B&O Tech: Distance Tweaking

#75 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

So, you’ve just installed a pair of loudspeakers, or a multichannel surround system. If you’re a normal person then you have not set up your system following the recommendations stated in the International Telecommunications Union’s document “Rec. ITU-R BS.775-1: MULTICHANNEL STEREOPHONIC SOUND SYSTEM WITH AND WITHOUT ACCOMPANYING PICTURE”. That document states that, in a best case, you should use a loudspeaker placement as is shown below in Figure 1.


Fig 1. The “ITU 775” recommendation for a 5-channel loudspeaker configuration. All loudspeaker should be matched, and be the same distance from the listening position at the angles shown in the figure.


In a typical configuration, the loudspeakers are NOT the same distance from the listening position – and this is a BIG problem if you’re worried about the accuracy of phantom image placement. Why is this? Well, let’s back up a little…

Localisation in the Real World

Let’s say that you and I were standing out in the middle of a snow-covered frozen pond on a quiet winter day. I stand some distance away from you and we have a conversation. When I’m doing the talking, the sound of my voice leaves my mouth and moves towards you.

If I’m directly in front of you, then the sound (in theory) arrives at both of your ears simultaneously (resulting in an Interaural Time Difference or ITD of 0 ms) and at exactly the same level (resulting in an Interaural Amplitude Difference or IAD of 0 dB). Your brain  detects that the ITD is 0 ms and the IAD is 0 dB, and decides that I must be directly in front of you (or directly behind you, or above you – at least I must be somewhere on your sagittal plane…)

If I move slightly to your left, then two things happen, generally speaking. Firstly, the sound of my voice arrives at your left ear before your right ear because it’s closer to me. Secondly, the sound of my voice is generally louder in your left ear than in your right ear, not only because it’s closer, but (mostly) because your head shadows your right ear from the sound of my voice. So, you brain detects that my voice is earlier and louder in your left ear, so I must be somewhere on your left.

Of course, there are many other, smaller cues that tell you where the sound is coming from exactly – but we don’t need to get into those details today.

There are two important thing to note here. The first is that these two principal cues – the ITD and the IAD – are not equally important. If they got in a fight, the ITD would win. If a sound arrived at your left ear earlier, but was louder in your right ear, it would have to be a LOT louder in the right ear to convince you that you should ignore the ITD information…

The second thing is that the time differences we’re talking about are very very small. If I were directly to one side of you, looking directly at your left ear, say… then the sound would arrive at your right ear approximately only 700 µs – that’s 700 millionths of a second or 0.0007 seconds later than at your left ear.

So, the moral of this story so far is that we are very sensitive to differences in the time of arrival of a sound at our two ears.

Localisation in a reproduced world

Now go back to the same snow-covered frozen lake with a pair of loudspeakers instead of bringing me along, and set them up in a standard stereo configuration, where the listening position and the two loudspeakers form an equilateral triangle. This means that when you sit and listen to the signals coming out of the loudspeakers

  • the two loudspeakers are the same distance from the listening position, and
  • the left loudspeaker is 30º to the left of front-centre, and the right loudspeaker is 30º to the right of front-centre.

Have a seat and we’ll play some sound. To start, we’ll play the same sound in both loudspeakers at exactly the same time, and at exactly the same level. Initially, the sound from the left loudspeaker will reach your left ear, and the sound from the right loudspeaker reaches your right ear. A very short time later the sound from the left loudspeaker reaches your right ear and the sound from the right loudspeaker reaches your left ear (this effect is called Interaural Crosstalk – but that’s not important). After this, nothing happens, because you are sitting in the middle of a frozen lake covered in snow – so there are no reflections from anything.

Since the sounds in the two loudspeakers are identical, then the sounds in your ears are also identical to each other. And, just as is the case in real-life, if the sounds in your two ears are identical, you’ll localise the sound source as coming from somewhere on your sagittal plane. Due to some other details in the localisation cues that we’re not talking about here, chances are that you’ll hear the sound as originating from a position directly in front of you – between the two loudspeakers.

Because the apparent location of that sound is a position where there is no loudspeaker, it’e like a ghost – so it’s called a “phantom centre” image.

That’s the centre image, but how do we move the image slightly to one side or the other? It’s actually really easy – we just need to remember the effects of ITD and IAD, and do something similar.

So, if I play a sound out of both loudspeakers at exactly the same time, but I make one loudspeaker slightly louder than the other, then the phantom image will appear to come from a position that is closer to the louder loudspeaker. So, if the right channel is louder than the left channel, then the image appears to come from somewhere on the right. Eventually, if the right loudspeaker is louder enough (about 15 dB, give or take), then the image will appear to be in that loudspeaker.

