If you consider yourself an audiophile, stop reading now. I’m about to recommend a whole bunch of home audio setups that might compel a true audiophile to let loose a stream of technical jargon and hurtful comments. If you’re the kind of person who owns a tube amplifier, reading about $100 wireless smart speakers might make your head explode.
But something everyone can agree on, audiophile and entry-level user alike, is that we need music in our homes. Especially now, with music venues shuttered and a bumper crop of truly great records now in release (see Pages 28-29 for a few of our favorites). And playing those records through a single Amazon Echo speaker, or through a soundbar designed for use with television sound, is a poor substitute for what every American home used to have, from the 8-track era all the way through the salad days of the CD carousel: a decent hi-fi setup just for music.
WHY STEREO SOUND IS BETTER
Most of today’s stand-alone smart speakers—for purposes of this discussion, those made by Amazon, Apple, Google and Sonos—are built to deliver stereo sound, with two sound drivers. But “they’re so close together that the sound has virtually no separation, and winds up sounding like mono,” wrote Steve Guttenberg (no, not the Police Academy guy) in a 2016 CNET article. And home stereos were created to emulate the sound of live performance, which isn’t just about closeness or volume; it’s also about dimension and spatial depth. Even minute differences between stereo channels can place sounds at specific points in space and trick you into believing that blazing cowbell solo is happening inside your personal space.
“A great stereo recording listened to over a decent pair of speakers or headphones has an almost physical, three-dimensional presence,” Guttenberg wrote. “When playing music for an evening’s entertainment, the large and subtle shadings of depth and space from one recording to the next are endlessly fascinating.” The last time America seemed to understand that was during the iPod craze of the early 2000s; these days, most people seem content to plop a Google Nest speaker on a bookshelf and call it a monophonic day.
The good news is, many smart speakers now support stereo pairing. Many of Amazon’s smart speakers can be paired with each other (and an optional subwoofer), creating a true stereo setup. Google’s new Nest Audio speakers are pairable, and you can get them in a two-pack bundle that shaves $20 off the total price (they’re $99 apiece) and includes three free months of YouTube Music. And Sonos is offering a pairable, $99 bookshelf Wi-Fi speaker through—hang onto something!—IKEA. Point is, you don’t have to spend a fortune, or research German-made speakers whose brand names sound like speaking with a mouthful of cookies.
HOW TO SET UP STEREO SPEAKERS
“There are few things more galling than seeing a pair of stereo speakers huddled together on a bookshelf,” Andrew Murphy wrote in a July 2020 article at tech buying guide What Hi-Fi? (whathifi.com). Again, the effect of stereo speakers is wasted unless you have the two channels properly separated and placed in such a way that you can find a “sweet spot” between them, where Thundercat’s sizzling production skills can really fry your noodle.
Proper placement of your speakers is dependent on several factors, including the size and shape of your room, your own personal preferences and, of course, the individual characteristics of whatever speakers you own. Cambridge Audio makes these general recommendations: Place your speakers 4 to 8 feet apart; have them facing in the direction of the greatest length of the room; move them slightly away from the wall to improve the mid-range and mid-bass frequencies; and patiently allow 20-30 hours for new speakers to “run in,” which basically means allowing the fabric of the speaker cones to stretch properly, like breaking in a pair of shoes. Cambridge Audio offers even more useful advice, and more shoe analogies, at this link: bit.ly/3nql16E.
Now, if you’d like to fall down the rabbit hole with real intention—arms thrust upward in surrender, screaming “woo-hoo”—the folks at audio equipment retailer Crutchfield offer a “room acoustics guide” (bit.ly/3p2lgoW) that addresses issues like “reflected” sound bouncing off walls (they suggest drapes to absorb it, or strategically placed objects to diffuse it) and flutter echo, which is … well, maybe they should explain it. Point is, if this stuff is important to you, you’re probably setting up something more nuanced and much, much more expensive than $100 smart speakers, and are rolling your eyes right now. (See, again, the opening disclaimer for audiophiles.) Good luck and shine on, you crazy diamond.
CHANGE YOUR STREAMING SETTINGS
This might be important, depending on how good your speakers and ears are: If you’re listening to streaming music over your Wi-Fi network at home—not in your car or at the gym, where the costs of cellular data can bury you—go into your settings and bump up the audio quality to its highest level. Spotify Premium’s high-quality setting is equivalent to a 320kbps CD—and Tidal, bless it, offers lossless 1411kbps and master quality sound, as close to perfect as streaming audio can offer. (Kbps is shorthand for “kilobits per second,” and more is better—the more bits you have, the richer your streaming file will sound. 320kbps is equivalent to a high-quality MP3; 1411kbps is a CD.)
At its normal setting, Spotify streams music at a compressed 160kpbs. You’re literally not hearing the entire song. And since the whole point of making this stereo setup is to remember how freaking great it feels to be in a room with live musicians, we should make a point of pulling as close to the band as we