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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 about 9 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 $18,000.00 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 ambience retrieval, the sense of space of the recording or performance venue, and total synergy 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), 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 somewhat 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 spot about a foot to a foot and a half behind your head when at the listening position. The right speaker should be facing straight out, parallel/perpendicular to the rear wall. If your speakers 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 and Jennifer Warnes - Duets Album. It's also available on Famous Blue Raincoat, 24 Karat Gold CD. The song needs to be played at a loud level in order to pressurize the room and make the bass nodes readily apparent. When listening for the bass nodes you're listening for three things - Linearity, Extension, and Output, or LEO. Linearity, so you can hear all the notes being played (so it's not just a big monotone of bass), Extension, so when the big, low notes are hit they really go down there, and Output so there's plenty of bass.

If your speakers are spiked, remove them for now. Start the song, and slowly move the left speaker into the room searching for LEO, all the while maintaining the toe in angle you started with,(the toe-in angle is not super critical at this point) until you hear the first bass nodes' arrival. It should be somewhere between 14 - 16 inches out from the wall. Mark it with tape, and continue moving 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. After you find your favorite nodes, go back to them in rapid succession and choose the best one for you and how it feels. This process is easier with a partner, but can be done alone. If you're by yourself, and if 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 to you, but no one part of it dominates.

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 and toe it in to match the left 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, and she shouldn't move if you move out of the position. Another check is you should hear an increase in bass output, because the woofers are now moving the air in unison.

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 the recommendations from the manufacturer or info in the owners manual. My owners manual says for best sound my speakers are to be perfectly level and not toed-in at all - this is undeniably wrong. When adjusting toe-in, try to imagine the sound emanating from the speakers as being spherical in shape and adjust the toe so that 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 both image height and soundstage width and sense of space. Reinstall the spikes so that they make the speakers as tall as possible and 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, this song has great emotion, evenly paced and played bass, and has terrific spatial cues.

Right now, Darius will sound as if he's on his knees singing, so the rake angle needs to go up to allow him to stand up. Lower the rear 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 angle to make him tall enough, then it's time to use sound saucers or similar under the front spikes to make it happen. It might feel weird to rake this much, 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'll lose detail and tonal balance can change. After this is done, the accompanying musicians will sound like they're tilted funny - one lower than the other. Adjust the rear spikes of the right speaker until things level out. Double check the top of the speakers for level, and make sure both speakers are rock-solid stable (no rocking in any direction). Once the rake angles are matched, the sound will blossom and expand out into and sometimes beyond the room - it is so frickin' cool! Now, turn the lights off or way down, start "Tootie" over again, and you should sit mesmerized for the entirety of the song - no matter how loud you play it. The side musicians should be just beyond where the speakers are at their proper height, the viola should be at chin height and just left of center, and of course Darius should be as tall as he really is. There should be no sense of strain or stridency, and you should completely lose the sense of listening to a stereo system, as the speakers acoustically disappear.

If you feel annoyed by anything, if your mind thinks of anything while listening, 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 bass and vocal presence, 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 - so have fun with it! Best of luck.

Bob Robbins
Sumiko Master Set Expert
October 2013

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