There have been various hearing-aid shops, clinics, and Web sites called “Hear Here,” all of them devoted to hearing loss and hearing-loss prevention. It’s a clever title, and I hope they don’t mind my borrowing the phrase for this article, because it pretty much sums up what I’m about to say.
Understand, however, I have no intention of telling you what audio equipment to buy or how you should set up your own system. Despite what you may have heard from some other people--audio authorities and golden ears--home audio remains a very personal matter, and only you can decide what you like; I am not presumptuous enough to know your tastes. Besides, I am not an expert in the field. I do, however, have a very good 2-channel music-listening system (in my living room) and a 7.1-channel home-theater system (in a smaller, adjacent room), and I have written about audio and recorded music for over forty years. The fact is, most of you reading this article already know the stuff I’m going to say. My purpose is merely to offer a few obvious pointers for those of you who may have forgotten something you always meant to do.
It’s like an old audiophile friend told me years ago: “No matter how carefully you set up any system, no matter how much time you spend on it, there’s always something you’ll forget.” Well, here are some reminders.
1. Clean Your Ears
No, I’m not being glib or facile when I say this. I really mean it. It’s normal for everyone’s ears to produce and accumulate earwax. If it’s not removed, it can impede hearing. Commonly, people let it accrue unknowingly over time until little by little their hearing becomes obstructed. Of course, if you have exposed your ears to very loud noises in your lifetime, you may have a more severe hearing loss than you think, which no amount of cleaning will help. (And if you grew up with iPods or earbuds, your life is over.)
If you think earwax is a problem for you (and it probably is if you’ve never done anything about it before), there are several alternative solutions you might explore. The first and best solution is to have a doctor look at your ears. If a doctor sees an issue, he will take it from there.
Among home remedies, the one to avoid is the cotton swab or bobby pin. Do not go poking things in your ears; you risk rupturing the eardrum or at the very least forcing the earwax back into the ear canal, further impacting it and worsening the condition. No, the simplest, and safest, way to clean your ears is to let warm water run through them (for example, while you shower or with a bulb-syringe). Another remedy is to use a light mineral oil, a few drops in each ear, letting it stand for several minutes while you lie on your side, and then flushing with warm water. A further possibility is a dilution of hydrogen peroxide; again, let it stand in each ear for a few minutes and flush with warm water. Or there are various over-the-counter products you can buy that are essentially combinations of mineral oils and peroxide. The main thing is to cleanse the ear canals regularly, some doctors suggesting every week, others no less than once a month.
Note, too, that home remedies are basically for minor wax buildup and daily maintenance. Again, consult a doctor if you think you have a serious hearing issue. Also, if you do use warm water in your ears, be aware of something called otitis, an inflammation of the ear that can develop when water remains in it. It's also called “swimmer's ear.” The best way to dry one's ears after showing or swimming is by using an over-the-counter product like Auro-Dri, which is basically a solution of isopropyl alcohol and boric acid. I've been using a few drops of isopropyl alcohol in my ears for about thirty years now, each morning after showing; but I hesitate to recommend anything medical that you haven’t already tried successfully or that your own doctor hasn’t approved.
Anyway, cherish your ears. You may not know what sounds you’re missing.
2. Speaker Configuration
People have been listening to sound through loudspeakers for over 130 years, unless you count the megaphone as a loudspeaker, in which case make that thousands of years. The most common speaker configurations people use for the home are (1) a single speaker, 1.0, monaural; (2) two speakers, 2.0 stereo, long the favorite of audiophiles for music listening; (3) two speakers and one or more subwoofers, 2.1 stereo, if the two primary speakers need bass augmentation, the .1 (or .2 or .3) indicating the subwoofer or LFE channel, low-frequency effects; (4) three speakers, 3.0, left, right, and center, or 3.1, three speakers and one or more subwoofers; (5) two speakers front and two speakers back, also with one or more subwoofers, 4.0 or 4.1; (6) three front and two back speakers, with or without one or more subwoofers, 5.0 or 5.1, the latter being in most common usage for films these days; (7) 6.0 or 6.1; and (8) 7.0 or 7.1, three front speakers, two sides (surrounds), two back, and one or more subwoofers. Naturally, there are further possibilities than these, specific needs and experimentation being the order of the day.
