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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
*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.
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.
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”.