There are few things more galling than seeing a pair of stereo speakers huddled together on a bookshelf, crowded by trinkets and electronics, underappreciated and talents wasted.
While we'd hope that nobody reading this page is quite in that situation, it isn't always obvious what you should do in order to get the best possible sound from your speakers – no matter whether they're brand new or you've had them for a while. (Still at the researching and purchasing stage? Here's how to choose the right speakers for you.)
It's a lot to do with experimentation, and all speaker manufacturers will have suggestions to guide you with their own designs, but there are some simple steps that will set you on the right path to audio enlightenment no matter what pair you own.
While we can't physically hold your hand through the set up and positioning of your specific speakers in your specific surroundings, we're more than happy to do so metaphorically. So let's get to it, because if you're ignoring any of these fundamentals then you're sure to struggle...
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Run in your speakers
It’s extremely important for speakers to be properly 'run in' before you judge them, so don’t subject them to an extended testing session as soon as you’ve lifted them from their box and linked them to the rest of your system, and judge them instantly.
All running in really means is you leave them playing, allowing the components to warm up, stretch out and get into their stride. Some speakers can take almost 100 hours to come on song – and they can keep improving long after that – though for most pairs around 24 hours should suffice.
It’s unlikely you’d want to do this at any extreme volume, but be careful not to push them too hard straight away. Let them ease into a walk before you ask them to run.
Get speaker positioning right
Presuming you’re not really doing anything but plugging them in and waiting during task one (above), the most time you’ll spend getting your system to sound right will be with positioning.
Take your time here. Small differences in position can make big differences to speakers' sonic balance. Generally, placing your speakers close to the back wall will give you more bass, while putting them further away will decrease the low end you hear but should offer more convincing stereo imaging.
This should be a balance rather than a compromise, though rear-ported speakers – those with a reflex port firing backward – tend to be more sensitive to proximity to a rear wall.
Do try to avoid placing your speakers in a corner. It may be convenient spatially, but you’ll almost certainly get fat, lumpy bass that will skew the whole balance of the sound.
Imaging is also largely affected by the angle of the speakers. Most speakers sound best slightly toed-in towards your most regular listening position, which ought to be equidistant to each speaker for peak sound dispersion.
Some manufacturers do design their products to fire straight ahead, and we do find this the optimum set up for some speakers, so it’s best to check the manual for information and suggestions on that. The manual may also suggest how far apart to space your speakers and the recommended distance from each surrounding wall. Ultimately, though, it is up to you to adjust and tweak to get the best out of your room. No room sounds the same so it's worth experimenting.
Invest in stands, spikes and speaker cable
You might have bought a pair of speakers advertised as ‘bookshelf’ but, as with their surrounding environment, the support on which your speakers sit is of vital importance. If budget and practicalities allow, we strongly suggest you buy some quality speaker stands for your standmount speaker rather than put them on shelving.
The performance of standmounters depends hugely on the quality of their support, and this is another area you shouldn’t compromise on. There are companies dedicated to designing stands and hi-fi supports, but speaker manufacturers sometimes also create equipment tailored to their ranges, so it’s worth also spending time to research those and listen to an array of options.
Of course, if you’ve opted for floorstanding speakers, you won't need stands. But do make sure you fit the spikes; if you have wooden floors, you’ll likely have been supplied with coin-shaped pieces to put the spikes on to avoid scratching the boards. If you don’t have any of those, you can always use actual coins or something similar.
There’s a chance you’ve not considered speaker cables. Some people ignore the significance of good-quality wiring altogether or are tempted to skimp on the last few quid. Please don’t. Trust us when we say a good speaker cable can be the best-value way to upgrade your audio experience. (The same goes for the cables connecting your electronics, so make sure you invest in decent audio cables too.)
Again, different cables can accentuate different qualities in your hi-fi system, so it’s well worth trying a few well-reviewed cables before buying metres and metres of the wrong one.
As a rough recommendation, you should spend around 10 to 15 per cent of your system cost on your cabling.
Look after your speakers
It might seem pretty obvious but, assuming you have a decent pair of speakers, you won’t want to leave anything sitting on top of them that might rattle or dampen the sound when you put your music on.
You also don't want anything sitting directly in front of the drivers – and usually that includes the speaker grilles. While it's a good idea to keep them on for protection when you aren't using your speakers (especially if you have small, curious children!), and to keep the drivers from collecting dust and dirt, you'll often get a better sound with them off.
Certain manufacturers tune their speakers with the grilles on, but most of the time the grilles are simply designed to be as unobtrusive as possible – which by definition is still somewhat obtrusive to the drivers' output. Just make sure to give them a delicate dust every now and then to keep the drivers clean.
After that, the best way you can look after your speakers is really to feed them lots and lots of music. The more love you give them, the more they'll give back. Never be afraid to shuffle your speakers around a bit if it helps, either – speaker set up is as much about listening as any set of rules.
And remember, the whole reason you're doing all this is for your enjoyment. So never lose sight of why you bought your speakers in the first place. And if you're after some tracks to test certain elements of your system, or are simply looking for music inspiration, be sure to try one (or more) of our best test tracks to trial your hi-fi system lists or the official What Hi-Fi? playlist.
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