The advantage of having more than a single speaker is obviously to reproduce more fully and more realistically whatever sound is present in a a recording, a movie, or a broadcast. If there are 5.1 channels involved, the listener might want to take full advantage of them. Certainly, if you’re trying to replicate the experience of a movie theater, you might want a surround-sound system in your home. If you’re reproducing only 2-channel sources, like most music CDs, then a two-speaker setup might be more advantageous (many audiophiles feel that trying to simulate rear-channel activity from a 2-channel source only muddies up the front channels; as I say, personal taste). And if you’re playing back multichannel music CDs, like SACDs, then you might find a center and/or rear speakers to your liking.
The advantage of 7.1 (even though most movies on DVD and Blu-ray don’t come with discrete 7.1) is that it fills in the sound in the rear of the room better than not, especially for a listener slightly off center. Plus, a 7.1 receiver or processor usually provides several options to simulate additional rear-channel signals from a 5.1 source, so you don’t have to worry if there aren’t 7.1 channels actually encoded on the disc.
3. Speaker Choice
Here the reader is pretty much on his own, especially for the two main, front speakers. Nothing is more personal than one’s preference in loudspeakers, and one’s speaker choices are endless. Ideally, a good loudspeaker should reproduce the audio spectrum from 5 - 30K Hz evenly (or flatly), with no undue emphasis in any particular frequency range from the lowest bass to the highest treble; and it should do so with a quick, taut, well-controlled transient response, replicating sounds with precision, clarity, and a minimum of distortion. Unfortunately, no such loudspeaker exists, not here, not anywhere. No matter what the advertising hype tells you or how the reviews read, no speaker is perfect, no matter what the price. Usually, a speaker won’t reproduce anything like the full spectrum of human hearing, and it won’t reproduce the full spectrum evenly.
Then there is that matter of price. Remember, it’s all relative. I know a lot of people talk about their super speakers costing in the thousands of dollars--two, three thousand dollars for their 5.1 system. Yet if you break that down, a $3,000 5.1 speaker setup is only about $500 a speaker. In the broad scheme of things, that’s a mid-priced or mid-fi speaker. Why? Because you can buy speakers anywhere from $50 or $100 a pair to well over $100,000 a pair. Case in point: My old friend Dave Wilson sells his Wilson Audio Alexandria XLFs for about $200,000 a pair. Are they the perfect speaker, the Holy Grail of audiophiledom? No, but they’re close. And they damn well ought to be at that price.
My recommendation for choosing speakers is to use a little common sense. How many speakers do you need? How much can you afford to spend on them? Look on the Internet for speaker reviews and owner comments. Narrow down your choices and then listen, listen, listen. Do you have special likes, special tonal priorities? Do you want a nearly neutral speaker (the elusive goal) or one that is bass prominent, or forward in the midrange, or bright in the upper midrange and treble, or hollow, or boomy, or whatever. You’ll find them all out there. It’s best, naturally, to be familiar with the sound of live, unamplified music, so if you can get out to an orchestral or jazz concert once in a while, one unhampered by being reproduced through a stage full of loudspeakers, you might try to do it.
A few years ago I bought a pair of floor-standing VMPS RM40 speakers from the late Brian Cheney for my 2-channel living-room music system because they were the best things I could find for the money (although still pricey at about $6,500 a pair). Quite a ways back, I also chose Boston Acoustics and Energy e:XL speakers for my home theater because I thought they sounded as good as anything in their price range with movie material, and because they were small enough for the restricted space in my home-theater room. Would I have liked four RM40s in a home theater double the size of the one I have now? Sure thing. Heck, I’d love to have four of Dave’s Alexandrias, too. But for most of us there’s a limit to everything.
