The #1 Speaker Placement Tip That Speaker Manuals Get Completely Wrong

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The tips in your speaker manual may do far more harm than good. Here’s the advice you can ignore, and what to do instead.

I remember the very first set of professional studio monitors I ever bought. It was a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 8.2 Pros that I got on sale at the local music store.

All excited, I carried them home from the shop and ripped open the boxes:

“This is it, I’m starting my path as a music professional!! No more working on HiFi speakers, this is the sh*t right here. Finally I’m going to sound like Deadmau5 and Noisia!“

So I opened up the manual (cause RTFM right?) to make sure I get the most out of my new speakers. Sure enough, I soon came across the following line:

“Make sure to set up your speakers far away from the front wall to avoid unwanted reflections that will negatively affect the low end.”

“Aah, OK… I don’t actually have space to do that in my 18-square-meter university dorm room. So I’m screwed from the start? Fantastic!”

Even now, over 10 years (and many sets of speakers) later, it’s still advice that haunts me. Although now, it mostly comes in the form of posts in Facebook groups and on forums.

It haunts me because of what I’ve learned since. I’ve now spent the better part of a decade trying to figure out why this advice was (and keeps on being!) included in speaker manuals. It turned out to be bad advice that only served to confuse me, and made me feel like I was doing something wrong.

So what am I saying? That you should ignore the guidelines in the manuals completely?

Well, let’s just say there are far more important aspects of speaker placement. Aspects that you can actually use, no matter what room you’re working in, and that WILL improve the sound you are hearing.

The Typical Placement Advice in Your Speaker’s Manual

Granted, some speaker manufacturers get it right. Sort of. But others just make a complete mess of it. Different companies can even give opposite advice for placing the same types of speakers! Here are just a few examples:

From a popular and respected studio speaker manual. Name withheld to protect the guilty.

OK, got ya: At least 40cm or 16” away from any wall. Further away = Fewer reflections. Easy enough. And completely wrong, as you’ll soon see.

Another speaker manual makes its recommendations even more extreme.

Wow, OK. 1.5 meters? What is that, almost 5 feet? THAT I cannot do. At least they tell me I can somehow magically fix whatever mistakes I’m making with their “Room Control” system if I set up closer to a wall.

Other speaker manuals and guides say the opposite:

Genelec’s “Monitor Setup Guide” does a bit better, but still leaves a lot to be desired. Genelec’s “Monitor Setup Guide” does a little bit better, but still leaves a lot to be desired. Retrieved October, 2017.

Wait, what? I thought the advice was to stay away from any walls! So now I need to be close to the wall to avoid reflections and make sure I get enough low end?

What if I’m working in a larger room and I don’t want to set up that close to the wall? And the Genelec is a back-ported speaker, so what about the whole “shooting too much energy into the back wall” thing I’ve heard about?

Here’s one more example:

From Neumann’s “Setting Up Studio Monitors” guide. Somewhat more detailed but not exactly easy to make sense of.

*Throws up hands in resignation*… OK, now I’m just lost. Which is it!?! Can’t you just tell me if I should set up close or far away??

The Real Solution: Divide and Conquer

Some people might argue that different types of speakers “behave” differently and so need a different approach to placement. And, as you’ll see, that’s true to some small extent.

But they definitely don’t behave differently enough so that one type has to be placed right up against a wall, and another several meters away.

(And what does “behave” even mean? It’s not like we are talking about children here.)

Back when I did my masters degree in aerospace engineering there was one point they hammered home the entire time: Divide and conquer.

Basically, whenever you encounter a problem that seems too difficult to solve, break it down into smaller sub-problems. Then, solve each individually.

This is a problem that is in serious need of some dividing and conquering. Hold on to your butts.

It All Starts With the Speaker

Generally speaking, any standard modern studio monitor tends to focus higher frequencies in a forward direction. At lower frequencies, they become less and less focused.

At some frequency in the mid-range (usually at a wavelength that roughly matches the diameter of the woofer) the speaker will output its energy fairly evenly at angles of around 90°.

By the time you look at bass frequencies, pretty much any speaker on the market today puts out energy in all directions. You can imagine it like a balloon of low frequency energy expanding around the speaker.

Typical dispersion character of a loudspeaker. High frequencies (green), mids (red) and bass (blue). Thanks to Ove Schei for the drawing.

Depending on the design, some speakers are better than others at controlling the dispersion as they go down in frequency. But this is actually very hard to do. A lot of them are simply all over the place.

In practice, this means your speaker shoots full spectrum energy forwards, and as you move around the speaker to the back, the sound gets darker and darker. Right behind the speaker, all it puts out is bass.

This becomes important when you look at the energy that actually hits the wall behind the speaker and gets reflected back toward you, as you will see in a moment.

Front Ported vs. Rear Ported

This general dispersion pattern holds true for front ported, back ported, passive radiator and sealed box designs. For all intents and purposes, they all do basically the same thing.

