Those who have followed my comments for awhile may know that I'm a huge fan of near-field listening. Occasionally I've listened as far away as 80" from the plane of the speakers. Now, for some people, that would be "near field." Usually, however, I listen much closer than that.
Some folks smile or make fun of this preference for near-field listening, as if this is somehow "unenlightened" or something. Well, they are at least correct in that it does not work well with many speakers, especially those with a lot of drivers strung out vertically and/or horizontally across a baffle with a multi-way crossover. Most speakers, including these, are designed to be a quasi-point source (some are more quasi- than others!) in which inter-driver coherence is best only from eight to ten feet (or so) away or more.
By "inter-driver coherence" I mean whether or not you can hear out the individual driver positions when listening to the speakers--can you hear the individual drivers as individual sound sources or not. If you can hear individual drivers, you are sitting too close to allow the sound of the drivers of that speaker system to blend properly.
Advantages of Near-Field Listening
Because I know that I have a long-term preference for near-field listening, part of my auditioning for new speakers involves taking a close listen--literally. I move the listening chair in close. If the speaker loses inter-driver coherence, I know it is not something I will want for my listening room, period.
Why? Because, as recently stated by Sean Olive in his forum here, all listening rooms muck up the designed-in excellence of the sound of any speaker. Anything you reasonably can do to your physical listening room set up to reduce the amount by which your room mucks up the sound of your speakers should be done, BEFORE applying electronic equalization to correct remaining bass problems.
The near-field home listening paradigm decreases the listening room's acoustical overlay on the reverberant field actually captured on the recording; it minimizes the so-called "second venue" effect. By listening near to the speakers, you increase the relative loudness of the direct sound from the speakers as compared to the sound of reflections off the listening room's surfaces, thereby decreasing the contributions of the listening room acoustics to what you are hearing. Acoustical treatment of the listening room's surfaces with absorptive and diffusive materials and toeing the speakers in to point directly at your ears works hand-in-hand with near-field listening to further reduce the listening room's contribution to the reproduced sound.
What near-field listening does is get you as close as possible to the experience of listening to headphones without the negatives of headphone listening. With headphones, there is no listening room to create the second-venue effect. With near-field listening, you minimize the effect of your listening room. Unlike headphone listening, however, near-field listening does not give you that "hole in the middle" effect which the 180-degree separation of headphones yields on most material. And, unlike headphones, near-field listening fully engages the pinnae of your ears and head shadowing with direct sound from the proper direction (in front of you), as opposed to injecting direct sound into your ear canals from the sides and without head shadowing.
Near field listening gives you far greater depth of field than does listening farther back. There is enormous stage depth on naturally miked classical recordings, a depth of stage of the type you only hear at live unamplified concerts from the first couple of rows in a good hall. The violins and cellos can be and often are right up front left and right, seemingly close enough to practically reach out and touch, and the brass and percussion are WAY back there.
Related to this sense of immediacy of the sound is the sensation of excitement and being enthralled by the sense of envelopment, even from just two channels of sound. The sound it not "way out there." You are right there, with the music happening so close that it grabs your attention in a way that listening farther back cannot.
Near-field listening also lowers distortion of all kinds. It lowers electronic distortion by allowing your speaker/amp combination to deliver higher SPL at your ears for any given wattage input to the speakers. Even in a small room, the inverse square law holds some sway: your speakers sound louder at any given setting of the volume control the nearer you listen to them. Lower wattage reduces amplifier and speaker distortion. Near field listening also reduces distortion caused by room reflections simply because the direct sound from the speakers is now relatively louder than any reflected sound from room surfaces. Thus, any frequency response deviations in the reflected sound and any time delay in the reflected sound is reduced in audibility.
Objections to Near-Field Listening and My Responses
Given these advantages, why isn't near-field listening more popular? There are many espoused reasons, but they either are not relevant to my situation or they don't make much sense to me:
First, the spouse acceptance factor. In order to preserve domestic tranquility, the speakers are usually arranged fairly near the wall behind them and the listening position is more or less very near the wall behind the listener. The furniture, including the speakers, gets arranged more or less close to the room walls. This tends to put the listener further away from the speakers, of course. I have a dedicated listening room and my spouse thus cares not how I arrange things physically in there. Thus, this factor is not relevant, as it might well be if the room had domestic uses other than as a reference listening room.