Be aware, too, that if you are going for full surround, not all of your 5.1 or 7.1 speakers need to be exactly alike (and obviously not the subwoofer), although, yes, the two main front speakers should be identical. For instance, the center speaker needs mainly to reproduce midrange frequencies, mostly dialogue. It does not necessarily have to be a full-range speaker. The side (surround) and rear speakers need not be full-range, either, if you’re using a subwoofer. The sub will fill in the lower frequencies nicely from about 100 Hz (Hertz = cycles per second) on down, and bass frequencies below about 80 Hz are omnidirectional, anyhow; that is, they don’t seem to be coming from any specific point and can appear to be coming from wherever the dominant note is coming from. So if a primary bass note is in, say, the 90 Hz range, the primary signal will probably come from one of the five main speakers, indicating its specific direction, and the bass woofer will fill in the part of the signal beneath that, appearing to come from the same place as the primary signal. Make sense? The upshot is that you can get away with smaller side and rear speakers than front speakers. You can even let the subwoofer do a lot of the work of the two, main front speakers as well, leaving the possibility of small satellite speakers in front. The only minor issue with small satellite speakers is that they can sometimes be too small to produce convincingly the big sound fields needed for things like symphony orchestras.
Exceptions? Of course. For example, the folks at NHT (Now Hear This) of Benicia, California, make a full line of speakers from satellites to bookshelves to floor-standing models that all sound good (http://www.nhthifi.com). You might check out several of their relatively small, reasonably priced products, which along with a matched NHT subwoofer produce big, neutral, well-balanced sound. Or, for that matter, you might investigate all of NHT’s speakers; they are among the best values in the audio market, and these days they’re ones I would choose over my Boston Acoustics units. Still, I digress; I’m not here to sell you on anything in particular, only to provide general guidelines.
4. Speaker Placement
As crazy as it may seem, speaker placement appears to be a mystery to a lot of folks. I can’t tell you the number of homes I’ve been in where people have placed two fairly expensive loudspeakers in oddball locations: like both speakers sitting behind large pieces of furniture, or one speaker sitting on the floor and another on a mantel, or both speakers mounted on the ceiling facing downward, or one speaker facing a wall and the other upside down, etc. You can imagine how much tougher the situation may be with 5.1 or 7.1 speakers to locate.
In a 2-channel system, the two speakers should be at ear level and approximately as far apart as the listener is away from them. In a 5.1 or 7.1 home-theater system, the two main, front speakers would ideally sit next to the television left and right, at a height that approximates the listener’s ears from the central listening position. Floor-standing speakers may already be at the proper height for good listening. Bookshelf speakers may require a stand (or in the case of my home theater a column of large, 10” x 10” x 4” concrete building bricks, spray painted flat black, the bricks providing a solid, nonresonant foundation for the speakers). Furthermore, depending on the directionality (or beaming, usually of higher frequencies) of the speakers, you may have to angle them toward the listening area for best results.
The distance between the two front speakers, as I say, should be about the same distance the listener is sitting away from them. Thus, the listener would sit on one corner of the proverbial listening triangle. Still, some listeners prefer to have their speakers closer together and other listeners prefer them farther apart. Brian Cheney, who built and sold the VMPS speakers I use, recommended that his VMPS RM40s be relatively close together and angled in so that their sound waves cross about a foot or so in front of the listener. Again, I suggest you experiment.
In addition, in a 5.1 or 7.1 home-theater system the left/right front speakers should be approximately on the same plane as the TV so that the sound doesn’t appear to be coming from any higher, lower, closer, or farther away location than the action on the screen. The center speaker should sit on top of or just beneath the TV screen (unless you have an actual projection screen, in which case you could put the speaker behind it), so that dialogue seems to be coming from the middle of the screen.
