How to Listen to Music in Stereo

03/20/2014

I’ve always been surprised that most reviews of standalone speakers or iPod dock speakers don’t mention stereo separation. Those sorts of speakers only provide stereo sound if they are right in front of your head; even then, the speakers might not be far enough apart. The same is true with sound bars. They’re not very wide, and they don’t provide true stereo imaging. Even if you have two speakers, if they’re not far enough apart, then you don’t really hear stereo.

In an interesting article on Cnet, Steve Guttenberg asks Do you ever get to really hear stereo sound? He has a point. Most people either listen to devices, such as those I mention above, that don’t have good stereo separation, or they don’t have their speakers set up correctly to really hear stereo. Do you?

I listen to music in stereo, in both my office and in the living room. Here’s a picture from my office from when I recently bought new desktop speakers. These speakers are set up for “near-field listening,” where the speakers and my head are roughly the points of an equilateral triangle.

Miles midnight

Guttenberg says the speakers “should be at least 24 inches apart when you’re sitting a few feet away.” I think there must be more separation than that, and, in my setup, the speakers are about four feet apart. I could move them a bit closer together — perhaps a foot — and still get good separation, but not much more than that. However, if the speakers are too far apart, then the separation becomes too noticeable. It’s a tough balance.

But you also need the speakers to be at almost exactly the same distance from each ear; if not, you’ll hear one louder than the other, and it won’t sound like true stereo. This is not a problem if you have a listening setup with a single seat for a listener, but once you get into a room where more than one person will listen, either none of them will be in the center and hear stereo, or one person – the one in the center – will hear stereo and the others won’t.

Guttenberg also discusses the height of speakers. He says they should be “near the seated height of the listeners’ ears to produce the most accurate stereo imaging.” Actually, what is important is that the tweeters be at the height of the listeners’ ears; this is because high-frequency waves are very small, and they don’t spread out very much from tweeters. Low-frequency waves, coming from larger speakers, spread out much more, so their height makes less of a difference. And with subwoofers, you can place them almost anywhere in your listening room, because the waves at those frequencies are so long.

I also agree with Guttenberg that headphones are not very realistic. I enjoy listening to music on headphones, but I do understand that it’s not the way the music should really sound. The music is in your head, and the right and left channels are all the way to the right and left of the soundstage. Often, if a specific instrument is mostly one one channel[1], it will be too far from center on headphones, even if it sounds acceptable on speakers. For music to sound “right” on headphones, it would have to be mixed for that type of listening.

What about live music? If you’re attending a concert with unamplified instruments – say, an orchestra or string quartet – then you’re hearing the sound as it should be (though it’s not “stereo;” it’s true surround sound). But if you attend a concert with amplification, you’re listening to speakers. Unless you’re centered close to the stage, you’re not hearing stereo at all. If you’re far back in an arena, you’re hearing a blend of all the speakers, and are unlikely to notice any instruments that are more weighted to one channel or the other, for the same reason you may not be hearing music in stereo at home.

I very much appreciate mono recordings. In fact, since I’ve discovered the great mono mixes of the pre-stereo days, I’ve realized just how artificial stereo sounds. Perhaps, some day, someone will invent a holographic speaker, where you only need one speaker to hear music that surrounds you. If so, you won’t need to worry so much about speaker placement. But until then, if your speakers aren’t set up correctly, you’re not hearing the music the way it was mixed.

Take some time to try out your speakers in different setups: in different positions, with more or less space between them, and with different amounts of space in front of walls. If you have speakers next to your TV, try distancing them from the screen. Start by moving them a foot or two, then try moving them as much as possible. Find the right balance; you may find that your music sounds very different indeed.