Seen any good tee-shirts lately? I met a woman the other day whose tee-shirt declared ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. I’ll take two of those please. Or maybe I’ll have one made up to read ‘I want to reposition your speakers’. Audiophiles would be amused anyway.

Lots of people get their speaker placement all wrong and it can have a profoundly limiting effect on the music. Poor speaker placement takes a stereo system and makes it mono. You’d get the same result with a single speaker.

26 Dali Rubicon aMostly I blame the big electrical retailers, but life partners must also carry some responsibility here. Go into any store and the stereos are lined up to occupy the least shelf space possible, so the right and left speakers are hard up against the centre electronics stack. People thus figure this is the way they should be, so they set them up this way at home. There’s no left and right channel separation at all, you just hear a lump of music coming from one place.

So separate the speakers. Get at least two metres between them. Ideally place one at each extreme of the wall you face when listening to your music. You’ll get stereo. The violins will be on the left, the cellos and double basses on the right, the woodwinds and flutes in the middle and the tubas, harps, timpani, french horns et al wherever they’ve been placed on the stage. Just as the music was recorded.

The whole point of stereo is to spread the music across the room just as it would be in a concert, with the lead vocalist dead centre and the backing singers off to one side. And if it’s a live recording you’ll hear the audience all around you. It’s an immediate and noticeable improvement in sound, even if you’ve only paid a couple of hundred dollars for the stereo. And the best thing about it is that this profound improvement in sound quality has cost you zip, nada, nothing.

If you want the best possible result place the two speakers at two points of an equilateral triangle with you at the third. It positions you at the dead centre of the recording and it’s why headphones are so involving. It’s also why the sound lounges in serious audio shops are always set up with the couch about as from the speakers as the speakers are from one another.

Of course all of this sage advice counts for nothing if your life partner objects to your speaker placement, the other big problem in achieving a correct stereo image. Audiophiles with lots of money address this by establishing a “listening room”. Audiophiles without have headphones.

A friend of mine, when seachanging to Woodend tackled this problem in a third way and it worked like a charm. He put his 25-year-old mid-range American speakers on the verge and lashed out on a pair of Dalis from Denmark. Dalis are serious speakers even for the Scandinavians, people who know their speakers. He set them up for maximum effect, made his wife close her eyes as he walked her into the room and cranked them up with her favourite music, then let her look. It was her audio wow moment. She said he could leave the speakers right where they were. Warning: Results are not guaranteed.

Dali has just launched a new range of speakers it calls Rubicon and the good news is that the prices start at $3395 for a pair of bookshelf models. If that sounds expensive you likely don’t know much about Danish speakers. Of course you can spend up to $9495 on floorstanding Rubicons, just tell your partner they cost $3395. They’re available in three finishes.

And it’s encouraging to note that Dali’s media pictures show the bookshelf speakers, mounted on their optional stands, have been nicely triangulated for anyone on the couch.

Now let’s talk about why some speakers can’t be backed into a wall or corner, needing at least 30 cm of clear air behind them. Possible grounds for divorce.

Is there a round hole in the back of your speakers? The first thing to know about it is that you cannot maintain dignity at a hi fi shop if you call it a hole; it’s a port. The second thing is that ported speakers don’t like being backed into walls. If you have done this with yours you’re robbing them of performance.

Some background: The bulk of the drivers within a speaker cabinet have cones that pump in and out to create sound waves, and these cones need a suspension system to ensure they work properly and last a long time. Part of this suspension is the roll surround, the soft outer rim connecting the driver’s cone to the speaker chassis, but the key component is the air inside the cabinet.

This is why drivers need an exact volume of air behind them depending on the cone’s rigidity and size. Little high-range satellite speakers like those made famous by Bose don’t need very much air at all and so have very compact cabinets, while a 45 cm subwoofer cabinet makes serious inroads into a room. So how come some speakers have ports that let air in and out of the cabinet?

It’s all down to a design called bass reflex. Every time the cone pumps out to drive a sound wave into the room it has to return to where it started, and this in turn creates a sound wave inside the cabinet. With bass reflex speakers some of this sound energy exits the port to enhance the bass, and depending on the dimensions and size of the port it can add considerable wallop. So you get more boom from a smaller cabinet. Some ports are textured like golf balls so the air passes in and out of the cabinet more cleanly, avoiding audible chuffing when big bass notes come along and move lots of air through.

Some speakers are front-ported, but positioning becomes an issue when the port is at the back. Ports need lots of clear air around them. If they’re too close to a wall the air movement can be impeded, or sound can reflect from the wall muddying definition and sometimes over-emphasising the bottom end of the music. Enthusiasts like to keep the port at least 30 to 50 cm from a wall to get the most from the design.

27 Linn Klimax aThis is partly why speakers you listen to in sound lounges are never backed into the rear wall as they are in lots of homes; there’s usually at least a metre or so between the rear of the speaker and the wall. And they’re usually well away from the room’s corners where bass notes can load up and confuse the music.

Some people don’t notice bass loading, others notice it but aren’t offended by it, so try it for yourself. If moving your speakers further from the wall makes an improvement that’s worth the effort then it’s something you’ll appreciate every time you put music on.

If you’re the sort who buys Linn equipment – the sort who could spend an afternoon moving speakers back and forth through one-centimetre increments to find the sweetest spot – I have good news. The company has released a limited edition of its Klimax Exakt 350 speakers (and limited is the word; would you believe 10 pairs?) at just $159,999 a pair. These are active speakers with their own amplification on board, meaning a perfect match of amplifier and speaker. They’re available in any colour as long as it’s blue.

And there is a lesson here for all of us. Look at the cabinet. Note how the sides swing in to the curved rear. Remember how soundwaves are created inside the cabinet by the cone returning to its start point? The poor old cone often has a fight on its hands to do what the recording is telling it when all of these soundwaves are bouncing around behind and hitting it in the back. This cabinet shape minimises interior resonances so the cone can go about its business more efficiently. If you’ve wondered why speakers are often packed with sound deadening material, now you know.

Published July 2016


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