Now, for the back speakers in a 5.1 setup, they should be on the back wall behind the listening position, preferably at the same distance from the listener as the front speakers or maybe a little closer, and slightly above the listener’s ears. In a 7.1 setup, the side (surround) speakers should also be at the same distance away from the listening position as the front speakers and, again, slightly above the listener. What’s more, Dolby Labs recommends the rear speakers in a 7.1 setup be relatively close together. Take a look at your own favorite movie theater for guidance. You’ll see loudspeakers positioned along the side walls, above the seats, and you’ll see loudspeakers on the back wall, again above the seats. Try to duplicate this arrangement as well as you can in your own home-theater room. That’s what it’s all about.
Warning: Speaker placement may require rearranging the furniture. I consider myself lucky in that the Wife-O-Meter has always been very accommodating. However, not all spouses may see things the same way. If you’re single, you’re probably OK. And later you can use the speaker-placement test as one criterion for a prospective mate.
5. Initial Speaker Settings
For a 2-channel stereo system, this should be simple, unless you’re using a 5.1 or 7.1 amplifier. Be aware that filmmakers mix most of the motion-picture soundtracks you hear in theaters today for 5.1 tracks, with only a few in discrete 7.1. In order to play back these 5.1 and 7.1 combinations in the home, you’ll need a receiver or processor capable of reproducing and amplifying the requisite number of discrete channels. Also be aware that if you are going to play back more channels than are actually present in the source, you will have to set your receiver or processor to a “surround mode” that will simulate channels that are not really there. For example, most modern receivers and processors have several Dolby and THX surround modes (e.g., Dolby Pro-Logic IIx/Movie) that do a good job simulating center and rear channels from 2-channel sources and simulating 7.1 channels from 5.1 sources.
Moreover, if you are using a subwoofer, you will want to cross it over at a point that takes full advantage of a receiver’s, processor’s, and/or disc’s low frequency effects. Consequently, it’s best to adjust the receiver/processor crossover to your preference and the subwoofer to a by-pass setting, if possible. For instance, THX recommends 80 Hz as a bass crossover point. In addition, THX recommends that if you use a subwoofer, you set your other speakers to “Small.” If you don’t have a subwoofer, you should set your speakers to “Large” and allow them to reproduce their full frequency range. Have I mentioned experimentation before?
6. Speaker Balance
Now that you have chosen your speakers and placed them in their proper positions, the next step is to measure the distance from the listening position to each speaker and, if it’s a 5.1 or 7.1 setup, adjust for this distance in your receiver’s or processor’s setup menu. The idea here is that in a multichannel system not all of your speakers may be the same distance away from the listening position, so the equipment can introduce delays to compensate for lag times. That way, the sound from each speaker location reaches your ears at the exact millisecond it should, depending on the surround settings you have chosen.
After that, you should balance each speaker’s output relative to the others. Many receivers and processors have built-in programs, with microphones, to accomplish this and other calculations for you automatically. Nevertheless, I prefer to do it manually rather than rely on generalized estimates. As always, you have choice with most of today’s audio equipment.
Here’s what I did: I bought an inexpensive sound-level meter. Radio Shack still sells basically the same model they’ve been peddling for the last fifty years (the readout is now digital). I bought one in 1976 for $49.95, and I believe Radio Shack still sells it for around that price today. It’s the cost of a couple of Blu-ray discs, and it will help you immensely now and in the future. The only drawback to the Radio Shack meter is that its built-in microphone (like those that come with most receivers) isn’t entirely accurate throughout its frequency range. The Radio Shack model is a little off track above 1K Hz and below 100 Hz, so I don’t recommend using it for frequency-response balancing or system equalizing, for which you might need a more precise unit; and professional-grade sound-level meters can be expensive (although there is one for about $129, the Galaxy CM-140, that I’ve heard works pretty well).
Better yet for these purposes, if you own a smartphone or iPhone, you can download a sound-pressure meter for free. It uses your phone’s built-in microphone (which, again, hasn’t the widest range so you won’t want to use it for frequency response tests), but it doesn’t matter much when all you’re doing is comparing the midrange output of your various speakers to one another in order to balance them. And you can’t beat free.
