Shall I spend money on Upgrading Speakers or on Improving Room Acoustics & Set Up?
Let’s admit. We always want the next best thing and keep changing and upgrading our audio gears.
New shiny audio gears keep popping up when we wake up the next morning and we read or watch rave reviews on them so pull the trigger and…. we are often disappointed what all the rave reviews were about.
The best bang for the buck is usually not from actual audio gears but correctly set up the speakers and improving room acoustics.
Positioning and Acoustics affect the quality of what we hear more than our particular choice of speakers, preamps, or digital audio converters.
Luckily, this problem does not have to be expensive and is often very cheap to solve if you are a handy person and achieve the best bang for the buck on improving audio quality.
We often see high-end speakers just sitting on the desks incorrectly positioned and room acoustics are not optimally set up so it does not sound as good as it is supposed to be.
One of the most noticeable problems in small room acoustics tends to be in the bass response. Commercial bass traps are readily available from companies like Auralex and GIK.
Bass traps are often placed in corners, so they remain out of your way, and they smooth out the low-end problems that lead to poor translation and muddy or lean low frequencies.
Whenever a sound is generated in a room, part of the sound travels directly to your ears and part of the sound bounces off the surfaces of the room and then reaches your ears. These reflections, which follow the direct signal by a few milliseconds, are called first reflections and these reflections combine with the direct sound and affect the overall frequency balance and clarity of the sound. Variables like the size and shape of the room and the nature of the reflective surfaces determine how the reflected sound will interact with the direct sound.
These reflections play a bigger role when the distance between speakers and listeners is longer. Near-field listening still gets affected by this but not as much as mid to far-field listening.
Here is another important factor to be noted. Bass Absorption panels are good but not to overdo it, though, as too much absorption can make a room sound “dead.”
A certain amount of reflection is necessary to keep things sounding natural and open.
Acoustic diffusers work in conjunction with absorption panels by scattering reflections, so sound doesn’t get focused directly back to any specific area.
Diffusion helps retain a natural sense of space and a smooth frequency response.
Strategically placed bookshelves, for instance, can act as low-cost natural diffusers. The uneven nature of the surfaces forces a random sort of dispersion of acoustic reflections.
Companies like GIK Acoustics, among others, manufacture decorative acoustic diffuser panels based on established acoustic theory.
Ceiling clouds help reduce unwanted reflections from the ceiling. A modest amount of money spent on a combination of absorber panels, diffusers, and ceiling clouds goes a long way to tracking and monitoring in more neutral environments. Online acoustic planning and analysis programs are available from many acoustic companies, like this one from GIK or this one from Auralex.
Make Good Monitors Sound Great
Now that your room is acoustically treated, it’s essential to position your monitors/ speakers so they work optimally at your listening position.
Here are six essential steps to set up your speakers correctly which will turn your beloved monitors/speakers to sound great.
Step One: Setting The Correct Height
Adjust the height settings of your speaker stands so that when you place your speakers on top of the stands themed axis between each speaker’s tweeter and woofer is set at your seated ear level.
You will immediately notice the difference in your listening experience by simply making this one improvement.
Step Two: Set The Optimal Toe In
Place and then ‘toe in’ your monitors/ desktop speakers stands and speakers so that they are arranged in an equilateral triangle relative to you as the listener.
A good guide to work with is to place your speakers at arm’s length away, equidistant apart, and toed inwards at 30 to 45 degrees.
Step Three: Set Optimum Tilt To Suit Your Speakers
Experiment with the tilt settings of your monitor/ speaker stands and listen to what speaker tilt options sound the best to you. If your speakers sound slightly too harsh or aggressive the speakers’ tweeters are too close; tilt your speakers back to correct this.
If however your speakers sound slightly muffled the speakers’ woofers are too close; tilt your speakers forward to correct this.
Step Four: Fine Tune Your Set-Up
Experiment with further desktop speaker stands and speaker positioning options until you find a configuration that sounds the best to you.
If you feel the audio image is not deep enough, move your speakers further away from you.
Alternatively, if you feel the sound lacks weight, move your speakers closer toward you.
If you feel the audio image has a hole in the middle, move your speakers closer together; or alternatively further apart if the sound stage seems too narrow.
Step Five: Correct Placement of Speakers
Aim to set up your desktop speaker stands and speakers so that they are placed well away from wall surfaces (at least 30 cm) and away from corners.
Placing your speakers too close to a rear wall or in a corner often results in sound waves bouncing off the rear or side walls before reaching your ears as secondary waves; this can degrade the audio image and audio clarity.
Step Six: Subwoofer Placement
For a 2.1 channel set-up, we suggest placing your subwoofer on the floor, in line with and mid-way between your left and right channel speakers.
Note: The direction and source of low-frequency sound waves (generally anything below 80 Hz) cannot be perceived by the human ear.
This means that depending on the cross-over frequency set on your subwoofer, the exact placement of your subwoofer in your near-field listening set-up is not as critical as the placement of your forward-facing left and right channel speakers.
Step Seven: Balanced Multi-Channel Set-Ups
If you are setting up multi-channel, ensure your forward-facing left and right channel speakers and sub are set up per the previous steps outlined above.
Then experiment with the placement of additional speakers to the side or behind your listening position until you achieve a balanced listening sweet spot.
Once your room acoustics are well treated and speakers are positioned correctly and still want to upgrade to the next level, only then it is the time to upgrade audio gears including speakers, and spend your hard-earned dollars.