The Audiophile’s Guide – The Loudspeaker

A speaker set up guide and accompanying SACD

Paul McGowan/PS Audio

By Roy Gregory

There’s nothing as damaging to the performance of an audio system as poor speaker set up. Nor is there anything quite as ubiquitous throughout the world of high-end hi-fi. Work with hi-fi systems for any length of time and you’ll quickly discover that the vast majority of them could use some (or in some cases, a lot of) help, especially when it comes to speaker placement. And price is no protection: The bigger the system and the wider the bandwidth, the greater the potential to get it truly, horrendously wrong. It is rare indeed to find a system in which the speaker set up wouldn’t benefit from some fine-tuning (if not a wholesale re-jig). Yet – and despite the obvious aural evidence – the complacency exhibited by the average audiophile when it comes to system optimization is as predictable as it is incomprehensible. As an act of collective hubris, it ranks up there with the last UK government’s confidence in its ‘pro-growth’ economic policies…

Now that the LP12 is more of an historical anachronism than a market presence, speaker set up might be viewed as the last ‘black art’ in audio. There are as many approaches as there are practitioners, although most of them completely underestimate (or under emphasise) the time, care and precision involved. The latest hat to get tossed into the speaker set up ring comes from Paul McGowan, the highly visible and far from shy head of PS Audio. It comes in the shape of a slim, paperback book and accompanying SACD. The folio volume runs to 168 pages, although once you open it up, the ‘Janet and John’ size of the print suggests you might be getting rather less text than anticipated. Having said that, if we admit the (largely) aging demographic it’s aimed at, the large font may be no bad thing. The author discusses the issues and lays out a nice clear approach to the problems confronting anybody faced with a room, an audio system and a pair of speakers. From a purely personal point of view, it’s not the approach I would generally adopt and unfortunately, in stark contrast to the text, some of the diagrams are barely legible or incorrectly annotated. All in all, if one were so inclined, it would be easy to score a few cheap points and undermine the whole thing. But that totally misses the point. For me, the appeal of this book lies in the very fact that it does things so differently to my normal technique(s).

“We learn from failure, not from success!”
Bram Stoker

If that seems like an odd response, think it through. Just because I don’t happen to agree with the approach as a whole does nothing to invalidate it: In fact, quite the opposite. No matter how assiduously you follow your chosen route to loudspeaker positional perfection, work in enough different rooms with enough different systems and sooner or later, you are going to come unstuck. Which is exactly when awareness of alternate approaches pays dividends. Besides which, this is a game in which you never stop learning and, even if you don’t completely buy in to and thus plunge down a different path, there’s nearly always some nugget to be gleaned or some new angle on the way you already work. I’d go even further than that. The industry is so collectively deaf to the issue of speaker set up in general, that anybody who is prepared to raise that issue, let alone propose a solution to it, should be roundly applauded for their contribution. So talking of ‘contribution’ let’s take a moment to examine and appreciate just what sets this set up guide apart from the crowd – and what makes it application potentially universal.