My point is that any sound-pressure meter will do nicely for our purposes here, which is simply to be sure that each of your speakers is producing the same sound level at the listening position for the same measured frequency. For this procedure, you’ll use your 5.1 or 7.1 receiver’s built-in test tones, usually centered in the 800 - 1K Hz range, so even if the Radio Shack or smartphone microphone is not completely linear, you’ll be measuring results at the same frequency, which should be relative to each other from speaker to speaker (except in the case of the bass woofer, which we’ll get to in a minute).
Now, your receiver’s manual will probably tell you that all of your speakers should produce the same sound level at the listening position. This is generally true. Just don’t trust your ears; use the meter. And then you might find you want to make some further adjustments according to personal taste. In my case, I have turned down the center speaker by three or four decibels; otherwise, I have found most DVDs and Blu-rays produce for my taste a little too much center-channel response, which tends to limit the left-to-right stereo spread.
Bass is always the bugaboo. Not only are the Radio Shack and smartphone meters relatively unreliable at the lowest frequencies, so is your listening room. Depending on where you take a measurement, the low-end sound level could vary by as much ten or fifteen decibels. The same goes for the placement of the subwoofer. Put it in a corner and it will produce louder bass (not necessarily deeper, but surely louder mid bass). Measure the low-end output in any corner of the room, and it’s liable to be quite a bit higher than in any other place. My suggestion: Stick to a bass measurement at the exact placement of your ears in the listening position and forget about the other locations around the room (unless you want to play around with expensive acoustic treatments, sound dampening pillars, and such). And here, too, because you may not be able to trust the meter entirely, you should also use your own judgment. Bass usually has to be louder in actual decibels than higher frequencies to sound subjectively as loud as they do, so again experiment. Then, too, some people just like more bass. And audiophiles often don’t like any deep bass at all because low-frequency overhang can muddy up the all-important midrange. Sill, movies are an entirely different matter, so, again, personal taste comes into play.
7. Frequency Response
Oh, dear. What can one do about a system’s frequency response? You’ll remember that nothing is perfect. Even if the speakers you just paid an arm and a leg for are absolutely flat in their response from 5 - 30,000 Hz, your own listening-room acoustics and seating position would doubtless mess them up. So, what to do? If you have a 5.1 or 7.1 receiver, you could leave it to the equipment’s built-in microphone and metering program to equalize and flatten out the room response, hoping for the best. Or if you’re looking to get the best from even a two-speaker system, you could buy a costly calibrated microphone and a costly one-half or one-third octave equalizer to help flatten out the sound. (I use a twelve-band octave equalizer and a full-spectrum analyzer in my 2-channel music-listening system, but it’s nothing I’d recommend to others.) Or you could buy equally costly sound-baffling materials for the walls to reduce unwanted reflections and/or buy or build a series of bass traps (porous or resonating absorbers) for the room to dampen low-frequency energy. Or you could just play it by ear. Of the available options, unless you have very deep pockets or you have a finicky audiophile obsession, I recommend playing it by ear. If your system sounds too bright to you, turn down the treble slightly. If it’s too bassy or not bassy enough, adjust the bass slightly. If the frequency response is really out of whack, you probably need to investigate new speakers or take the ones you just bought back to the store and exchange them for something else.
Oh, and if you’re using a multichannel receiver or processor, don’t forget to turn off the unit’s dynamic-range suppressor (sometimes called the “Night Mode”). Nothing will kill the sonic impact of an otherwise great audio system more than limiting its dynamic-range. Dynamic range is the difference in measured output level between two different sounds, the overall dynamic range of a disc being the difference in decibels between its loudest and softest notes. If a disc’s output doesn’t go from very, very soft to very, very loud, it probably doesn’t have a very wide dynamic range in the first place, or the equipment has triggered the suppressor function by mistake, or you’ve gone and turned on the dynamic-range compression yourself, probably because you didn’t know what it was. Dynamic-range compression is good for listening late at night when you don’t want to wake up the house, but, otherwise, fuhgeddaboudit.
If you have any doubts or concerns, consider Mr. Neuman’s philosophy: “What--me worry?” You’ll get through.