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A step-by-step speaker set up method,
based on physics that allows us to
properly place speakers for optimum performance in virtually any room.
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Sumiko Master Speaker Setup

A great deal has already been written about this process but I feel I need to add my two cents worth. I was trained at Sumiko in Berkeley over 10 years ago and have been refining the technique and educating my ears with my system ever since. At full retail price, including all cables, etc., my system is under $20,000.00 and I have had numerous 30 year audiophiles say they've never heard any hi fi at any price do what mine does, particularly in the areas of ambiance retrieval, the sense of space of the recording or performance venue, and total coherence and naturalness of sound coupled with an overall feeling of relaxation and immersion into the music.

The speakers should start out along the long wall, right up against the wall,where we know they sound the worst, as evenly spaced out as nearly as possible from the acoustic center of the room. If there is a sub-bass system or subwoofer in the room it needs to be bypassed or disconnected. If you prefer a warmer sound, have the speakers closer together than "normal", if a clearer sound is preferred, further apart is better. Have the left speaker toed-in so you can still see the side of the cabinet in it's entirety, but just barely. Planar speakers should still be toed-in so that the center of the panel points to a point about a foot to a foot and a half behind your head when at the listening position. The right speaker should be parallel/perpendicular to the back wall. If you have side firing woofers, fire them out, not at each other.

The initial piece of music used for the set is The Ballad of the Runaway Horse - Rob Wasserman with Jennifer Warnes - Duets Album. It's also available on Famous Blue Raincoat, 24 Karat Gold CD, or you can download it. The song needs to be played at a loud level (probably louder than you normally listen) in order to pressurize the room properly and make the bass nodes readily apparent. When listening for the bass nodes you're listening for three things, Linearity, Extension, and Output. L-E-O. Linearity, so you can hear all the notes being played, Extension, so when the big, low notes are hit they really go down there, and Output so there's plenty of bass.

Remove the spikes for now. Start the song, and slowly move the left speaker into the room searching for LEO until you hear the first bass nodes' arrival. Keep a bit of toe-in, but the perfect toe angle is not real critical at this time. The first bass node should be somewhere between 14 - 16 inches out from the wall. Mark it with tape, and continue to move the speaker out slowly. You'll know when you hit nodes, particularly in E & O, so keep marking about 4 or 5 of your favorites. There is no one perfect node. One caveat - the best node is the one where the vocal part of the song is neither overshadowed by the bass nor overly strident in relation to the bass. Planar speakers are more sensitive to left and right placement for the best bass than box speakers are. After you find your favorite nodes, go back to them in succession and choose the best one for you and how it feels. At about 2:27 into the song, Jennifer hits a relatively aggressive note. If it makes you cringe, even just a little, you'll need to keep searching for a better placement of the speaker; either further into the room, or further to the left or right. The upper midrange of vocals, male or female, need to sound transparent yet smooth, no cringing allowed! This process is easier with a partner, but can be done alone. If you are by yourself, and your speakers are ported, place your hand in or right in front of the port, and you'll be able to feel an increase in the amount of air coming out of the port when nodes are hit. This aspect of this process is absolutely critical, so take your time and find the place where the music really sings, but no one part of it dominates. Sometimes, an adjustment of as little as half an inch can make a difference.

Now, because the left speaker is well into the room and the right speaker is against the wall, Jennifer will be well left of center. Think of the left speaker as being a hinge in a gate. The next step is to "swing the gate", or bring out the right speaker with a small amount of toe-in so that Jennifer jumps to dead center between the speakers. This is not a quick and easy adjustment, it needs to be done with care and accuracy. This is the adjustment that gets the speakers working together as a unit for the most natural sound. She should sound as if she's directly in front of your optimum listening position. You should hear an increase in bass output, as the woofers are now moving the air in unison.She should not move from side to side if you move your head, the center image should remain stable.

Now we begin the truly magical part of this process - the adjustments of rake angle and toe-in. The toe-in should be more if the speakers are way far apart, and less if the speakers are close together. Toe-in and rake angle adjustments are mandatory, regardless of recommendations from the manufacturer or info in the owners manual! My owners manual says for best sound my speakers are to be perpendicular to the floor and not toed-in at all, this is undeniably wrong. When adjusting toe-in, imagine the sound emanating from the speakers as spherical, and adjust the toe so the outermost spheres barely overlap in the middle, focusing the vocalist with proper scale. Jennifer's mouth should be properly sized, not three feet wide or a pinpoint.

Next comes the most dramatic adjustment of all - the one that affects image height, soundstage width and sense of space. Re-install the spikes so that the speaker is level and does not rock at all. The folks at Sumiko stay with the Jennifer Warnes cut here, but I prefer to use a song off Hootie & the Blowfishs' Fairweather Johnson album - Tootie - #13. Darius Rucker is about 5'9", and he's right in the middle; plus the song has great emotion, evenly paced and played bass, and has terrifc spatial cues.

Right now, Darius will sound as if he's on his knees singing, so the rake angle needs to go back to allow him to stand up. Adjust the spikes of the left speaker until he does just that; but enough so that his voice is the proper height for a man of 5'9" (62-63" off the floor if you have the uncontrollable need to measure something). If you can't get enough rake before you run out of spike to get him tall enough, then it's time to use sound saucers or similar under the front spikes to make it happen. I've even had to take out the rear spikes and just use the front ones on some brands of speakers. Some speakers, even those with angled front baffles, need a large amount of rake to move the vocal to proper height. It might feel weird to use this much rake, or look even weirder, but trust me, it's crucial for the magic to happen. It's very important, however, to use the least amount of rake to get him to stand up. If you tilt the speakers too far back, you can lose detail and tonal balance can change, even to the point where the center image is too soft or recessed.After this is done, the accompanying musicians will sound like they're tilted funny - one lower than the other. Adjust the spikes of the right speaker until the rake angle matches the left. Use a laser level to help make it easier to match rake angles. Double check the top of the speakers for level, and make sure both speakers are rock-solid stable. Once the rake angles are matched, the sound will now blossom and expand out beyond the boundaries set by the speakers and sometimes beyond the room. The illusion of the soundstage should be past the speakers and coming further into the room, and the same distance on each side. Ambient sound can sometimes be a full 90 degrees to the side of your listening position. Minor adjustments to the toe-in can create and fine tune this effect. Don't freak out if the toe-in angles are different from each other - it's the sound that matters, not a perfectly symmetrical look. Sometimes, because of the reflective properties of the room or the distances from the side walls, different amounts of toe-in are necessary. My listening room definitely has this characteristic. Now, turn the lights down or off, start the song over, and you should be immersed in music, no sense of annoyance or irritation from the music, regardless of how loud you play it. The instruments will be properly placed, at accurate heights, and Darius will be right where he belongs. The sense of listening to a stereo system should disappear, especially where the speakers are.

If you feel annoyed by anything, then something isn't right. Unfortunately, the usual culprit is the bass node at the beginning, so the spikes need to come out and the whole process has to start over, unless your speakers are small and light enough to be moved easily. If they are, slightly adjust the left speaker for a better bass node,or a better balance between vocal presence and bass, then readjust the right speaker for center image, and check again.

If you can't make this happen I can do it for a nominal fee. Always remember - all this stuff we buy and set up so critically and carefully is for our enjoyment of what we love - MUSIC! - so have fun with it! Best of luck.

Bob Robbins
Sumiko Master Set Expert
September 2014

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