Similarly, if I were to keep the levels of the two loudspeakers identical, but I were to play the sound out of the right loudspeaker a little earlier instead, then the phantom image will also move towards the earlier loudspeaker.

There have been many studies done to find out exactly what apparent phantom image position results from  exactly what level or delay difference between the two loudspeakers (or a combination of the two). One of the first ones was done by Gert Simonsen in 1983, in which he found the following results.


Image Position Amplitude difference Time difference
0.0 dB 0.0 ms
10º 2.5 dB 0.2 ms
20º 5.5 dB 0.44 ms
30º 15.0 dB 1.12 ms


Note that this test was done with loudspeakers at ±30º – so the bottom line of the table means “in one of the loudspeakers”. Also, I have to be clear that the values in this table are NOT to be used concurrently. So, this shows the values that are needed to produce the desired phantom image location using EITHER amplitude differences OR time differences.

Again, the same two important points apply.

Firstly, the time differences are a more “powerful” cue than the amplitude differences. In other words, if the left loudspeaker is earlier, but the right loudspeaker is louder, you’ll hear the phantom image location towards the left, unless the right loudspeaker is a LOT louder.

Secondly, you are VERY sensitive to time differences. The left loudspeaker only needs to be 1.12 ms earlier than the right loudspeaker in order for the phantom image to move all the way into that loudspeaker. That’s equivalent to the left loudspeaker being about 38.5 cm closer than the right loudspeaker (because the speed of sound is about 344 m/s (depending on the temperature) and 0.00112 * 344 = 0.385 m).

Those last two paragraphs were the “punch line” – if the distances to the loudspeakers are NOT the same, then, unless you do something about it, you’ll wind up hearing your phantom images pulling towards the closer loudspeaker. And it doesn’t take much of an error in distance to produce a big effect.


Whaddya gonna do about it?

Almost every surround processor and Audio Video Receiver in the world gives you the option of entering the Speaker Distances in a menu somewhere. There are two possible reasons for this.

The first is not so important – it’s to align the sound at the listening position with the video. If you’re sitting 3 m from the loudspeakers and the TV, then the sound arrives 8.7 ms after you see the picture (the same is true if you are listening to a person speaking 3 m away from you). To eliminate this delay, the loudspeakers could produce the sound 8.7 ms too early, and the sound would reach you at the same time as you see the video. As I said, however, this is not a problem to lose much sleep over, unless you sit VERY far away from your television.

The second reason is very important, as we’ve already seen. If, as we established at the start of this posting, you’re a normal person, then your loudspeakers are not all the same distance from the listening position. This means that you should apply a delay to the closer loudspeaker(s) to get them to “wait” for the sound as it travels towards you from the further loudspeakers. That way, if you have the same sound in all channels at the same time, then the loudspeaker do NOT produce it at the same time, but it arrives at the listening position simultaneously, as it should.

Problem solved! Right?


Corrections that need correcting

Let’s make a configuration of a pair of loudspeakers and a listening position that is obviously wrong.

Fig 2. A stereo pair of loudspeakers and a listening position that is no where near the correct location. Notice that the right loudspeaker is much closer than the left.

Figure 2 shows the example of a very bad loudspeaker configuration for stereo listening. (I’m keeping things restricted to two channels to keep things simple – but multichannel is the same…) The right loudspeaker is much closer than the left loudspeaker, so all phantom images will appear to “bunch together” into the right loudspeaker.

Fig 4. Measuring the distance to the furthest loudspeaker from the listening position

So, to do the correction, you measure the distances to the two loudspeakers from the listening position and enter those two values into the surround processor. It then subtracts the smaller distance from the larger distance, converts that to a delay time, and delays the closer loudspeaker by that amount to compensate for the difference.

Fig 5. The gray circle shows the apparent position of the right loudspeaker, after a delay has been applied to it, assuming that there are no other cues (such as level or reflections in the room) to tell you where it is.

So, after the delay is applied to the closer loudspeaker, in theory, you have a stereo pair of loudspeakers that are equidistant from the listening position. This means that, instead of hearing  (for example) the phantom centre images in the closer loudspeaker, you’ll hear it as being positioned at the centre point between the distant loudspeaker (the left one, in this example) and the “virtual” one (the right one in this example). This is shown below.

Fig 6. The small grey dot shows the theoretical position of the resulting phantom centre after the two loudspeakers have been time-aligned using delays based on distance to the listening position.

