Factors that Affect Sound Quality

This is fairly complete list of what I have found from listening to, tuning, and installing stereo systems since I was a youth. My idea is to present what is important and to stimulate you to further research about what you want to know.

Speaker Placement – strive to position your speakers at ear level with a clear line of “sight” to your ears. Treble (Higher Frequencies) are very directional. The lower down the scale frequencies go, the less directional they become. That’s why people can put a subwoofer in the trunk of their automobile. Powered subwoofers should be placed on the ground. Subwoofer positioning (for instance in a corner, or turned at an angle) is important for the best sounding bass response. F.Y.I. – Bass Frequencies become sub-audible and can only be felt, rather than heard, somewhere around the range of 24 Hz or below. There are standardized speaker placements, you can search for them on your favorite search engine.

Speaker Quality – Speakers are sort of tricky, with lots of variables. I think a good, affordable brand is Harmon-Kardon’s Infinity line. They sound great, but bass is always lacking. Adding good bass gets expensive fast. Most home subwoofer units are designed for movie soundtracks, not music. You might do better to design something with a car subwoofer and a mono home theatre amplifier if you simply must have incredible bass. Get some good floor-standing speakers with 12 inch woofers (Cerwin-Vega comes to mind, but expensive) and you probably won’t need one at all.

Here is a breakdown of the three main types of speakers used in the home.

  • I prefer bookshelf speakers: these can have a balance of good materials, reasonable size, and good sound.
  • Floor-standing speakers are a thing of the past but can have excellent materials, sound, and volume. They are very big. These are good for the younger crowd, and can be repaired or upgraded easier.
  • Tiny satellite speakers I’m not too familiar with, but are easily cheap and worthless. Be careful with them! If the speaker you use only has one cone, it will have a hard time reproducing the ‘full’ range that is possible.

Here’s a tip: It isn’t a good sign if you can’t remove the grille (the speaker cloth.)

Use speakers that can handle a wattage equal to or greater than what the amplifier can deliver, or you may blow your speakers if you are careless and crank it up too much.

BEWARE OF “SOUND-ALIKE” BRANDS. Some speakers have names that sound very similar to established, quality brands. These imitators are trying to fool you into buying worthless equipment. Be careful!

Room Acoustics – ceiling height, floor and wall/window treatments can greatly impact sound quality. I have heard that heavier fabrics will help to absorb sound reflection.

Amplifier Quality – I prefer brand-name receivers. Most smaller units are flaky and cut corners. If you have the space and like to customize, choose an AVR (Audio-Visual Receiver) with a current feature set. There are many good brands. Take a look at the used listings or closeout of reputable sites. If you buy a generation or two (1-2 years or so) behind the current lineups, you can really get some nice stuff for cheep!

Amplifier Settings – Many current AVR’s have automatic calibration settings that use a specialty microphone. These routines really customize the settings for the listening area. Playing about with bass and treble settings can make it sound much better to your ears.

Number of Speakers – some listeners have a preference for stereo or surround: if you are strictly into music, stereo (and maybe a subwoofer) should be good enough. Surround sound is great if you are into films. I like surround sound even with music. You be the judge of what you like best. This site has a tutorial for Windows users that will show them how to upscale stereo audio for surround sound here.

Equalization – The way I use equalizers are by starting with a flat setting at 0 and then proceeding, one-by-one, to lower the slider so all of that frequency seems to disappear from the song. Then I lift and lower the slider until the sound is good to my ears, proceeding to the next one. I typically have to go back and forth a bit to make sure I have it at the best setting I can find. Also, remember what sounds great with one type of music may not be so great with another. Some AVR’s can set the EQ levels for you automatically or they may offer ‘Jazz’, ‘Rock’, etc.

!!Beware of distortion and clipping!! Clipping is essentially a tracks volume being too loud to be accommodated by a speaker. These errors can lead to poor sound quality and even ruin speakers. If it sounds bad, check the settings, especially gain. TIP: If you have OEM car speakers, pushing them too hard can break them. Prefer bass OR treble, don’t push both to the maximum.

Source QualityMastering is important but that’s not something we as consumers are really able to affect. I don’t know much about it, but it is said that a lot of music is made to sound best as MP3’s. And a lot of music is heavily compressed. Audio compression reduces the difference between soft and loud passages. Some people call the industries’ over-use of compression the ‘Loudness Wars.’  

As a second best, we can try to use audio formats that are of good quality. MP3’s and all lossy formats (MP4, Ogg Vorbis, Dolby Digital, DTS) by their nature contain less musical information than their lossless counterparts (FLAC, ALAC, WAV, DTS-HD, officially pressed audio discs.)

I’m not going to be a snob and say lossy formats are bad but I do prefer lossless formats. Lossless is excellent for archival purposes, and a great way to share audio with others.

If you know any obvious factors I missed, drop a comment and if I agree I’ll include it.

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