The Absolute Sound April 2023
Just about every audiophile knows that the "sweet spot" is the listening position exactly between a pair of speakers and equidistant from each. That's the location where the sound from each speaker arrives at your ears at about the same time, allowing your brain to create a three-dimensional soundstage with a centrally placed image (if those qualities exist in the recording). Move the listening position slightly to the left or right, and the center image loses its tangibility and the glorious three-dimensional soundstage collapses.
The sanctity of the sweet spot is vividly embodied in the description by a 45-year industry veteran, who likened sitting in front of a pair of speakers to "worshipping at the triangular altar."
When the uninitiated visit my listening room (curious neighbors, for example), they invariably sit in the left or right position of my three-position listening couch. Their choice is borne out a lack of awareness of how crucial the sweet spot is to the listening experience. When I urge them to sit in the center, they are a bit baffled. They look incredulous when I tell them that sitting one foot to the left or right of the sweet spot results in an entirely different perception. They had never even remotely considered that the geometric arrangement of listener and loudspeakers could affect how they experience music.
Visiting industry veterans also avoid the center seat out of deference; there's an unwritten understanding of professional courtesy dictating that one does not commandeer the coveted sweet spot. But before their backsides have settled in, I immediately offer them the center seat so that they can experience the system in its full capability. I have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the sweet spot and gladly relinquish it for visitors.
Once in a while, someone in a group listening session will appropriate the sweet spot for himself — the uninitiated out of ignorance of audiophile etiquette, seasoned pros out of lack of consideration for others. That etiquette calls for rotating between seats so that everyone has a chance to hear the system at its finest.
The sweet spot's desirability varies with the context. Some group listening sessions are simply friends enjoying music together — the sweet spot is nearly irrelevant. Others are casual shared listening evaluations of equipment in which some time in the sweet spot is nice but not essential. A few group-listening sessions are cage-match blood-sport shootouts between competing products, with a purchase decision (or cast-in-cement opinions) hanging in the balance. In this context, time in the sweet spot is essential to forming a decisive evaluation of a product.
The sweet spot's exalted position in audiophilia varies with the loudspeaker's characteristics. Some speakers project a neutral tonal balance and throw a credible soundstage even when sitting off-axis. Others force you to sit exactly in the middle and avoid small head movements. This so-called "head-in-a-vice syndrome" can lead to tension while listening, lest one relax one's body position and move out of the laser-focused sweet spot. Needless to say, this isn't a recipe for deep musical immersion.
Nowhere are the sanctity of the sweet spot or violations of etiquette more on display than at a hi-fi show. It aggregates the perfect conditions for bad behavior: lots of listeners, a short amount of time, a rare opportunity to hear the product on display, and just one listening chair in the center of the room. I've seen some showgoers commandeer an exhibit room's sweet spot for 30 minutes, while other attendees wait their turn — to the obvious consternation of the exhibitor. Many exhibitors, upon seeing a member of the audio press enter their exhibit room, immediately ask the person in the sweet spot to move to make room for the reviewer. The manufacturer understandably wants the reviewer to hear the system at its best, but this behavior is disrespectful to the person in the sweet spot. That showgoer is just as entitled to time in the center seat as the reviewer and shouldn't be disturbed. I have a strict policy of refusing the sweet spot when it means displacing a showgoer. Even worse is when the manufacturer asks everyone except the reviewer to leave the room and then locks the door to give the reviewer a private demo.
The ideal protocol in a group listening session is for the selection of music to rotate among each person, with the person choosing that musical selection enjoying the sweet spot and then relinquishing it to the next person. Enjoy your time in the sweet spot — but know your audiophile etiquette.