5 Easy Ways to Get the Best From Your Stereo System

Small adjustments can lead to crisp highs, accurate mids, and deep bass

To some people, high-end audio suggests that an extraordinary amount of money must be spent to enjoy great sound quality. But you can build a fantastic home stereo system while sticking to a budget. Even moderately priced equipment can deliver excellent performance when properly set up in a good listening environment.

The best part is that you don't need to be an audiophile to make these adjustments. Read on to understand the simple ways to get the most out of what you already own.

Select a Room With Good Acoustics

Just like how a speaker or receiver creates the foundation for good audio output, room acoustics play an equally important role. In some cases, the space and layout of a room have a greater effect on the overall quality of music and audio in your home theater—even more than the components combined.

A room with many hard surfaces, such as tile or wood floors, bare walls, and glass windows, can create many sound reflections. Vaulted ceilings also contribute to a less-than-ideal listening environment. These resonances and reflections lead to poor bass reproduction, sharper-sounding mids and highs, and blurred imaging.

The outline of a room also matters. Irregular- or odd-shaped areas perform better than squares, rectangles, or ones with dimensions in exact multiples (which can create standing waves).

An open room with stereo speakers set up against a wall

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So what you'll want to do is "soften" the room up, but just some. Too much, and your music may start to sound unnatural. Carpets, rugs, drapes, and cushioned furnishings help dampen sound and absorb reflections, creating a better listening environment. Moving furniture can have an appreciable effect (for example, pull the sofa to an off-central position instead of leaving it up against a wall).

It's hard to compensate for high ceilings, other than moving the equipment to another room. When you want to get the most for your money in the space you've chosen, look into acoustic treatments. You'll hear more of the speakers and less of the room.

Place the Speakers Correctly

All rooms have resonant modes (also known as standing waves) that amplify or attenuate certain frequencies based on a room's length, width, and height. You want to avoid having the ideal listening spot be dead-center within the confines of walls. Correct speaker placement ensures the ideal, natural response from your speakers and subwoofer. Haphazard placement can result in a performance that might make you wonder what's wrong with your equipment.

Dropping a subwoofer wherever it seems most convenient is an acoustic no-no. Doing this often leads to muddy-, dull-, or boomy-sounding bass. Spend the time to correctly place the subwoofer to get the best performance. It might involve rearranging some furniture around, so be open to the possibilities.

A classic-style home cinema

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As for stereo (or even multi-channel) speakers, optimal placement minimizes the various room resonances and reflections while maintaining superb imaging and soundstage properties. Depending on what you already have, it may not cost a dime.

If your speakers have been resting directly on the floor, consider investing in some affordable stands. Raising the speakers about five feet will do wonders for fidelity, whether you're sitting or standing. If you've been using speaker stands, pull them away from the rear walls a bit. Also, check that they're evenly spaced to the parallel walls (left and right sides) so that you maintain accurate stereo imaging.

Ensure that you mount each speaker firmly to minimize the possibility of vibrations introducing unwanted noise. And depending on where you plan to enjoy the music regarding the speakers, consider "toeing" them in a bit.

Find That Sweet Spot

The term "location matters" often applies to many aspects of daily life, including audio enjoyment. If you're standing off to the side and slightly behind the speakers, you can't expect to hear the music play clearly. The ideal listening position should be that "sweet spot" in the room, where you can appreciate the system at its best.

A person sitting in the middle of a home theatre

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Determining the sweet spot sounds simple on paper. You can expect to spend time measuring and adjusting speakers, equipment, and furniture. Essentially, the left speaker, right speaker, and sweet spot should make an equilateral triangle. So if the two stereo speakers are six feet apart, the sweet spot will also measure six feet directly to each speaker. If you nudge the speakers closer or further away from each other, it changes the triangle size and position of the sweet spot.

Once you have set the speakers, angle them in so that they aim directly at the sweet spot. This presents the best imaging possible for critical listening. If you are sitting or standing on the exact corner of the sweet spot, move one step forward toward the speakers, and you're perfect. You want the sound waves to converge at a point behind your head and not on the tip of your nose.

Use Quality Speaker Wire

You could spend thousands of dollars on speaker cables, although this is unnecessary. However, quality speaker cables of the correct gauge can make a difference in what you hear coming from the speakers.

Use a test track to listen to the difference. The essential characteristic of a good speaker cable is being able to deliver adequate current. In most cases, thicker is better, so reference your speaker's specifications for a starting point. The cables included with some speakers can be almost as thin as dental floss, which is not recommended.

At a minimum, purchase speaker wire at least 12 gauge—higher numbers represent thinner wires. So don't use anything smaller than 12 gauge, especially if the wires have to span greater distances. You can't expect the best audio performance if your speakers end up underpowered.

Two pairs of stereo cables plugged into the back of a receiver

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Many premium and branded cables tout sound-enhancing elements or better connections at the ends. Some audio circles claim they can hear the difference; others say it's marketing at its best or worst. No matter what you decide, choose the quality of construction. You don't want something so cheap and flimsy that it might wear out, degrade, or break over time. You can get great cables without paying a lot of money.

If your speakers feature two sets of binding posts on the rear, it's possible to bi-wire the speakers to improve the overall sound quality. If you have already placed the speakers and equipment, all you need is an extra set of cables to run alongside the first. Double-check first that the receiver has appropriate, available connections to accommodate. If so, bi-wiring can be an inexpensive way to improve and customize the sound from your stereo system.

Adjust the Sound Settings on Your Receiver/Amplifier

Most stereo and A/V receivers/amplifiers have a menu system that allows you to adjust various sound functions and features. Among the most important are speaker size, bass output, and speaker volume. The speaker size (large or small) determines the receiver's frequency range delivered to the speaker. The speakers' capabilities limit it, so not all speakers can take advantage of this function.

Bass output settings can determine whether the lows will be reproduced by the left/right speakers, the subwoofer, or both. Having this option allows you to fine-tune the audio experience to your preferences. Maybe you enjoy listening to more bass, so you can choose to have the speakers also play the lows. Or maybe your speakers work best at reproducing only the highs and mids, so then you might leave the lows only to the subwoofer.

The front panel of a home stereo receiver

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Many receivers and amplifiers feature advanced decoding algorithms (for example, Dolby, DTS, THX) in their various forms. You can experience a virtual surround sound effect with an expanded soundstage, especially with compatible audio sources and from movies and video games when enabled.

Don't be afraid to further customize the sound from your speakers by adjusting frequencies with the stereo equalizer controls. Many receivers offer a selection of presets, so you can enhance your music genres by having them sound more like jazz, rock, concert, classical, and more.

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