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7 mistakes to avoid with your stereo speakers

KEF LS50 Meta
(Image credit: KEF)

Perhaps you’re a newcomer to the world of hi-fi? Or perhaps you have already invested blood, sweat and tears into building your dream set-up? At the end of the day we all want the hi-fi system we have built or are in the process of building to sound the best it can, right?

One area of a system where it could go wrong is when it comes to the final piece of your hi-fi jigsaw, your stereo speakers. Get it wrong here and no matter how capable your electronics are, or how well you have got them set up, you could quite easily fall at the final hurdle.

But it’s not just making sure the speakers are a good match for your electronics; there are other more basic traps that, in our eyes, are surprisingly easy to fall into. We have rounded them up below so you can see what might be a potential issue and how to rectify it. Some might seem obvious, others less so, but we have highlighted them to help music fans and audio enthusiasts at all levels to extract the very best out of their speakers.

Placing them too far apart

Sonus Faber Olympica Nova II

(Image credit: Sonus Faber)

Without wanting to go all mathematical on you, the sound coming out of your left speaker plus the sound coming out of your right speaker equals a complete stereo image. Now, if your speakers are in different post codes (ZIP codes for our friends across the pond) your stereo image will break up and you will simply be hearing each speaker’s individual output. Which, we assume, isn’t what the artist intended.

Similarly, if you have got something big between the speakers, e.g a  cabinet, or TV, this can also interfere with your stereo imaging. If in doubt, consult the manual that comes with your speakers; it might include recommended distances (and positions) that you can experiment with. Remember, even small positioning changes can have a big influence on the end product so it’s important to get it right before you sit down for a listen.

Putting a bookshelf speaker on a bookshelf

Standmount speakers: Q Acoustics Concept 30

(Image credit: Future)

Okay, in some quarters small speakers are referred to as bookshelf speakers. This helps differentiate them from floorstanding speakers but, just because the word bookshelf is there doesn’t mean you should quite literally use them on a bookshelf. In fact, this is really the last place you should be putting them, for a number of reasons…

Shelves aren't very rigid, so they won’t be able to offer your speakers proper support. The speakers should really be placed on a pair of quality speaker stands that will hold them rigidly. Your shelves are also unlikely to be at the correct height. You need to make sure the tweeters are around ear height to get the best sound possible. If not, there will be a lack of balance in their frequency response and stereo imaging will suffer. Finally, placing them on a bookshelf will mean they are enclosed, which in turn encourages reflections that will mess with the sound that comes out of them.

Leaving the grilles on

805 D4

(Image credit: Bowers & Wilkins)

Leaving the grilles on your speakers makes a lot of sense, especially if there are small children running around or an inquisitive pet that likes shoving a paw in places it really shouldn't. But, in our experience, most speakers sound best with the grilles off (although there are specific examples, such as our reference ATC SCM50, which are designed to be used with them on). It’s worth checking with the manufacturer if you are not sure.

Why do we generally recommend removing the grilles? The frame of the grille can act as a sound reflector. Sound waves radiate out from the drivers and actually bounce off the frame and back over the rest of the acoustic output, which muddies the presentation. Also, the grille cloth itself can affect the level of higher frequencies, giving a more closed-in sound.

Leaving the spikes off

Atacama Nexxus 600 Essential

(Image credit: Atacama)

Leave the spikes off your speaker stands (or floorstanders for that matter) and the sound will suffer. It really is that simple. Spikes allow you to keep your speakers level and stable – exactly what you need to hear them at their very best. Make sure you check regularly that they are screwed in tight because this will affect the performance too. 

Now, we know not everyone likes the thought of spikes spearing through their favourite carpet or scratching wooden floors, but you can always put a coin under the spikes to prevent any damage.

Sitting too close

Speaker positioning

(Image credit: Future)

We realise that not all room sizes and configurations will mean you can sit at the optimal position all the time. But we would try to refrain from getting too up close and personal to your speakers. If you do, integration is going to suffer and you will be left hearing the output from the individual drive units instead of listening to them acting as a seamless whole. Again, consult your manual for suggestions regarding speaker positioning and make sure you do your research so you have got a speaker that is suitable for your particular room size.