Second, far-field listening often results in more bass. Putting the listener and speakers near the walls tends to increase the overall bassiness of the speakers. Many speakers of audiophile pretensions are a bit thin sounding (at least I think so) and such placement may lessen this problem, at the expense of creating other problems, of course. I, on the other hand, tend to pre-select my speakers for generous bass response, knowing that I like to position speakers well out into the room. I also know that bass peaks are a lot easier for electronic equalization do deal with than bass dips, so generous bass response is more easily fixed electronically, if necessary, than is lean/tight bass response.
Third, many speakers are overly bright sounding. Listening to them from further back may reduce this problem as well since the reverberant field in the room may be less bright than the direct sound, at least if the room has some absorption in terms of furniture, rugs, etc. Again, I pre-select speakers to guard against this. If a speaker sounds even a bit too bright in a retail audio salon, in my many years of experience it most certainly will sound yet brighter--and usually by a considerable amount--at home. If I see peaks in a speaker's measured on-axis high frequency response (as in Stereophile or SoundStage measurement reports)--even small ones--in the 2 to 10 kHz region, I know from experience that such a speaker will grate on my ears long term from a near-field position, and usually even in a quick audio-cowboy salon audition.
Fourth, some listeners adopt a further-afield listening position because their choice in speakers demands this in order to yield satisfactory inter-driver coherence. Again, I test for this before buying.
But there is something else at work here, too. At the "What's Best" level of audiophilia, many believe that bigger and more expensive MUST be better. That bigger speaker must certainly be able to overpower the acoustics of their listening room because of its sheer bulk and presence, its sheer number of drivers and air-moving power, its sheer price. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more extended the bass and the more widely dispersed its top end, the more at the mercy of the listening room the speaker's sound will be. If you must sit back aways from the speaker in order to gain satisfactory inter-driver coherence, that speaker's sound will be more at the mercy of the "second venue effect" of your listening room, regardless of its size, number or quality of drivers, and price. Big speakers frequently have big problems, as the saying goes, and even if the cabinets of such speakers are made of very dead and very expensive almost-unobtainium, that does nothing to control the interaction of the speaker with your listening room.
Fifth, some listeners just enjoy a "fat mono" sound because it better mimics what they hear live from a fairly distant concert hall seat. If a person prefers to sit far back in the hall at live events, sitting in the near field of stereo speakers may not sound natural. Near-field listening may also sound unnatural or uncomfortable to such a person simply because the sound appears to be coming from "too close" in front of them; they prefer that the music be "out there" at least a bit and not impinge on their personal space. I can understand this objection, but it does not apply to my preferences.
Did I mention that I also prefer wider-than-60-degree angular separation between stereo speakers? Of course I do. I have to be more contrarian than just listening in the near field. Lately I've used 75-degree separation as my primary listening spot, but for years before that I mainly used 90-degree separation.
I believe the ideal subtended angle for most commercial stereo recordings is 90 degrees. This is emphatically true for material recorded with certain coincident or quasi-coincident stereo miking techniques (e.g., Blumlein, M-S, ORTF). While there are certain early stereo two- and three-track recordings which have "ping pong" stereo and inadequate center fill with 90-degree separation (many RCA Living Stereo 2-channel reissues, unfortunately, as well as a lot of old jazz, rock, and folk recordings), the vast majority of recordings I listen to (including the Mercury Living Presence recordings) sound best with 90-degree separation.
I've mentioned here before my preference for concert hall listening from the first few rows of the hall. To my ears, both the nearness of the speakers to the listener and the 90-degree subtended angle between the speakers helps my home reproduction get closer to the "widescreen" effect of such concert hall positioning, especially with recordings of symphonies and other large forces.
Sixth, some people don't like near-field listening because the close proximity of largish-speakers interferes with their perception of imaging and staging. I can understand this objection as well and sympathize.
But I think I've eliminated this fly in the ointment. With 90-degree speaker separation and toeing the speakers in to directly point at their respective ears as I do, what I see from the listening position is basically the front grills of the speakers. This minimizes their apparent size. And separating them by 90 degrees puts the front baffles out of my direct line of sight enough so that even with eyes-open listening (I almost never listen with my eyes closed) the size of the speaker front is not distracting in terms of imaging/staging.
Be aware that with near-field listening, the soundstage is usually confined to the area between the speakers, not beyond them, unless the recording has accidental or intentional phase manipulation built in. The actual speaker positions usually demark the extreme edges of the soundstage. Beyond-the-speakers imaging/staging, which is common in many stereo set-ups, is caused either by audible side-wall reflections (minimized by near-field listening) or by phase manipulation during recording, either accidentally or intentionally for "sound effects."
