How to Set Up Wireless Speakers for the Best Sound

Smart placement and the best settings can lead to glorious sound

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An illustration of a living room with speakers. Illustration: iStock

If you want to get the very best sound out of your wireless speakers, you’ll need three things: a tape measure, your favorite music, and your ears.

As our testing shows, all wireless speakers are not created equal when it comes to sound quality. We use a dedicated listening room and specialized electronic gear to make sure every model we test sounds its best, but some of the simple things our testers do to get great audio can translate easily to your home.

"Even the very best speaker can sound mediocre if it’s fighting against the acoustics of the room you’re listening in," says Richard Fisco, head of electronics testing for Consumer Reports. "But it can be easy to get the best sound out of a speaker with a few basic placement tricks."

Here are some steps you can take when setting up your wireless speakers to let you hear folklore the way Taylor Swift intended.

Pick the Right Room

The first question is simply "Which room?" When it comes to sound, the boxy shape of many bedrooms and dens can actually work against you. Sound waves bouncing off the walls can boost the bass frequencies at some spots in the room while reducing them in others. The result can be muddy sound.

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"Believe it or not, an odd-shaped room can actually be great sonically," says Fisco. Because they mitigate the problem with uneven bass, rooms with sloping ceilings or L-shaped alcoves often make excellent spaces for listening.

A room’s furnishings also affect how a speaker sounds. In wide-open rooms with big windows, bare floors, and lots of shiny surfaces—like a kitchen or maybe a mid-century modern living room—sound can bounce off those hard surfaces. The result is music that’s bright and harsh.

A room with lots of overstuffed upholstered furniture, thick rugs or carpets, and heavy drapes can have the opposite problem, muffling sound and dulling your music.

The ideal room is somewhere in between: a space where you’re comfortable having a conversation or hearing the dialogue on a TV show.

To test a room’s characteristics for yourself, simply clap your hands sharply one time and listen. If you hear some reverberation, but not the twangy echo you often get in a high school gym, the space probably has decent acoustics.

Place It Perfectly

Once you pick a room, the next decision is where to put your speakers.

The first rule of thumb: Place your speaker at ear level. Remember that this might mean different things in different rooms. In a kitchen, where you’re standing and chopping veggies while you listen to “What’s Going On,” it might be best to position a speaker about 5 feet off the floor. If you’re in a living room, where most of your listening is done seated on a couch or chair, ear height is probably closer to 3 feet.

If you have a single speaker, like the highly rated Sonos Five, you probably want to place it in the center of the wall opposite where you’ll be doing most of your listening, an equal distance from each of the side walls.

Setting up a pair of stereo speakers, like the top-performing Edifier S1000MkII, involves a few more decisions. The goal is to position both speakers so they’re pretty symmetrical in the room and the sound from each arrives at your ears at the same time. When a pair of quality speakers is positioned in this way, it can almost seem like the musicians are in the room with you.

Start the process by placing both speakers at ear level. Then prepare to do a little geometry.

As Fisco explains, you and the two speakers should make up the three points of an equilateral triangle. If you forgot your high school trig five minutes after the final, that simply means that the distance from each speaker to each ear should be equal and roughly the same as the distance between the two speakers.

Once you’ve set up that triangle, measure the distance from each speaker to the side wall and tweak the position of the speakers until each is equidistant from the wall. Marking the floor or the surface the speaker is sitting on with painter’s tape makes this task much easier.

Next, experiment with the distance between the speakers. When they’re too close together, the sound can get jumbled. When they are too far apart, you get a “hole in the middle” effect, where each speaker can be heard individually and there seems to be a gap between them. Start with small moves; even a few inches can make a difference. When the spacing is ideal, you get an even spread of sound across the room.

If you’re a serious listener looking for the best possible sound from a pair of speakers, consider moving them out into the room, ideally on dedicated speaker stands. Sound bounces off nearby objects, so your music should be clearer if you pull the speakers away from walls and large pieces of furniture.

"That’s how our testers position speakers for optimum sound in the dedicated listening room in our labs," says Fisco.

Now we realize that our suggestions are based on an ideal listening environment, and many rooms are less than perfect. Windows, doors, and furniture can all conspire against your sonic priorities. Additionally, many wireless speakers need AC power, so access to an outlet is another practical consideration.

"Think of these recommendations as a place to start," Fisco says. The guiding principle is to put your speakers where they have a clear line to your ears, with the least amount of interference from walls and other surfaces.

As a final step in the placement process, try "aiming" your speakers at your listening position. Start with both speakers parallel to the back wall. Then gradually "toe in" each speaker equally so that they face you a little more. "As you’re doing this, the music should become clearer and more detailed, and ultimately the sound snaps into focus," says Fisco. "When that happens, you’ve found the ideal position."

Fine-Tuning With Tunes

Most wireless speakers have some sort of tone settings. Whether you access them through knobs on the back of the speaker itself or through a mobile app menu, start by making sure that the bass and treble are at the same neutral setting, and not boosting either the highs or the lows.

The next step is to run the equalization app if your speaker maker provides one. The Sonos app, for example, has a TruPlay feature that plays a specific tone that is then captured by your smartphone’s mic. The app tries to determine your room’s acoustic character, and makes tone adjustments to compensate.

Our testers find that these apps often improve the sound—though not always. "Think of the equalization from the apps as a way to fine-tune the sound," says Fisco. "Proper room placement will make a bigger difference in getting the best performance from a speaker."

These programs are room-dependent, so place your speakers first, and if you move them significantly, run the program again.

The last step? Turn down the lights, sit in your best listening chair, put on your favorite song, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Having nailed your speaker placement and adjustments, listen carefully to some music, preferably to songs where it’s easy to pick out individual instruments.

If you like the sound, you’re golden. If the sound needs a little tweaking, fine-tune the bass and treble with those tone controls, working in small increments from that flat setting you’ve been using all along.

If you think a bigger change is in order, adjust the placement a little. If, say, the bass seems thin, you can move the speakers closer to the back or side walls. If it’s boomy, move them away from the walls. "Even a few inches can make a significant difference," says Fisco. And, of course, take note of a speaker’s position before you move it. If your latest change makes things worse instead of better, just move the speaker back.

Inside CR's Anechoic Chamber

On the "Consumer 101" TV show, host Jack Rico and a high school marching band puts Consumer Reports’ anechoic chamber to the test to find out what it sounds like when you remove all echoes from music.

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.