Auto speaker setup: A less than perfect solution?

Sure, your receiver's auto-setup may work perfectly, but then again, it may not. Try the manual setup, it may sound a lot better.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

You may be able to make much better sound without auto setup. Steve Guttenberg

Auto speaker setup and calibration is a popular feature on almost every receiver and a lot of home-theater-in-a-box systems.

Sure, it sounds like a peachy idea, but the accuracy of auto setup is hardly a sure thing; and at their worst, auto setup systems sound worse than no setup at all.

Ideally, the setup system automatically determines speaker sizes (large or small), measures speaker-to-listener distances, sets the volume levels of all of the speakers, determines the proper subwoofer volume level, checks that all the speaker wires' "+" and "-" connections are properly oriented at the speaker and receiver ends, and calculates the subwoofer-to-speaker crossover point. Some receivers also employ EQ (equalization) curves to correct for speaker and room acoustic anomalies.

What's not to like? Well, it the auto setup worked perfectly, nothing.

But they're mostly flawed: Subwoofer calibrations are almost always off. Auto calibration systems boost the sub volume much too high, and overestimate the sub distance to the listener by a factor of two (so a 10 foot distance becomes 20 or more feet).

Worse yet, auto setup systems rarely set the subwoofer-to-satellite speakers crossover frequency to the optimum point. That is, they tend to set the crossover too high, say 150 Hertz, which unnecessarily restricts the speakers' bass response. The speakers might sound better with a lower crossover setting. I recommend 80Hz for all speakers with 4- to 6-inch woofers; 100Hz for 3-inch woofers; and higher settings of 120Hz or 150Hz only for the tiniest speakers.

Accessing the measurement data post auto setup can be tricky on some receivers. Then you really don't know what you have.

Thing is, manual setup isn't all that difficult and will likely be more accurate. And chances are you wouldn't muck up the distances as poorly as the autosetup would. Running the test tones over the speakers and manually adjusting the sound by ear or with a Radio Shack meter isn't so hard to do.

The EQ programs, such as the various Audyssey systems found on Onkyo and Denon receivers; Yamaha's Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer; and Pioneer's MCACC Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration might improve the sound of your speakers, and you will have to run the autosetup to access the EQ feature. But again, please don't assume the EQ will always sound better than no EQ. I usually prefer the sound with the EQ turned off. But turning it off isn't so easy, it's frequently buried on a hard-to-find menu.

My advice: Perform the manual setup and see if you're satisfied with the sound. If not, go ahead and run the autosetup, and see if it's an improvement. Just be aware it may not be so easy to undo. Consult the owner's manual and see if it offers information about how to reset the receiver to its factory default settings.

If you've done the manual vs. auto setup, tell us what you heard.