The physical visual presence of the speakers is further diminished by the fact that when I listen, the regular room lights are off. Since this is a basement room with only one covered window, even when it's sunny outside, the only light in the room is then the equipment lighting and two 4-watt night lights which are plugged into outlets behind the two corner-placed subwoofers. Those provide a bit of diffuse light for the room, just enough so I can navigate in the semi-dark. The semi-darkness further reduces my visual awareness of the speaker baffles, but provides enough light for my eyes to "focus" on sonic images on the stereo stage.
What Speakers Work Well in Near-Field Listening
I've been using near-field listening, which I'll arbitrarily define as 60 inches from the plane of the speakers or less, for more than a decade in my reference audio room. I don't think I've ever had a preference for listening from more than 80 inches back in this or any other room I've used.
About the only speakers I've ever owned which really needed to be listened to from more than 80 inches back were early Thiels. They really didn't focus very well unless I sat at least eight feet back and ten was better yet.
Speakers I've owned which work well at 80" but not at 60" include DCM Time Windows, Snell Type A Improved, various larger vintage Acoustic Research, Advent, KLH, and Rectilinear models, and the Carver Amazing Platinum Mk IV.
For near-field listening as defined, 60 inches or less, most any mini-monitor (LS3/5a size or slightly larger) I've ever heard will work very well, if such speakers are your thing. They generally aren't mine, at least not for my "serious" systems. I do like my Sequerras, but only when subwoofer-augmented. Actually, most smallish two-way speakers should be fine; my old Siefert Maxim III speakers are fine in the near-field.
Of larger speakers, over the years in my present room I've successfully used Gradient 1.3 and 1.5 speakers, Harbeth Monitor 40 and 40.1, Ohm Walsh 5 Series 3, and Legacy Audio Whispers at a listening distance of 60 inches or less. The Whispers were very surprisingly good at this, given they have 10 drivers well spread around a large baffle. The Linkwitz Orions were okay at this as well, although I was more comfortable with them between 60 and 80 inches, since they lost a bit of focus closer up.
The Harbeth M40s and M40.1s are just FABULOUS for near-field listening. From what I've heard in stores, the smaller ones should be just as good. The M40s were the best I'd heard in a very near-field paradigm . . . until I heard the M40.1s. The M40.1s do not lose focus or allow me to hear the drivers as separate sound sources, even when, as an experiment, I managed to get my ears within 24 inches of the front baffle. Even that close up, they literally sound like a one-way speaker with the absolute best blend of midrange and high frequency drivers I've ever heard. Nothing sticks out, even from such close range.
I'd like to comment on line source and coaxial speakers. Yes, line source speakers work in the near field, in the sense that there is no problem with inter-driver coherence, as long as they are not composed of drivers which while vertically tall, are separated horizontally by some inches. Magnepans, for instance, can be problematic with near-field listening, I've found.
But even with a basically one-way lines source such as a Sound Lab electrostatic or the old Carver Amazing Platinum Mk IV (which was the first speakers I had in my current room--okay, the woofers were there to the side, but since the steep crossover was at 100 Hz, that was not a problem) you will hear a bit or more of vertical image stretch. While the Haas effect keeps the primary image source directly in front of your eyes, the closer up you listen, the more image stretch you will get since the subtended vertical angle of the line source keeps increasing as you listen nearer. Some listeners may not object to this, since it makes images larger and thus perhaps more life-like for some. But I find the vertical stretching of singers mouths, for example, to be unrealistic. While this is not such a problem from further back, for me, if I listen up close, this becomes objectionable.
Coaxial speakers and speakers like the Quad 63 which very strongly emulate a point source, have just the opposite problem in near-field listening. With those, the vertical height limitations of stereo become ever more apparent as you listen from closer range. Stereo has no way of creating real image height. But some speakers, primarily those laid out with tweeter, midrange, and woofer from top to bottom, can create a rather convincing illusion of height even when it can't really be encoded in the recording. Since spatial height is important in live concert hall listening, I prefer the illusory error to more literally accurate stereo reproduction, thank you. On many classical recordings, hall ambience can sound "up" as well as lateral, as can organ pipes, a chorus standing on risers, the projected sound of sopranos and treble instruments, etc. Unlike the "horizontal slit" effect of coaxial speakers listened to from close up, speakers like the Harbeth M40s and 40.1s can create an excellent height illusion from close up with a lot of commercial recordings.
