The Gearhead: Breaking The Rules

Yesterday, I got a chance to use an advanced speaker positioning trick to fix a centering issue for a customer, one which bends (if not entirely breaks) a traditional HiFi rule.

An engineer once showed me this method; if it weren’t instantly effective or hadn’t been shown to me by an expert, I doubt I’d have tried it on my own. Surely doing so would cause damage to the delicate soundstage. Rules are rules for a reason, right?

The audiophile journey tends to take us from tight-as-a-drum to to a looser place regarding HiFi dogma. I think all of us start with a more rigid adherence to the audio norms we become aware of as we explore the ins and outs of the labyrinthian hobby. But over time, we notice some truths by experience that don’t align with the conventional wisdom we read.

Strong, unwavering statements are a norm in HiFi audio discussions. Without more context, newbies learn the rules in a lo-fi sense before years of experience can refine their understanding and awaken them to the nuance within scientific paradigms.

When positioning speakers in a room for example, I’ve learned to be flexible. Common tips and placement advice I find are most often predicated on ideal conditions or assuming the room is a simple shape.

Real life is different. Multiple factors force audiophiles to place their systems in less-than-ideal locations or locations that are good but occupy space in a room that is far from simple in shape and geometry.

Some listening spaces have stairwells nearby. That’s a pressure exit that affects bass response.

Other systems are off-center in a room, with one side open and the other featuring a wall boundary.

The non-centered system is probably the most common audiophile setup challenge (I have two systems like that) and it was the case in the customer’s room. Here’s where the placement trick comes into play.

The problem? The center image is pulled to one side, the side with the closer boundary. It makes sense - there’s more energy reflected to the listening position from that side.

The rule we’re breaking is that of the perfect listening triangle. While the speakers do need to be almost exactly the same distance from the listening position to work in phase with each other and create stereo holography, there is a small gray area here, and you can make minor adjustments to the triangle.

It’s more a bending of the rule because beyond an inch or two of front-back adjustment (more or less, depending on listening distance), too much movement of one speaker and the stereo experience begins to fall apart.

You only need a slight adjustment to fix these typical imbalance issues from non-centered systems. Yesterday, it was all of a half-inch scoot forward of the speaker closest to the open space before the center image snapped into place.

Actually, I first moved it too far forward and heard that side of the center-panned vocalist get hazy. I moved it back just 2 millimeters and the sense of center image “lock-in” was heard by everyone.

Learning that you can bend and more effectively interpret some rules in audio is just another step in the journey. But it’s also a reminder that the discovery and application of information is what leads us to a deeper emotional connection to our music and keeps us fascinated to find out more.