Nearfield listening — what you hear may surprise you

Nearfield listening — what you hear may surprise you

If you’ve ever had the chance to spend time in a large recording studio, the sort of venue too expensive to put on a credit card, your eyes were probably first drawn to the mixing console, wide enough that it might take five engineers to operate. Next, you no doubt noticed the main speakers, those with several woofers, tweeters, and other elements, possibly built into the wall. But then you saw another pair of speakers, much smaller, probably with a well-known brand name, sitting on the back of the console.

                Those are the nearfield monitors.

                Oh, studio people have other names for them, such as sh*tboxes, not a compliment to their makers. One reason for their presence is to let the engineers hear what their music mixdown might sound like on a typical home system. But a more cogent reason, suggested by their name is to let the engineers listen from close in… in the nearfield. What they will hear is quite different from what emerges from the big monitors on the wall, and you may want to try listening the same way.

                There’s a saying among audio enthusiasts that you don’t actually listen to your speakers, you listen to your speakers plus your room. If your room is very large and you’re sitting at a good distance from the speakers, a high percentage of the sound that reaches your ears will come from the walls, the floor, and the ceiling, not the speakers themselves. That is especially true of lower frequencies, because they behave like waves on a lake. Needless to say, those speakers will sound very different depending on the room they’re in.

                The room will also greatly influence the stereo effect, which is what gives music the illusion that it is taking place in a real space. If you listen with earphones, the left signal will be heard only by your left ear and the right signal by your right. This will give you the best stereo effect, though it won’t sound quite natural. Play the music through a pair of speakers, and the left and right signals will blend and be audible to both ears. In a really big room, there won’t be much stereo effect left.

                To get at least a hint of what you’re missing, move close to the speakers. That’s difficult if the speakers are not near each other, and you may want to experiment by placing them closer. You are now moving into the nearfield, and what you hear may surprise you. You can now get a good idea of where a voice or instrument is placed in the recording space, and you may marvel at the enhanced perception of reverberation and depth. The stereo cues were always on the recording, of course, but they were getting lost in the chaotic omnidirectional noise. Now, even though there is, inevitably, some mixing of left and right channels, you can better make out the differences between them.

                But do people, in real life, actually indulge in nearfield listening?

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                It’s far more common than it was. The speakers that come in desktop computers might’ve once been adequate, but that’s become less the case as more of our music resides on our computer or is streamed from across the world. If the built-in speakers sound screechy or muddled, you’ve likely invested in a pair of outboard speakers, placed on either side of the screen. They are probably small enough to be point sources, and they are close enough that you are hearing mainly the speakers and not the room boundaries. You are listening in the nearfield, just like those studio mixdown engineers. Those speakers may not provide the dynamics and the extended frequencies of a true hi-fi system, but you’ll be amazed by the depth and space of the stereo image.

                The cheapest computer speakers are plastic, and they have their own built-in amplifiers running from the computer’s audio output. Though those amplifiers need not be awful, you may prefer an outboard amplifier of better quality, connected to the computer via USB, or wirelessly, via Bluetooth. Some small and affordable amplifiers include digital-to-analog converters (DACs), to turn those computer files into sound.

                Speakers for a full-sized stereo system may be large, but nearfield speakers shouldn’t be. The reason is that the woofer and the tweeter in the nearfield speaker need to be about the same distance from your ears. For the same reason, you’ll want to tilt them up to face you.

                Your nearfield speakers may not replace a large music system, but you may find that those small speakers let you hear sounds you didn’t know the microphones had captured.

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