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Do Speakers Really Disappear?

We audiophiles may agree on the premise our audio systems are intended to mesmerize us with music spectacularly reproduced in our listening space. While the how’s and why’s differ widely, our end use expectation is to become irrevocably attached to the music our systems produce. We can endlessly debate the how’s and why’s, but we cannot dismiss the ultimate goal – stunning music stunningly reproduced.  

Some aspects of audiophilia are difficult for many to grasp, especially anyone outside the hobby. For the vast majority of those who typically listen to music on a handheld device, the perpetual and endless “tinkering” audiophiles perpetuate seems nonsensical. If we should be so bold to go out in public and talk about the incredible increase in sonics we were able to achieve because we repositioned or replaced something, we are very often met with blank and quizzical stares. Do what(?) is often the reply. The uninformed are steadfastly that.

One of the most cherished aspects of speaker set up, and likely difficult to achieve, is make speakers disappear. As we all know and understand, this is not a magic trick like sawing a woman in half. Making a high performance speaker system disappear is not being able to tell music originates at the transducers. This applies to the mains and also, if used in the system, the subwoofer – whether one sub or two. Our ultimate goal is to have imaging portrayed from side to side, well beyond and behind the lateral speaker boundary, and also depict layers of depth and height. We want to be able to pretend we are sitting in a concert hall and not our listening room. 

Making speakers disappear is rewarding and difficult. To do so to remarkable effect means we must overcome deficiencies in the recording itself, the degree to which the equipment ameliorates the signal as it travels along its path, and most difficult of all, the audio room. Propagation of direct and reflected output from the speakers is as much influenced by the room as speaker design. And when considering the design of the speaker system, placement within the room is of paramount importance. Because we all want one simple attribute in our stereos, we want to be bounded by music and completely removed from an audio system. 

If only it were so simple to achieve. 

When seated in the listening chair, most speaker setup methodologies will have the speakers facing the listener. There they are, right smack dab in front of us. If we only hear music radiating from the drivers on the speaker enclosure, we have not successfully completed a disappearing act. We therefore will have little in the way of imaging – whether lateral expansion or image depth. In most such cases, we have fallen victim to that one immovable force – the room itself. 

If we are able to create a sonic portrayal where the music is well defined with specific placement of instruments, and those placements occur from any point besides the speakers, we then feel we have done our job. We have succeeded in our goal. Or have we? 

Can our goal ever be successfully achieved when as soon as we sit in the sweet spot, we see those looming monoliths standing sentry right in front of us? Stand mount or floor standing, face it, speakers are a highly visible feature in any room, dedicated listening or otherwise. And only in high performance audio is the sole acceptable speaker placement not hidden away on a shelf or behind a piece of furniture. No, our speakers must be front and center, there for all to see. Having a set of speakers so prominently displayed in a room causes more than placement and imaging woes, it may create tension from other family members who are not audiophiles. Hence the term “WAF.” 

In most rooms, acceptable speaker placement for a realistic soundstage and imaging of instruments on that soundstage are possible. Yes, some better than others, but most any room can be tamed to a great degree. To what extent may depend on ancillary measures such as room treatments, or its electronic equivalent DSP, but rooms can be made (mostly) compliant. 

One trick, if it may be called that, is the practice of listening in the dark and / or listening with our eyes closed. If we have done our collective jobs correctly, we will have an image with lateral dispersion behind and beyond the speaker boundaries, and we will also have depth and height. When we listen, should we hear image placement so precise it would seem we can get up, walk over and shake hands with the musician, we have set things up correctly. 

Listening in the dark or closing one’s eyes only goes so far, however. We are conditioned to remember how our rooms are arranged. Those imprints on our brain allow moving around a room in low light.

We know the couch is “there” so we can avoid it even if we cannot see it. This memory function also works to our detriment. We know how large our room is so a full-size symphony orchestra cannot fit in that space. As such, listening in the dark with our eyes closed, and knowing we are in our audio room inside our house means the brain reduces the musical portrayal to something more plausible. This is called precognizance and conflicts with what our brain tells us we are hearing and what we would like to hear. 

Consider a large set of floor standing speakers. Many such examples are easily five or six feet tall, measure some twelve, maybe sixteen inches across, and weigh a hundred pounds or more. If they stand four, maybe six feet into a room only sixteen feet deep to begin with, it seems obvious they will be an imposing fixture in the room. 

Based on the ability of any system to develop a convincing soundstage, pre-cognizance and the psychoacoustics of the ear / brain mechanism, how likely is it that speakers actually, perceptibly disappear?

Something to consider the next time you listen in the dark or wonder why your music originates exclusively at the speakers. 

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