Now why didn’t I think of that (before)?
By Roy Gregory
Speaker set up is one of the more exacting, potentially frustrating but musically rewarding steps when it comes to getting the most out of any system. The better the system, the more demanding the set up – yet even starter systems can blossom if tended with the necessary care and attention to detail. In fact, one of hi-fi’s (biggest) dirty little secrets is that while customers seek audio nirvana on the treadmill of constant equipment upgrades and dealers/distributors are only too happy to take their money, the vast majority of systems could be musically transformed given proper set up – especially speaker placement.
There is any number of approaches to positioning loudspeakers, but the one that I rely on was developed along with Stirling Trayle (of AudioSystemsOptimised.com) and referred to as Six Axis Set Up (for anybody who is unfamiliar with the process, there’s a decent synopsis downloadable from the Nordost site (https://www.nordost.com/downloads-helpfulGuides-info-tips.php). It involves the painstaking adjustment of each speaker in all six axes, each in turn, starting with bass balance through placement fore-and-aft and side-to-side in the room. The next step is horizontal rotational – or toe-in as it’s generally called. And that’s where you often hit a hiccup or two…
The problem is very simple. It is easy to move the speaker precisely down or across the room. Establish a starting position and then, with both axes marked with annotated painter’s tape and the speaker parallel to the sidewall, you can move it in exact, repeatable steps marking/noting a good position before moving on to see if you can further improve it. Ideal placement is a case of balancing the speaker’s low-frequency output (a combination of the speaker and amplifier characteristics) against the bass nodes in the room – and it will come down to millimetres! But once you have decided on the ideal placement, further adjustments risk upsetting that carefully calculated balance. Setting toe-in means turning the speaker and, if you pivot it on one of the forward spikes, you will necessarily alter the position of the bass units. It might not seem like a very big step but remember, that position was millimetrically sensitive. Swing the average speaker for toe-in and you’ll shift the acoustic centre by centimetres! The bigger the speaker, he bigger the problem: simple geometry increases the distance you shift the bass drivers, while bandwidth potential simply doubles down on the problem. So, often, perfect toe-in disturbs bass balance and timing – upsetting the systematic and repeatable nature of the process.
It’s a frustrating shuffle that has – until now – proved all too familiar. Struggling to set up a set of speakers and faced with a deadline – well, visitors arriving – I had one of those light-bulb moments. Why not mark the centre of the front baffle to create a reference point. Simply sticking a cocktail stick in the appropriate place and taping the floor below it would create the perfect rotational reference point, helping maintain bass balance. It’s not perfect because of the depth of the driver(s) involved, but it’s a big step in the right direction, it’s incredibly simple and boy does it work – brilliantly.