You did everything properly when buying your system. You read products reviews and made a shortlist, visited your local dealer to listen to your options and bought the kit you liked the most. It’s all come home and been connected with care, and yet something isn’t right: your system doesn’t quite sing as you think it should and you start to wonder whether all the effort and expense have been worthwhile. But fear not, because what you may not have realised is that there are other influences at work here besides the kit itself.
Picking the right components is a great start, but there are a range of factors that can still affect the quality of the sound you get from them. We've listed some below, alongside solutions, to help you make your system the very best it can be. Some improvements are completely free while others will cost a bit, but in the end your system will sound all the better for the attention...
It may surprise many people to learn that the room in which you listen is arguably the biggest single influence on the performance of your system. Every room has a distinct sonic signature, made up of the way sound bounces around it and the resonances that generates. This has to do with the room's size and construction, as well as the way it is furnished.
Walk into any room in your house and start talking out loud – it doesn’t matter if you count, sing or speak, we won’t judge – and you’ll find your voice sounds a little different in each room. Even with your eyes closed you will be able to identify which one it is – and that’s down to its sonic signature.
At low frequencies your room’s behaviour is characterised by its size and the materials it's built from. While solid brick walls and concrete floors tend to hold onto bass energy, wooden-framed partition walls and suspended floors tend to let it escape – but not before they flex in sympathy, creating unwanted sound in the process.
Small rooms tend to have more issues with uneven low frequencies, particularly if any of their dimensions – length, width or height - are similar. Higher frequency issues are more related to the furniture in the room and how high a proportion of hard reflective surfaces it has.
If your room is sparsely furnished, has wooden or tiled floors and/or a large glass area, there’s a pretty high chance that it will sound bright and aggressive. There could well be strong reverb when you speak, and such effects will make your system sound forward, cluttered and tiring. The prominence of high frequencies could well unbalance the presentation and even make it sound lacking in bass weight and natural warmth.
Alternatively, a heavily furnished room absorbs a lot of the higher frequencies, so it can make your system sound dull and unexciting. The ideal? Striking a balance between these extremes.
If the space is packed with hard surfaces, it’s worth adding some absorbing materials such as rugs or carpets on the floor between the speakers, or shelves filled with books. Heavy curtains are a great option in front of large glass areas, and things like heavily stuffed sofas also work a treat. By the same logic, reduce the amount of absorption material if your room gives a dull listen.
If you want to get really serious it’s well worth looking at getting into dedicated room treatments, which range from affordable to ‘sell your car’ money. There are a number of companies selling acoustic treatments who should be willing to give advice, and if done properly that will allow your system to truly shine.
Placement of speakers
Speaker placement is another major factor that can influence how your system sounds. Every speaker is designed with an optimum position in mind and, while some can be more accommodating, all will sound best when put in their rightful place. This information is usually offered by the manual, but there’s no harm in talking to a dealer or even the manufacturer regarding the optimum placement in your room.
The vast majority of the speakers we test are designed to sound best when placed away from any wall. In most cases a 50cm gap is a good place to start but, if practical, it’s not unusual to leave even more space.
The closer your speakers get to a wall the more their bass output is emphasised. The effect is much the same for rear and side walls, but a corner placement is the most extreme in this respect. We love bass, but ignore the effect walls can have and you might get the kind of low frequencies that swamp the midrange and sound ponderous.
Putting proximity to walls aside, it’s also worth a) leaving at least two metres between your speakers so that they can render a wide soundstage, and b) ideally a little more than that between the speakers and the listening position to allow the sound from the multiple drive units to integrate seamlessly to play out in front of you.
It’s also worth playing around with how much the speaker point towards the listening position. Most speakers we test sound best when aimed so that they cross a little behind the listener’s head. This tends to give a good compromise between soundstage width and the focus on individual sounds.
There’s no harm in experimenting, of course. Angling the speakers to aim at the listener or even cross in front of them will progressively tighten the focus and solidify the central imaging, but go too far and you’ll find that the soundstage narrows notably.
