Style meets reality - how big is your listening room?

We've all seen the 'lifestyle' pictures the hi-fi and home cinema companies use to lure us into purchasing their products. Huge rooms, minimalist and painfully designer furniture artfully arranged, and when there's any sign of the room's owners, they tend to meet the same criteria as their furnishings.

The reality, however, is often somewhat different, writes Andrew Everard...

Reading a stack of your postings to our forums has led me to conclude that either there's some truth in those screaming Daily Mail headlines about long-term prisoners having plasma TVs and internet access in their cells, or there's a whole load of serious systems being set up in bedrooms.

Several posters are asking about setting up complete home cinema rigs – flatscreen TV, high-end DVD player and receiver and a full set of speakers. And then just when I think I know what to advise them to buy, they throw in a spanner big enough to change the propeller on a cruise liner: the room is 8ft x 8ft, or its 2.5x3m, or something similar.

Now I'm no stranger to big systems in small spaces: I used to run a full-whack Audiolab system with Monitor Audio Studio 20 floorstanders and a monster REL subwoofer in a room about 3x4m, and it was so small you had to squeeze between one of the speakers and the TV to get to the kitchen or the loo.

And I well remember a reviewer on one of our long departed sister magazines inviting me over to have pizza and a listen to Tannoy's Westminster speakers.

As an idea of size, those are 15in drivers, by the way.

Trouble was, he lived in a two-up-two-down cottage, with a front door opening straight into the main room.

So when I arrived I had to squeeze through a foot-wide gap between the slightly open door and its frame, as one of the speakers was blocking it from opening any further.

I don't know what would have happened had there been a fire – a distinct possibility, given some of the flakey valve amps he was using at the time. Actually I do know, since said reviewer had once tried cooking and set fire to a pan, and in his panic hurled the flaming utensil into the bath, the bathroom being just off the kitchen.

Plastic bath. Messy...

But back to the problem of big systems in small rooms. The simple answer is not to go mad on the speakers, as floorstanders will boom like boomy things in so small a space, and don't rule out a subwoofer. Small satellite speakers used with a sub give you much more control over the low frequencies.

And don't trust the automatic set-up on your shiny new AV receiver too much, especially if the room's so small you have to sit almost on top of the rear speakers. Use the set-up system, then do some adjusting to get the sound you really want – there's no correct solution, only the one that sounds best to you.

But for a really expansive sound, there's no real substitute for a bit of space: you need space for the sound to expand and mingle a bit, rather than just being hurled at you from speakers you can almost reach out and touch. It can be done, provided you keep the speaker choice sensible, but it's so much harder to do well than setting up a system with big speakers in a large space. That's easy...

It's a bit like trying to make a bolognese sauce or a really good soup or stew in small quantities: it just doesn't taste as good as when you make a huge pan and let all those flavours work together for a while.

And that explains why we bought our last house with my wife looking and me listening – not to mention why we also have a huge freezer for all those leftovers.

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.