Friday, April 22, 2011

The Advantages (and fun) of Near Field Listening

I remember as a teenager, I would place my bookshelf speakers on the floor and lay down in between them to listen while reading. I was amazed at how differently they sounded than when placed on their stands. The bass seemed fuller, I heard a lot more detail, and the tone was more even.

Flash forward to today. I recently tried this experiment again with my current system. This time I sat in my listening chair, with a pair of Vivid B-1's equidistant from my seat and toed in more so than usual, and a JL Audio F113 directly behind my listening seat, blending very nicely with the Vivids. I was stunned at the dynamic slam, immediacy and depth I was hearing. This was fun!

The technical term for this type of setup is called near field listening. You can find several articles and diagrams on the subject by googling the phrase. Here are a few:
Advantages of nearfield listening
Nearfield listening does offer some technical advantages. It greatly reduces many of the problems a room creates for the listening environment. Rooms are full of reflective surfaces, not to mention the shape can emphasize certain frequencies over others, shifting the tonal balance. These reflections and room nodes can make the sound muddy and blurred. Why? Because the reflected sound arrives at your ear at a different time than the directly radiated sound from the speaker. This timing error creates the muddy/blurriness. This is one reason why speaker frequency response measurements are taken from 1 meter away, even in an anechoic chamber. With nearfield listening, the sound that reaches your ears first and with the most magnitude is the directly radiated sound from the loudspeaker. You are minimizing the effect of all that sound bouncing off of the room's reflective surfaces, as well as reducing the effect of the room nodes ( r
oom treatments still benefit nearfield setups, just not to the degree that far field setups benefit). Nearfield listening also reduces distortion simply from the fact you don't need to turn up the volume as high as you would if the speakers were trying to fill up the entire room. The speakers and amp aren't working as hard, giving you more headroom too.

Good news for those on a budget. A nearfield system can deliver more sonic bang for the buck, since you may not need the massive speakers and amplifier to achieve the desired sound in the nearfield as opposed to trying to fill a large space.

For headphone listeners, the nearfield system will sound familiar, only better. You get the same sense of immediacy and detail as you do with headphones, but you also get a center image and greater depth.

For those with limited space, a nearfield setup is ideal. If you have a small room, you can still get the speakers away from the walls and create a fantastic sound that sounds far bigger than the dimensions of the room itself.

What is needed
Speakers that are coherent at distances of around 5 feet or closer to your ears. Monitor speakers are the easiest choice, as are many 2-way floor standing loudspeakers. The 3-way design is a bit more challenging to achieve coherence at short distances ( the Vivids manage to work well). your ears will tell you if they work or not. Set your speakers up in the nearfield position, and move your head up higher, then lower. Was there a discernable change in tonality? If so, then you may try some others. A subwoofer may or may not be needed. I can tell you however that a good sub properly tuned can add a real live impact to the overall sound.

Be warned, the nearfield setup will be very revealing of your system. You may not like what you hear as a result. You may have spent a lot of time and money getting your system to sound the way you like it from your normal listening position. With the nearfield setup, you will be able to hear colorations added by components, and cables, you will be able to hear edginess and harshness that the room may have absorbed.

A nearfield system does have many technical advantages, it may or may not end up being your favorite way to listen. But I highly recommend giving it a try
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