As long as there is enough space around the port for air to move unobstructed, the port can do its job, and the speaker will perform as designed.

As a rule of thumb, you can use the diameter of the port as a minimum distance required to the nearest surface for air to move freely.

The minimum distance to a wall for the port to work properly.

Any back-ported speaker with a port diameter of 2″ for example, will work just fine placed up to a wall, as long as there is 2″ of space behind the port.

And oh look, that just happens to be the minimum distance to the wall recommended by Genelec for their back-ported speakers… What a coincidence!

Even if the port is blocked, all that happens is that the tuning of the low end changes. Basically, the speaker will sound a little bit different, particularly in the low end. That might change the dispersion pattern of the speaker a by tiny amount. But since there is hardly any dispersion control in the low end anyway, it still follows the same basic pattern we saw earlier.

So obviously, the position of the port isn’t really a reason to keep your speaker a certain distance to the wall. Then what is?

The Magic of “Room Control” (aka “Space Loading”)

One thing that does occur as you move a speaker closer to the wall is “space loading”.

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  • Carl T

    Many small rooms don’t have the luxury of being able to move the monitors away from the front wall so a boundary compensation switch on most active monitors can be helpful. However, the larger issue is not only space restraints, but also the need to avoid placing the listening position in an axial mode null which can very effectively suck out the low end in a nasty unfixable selective way.
    All of our TEC Award-winning PhantomFocus MixRooms™ with https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4ad600d7b10e3934eeb5a55d69f1a1c18b394278cc243f99aa00bab12d3a705d.jpg PhantomFocus™ Monitor Systems rely on our Null Positioning Ensemble http://carltatzdesign.com/acoustic-tools.html. No simple procedure in your studio will render greater results than spending a little time to follow this easy to understand diagram to a T. This is not something we invented per se but rather utilizes the laws of physics as the fathers of stereo intended.

  • Mr Bones

    Yeah, but a lot of us want accurate bass – not boomy, bloated Deadmau5 concert type bass that sounds like a16 yr old’s car.

  • Dwayne Hunt

    I’ve always thought that to solve this positioning dilemma, simply put the speakers very close to your ears…..as in a pair of good studio grade headphones. Seriously, why are we beating this deadhorse? I suspect that the new guys coming up that don’t have a room to accommodate the proper positioning simply put them just anywhere. I just hope they are careful to place them so that they don’t fall and hit them on the head. If their room will accommodate the proper specifications, they probably have read a hundred times where to place the speakers.
    By the way, Mr Bones, sometimes I enjoy my pickup truck that can sound like a 16 year old’s. I’m in my seventies.

  • Rumi

    in my experience, even the “equilateral triangle” advice is a myth. I almost always end up widening the speaker angle. My ATC SCM100A are almost parallel to the back wall, for example.

  • Justin C.

    If you follow the full guidelines here you should be able to get that too!

    With that said, if you did want mixes that have tons of bass, it’s probably not best to be monitoring on a system that puts out exaggerated bass anyway.

    Unless you learn to really fight what you’re hearing, your mixes will tend to sound like the inverse of your speakers:

    Bright monitoring tends to lead to dark mixes, boomy monitoring tends to lead to bass-light mixes, and so on.

  • Scott

    Your comment made me fall asleep.

  • Jason Kohnke

    Unlike the comment from the cro-magnon, this is great information. The spreadsheet was interesting. Thanks Carl for taking the time to comment.

  • Carl T

    Thank you Jason. Please let me know your results if you decide to follow the NPE. The secret is to follow it exactly as prescribed.

  • Jason Kohnke

    I have looked at the sample version and am curious how you came up with the suggestions. Based on the graph, I do not see how the suggestion of “ear height” equates? Is it the intersection of certain axials or? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/66d3a60c2dc661b6e62013bf916ec9847057dbe7b139e16377fc66ccbeb6a428.png

  • Carl T

    Call me on my cell (615) 400-5479 and I’ll walk you through it.

  • Jesco Lohan

    Hi Carl,

    thanks for chiming in and the amazing work you do! I wouldn’t be here without it.

    I’ve studied your approach in great detail, and after much experimentation came up with these adaptions to them, to apply the same theory in small and asymmetrical home studio rooms and only using music and your ears.

    On boundary compensation: you’ll find that I covered that under “The Magic of “Room Control” (aka “Space Loading”)”.

    To place your sweet spot in the best position in terms of room modes (including avoiding the axial null), I’ve developed the Bass Hunter technique, which you can find here:

    http://www.acousticsinsider.com/fixing-low-end-without-knowing-acoustics/

    All the best,

    Jesco

  • Jacob W-Petersen

    A useful tips for small spaces is to start with a listening height at about 87 dB and then adjust down into small step. Here it is possible to hear most details without bass frequencies blurs the mix. Another tips is to listen to the whole mixed in mono and make adjustments, and then switching back to stereo.