Cross-Firing Speaker Toe-In – When and Why
We’ve railed against the Dolby diagrams strictly because they seem to indicate that every speaker in your home theater should be pointed directly at the MLP or Main Listening Position. This speaker configuration is rarely the one that sounds the best. Generally speaking, many speakers will sound better to most people on the couch if everyone is slightly off-axis. This requires you to play with toe-in until the speakers provide uniform sound to every seat on your couch. But one speaker position we’ve never covered is cross-firing toe-in. This is when you point your left speaker at the right side of your couch and the right speaker at the left side (diagrams above and below). If you drew a line from the front of your speakers, they would cross in front of your couch. This seems counterintuitive to every single piece of advice out there. So why or when would you use this? Let’s discuss.
Understanding the Phantom Speaker Effect
We’ve talked a lot about phantom center speakers in the past. But, in general, if you have two speakers playing the same content, and you stand midway between them, the sound will seem to emanate from the midpoint between the two speakers. This is because each of your ears is receiving the same information at the same volume. If there was a single source of the sound directly in front of you, this is how it would sound to your ears. For this reason, your brain “places” the sound directly between the two speakers.
What Happens When You Aren’t In the Center
The problem with the phantom speaker effect is when you are closer to one speaker than the other. For example, what if you only have two speakers (no center speaker) and you are sitting on the left side of the couch. Now, the left speaker is closer to you than the right. This makes the left speaker louder and shifts the center image away from the center point between the two speakers (presumably where your TV lives) and towards the left. Now, the phantom center is putting the voices not from your TV but from directly in front of you. While your brain will often re-locate the voices back to the TV because of what you are seeing, this isn’t always the case.
Cross-Firing Speaker Toe-In to the Rescue!
In the cross-firing speaker toe-in position, you aim the left speaker at the right side of the couch and the right speaker at the left side of the couch. In the example above where you are sitting on the left side of the couch, the left speaker will be off-axis to you while the right speaker will be directly on-axis. The on-axis speaker will sound a bit louder because of this orientation and the off-axis speaker will sound slightly softer. This moves the phantom center speaker back towards the midpoint of the two speakers for the listener. This orientation is generally good for the entire couch as it ensures that the phantom image is as close to the midpoint between the two speakers as possible for every listener. The downside is that the MLP (Main Listening Position) at the center of the couch is off-axis to both speakers.
You’ll Need Acoustic Panels
One very important point is that you’ll want to place acoustic panels on your side walls to maximize the effectiveness of the cross-firing speaker toe-in orientation. Specifically, you want them on the wall exactly where the left and right speakers will initially reflect. This would be the same positioning for catching a slap echo from a center speaker. The idea is that you want to catch the direct reflection before it starts to bounce around the room and mess with the imaging from your speakers. In the cross-firing toe-in positioning, having panels at these two points (one for each speaker) is paramount.
Who Needs Cross-Firing Speaker Toe-In Positioning?
It is clear that if you only have two speakers (stereo setup) and are not getting a cohesive phantom image for every seat on your couch, cross-firing speaker toe-in can help. But what about those with a surround sound setup? Could this speaker arrangement work for them as well?
The answer is yes. For the most part, the center speaker will anchor all the voices at the TV. But not all sounds are mixed directly into the center channel. Any sounds that pan from side to side could be affected by the poor imaging of your left and right speakers.
More importantly, many people prefer to listen to their content “as it was mixed.” So if it is a 5.1 mix, they only want their front left, right and center speakers playing along with their side surrounds and subwoofer. They don’t want their surround back speakers or Atmos speakers to be upmixed by their AV receiver. This means that stereo will only come from the left and right speakers (along with their subwoofer). Often, this is when they notice that their phantom center image isn’t resolving convincingly and start looking for solutions. Setting up speakers in the cross-firing toe-in position can help.
Have you tried cross-firing your left and right speakers? Let us know how it worked for you in your room in the comments below!