The past few years have seen many music fans gravitate toward all-in-one wireless speakers like the Sonos Five or the Apple HomePod Mini. And while these affordable, flexible, and easy to use speakers can deliver satisfying and room-filling (in the case of the Sonos Five, at least ) sound, the best stereo speakers go well beyond what they are capable of in terms of creating a spacious, realistic, and dynamic presentation of recorded music.
There are plenty of options when it comes to stereo speakers, including passive models that connect to a separate amplifier or receiver, and powered models that simply plug into a wall and connect directly to components like a CD player and turntable, or stream music wirelessly over a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection.
The KEF LS50 Wireless II is a good example of the latter, and it’s also one of a growing number of powered speaker systems with an HDMI eARC port for linking to a TV. The advantage to such speakers is that they can serve as an alternative to the best soundbars. With the speakers connected to your TV via HDMI, you simply turn your set on and use its remote to control the volume. And then when you’re in the mood to stream music, the speakers will create a full, engaging stereo presentation that far exceeds what you’d get from any soundbar.
No matter which option you choose, passive or powered, stereo speakers require careful setup to get the best sound. Here are some steps you’ll need to take to make that happen.
Use speaker stands
Floor-standing (also known as tower) speakers don’t require physical support because, as their name suggests, they stand on their own. But smaller speakers, usually referred to as monitors or bookshelf models, do. And while it may be convenient to simply stash bookshelf speakers on a bookshelf, you’ll get much better results when placing them on speaker stands.
There are two reasons for this.
First, stereo speakers need to be positioned away from a wall or shelf. That’s because the sound they emit will bounce off of those surfaces and interfere with sound coming directly from the speaker itself. Some bookshelf speakers also have a port on their back panel used to increase bass output, and having that couple directly with the wall will reduce its effectiveness.
Second, the tweeter, a component used to reproduce higher-frequencies in speakers, needs to be at the same height as your ears to get the best stereo image. High-frequency sounds are highly directional, so if the tweeter isn’t sitting at ear level, you won’t be hearing all of the detail and spaciousness contained in the recording.
To best determine what size speaker stands to use, sit in the position where you plan to listen and measure the distance from the floor to your seated ear height. If that distance is, say, 36 inches, you’ll need speaker stands tall enough to ensure that the tweeter in each speaker is elevated to approximately 36 inches. Fortunately, many speaker manufacturers also sell stands to match specific models, which will take much of the guesswork out of this process.
Make an equilateral triangle
To determine the optimal distance that your stereo speakers should sit at from one another, you’ll need to again get out the measuring tape and set up an equilateral triangle. The left and right speakers will form the base of this triangle, and your head will be its apex.
One example would be a configuration where the speakers are spread 9 feet apart from each other, with the distance from each speaker to your head also measuring 9 feet.
Move away from the wall
Along with putting speakers on stands and setting them up to form the base of an equilateral triangle, you’ll need to move them out from a wall located behind them – about two feet, at least. The reason for this is the same as why you wouldn’t want to place a bookshelf speaker on a bookshelf: reduce the potential for sound emanating from the speaker to reflect off of the wall behind it.
Angle them in
Once your speakers are optimally positioned following the steps listed above, for most models you’ll need to fine-tune the sound by angling them in toward the listening seat.
A good place to start is by aiming each speaker so that its front surface (the baffle) is aimed slightly away from the sides of your head (the left speaker aimed at your left ear, the right one aimed at your right ear). This will get you in the ballpark, and then you can fine-tune as needed using music (I usually choose a track with vocals positioned dead-center in the stereo mix) as a guide.
Clear out the room
While a comfortable room filled with overstuffed furniture and tables to sit drinks on while listening to your amazing stereo may sound like a great idea, all of those surfaces can impact performance by either reflecting or absorbing sound, making music come across as either overly bright and harsh, or dull.
That’s not to say you need an empty room to get good sound. A rug can help by absorbing reflections from the floor, while curtains and tapestries can absorb sound bouncing off the room’s side walls. Once again, music will be your best guide here, so listen carefully and make adjustments as needed.
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Al Griffin has been writing about and reviewing A/V tech since the days LaserDiscs roamed the earth, and was previously the editor of Sound & Vision magazine.
When not reviewing the latest and greatest gear or watching movies at home, he can usually be found out and about on a bike.