these maggies don't look like they're correctly positioned!

perhaps it is the asian way of playing hifi (gwailos don't seem so particular, methinks) , we are very particular about centre imaging and the all-important vocalist's mouth. the perfect vocalist's mouth has to be pin-point, right smack in the centre and forms a spherical shape no larger than a 50 sen coin, with texture and density. of course, it is easily said that done; many audiophiles fail to achieve this without trying for months or even years.

since my house went thru a major re-painting exercise, i have been listening sporadically. while i get back my tonal balance but i am not totally satisfied with my new sound - my centre imaging has become slightly diffused and out of focus, this is perfectly understandable as every movement or re-arrangement of objects in the listening room, may it be furnitures or furnishings, can cause deviations in sound.

another rather weird effect is - and i am not sure if it is due to the ICI pentalite's vibrant and lively nature - images seem slightly larger and have that "hairy" (or fuzzy) outlines which is not very pleasant; they are just not as compact and sharp as before. this anomaly will take me more time to resolve. i will work on it later.

so, now that my house is settled (and i am enjoying the smell of new paint!), i have time to re-tune my system again. let's resolve the vocalist's mouth issue first....

i apply the steps i learned from my sifu years ago. it took me about 30 minutes and i got a much better result already. i just moved forward the right speaker by 1cm (with the same toe-in) and the the vocalist's mouth "snaps" into focus. it comes with practice, i suppose :-)

this article on the same subject was written by yours truly in music matters' website 3 years ago and i would like to share with you here again.

just remember - every movement (re-arrangement, additions, removals) in your listening room counts. it is advisable to re-apply these rules every time you have some movements in your room.

Many people struggle with speaker positioning, partly because they are lazy to experiment, partly because they just don't know how to.

We have heard experienced audiophiles who own ordinary/modest equipment and yet they could produce a soundstage that is wide and deep, simply because they are willing to spend countless hours in speaker positioning. Many sifus have this advice when it comes to the art of speaker positioning - "Quickest time to get it done is 3 months; longest time to get it done is 3 years or maybe forever!" Go figure.

We won't go into in-depth details on how to do it (for that, Robert Harley's "Guide to High-end Audio is more comprehensive) but we would teach you here how you know you have successfully positioned and balanced your speakers.

Speaker positioning is not about measuring the room and place the speakers symmetrically vis-a-vis the room. Most audiophiles commit this fatal mistake! Unless your room is perfectly balanced (left & right) else placing speakers symmetrically makes no sense! Listen here - the ears are the best tools in speaker positioning and balancing.

There are four basic steps in positioning your speakers. Move them in and out relative to the back wall and side wall. Some speakers sound good nearer to the back wall (e.g. naim speakers) and some work best if they are further away from the back wall (e.g. dipole speakers). Experiment until you get the balance (e.g. bass response, depth, layering). Moving speakers in and out relative to the side wall is important to create the right imaging (centre fill) and separation. Whereas the degree of toe-in affects tonal balance, soundstage width and spread.

Ultimately, choose a CD with excellent spread of the soundstage (e.g Eric Clapton MTV Unplugged, Diana Krall's Live in Paris), with multiple layering and distinct separation among vocalists and instruments. Of course, you must have heard this CD in a reference system before, to know its fullest potential!

We must also emphasize on the importance of balancing you speakers on both channels.

Balancing speakers is extremely important for two reasons:

1) To create the correct size and pin-point imaging of vocalist's mouth - this is a skill that most people don't have. A lot of systems have vocalist's mouth that is "senget" (skewed) and distorted. When correctly done, the vocalist's mouth should be a point source smack in exactly middle of the back wall, that has body and meat, with palpability and presence. It should hang in the air with correct height and scale. Of course, some people argue about how big/small the mouth should be. To "tweak" the mouth's size, one could use shun mook/cones/spikes but that's another topic/tip altogether.

2) To have the highs, mids and lows arriving at your ears at the same time. When speakers are not balanced, you could hear that some frequencies are more prominent than the rest.

The trick in balancing your speakers: Sit on the middle point on the same plane of both speakers. Imagine drawing a straight line linking both speakers and sit in the midpoint. Listen to a CD with vocals alone (note: the vocalist must be standing smack in the middle and not moving about as in a live concert!). When your speakers are correctly balanced, the voice should come from a point on top of your head, with EXACTLY the same volume and loudness on BOTH channels. When the speakers are not correctly balanced, one side will invariably sound louder than the other! Start moving the louder side slighly forward, say, by not more than 1cm at a time. This is minute adjustment, you have to practise this until it becomes second nature.

The amazing thing is once you get it done correctly, you may be shocked that the final position of the speakers are not symmetrical! i.e. one side could be 1" or a few cm more forward (relative to the back wall) than the other side. When you sit in the sweet spot, you would find that everything snaps together and voila! singer stands right in the middle!

After balancing the speakers, now, how to know your speakers are correctly positioned, relative to the side wall and back wall?

Basically, correct positioning means the speakers must blend in perfectly with the room and environment. For one, it must disappear! In fact, in top-notch systems, you could not hear the speakers' sound, whichever angle/position you listen to!

A perfect soundstage has the following charateristics:

Note: You may not get all these attributes all at once, depending on the room acoustics, the quality of your hardware, racks, cables, interconnects.

1) The speakers totally disappear
2) The soundstage is spread out wide and deep, giving you a 3-D illusion
3) You could sense the word "layering" especially on classical recordings with musicians sitting on different rows. It is especially difficult to produce front-to-back layering.
4) You could sense the word "depth" with instruments coming from miles away
5) Pin-point imaging. This is opposed to "blur" ("Moong" in cantonese). A pin-point image is precise and has outlines that are sharp and distinct.
6) Excellent separation. Instruments exists as distinct sounds in the soundscape. You can easily count the number of instruments/vocalists in the background.
7) Image specificity. This is about the exact positioning of each image in the soundstage. The image should be stable, solid and in the right place.
8] Image density. A dense image gives the illusion of body and texture, in order to sound real.

You will be suprised that even a modest RM10-20K system (total spending) could achieve all these in varying degree. Again, the trick is - experiment, experiment, experiment!

So, next time, when you see a hi-fi salesman, who just simply plonks the speakers - whatever speakers you want to audition - right on same spots marked on the floor/carpet without further listening and adjustment, you could be darn sure that that guy doesn't know much about speaker positioning, much less good sound!


Anonymous said...

Major assumption is your hearing in both ears is identical (which I am sure it is not) i.e everyone has a small difference which can vary with frequency as well as amplitude. So what is right for your ears may not be right for someone else's ears.

If any frequency is louder than the other typically in the mid-bass area its also the room not just the speaker position.

Most people will usually map the room using an spl meter in the listening position and a disc that plays various tones. Its a lot more accurate than doing it by ear as you suggest while in between the speakers and playing some vocals.

maggielurva 愛美姬 said...

good point there.

still, i think it is half-art, half-science thing.

if it is all science, then every audiophile would have perfect speaker positioning, which is not the case :-) thing like vocalist's mouth formation is not easily to obtain just by using spl meter, methinks.

to me the perfect positioning is one where you can literally "see" the event in the soundstage in perfect balance.