Buying the wrong speakers for your room

Standmount speakers: Triangle Esprit Comete Ez

(Image credit: Future)

We have touched on this point above, but it is worth reiterating. Yes, our speaker reviews are here to try to help you with your buying decisions. We know how the speakers work in our listening room and can make an educated guess as to how they will perform in other rooms.

But, it pays to do your own research before splashing the cash. If the speakers are too small for your room, you will lose bass weight, authority and dynamics will suffer. The speaker just won’t be able to drive the air in the room properly. And the opposite also applies - too big for your room and bass will dominate, and the sound will be completely unbalanced.

On a similar theme, if your speakers are going to be placed close to a wall, buy a pair designed for this purpose. Using bungs on speakers with rear-facing bass reflex ports can help tame low frequencies, but it really isn’t ideal. Placing speakers in the corner of a room will only amplify problems with low frequencies, so we would do our best to avoid this completely if possible. If you can’t, it’s even more vital you pick a suitable pair that is designed to work in such a position.

If you’re in doubt, we would urge you to ring the speaker manufacturer themselves. They will know more about a model’s suitability more than anyone and you will be able to talk through how you are planning on using them.

Using poor-quality speaker cable

Speaker cable: Chord ClearwayX

(Image credit: Chord)

Will bellwire work? Yes. You’ll get a sound, sure; but will you be making the most of the components used in the speakers? In our opinion, no, you won’t. We tend to suggest budgeting 10-15 per cent of your system cost on cables - you really don’t have to spend a fortune.

MORE:

Our pick of the best speaker cables

How to build the perfect hi-fi system

How to choose the right speakers and get the best sound

Here are the best stereo speakers we've tested

Andy is Deputy Editor of What Hi-Fi? and a consumer electronics journalist with nearly 20 years of experience writing news, reviews and features. Over the years he's also contributed to a number of other outlets, including The Sunday Times, the BBC, Stuff, and BA High Life Magazine. Premium wireless earbuds are his passion but he's also keen on car tech and in-car audio systems and can often be found cruising the countryside testing the latest set-ups. In his spare time Andy is a keen golfer and gamer.

  • Combat
    (Accusation of payola deleted by moderation.)
    Reply
  • joe23
    A lot of this article is just plain incorrect and I wonder where this information comes from, because it's not sound engineers..

    1. Keeping your speakers too far apart. True that positioning is important in a room taking into account the dimensions of the room and reflections and standing waves but to say that you can place your speakers too far apart makes no sense. Think about it. If that were true, that would mean that headphones could not work to create a stereo image.
    2. Not using spikes. Actually, for many rooms, spikes are a bad idea. Do you want to couple, or decouple your speakers from your room? If you have floorboards, the chances are you want to decouple rather than use the space below your floor as a great big resonant box. Try some absorbent rubber feet under your stands instead of spikes and hear your bass tighten up. The rubber discs you can get for placing under washing machines are very effective.
    3. Some speakers are voiced for the grilles to be left in place. The latest Whatfedales are an example. Check the manufacturers specs, but even so, the cloth used for speaker grilles is acoustically transparent. We're not talking night and day differences here.
    The one thing I will agree with is that cables are important, but not necessarily expensive. If you're capable with a soldering iron, you can make your own excellent cables for next to nothing which will rival commercial cables costing hundreds if not thousands. The fact is that cables should be thought of as an electronic component as much as anything inside your amplifier. They have inductance, capacitance and resistance. Of course they will make a difference to how your system sounds and the better the system is, the more significant this becomes. TNT audio is a great resource for DIY cables.
    Reply
  • Combat
    joe23 said:
    A lot of this article is just plain incorrect and I wonder where this information comes from, because it's not sound engineers..

    1. Keeping your speakers too far apart. True that positioning is important in a room taking into account the dimensions of the room and reflections and standing waves but to say that you can place your speakers too far apart makes no sense. Think about it. If that were true, that would mean that headphones could not work to create a stereo image.
    2. Not using spikes. Actually, for many rooms, spikes are a bad idea. Do you want to couple, or decouple your speakers from your room? If you have floorboards, the chances are you want to decouple rather than use the space below your floor as a great big resonant box. Try some absorbent rubber feet under your stands instead of spikes and hear your bass tighten up. The rubber discs you can get for placing under washing machines are very effective.
    3. Some speakers are voiced for the grilles to be left in place. The latest Whatfedales are an example. Check the manufacturers specs, but even so, the cloth used for speaker grilles is acoustically transparent. We're not talking night and day differences here.
    The one thing I will agree with is that cables are important, but not necessarily expensive. If you're capable with a soldering iron, you can make your own excellent cables for next to nothing which will rival commercial cables costing hundreds if not thousands. The fact is that cables should be thought of as an electronic component as much as anything inside your amplifier. They have inductance, capacitance and resistance. Of course they will make a difference to how your system sounds and the better the system is, the more significant this becomes. TNT audio is a great resource for DIY cables.

