Title me image by Steve Jurvetson, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Position your speakers
Is your audio or home-theatre set-up performing at its best? These simple tips will help you lift the fidelity of your music and movie experience.
Proper speaker positioning is by far and away the most important step to take towards achieving better sound. There are two aspects at play:
In relation to you
The two front speakers and your head should create a perfect equilateral triangle. The speakers should point towards you, and not face directly forward. All speakers must be at the same height, and if you have a tall speaker with several elements, then aim to have the tweeter level with your ears.
In relation to the room
Create a clear space around each speaker. Aim to have at least a foot of space in all directions around the speaker, so that the sound waves can travel unimpeded and are free of nearby surfaces that cause reverberations. Raise any speakers that are resting on a flat surface, such as a bookshelf. Sound is muddied and boomy when it has to travel across a flat surface, so even adding a couple of books under the speaker can make a big difference.
Make sure the distance between the speaker and each nearby surface is unequal; otherwise, a "megaphone" effect is created, where in-sync reflected sound waves can muddy and overwhelm the sound from the speakers themselves. Try to aim for an odd multiple in each direction, as this will reduce the perceived resonance by creating overlapping non-synchronous sound waves. So, for example, if a speaker is 30cm from the wall behind it, the distance to the wall or surface beside it must not be 60cm, 90cm, etc.
Chair in Corner image by Stephen Nakatani, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Try to avoid having your chair flush against the back wall (or any other large, flat surface near your head). All of your hard work and financial investment can come undone if sound waves are not free to travel unimpeded around your head. Surfaces close to your ears cause sound to feel one dimensional and muddy.
A high-back chair should be avoided for the same reason. Slouching into the couch won't help matters, either — but hey, we all do it. For special occasions, pull out a comfy low-back chair and set it in the sweet spot for your absolute favourite tracks and movies.
SVS SB12-Plus image by this guy, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
It's imperative that your speakers are completely stable and isolated from the surface they sit on. The reason for this is that when speakers wobble, even slightly, they create a Doppler effect, which manifests as a constant background humming.
Any decent speaker stand has spikes on the base, and that's what they're there for. A small investment in a set of stands with spikes on the base is one you will certainly appreciate.
Stimmgabel image by amonja, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Tune your room
Most listening environments comprise of a complex set of shapes and materials, each of which has a different effect on the sound before it has a chance to reach your ears.
The trick is to balance things out, and if you're serious about your sound, that means a little rearranging. The key is to have opposing surfaces that have opposing sound qualities. Reflective and absorbent are your yin and yang. A carpeted floor will be countered by the hard ceiling, so that's one thing you don't need to worry about. However, other items in the room may need attention.
A coffee table or bookshelf can be used to counter a room with many plush chairs. Hanging a picture or mirror can have a positive effect. Look at your room, spot the obvious culprits and work to create balance.
Avoid cavities, particularly empty bookshelves, which create a hollow booming quality. Fill those shelves!
Many of the better home-theatre amplifiers include a special microphone and EQ tuning function for calibration, tweaking the final output after a simple test to suit the characteristics of your particular room.
OFC Speaker cable image by MIKI Yoshihito, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Use better cables
It's perfectly acceptable to mock those who spend hundreds of dollars per metre (or more!) on cable. But only because the diminishing return on investment when you hit the high end of esoteric audiophile cables is so low — you'll need a super-expensive system to notice. For the rest of us, though, there is a sizeable gain to be had from upgrading to better cable if what you're using is low quality.
It's all a function of distance. The further your speakers are from the source, the more they suffer from electrical resistance, as well as power loss. Thicker cables have lower resistance, so they are able to carry the signal to your speakers without meaningful loss. Cables made from copper offer the lowest resistance, so if your cables aren't copper, that alone is reason for an upgrade.
A cable's thickness is denoted by its "gauge", which ranges from 0 to around 40 for audio. A gauge of 16 is a great sweet spot for price/performance, and can accommodate speakers placed up to 24 metres from the source.
If your Hi-Fi has been in service for a few years, it's time to give the ends of the cables a clean. Dust and general household muck builds up and degrades the electrical connection and, thus, audio quality. So give the exposed ends of the cables a polish with emery cloth or a very fine grade of sandpaper until they shine.