How to Set Up Wireless Speakers for the Best Sound

Placement and tweaks to settings can help optimize performance

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If you want to get the 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 speaker we test sounds its best, but some of the things our testers do can translate easily to your home.

For instance, simply tweaking the placement of your speakers can make a big difference.

Here are some steps you can take when you set up your wireless speakers to help them sound their best—and let you hear "Blackbird" the way Paul McCartney intended.

Picking the Right Room

The first question is simply "Which room?" If you're choosing a room solely with optimal sound in mind, understand that the boxy shape of many bedrooms and dens can work against you. Sound waves bouncing off the walls can boost bass frequencies at some spots in the room while reducing them in others.

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"If you have an odd-shaped room, that's a good thing," says Maria Rerecich, head of electronics product testing for Consumer Reports. Because they mitigate this problem, rooms with, say, sloping ceilings or L-shaped alcoves often make better listening spaces.

A room's furnishings also affect its sonics. Sparsely furnished rooms with big windows, bare floors, and lots of shiny surfaces—like a kitchen, for example—are usually far from ideal, she says. Sound bounces off those surfaces, resulting in sound that's bright and harsh. And the same goes for a minimalist mid-20th-century living room—Charles Eames wasn't an acoustician.

A plush room, with lots of overstuffed upholstered furniture and thick rugs or carpets and heavy drapes, goes too much in the other direction, muffling sound. The ideal place to set up wireless speakers is somewhere in between.

You can hear a room's characteristics for yourself by simply clapping sharply one time, and then listening. If you hear reverberation but not a twangy echo of the kind you might experience in a high school gym, you've probably got a room with decent acoustics.

Making a Perfect Placement

Once you pick a room, the next decision is where to place your speakers. "One of the key ways to help your speakers sound their best is to optimize their position," Rerecich says.

While many speakers are called "bookshelf" models by manufacturers, putting a speaker between Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood tends to be less than ideal, especially if it's a speaker that radiates sound in multiple directions, not just forward. The sound reflecting off the close quarters of the shelf will interfere with any ability the speaker has to provide a sense of front-to-back depth.

Next, if you’ve got a single stereo speaker, like the CR-recommended Sonos Play:5, placing it closer to your preferred listening spot with the front facing you can provide more of a sense of stereo separation. Next, you can experiment with how far you place the speaker from a wall or a corner of the room. Some speakers with weak bass may sound better when placed in those areas, while other speakers will do better in a more central location.

Setting up a pair of speakers, like our highly rated Edifier S1000DB duo, involves a few more options, and will require some trial and error.

One rule of thumb is to place both stereo speakers at ear level, understanding that this might mean different things in different rooms. In a kitchen, where you’re standing and chopping veggies while you listen to “Rumors,” speakers might be best placed 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.

"You and the two speakers should make up the three points of an equilateral triangle," says Rerecich. If you forgot your high school geometry 5 minutes after the final, that simply means that the distance from each speaker to your ear is the same as the distance between the speakers.

Once you've set up that triangle, measure the distance from each speaker to the side wall and adjust until it's the same for each speaker. Marking the floor or the surface the speaker is sitting on with painter's tape makes this task much easier.

You'll want to experiment with moving the speakers closer together and farther apart. When they are too close together, all of the sound gets jumbled in the space between the two speakers. When they are too widely separated, you get a “hole in the middle” effect—each speaker can be heard individually and there seems to be a gap between them. When the spacing is correct, you get an even spread of sound.

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, equidistant from the back wall and away from side walls. Sound bounces off nearby objects, and your music may sound clearer and the stereo image more like the musicians intended if you pull the speakers away from walls and large pieces of furniture.

That's the way we set up speakers for optimum sound in our dedicated listening room.

Now we know that these suggestions are based on an ideal listening environment, and many rooms aren’t like that. The placement of windows, doors, and furniture can conspire against perfect sound. Additionally, many wireless speakers need AC power, so access to an outlet is another practical consideration.

"Consider our suggestions a starting point," Rerecich says.

As a final step, experiment with "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 come closer to facing you. "As you're doing this, the speaker may snap into focus, so that the sounds become clearer and more detailed," says Rerecich. "When that happens, you've found your final position."

Fine-Tuning With Tunes

Most wireless speakers have some sort of tone settings. Whether you can access them through knobs on the back of the speaker itself or through a mobile app menu, it's best to start with them "flat" so that they're neither boosting nor attenuating any part of the sound spectrum. In other words, adjust the bass and treble to the same neutral setting.

The next step in fine-tuning is to run the equalization app if your speaker maker provides one. The iPhone version of the Sonos app has a TruPlay feature that prompts the speaker to play a specific tone that is then captured by your smartphone's mic. The app tries to determine your room's acoustic character, and then makes tone adjustments to compensate.

Apple's HomePod smart speaker seems to do something similar, although the process uses the speaker's internal mic rather than a phone. After analyzing the room, the speaker automatically makes some tonal adjustments to compensate for the room's acoustics.

Our testers found that these apps often improve the sound—though not always. (If you don't like the change, you can usually undo the settings, though the HomePod doesn't give you that option.) "But the equalization from the apps is really fine-tuning," says Rerecich. "It's no substitute for proper room placement."

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

Now that you’ve nailed your speaker placement, it’s time to actually listen to some music. Choose a few favorite tunes, preferably ones where it's easy to pick out individual instruments, but most of all music that you like.

If you like the sound, you're golden. If 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.

Finally, use the bass or treble settings to fine-tune the sound, working in small increments from that flat setting you've been using all along. "If the treble is dull or shrill, tweak it up or down accordingly," Rerecich says. "And do the same for the bass."

The last step? Invite your friends over to share your favorite music with awesome sound.

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.