As you can see in Figure 6, the resulting phantom image is at the centre point between the two resulting loudspeakers. But, if you look not-too-carefully-at-all, then you can see that the angle from the listening position to that centre point is not the same angle as the centre point between the two REAL loudspeakers (the black dot).

Fig 7. Notice that the corrected phantom image location (indicated by the arrow) is not the same as the desired phantom centre. (which might be, for example, the centre of a television…)

So, this means that, if you use distances ONLY to time-align two (or more) loudspeakers, then your correction till not be perfect. And, the more incorrect your actual loudspeaker configuration, the more incorrect the correction will be.

How do I fix it?

Notice that, after “correction”, the phantom image is still pulling towards the closer loudspeaker.

As we saw above, in order to push a phantom centre image towards a loudspeaker, you have to make the sound in that loudspeaker earlier.

So, what we need to do, after the distance-based time alignment is done, is to force the more distant loudspeaker to be a little earlier than the closer one. That will pull the phantom image towards it.

In order to use a distance compensation to make a loudspeaker produce the sound earlier, we have to tell the processor that it’s further away than it actually is. This makes the processor “think” that it needs to send the sound out early to compensate for the extra propagation delay caused by the distance.

So, to make the further loudspeaker a little early relative to the other loudspeaker, we either have to tell the processor that it’s further away from the listening position than it really is, or we reduce the reported distance to the closer loudspeaker to delay it a little more.

This means that, in the example shown in Figure 7, above, we should add a little to the distance to the left loudspeaker before entering the value in the menus, or subtract a little from the distance to the right loudspeaker instead.

How much is enough?

You might, at this point, be asking yourself “Why can’t this be done automatically? It’s just a little trigonometry, after all…”

If things were as simple as I’ve described here, then you’d be right – the math that is converting distance compensation to audio delays could include this offset, and everything would be fine.

The problem is that I’ve over-simplified a little on the way through. For example, not everyone hears exactly a 10º shift in phantom image with a 2.5 dB inter-channel amplitude difference. Those numbers are the average of a listening test with a number of subjects. Also, when other researchers have done the same test, they get slightly different results. (see this page for information).

Also, the directivity of the loudspeaker will have an influence (that is likely going to be frequency-dependent). So, if you’ve “toed in” your loudspeakers, then (in the example above) the further one will be “aimed” at you better than the closer one, which will have an influence on the perceived location of the phantom centre.

So, the only way to really do the final “tweaking” or “fine tuning” of the distance-compensation delays is to do it by listening.

Normally, I start by entering the distances correctly. Then, while sitting in the listening position, I use a monophonic track (Suzanne Vega singing “Tom’s Diner” works well) and I increase the distance in the surround processor’s menu of the loudspeaker that I want to pull the image towards. In other words, if the phantom centre appears to be located too far to the left, I “lie” to the surround processor and tell it that the right loudspeaker is further by 10 cm. I keep adding distance until the image is moved to the correct location.

One-dimensional answers to a multidimensional question: Part 2

I once read a discussion about microphone placement in an Usenet Forum (it was a long time ago). Someone asked “where is the best place to position the microphones to record a french horn?” Lots of people had opinions, but the answer that I liked most was “that’s like asking ‘where is the best place to stand to take a photo of a mountain?” Of course, that answer might have been too facetious for the person asking the question, but, in my opinion, it was a good analogy. The correct answer, as always, is “it depends” – in this case, on perspective.

Example #1

Take a look at the image below.


Fig 1. A photo of a fishing boat, near the coast of Newfoundland, on a foggy day. The photo is 640 pixels wide and 480 pixels high. The vertical scale here is the black-to-white value, ranging from 0 (black) to 256 (white).

As you can read in the caption, this is a 640 x 480 black and white photo of a fishing boat off the coast of Newfoundland, near where I grew up, on a foggy day. Of course, if I didn’t tell you that, then it would be impossible to know it – but that’s because you’re looking at the “data” (the information in the pixels in the photo) from the wrong place… I’ll rotate the image a little and we’ll try again.

Fig 2: The same information as in Figure 1, but viewed from a different location.

Figure 2 is just a rotation of Figure 1 – we’re still looking at the same photo, but from another direction. It still doesn’t look like a boat… Let’s rotate some more…

Fig 3: The same information as in Figures 1 and 2, but viewed from a third direction.