My Implementation of Near Field Listening
Okay, don't laugh:
My listening room dimensions are about 238" long, 152.5" wide, and 96" high. In terms of on-axis response, all aspects of the spatial presentation, lack of smear and other forms of apparent distortion, and overall listening satisfaction, my measurements and long-term listening have confirmed that the best spots for my Harbeth M40.1s in this room are with the center of the woofer's dust cap at the 1/3 room spots of all three room dimensions with the speakers toed in to fire directly at my respective ears. So, after my more-than-occasional "let's move them around some more" experiments, I always keep coming back to this positioning. The center of the woofer dust caps are each 79 1/3" from the nearest side wall, 79 1/3" center to center, 50 5/6" from the wall behind them, and 32 1/4" above the floor.
It may also help that this room positioning, with my room's dimensions, also comes pretty close to meeting Allison's recommendation that the product of the shortest and longest distance of the woofer center from the room surfaces should equal the square of the middle distance. Thus, 79.33" x 32.25" is pretty close to the square of 50.83".
I use 24" wooden stool stands I bought at Target to get the woofer centers up to 32" above the floor, which is 1/3 my 8-foot room height. Target no longer sells these, but a reasonable facsimile can be had here . (Why I use these stools and not some fancy speaker stands is not something I want to get into here; I'll just say for now that in my room these sound better with the Harbeths than fancy stands I've tried.)
Part of the trick in near-field listening is to put your ears at the correct listening height. That correct height is the same at any distance, but is more important for correct frequency response and maximal inter-driver coherence the closer you are. If you use an adjustable pneumatic lift office chair like my Steelcase Leap Chair, this is no problem at all. For both Harbeths the "magic" listening height is about one inch below the tweeter center. For the Harbeth M40.1s on 24" stands, the maximum height of this chair is just about right for getting my ears in the right vertical location.
Since firing the speakers across the short dimension gives me a lot more separation between the speakers with such "rule of thirds" placement, enough to allow "reasonable" listening distances that provide wide angular separation, that is the set up I've settled on.
This past weekend, I made the first "permanent" change in speaker positioning I've made in many months. The new set up is shown in the above picture. Basically, I've gone back to 90-degree separation full time. The speakers are positioned as before at the 1/3 positions, except they are now more toed in. Before, my chair was at the 2/3 of room width position, giving me about 75-degree separation. I could get 90 degrees by merely sitting on the front edge of my chair. I've noticed myself moving forward to that edge-of-chair more and more recently, so this past weekend I made it official my moving my chair about 11 inches closer to the speakers. Now, I'm really in the near field of the M40.1s, with my ears about 39 2/3 inches from the plane of the speakers. My ears are now 62 inches from the wall behind me.
The new yet-nearer field set up significantly increases apparent width and depth of the soundstage, and further stabilizes images on that stage. Another significant improvement from what I had before is the apparent lowering of distortion. I'm not sure what this is from. It just sounds cleaner than ever and these Harbeths sounded very clean before. I speculate that this impression is due to yet-less audibility of sound reflected off my listening room surfaces, especially the overhead ceiling light (the light obviously cannot be damped with Sonex foam).
Measured bass response did not change much but the on-axis high frequency response from 2 kHz up is now measurably flatter. The new set up kind of looks like big headphones, but the sound is of the "Oh, my!" variety.
And, yes, I think it sounds very, very good this way, even better than it sounded before when my sitting-back-in-the-chair listening spot was just under 51 inches from the plane of the speakers. The dominance of the recorded acoustic, the feeling of looking at a performance taking place in front of my eyes and ears, is quite a bit stronger now, and it was excellent before. The sense of immersion in the recorded acoustics is the best I've yet achieved with two-channel sound.
And these improvements are not just improvements with classical music. Want intimate-sounding closely miked female vocals? Want to be in the first row at a jazz club? Want more presence and punch than you dreamed your system could provide on rock concert recordings? THIS is the kind of set up for you. The sound is RIGHT THERE where you can literally reach out and touch it.
And, no, I cannot hear the separate drivers of the M40.1s even sitting this close. As I mentioned, experimentally, I've listened as close as 24 inches from the plane of these speakers without being able to hear out the separate drivers of the M40.1s. Try THAT with other large-ish speakers.
Okay, okay. I can see from what I've written that near-field listening is not for everyone. There are obstacles of many kinds. And some--maybe even many--folks may not want this kind of musical immediacy.
But if you're the type of person who likes to sit right down front at concerts, you are a prime candidate for appreciating this experience. And if you're seeking a level of aural and emotional involvement and immersion from your two-channel system you thought was not possible, you should try it. Just mark the chair and speaker positions you're using now. You can always go back to your "normal" set up.
Me, I'm not looking back. At least not until I look around for surround sound.