Placement of electronics
The next thing to consider is where you’ve put your system's electronics. If it’s close to the speakers then there’s a strong chance that their performance is being compromised by the vibrations generated by the speakers – especially if we're talking about a record player. The best thing to do is to get the system as far away from the speakers as possible.
Many people put their set-up in between the two speakers, but while this looks nice and symmetrical and is probably the most practical, it’s arguably the worst place the system can go. Aside from the vibrations, putting something in between the two speakers – be it system electronics, a television or even a chimney as in many British homes – adversely affects the system’s ability to stereo image.
That leads us nicely onto dedicated system supports, which can help to isolate the system from external vibrations. The difference a good support makes isn’t subtle, particularly if you have your system is stacked, as so many people tend to do, so this is one piece of housekeeping that shouldn’t be ignored.
Prices for good racks can vary from a few hundred to thousands of pounds depending on how far up the ladder you go. No matter what your budget, the support should be level and low resonance. There are disagreements within the hi-fi community on whether the support should be high or low in mass, and whether it should prioritise absolute rigidity or provide decoupling. There are good examples of every type, so it pays to talk to your dealer about which type works best with the kit you have.
If the cost of some of the commercially available supports is prohibitive, it’s possible to end up with something almost as effective by going down the DIY route, though unless you’re particularly skilled the level of finish may not be so great!
Speaker stands and floor spikes
In one way, it’s a shame that many people still refer to standmounting speakers as bookshelf designs. We haven’t heard a pair yet that sound better sharing a shelf with a pile of books than on dedicated stands. Not only that, the vast majority of speakers tend to sound unbalanced when positioned so close to a wall.
There's a great variety of stands available, from column types (that can be filled with sand or similar to add mass) to more lightweight frame types. Which one works best comes down to the speaker design, and the type of support used during its development.
Make sure any spikes used in the stand are tight, and the same applies to the spikes used on the base of floorstanders. If those spikes aren’t fully done-up, or properly adjusted so that the speakers don’t rock around on the floor, you’re wasting a good deal of the potential of your system. Basslines will sound soft and less well defined while dynamics will compress.
Overall, you’ll just have a less precise and notably less entertaining sound. Guess what? Tightening and levelling spikes is free. You’ll be glad you did it.
Signal and mains cables
Some people get very worked up over cables. We don’t. They’re necessary for your system to work, and in our experience good ones make the most of the kit you’ve bought. How much do good ones cost? Well, that depends, but as a very rough estimate, consider spending around 10 to 15 per cent of your system cost on cables. You can use our cable reviews as a guide to make a shortlist before visiting your dealer. There are a few that will lend you the cable to try at home (taking a deposit as security, of course!) and that way you can make sure you’re happy with the sound before you commit to a purchase.
It’s important to ensure that mains and signal cables are kept as far away from each other as possible. If you have a capable set-up, the degrading effect of having the two physically interact is pretty obvious and comes through in an added coarseness to the presentation, combined with a lack of subtlety.
This might seem like an odd thing to suggest, but try to make sure that all your electronics are plugged into mains sockets that are close to each other. If you’ve got a complex set-up, it’s likely that they are plugged into sockets that are all over the room, or with some on a mains multi-way adaptor while others are plugged straight into a wall. Try to group them together if possible. It’s all about making sure that there are no slight potential differences between the electrical Earth that each product sees. We’ve heard this make notable differences in particularly transparent set-ups.
All electrical connections use metal-to-metal contact, and that goes from the plug that goes into the main socket right the way through to the interconnects that link your sources to the amplification. Over time these contact points tend to oxidise, affecting the quality of the connection. Once a year, it’s well worth undoing all the system cables – including those for the speakers – and remaking (i.e disconnecting and reconnecting) them three or four times. This cleans the metal surfaces that make the connection. The result? A small but significant improvement to the sound, and most importantly it doesn't cost a penny or take much time.
Check out these 10 affordable ways to upgrade your hi-fi system