    Brilliant comments. It's a shame you didn't write the article and this comment is consigned to a place where almost no one will see it.
    Reply
  • alan ellis
    I felt drawn to this discussion as an 81 year old hi-fi NUT. i would like to bring into the discussion another AT turntable the AT-LP3BK,of which I have two, one for my garage system using a pair of TANNOY speakers, and my front room system with ROGERS MONITORS. The cable for these I made many years ago using HEAVY DUTY loudspeaker cables soldered to plugs.
    The essential thing in this discussion is to keep the resistance as low as possible to keep a long forgotten spec. as HIGH as possible i.e. DAMPING FACTOR to about 20 or above. Since we're only talking about very low impedance speakers 4-8ohms, there is no need to worry about the capacitance or inductance values .
    Now returning to the AT-LP3BK, this turntable has in my opinion to be the best value for money of its type, I have 6 red head shells, with 2 MC cartridges AT12S, and SONY XLMC2 & 3, then 4 MM cartridges SHURE V15Mk3-LM, SHURE M97ED, ,AT-VMS95ED+ML stylus, then an AT95E , these are all excellent cartridges with very subtle differences, heard on my ROGERS MONITORS. The M97ED has the typical 80's SHURE sound in the bass and lower mid range but on most so called hi-fi speakers of today would not be noticeable.
    I know there are some hi-fi speakers out there today but none give a figure or range for frequency response, and certainly don't give a graphical response curve of the complete audio range 5Hz-30kc/s.
    With regard to distance between L&R speakers, I assumed original writer was referring to average size rooms and many years ago was asked my opinion on a sound system with speakers not even along same wall, if you take my assumption, he wasn't far out with his comments, I have even seen speakers set side by side.
    Reply
  • 12th Monkey
    alan ellis said:
    i would like to bring into the discussion another AT turntable the AT-LP3BK,
    That's not pertinent, please see forum rules about dragging threads in unintended directions:

    What Hi-fi? Official Community Rules | What Hi-Fi? Forum (whathifi.com)
    Reply
  • Sliced Bread
    alan ellis said:
    I felt drawn to this discussion as an 81 year old hi-fi NUT. i would like to bring into the discussion another AT turntable the AT-LP3BK,of which I have two, one for my garage system using a pair of TANNOY speakers, and my front room system with ROGERS MONITORS. The cable for these I made many years ago using HEAVY DUTY loudspeaker cables soldered to plugs.
    The essential thing in this discussion is to keep the resistance as low as possible to keep a long forgotten spec. as HIGH as possible i.e. DAMPING FACTOR to about 20 or above. Since we're only talking about very low impedance speakers 4-8ohms, there is no need to worry about the capacitance or inductance values .
    Now returning to the AT-LP3BK, this turntable has in my opinion to be the best value for money of its type, I have 6 red head shells, with 2 MC cartridges AT12S, and SONY XLMC2 & 3, then 4 MM cartridges SHURE V15Mk3-LM, SHURE M97ED, ,AT-VMS95ED+ML stylus, then an AT95E , these are all excellent cartridges with very subtle differences, heard on my ROGERS MONITORS. The M97ED has the typical 80's SHURE sound in the bass and lower mid range but on most so called hi-fi speakers of today would not be noticeable.
    I know there are some hi-fi speakers out there today but none give a figure or range for frequency response, and certainly don't give a graphical response curve of the complete audio range 5Hz-30kc/s.
    With regard to distance between L&R speakers, I assumed original writer was referring to average size rooms and many years ago was asked my opinion on a sound system with speakers not even along same wall, if you take my assumption, he wasn't far out with his comments, I have even seen speakers set side by side.
    Interesting point on the resistance
    Reply