Stop Trying To Shoehorn Speakers Into Small Spaces!

I read a lot of forums and subreddits. One of most common questions I see is “Should I go with 16.6.18 or 22.8.44!” Maybe I am exaggerating, but I see people asking about expanding to very large speaker setups in spaces that aren’t designed for 5.1, let alone 7.1! So today I implore you to stop trying to shoehorn speakers into small spaces! Let’s discuss.

Why Moar Speakers Is Not Always Good

Listen, Bub, I am not trying to be a jerk and dash your goal of having a “dream home theater.” However, I am asking you to use some common sense and take a realistic look at your space before you start to cram speakers into that space.

The Front Soundstage Need Separation

Have you ever wondered why a set of separate speakers sounds better than any soundbar, no matter the price? The answer is s-e-p-a-r-a-t-i-o-n!

Space out your speakers!

When audio engineers mix music or movies, they design the sound to come from speakers that have some level of separation. More importantly, when they are mixing, the speakers in the studio are separated. When you have your right and left speakers too close together, you get a narrow sound stage. It’s particularly revealing with movies because as the action pans across the screen, it doesn’t have that sweeping sound we get at a proper theater.

Cross-firing speaker toe-in

You can sometimes cheat a narrow soundstage by playing with the toe-in of your speakers. In this scenario, rather than toeing in your speakers to point at the listener (triangle shape), you over-exaggerate the toe-in creating an X (this is called cross-firing). This can have the effect of widening your soundstage.

Surround Sound Needs Space

Do me a favor and look at a Dolby speaker placement diagram. Don’t have time? No worries, I will throw one. Do you notice anything in particular?

Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 speaker layout

You got it, you need some space between you and the speakers. The diagram clearly shows that some level of space should be between you and your surround/height/in-ceiling speakers? Why is that?

Sound is a waveform. That means that if you have your side surrounds/surround back/height speakers stacked on either side/behind /in front of you, all that sound is going to mush together and come out as a big, muddled mess. This is a prime reason why you need to stop trying to shoehorn speakers into small spaces!

Near Field Speakers Are Easily Located

Localization is one of the reasons I say stop trying to shoehorn speakers into small spaces. Have you ever sat too close to a conversation and no matter how hard you try to not eavesdrop, you can’t ignore the conversation?

The same thing will happen if you have a set of surround speakers too close to your main listening position. Sure, you can turn down the trim level of your speaker to make it less noticeable, but our brains are wired to detect sound. It’s a survival thing. That means we will still hear that sound and know it’s directly beside us.

Genelec G Five speakers

And don’t get me started on people who put surround-back speakers directly behind their heads. The whole purpose of surround sound is to create a bubble of sound around you that makes you feel as if you are part of the action. I don’t care how low the trim is, those speakers are right behind you and you will know it. Yes, I realize that you can use bi-pole or di-pole speakers to make the sound more diffuse. Or you could not use surround backs.

The Solution

The solution is simple: be realistic. Take a hard look at the space you have. I would love to have front wide, or top middle speakers. Why don’t I? I do not have the space to set them up properly with enough separation. I would just be adding speakers for the sake of adding speakers and saying that I have a 7.4.6 system.

In almost all cases, I would much rather see someone have a properly set up 3.1 system in a small space than have a terrible 5.1 system that will sound horrible. The same logic applies to shoving speakers directly behind you to create a 7.2 system. Ditch the back surround and focus on the best 5.1 system you can make.

Give me a good 3.1 over a bad 5.1!

And don’t you dare contemplate putting surrounds in the ceiling. Say it with me kids, ceilings are for Atmos! I made the mistake of putting my side and back surround speakers on the ceiling because my room wouldn’t allow them at ear level. Do you know what I did? I reconfigured my whole room to allow for surrounds in the proper position and I ditched the rest.

Our Take

I am sincere when I tell you to stop trying to shoehorn speakers into small spaces! It’s not that I don’t want you to have surround sound. I want you to have GOOD surround sound. I will argue that it’s better to have a well dialed-in system with fewer speakers, than a larger system with more speakers that are poorly placed.

Plus, I know that as audio enthusiasts it’s hard for us to back away from that edge. However, sometimes it’s for the better. Know when to say no!

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