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
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
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.
- Need some support? Here are the best speaker stands
Leaving the grilles on
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
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
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
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
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.
Our pick of the best speaker cables
Here are the best stereo speakers we've tested