Get the Best Performance From a Stereo System

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

High-end audio can be perceived as a snobby term. To some, it suggests that one must spend an extraordinary amount of money in order to enjoy great sound quality. But the truth is that 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 even 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.

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Select a Room With Good Acoustics

An open room with stereo speakers set up against a wall

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Just like how a speaker and/or receiver creates the foundation for good audio output, room acoustics plays an equally important role. In some cases, the space and layout of a room can 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 ones with tile or wood floors, bare walls, and/or glass windows, can create a lot of sound reflections. Vaulted ceilings can also contribute to a less-than-ideal listening environment, too. 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 oddly-shaped areas tend to perform better than squares, rectangles, or ones with dimensions in exact multiples (which can create standing waves).

So what you'll want to try and 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 to dampen sound and absorb reflections, thereby creating a better listening environment. Even relocating furniture within a room can have an appreciable effect (e.g. 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 all your equipment to another room. But if you want to get the most for your money in the space you've chosen, it's worth looking into acoustic treatments. You'll end up being able to hear more of the speakers and less of the room.

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Place the Speakers Correctly

A classic-style home cinema

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All rooms have resonant modes (also known as standing waves) that can either amplify or attenuate certain frequencies based on the length, width, and height of a room. Whenever possible, you want to avoid having the ideal listening spot be dead-center within the confines of walls. Correct speaker placement helps to ensure 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 can often lead to muddy-, dull-, or boomy sounding bass. You'll definitely want to spend the time to correctly place your subwoofer in order to get the best performance. It might involve rearranging some furniture around, so be open to the possibilities!

As for stereo (or even multi-channel) speakers, optimal placement helps to minimize the various room resonances/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, it's time to invest in some affordable stands. Raising the speakers up about five feet will do wonders for fidelity, whether you're sitting or standing. If you've already been using speaker stands, make sure to pull them away from the rear walls a bit. Also, check that they're evenly spaced with respect to the parallel walls (left and right sides) so that you maintain accurate stereo imaging.

Ensure that each speaker is firmly mounted to minimize the possibility of vibrations introducing unwanted noise. And depending on where you plan to enjoy the music with respect to the speakers, you'll definitely want to consider "toeing" them in a bit.

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Find That Sweet Spot

A person sitting in the middle of a home theatre

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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 your speakers, you can't rightly expect to hear the music play so clearly. The ideal listening position should be that "sweet spot" in the room, where you can appreciate the system at its best.

Determining the sweet spot sounds simple on paper. In practice, you can expect to spend a little time measuring and adjusting speakers, equipment, and/or 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. Just remember that if you end up nudging the speakers closer or further away from each other, it will change the overall triangle size and position of the sweet spot.

Once the speakers have been set, angle them in so that they're aiming directly at the sweet spot. This helps to present the best imaging possible for critical listening. If you happen to be sitting/standing on the exact corner of the sweet spot, move one step forward towards 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.

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Use Quality Speaker Wire

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

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One could spend thousands of dollars on speaker cables, although many would agree that doing so is not necessary. However, quality-made speaker cables of the correct gauge can make a significant difference on what you hear coming from your speakers. Use a test track to listen to the difference yourself. 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 definitely not recommended.

At a minimum, purchase speaker wire that is at least 12 gauge — higher numbers represent thinner wires. So don't choose to 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.

Many premium and/or branded cables tout sound-enhancing elements and/or better connections at the ends. There are some audio circles that claim they can hear the difference; others say it's just marketing at its best/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 or degrade/break over time. You can get great cables without having to pay through the nose.

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

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Adjust the Sound Settings on Your Receiver/Amplifier

The front panel of a home stereo receiver

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Most stereo and A/V receivers/amplifiers have a menu system that allows users to adjust various sound functions and features. Among the most important are speaker size, bass output, and speaker volume. The speaker size (large/small) determines the frequency range delivered to the speaker by the receiver. It's limited by the speakers' capabilities, 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 personal 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.

Many receivers and amplifiers also feature advanced decoding algorithms (e.g. Dolby, DTS, THX) in their various forms. When enabled, you can experience a virtual surround sound effect with an expanded soundstage, especially with compatible audio sources and/or from movies and video games. 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 effectively enhance your music genres by having them sound more like jazz, rock, concert, classical, and more.

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