What to Consider When Setting Up Your Listening Room

Dusty vintage hi-fi sets perched atop armoires like forgotten heirlooms, mismatched speakers shunned into corners for convenience, cranked subwoofers ruthlessly overpowering bookshelf stereos… the ears shudder at the wasted sonic potential in dens and living rooms around the world.

But fear not—with a little forethought and effort, any space can be transformed into a satisfying listening environment. Whether you’re starting from scratch or fine-tuning your den of auditory indulgence, keep these principles in mind and people may start obliging when you insist they “Need to really listen to this album.”

The Room Itself

Unless you’re reading this in between trips to the U-Haul, you probably already have an area where you listen to music in your home. And unless you’re an audiophile building an entertainment center from scratch, you’re working within some practical constraints. So whether you have the luxury of choice or just want to better understand what you’re working with, consider these common scenarios:

  • Living rooms are the obvious choice, being the center of most homes and a naturally communal space. There’s plenty of natural light to be had, seating room is abundant, and often these larger open spaces add a subtle but pleasing natural reverberation. The tradeoff in most cases is the inherent foot traffic and other distractions, depending on your living situation.

  • Spare bedrooms and dens have a cozier vibe and a little more privacy (or needed isolation, depending on how your cohabitors feel about your music tastes). Beware though: Small or boxy dimensions can unflatteringly accentuate certain frequencies and cause harsh flutter echoes, so extra thought should be given to acoustic treatments.

  • Furnished basements and attics can make for some of the chillest and grooviest listening spaces. Their isolation lends a clubhouse feel and allows for louder volumes. Such spaces present unique microclimate challenges, however, especially when it comes to record storage. Underground, make sure you’re far away from any place that can let water in, and use a dehumidifier and space heater to maintain comfortable conditions if necessary. Attics are a little trickier, as they can range from cold and drafty or stiflingly hot and stagnant. This, combined with a scarcity of electrical wiring, make it only a good idea to set up shop in a finished attic with HVAC.

Speaker Placement

Most importantly, get your speakers off the floor. Not only will it allow you to crank the volume a bit more before you start hearing banging on the ceiling downstairs, but speaker cabinets also “speak” more naturally when they can resonate on their own, undampened by the mass of your house.

Crates, end tables, or an old-school console are all good alternatives to real speaker stands, but try to make sure you have two of whatever you’re using, for a consistent sound. Speaker isolation products like Auralex MoPads almost completely decouple speakers from surfaces, but a tastefully folded tea towel will work in a pinch.

Any time a sound source is next to a boundary (like a wall) it amplifies the volume and can enhance or nullify certain frequencies, distorting the signal. Being in a corner doubles this effect, and tri-corners such as where the floor and walls meet are even worse. To get the most natural sound out of your speakers, place them at least a few inches from the wall. However, if you have smaller speakers you can naturally amplify them and enhance bass output by intentionally placing them in corners. This is not recommended for subwoofers, however, as they can start to overwhelm the main speakers.

Height is also important for a good stereo image and detailed sound. Higher frequencies are more directional, so positioning your tweeters at ear level (when seated) will ensure you’re hearing the full range coming out of your stereo. Mid-frequency drivers and woofers project more evenly, so positioning is less crucial (that’s why they’re at the bottom of the speaker cabinet, after all). Subwoofers operate at frequencies with almost no directionality, so it’s okay to put them somewhere out of the way (just not in a corner).

Seating and Furniture

Seating arrangement has a huge effect of the functionality and comfort of your space, but it’s largely dictated by the things you already have as well. Arranging your particular set of couches, coffee tables, and the like is your own challenge, but a couple of rules can be applied in any context.

First, pick a sweet spot. Whether your thing is sipping scotch in an armchair spinning Mingus, stretching out on a futon with Sigur Rós in your headphones, or sinking into a beanbag to an endless trance mix, this spot should be the focus. Position yourself in the center of the stereo field (an equilateral triangle between the speakers and the listener is a common standard, but just get close and you’ll be fine) and make sure the volume knob (or remote) is within arm’s reach.

For the rest of the room, just aim for even coverage. Nothing scientific to it—nobody likes being right next to a speaker, tambourine jangling away in their ear. And while trying to hold a conversation, nobody wants to be isolated 10 feet away on the opposite side of the stereo.

Get as into arranging the rest of the seating as you like, but ultimately it comes down to taste, and anything works as long as it’s comfortable. Lava lamps are not ironic in this context, so decorate without shame.

Sound and Treatment

There’s no need to build a specially tuned bass trap or mathematically perfect diffusers to optimize your acoustics, though the plans are out there if you want to go that route. Instead, tap into your inner Martha Stewart and use decor to your advantage—rugs, furniture, and wall decorations can be strategically placed to improve the sound of any room.

If you’re hearing bass buildup or unpleasant resonance, try moving a heavy couch or armchair into the room. The soft mass of the furniture will absorb excess energy, acting as a bass trap to control the sound. If you want to get really precise, plug your room’s dimensions into a room mode calculator and compensate with a graphic equalizer. You’ll see three main problem areas in the low to low-mid range corresponding to length, width, and height—find the closest frequency bands on the EQ and give them each a slight dip to even things out.

If things are sounding thin, you could be sitting in a null zone: a place where sound waves align out of phase and cancel out at certain frequencies. The “38 percent rule” is often used in studio control rooms to find the least problematic spot to monitor from (38 percent of a room’s length from either the front or back wall), but even scooting your seating a bit away from a wall can make a difference.

Flutter echoes and bad acoustics at high-mid frequencies can be fatiguing for the ears and just plain sound bad. There are two ways to go about treating this: diffusion and absorption. Breaking up flat wallspace with pictures, bookshelves, and furniture will diffuse reflections, scattering sound in a more random and pleasing way. Conversely, rugs on the floor and tapestries on the walls will absorb high frequencies, soaking them up before they have a chance to bounce around.

Other Considerations

  • Record Storage: Obviously, ready access to your collection is crucial, but it shouldn’t come at a cost to the records themselves. Your shelves might look good on that wall across from the window, but several hours of direct sunlight every day won’t do your vinyl any favors. Other things to avoid include HVAC ducts, radiators, and anywhere rain could possibly sneak in. If the best spot for storage happens to be far from your stereo equipment, consider keeping a just a crate or two with the current rotation handy.
  • Wiring: Knots of cables, overburdened power strips, and speaker wires stretching across the room like power lines are buzzkills. Use velcro cable ties to keep things tidy behind the scenes, extension cables and surge protectors to provide adequate, safe power, and stick-on hooks or clear tape to neatly run speaker wires across moulding and over door frames.

  • Maintenance: Make room for a small stash of maintenance supplies to avoid being stuck with that scratchy knob or buzzing output. Plastic-safe contact cleaner is indispensable for cleaning electronics, as are cotton swabs, pure alcohol, and compressed air dusters. Replacement cables, speaker wire, and a supply of 1/8”, 1/4”, and RCA adapters will also come in handy. And of course, invest in a quality anti-static record-cleaning brush.