set up.