Figure 3 is looking more like something – but there’s still no boat in sight… If you come back to Figure 3 after you look at Figure 4, you’ll recognise the trees on the land, the sky, and the water – you’ll also be able to see where the boat is. But this view of the photo is just off-position enough to scramble the data into being almost unrecognisable. So, let’s rotate the view of the data one last time…

Fig 4: Finally! A photo of a fishing boat, near the coast of Newfoundland, on a foggy day


So, what was the point of this, somewhat obscure analogy? It was to try to show that, by looking at the data from only one viewpoint, or one dimension (say, Figure 1, for example), you might arrive at an incorrect interpretation of the data.


Example #2

Watch this video.

In this video, Penn and Teller do the same trick twice. Both times, the trick is impressive, but for two different reasons. This is because your perspective changes. The first time, it’s just a good magic trick – or at least an old one. The second time, you’re impressed because of their skill in executing it. Two different perceptions resulting from two different perspectives.

Example #3

Once-upon-a-time, I taught a course in electroacoustic measurements at McGill University. I remember one class, early in the year, where I started one day by saying “What is a ‘frequency response’?” and one of the students, with a smile on his face replied “The only thing that matters…”

I went through some old data and found a measurement of a loudspeaker. Figure 5, below, shows the magnitude response of a three-way loudspeaker, measured in free-field (therefore, no reflections or influence of the room) at a distance of three meters from the loudspeaker, on-axis to the tweeter.


Fig 5. The magnitude response of a 3-way loudspeaker, measured at a distance of 3 m, on-axis to the tweeter, in a free-field.

This is just the kind of measurement that you’d see in a magazine… It’s also the kind of measurement that you’d use to make a “frequency response” for a data sheet. This one would read something like “<40 Hz – >20 kHz ±1 dB”, give or take.

However, let’s think about what this really is and whether it actually tells you anything at all… It’s a measurement of the relationship between input voltage to output pressure, in one place in space, at one listening level, with one type of signal (maybe a swept sine wave or an MLS signal, or something else…), at one temperature of the drivers’ voice coils, at one relative humidity level of the air (okay, okay… now I’m getting into excruciating minutæ…)

However, does this tell us anything about how the loudspeaker will sound? Well, yes. If you use it outdoors in a large field and you stand 3 m in front of it and listen to the same signal that was used to do the measurement. If, however, you stand closer, or not directly in front of it, or if you listen to music over time, or if you bring it indoors, this is just one piece of information – perhaps useful, but certainly inadequate…

Let’s look at another measurement of the same loudspeaker

Fig. 6. The magnitude response of the same loudspeaker, measured 90 degrees to the side under the same conditions.

As you can see, this loudspeaker’s magnitude response looks “pretty bad” – or at least “not very flat” off-axis (which implies that I just equated “flat” with “good” – which might not necessarily be correct…).

This is the magnitude response of the signal that this loudspeaker will send out the side while you’re listening to that “nice” flat direct sound. Something like this will hit the side wall and reflect back, different frequencies reflecting with different intensities according to the absorptive properties of the wall, the total distance travelled by the reflection, and the relative humidity (okay, okay …I’ll stop with the humidity references…)

As is obvious in Figure 6, this “sound” is almost completely unlike the “sound” in Figure 5 (assuming that a free-field magnitude response can be translated to “sound” – which is a stretch…)

So, just like in Example 1 and Example 2, by “looking” at the data from another direction, we get some more information that should be used to influence our opinion. The more data from the more perspectives, the better…

Fig 7. The same loudspeaker, measured for magnitude response at every 30 degrees in the horizontal plane, on  one side, in a free field, at one level, with one type of signal, at one set of voice coil temperatures, etc. etc….


So, we have one measurement that shows that this loudspeaker is “flat” and therefore “good”, in some persons’ opinions. However, we have a bunch of other measurements that prove that this is not enough information. And, if we measure the same loudspeaker at a different listening level, or at a different temperature, or with a different stimulus, we’d probably get a different answer. How different the measurement is is dependent on how different the measurement conditions are.

The “punch line” is that you cannot make any assumptions about how that loudspeaker will sound based on that one measurement in Figure 5 or the “frequency response” information in its datasheet. In fact, it could just be that having that graph in your hand will be worse than having no graphs in your hand, because your eyes might tell you that this speaker should sound good, and they get into a debate with your ears, who might disagree…

So, without more information, that one plot in Figure 5 is just a plot of one parameter – or one dimension – of many. And you can’t make any conclusions based on that.

Or put another way:

An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician are on a train in Scotland. The astronomer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, “How odd. All the sheep in Scotland are black!” “No, no, no!” says the physicist. “Only some Scottish sheep are black.” The mathematician rolls his eyes at his companions’ muddled thinking and says, “In Scotland, there is at least one sheep, at least one side of which appears to be black from here some of the time.” Link