In My Room

Listening rooms are real, imperfect places. Their character arises from their defects. I like real, imperfect things (footnote 1).

Not that there's such a thing as a perfect listening room. Every domestic listening room shares the same basic problem: Its most fundamental nature—its size and shape, the amount of space it carves out—results in resonances that can profoundly alter the sound of reproduced music, especially in the bass (footnote 2). Favorable dimensions, sound-absorbing furnishings, room treatments, signal processing—many things can mitigate the problem, but it can never be eliminated. Play an immaculately recorded piece of music, in any room, and no matter how fancy and expensive your audio system is, some bass notes will be too loud while others are too soft. The only thing in doubt is whether those deviations from neutrality are serious enough to detract from the pleasure you take in your music.

A few months before the plague hit, early on a sunny afternoon, I was at the headquarters of a well-known audio company, seated in the sweet spot in a small listening room. It was a day of new-product demos, and I was the latest in a long procession of audio reviewers being hosted by the company in one-hour listening sessions. On a track selected by the company to demonstrate the excellence of their new loudspeaker—and indeed the new loudspeaker was excellent—a note went missing from the bassline. It was an important, repeated note, and it was totally MIA.

Why did this happen? Apparently, my listening chair was positioned precisely at a null point of a standing wave—a room resonance—and the symmetry and size of the room, the symmetry of the setup, and the rigidity of the room's construction made the destructive interference at that location especially intense. The note was well up in the bass's range, so its absence was exceedingly easy to hear.

When I described what I heard to my host, he said "You're the first person to notice that. I guess that's why you're the editor of Stereophile." Here's hoping that all those other reviewers were more polite than I was, not deafer.

Real-world listening rooms have other problems, of course, besides room resonances. A problem many people think less about is material resonances—soft spots in suspended floors; thin, casually installed sheetrock; a loose window; a piano—all can absorb energy and then release it back into the room as sound, creating distortions not only in frequency but also in time.

Absorptive surfaces, including flexible walls, can be good: They can lower the Q of room resonances, making the peaks and valleys broader, the changes in the bass response from place to place and frequency to frequency less severe. If the energy is dissipated as heat, you're in good shape. But if it's released back into the room as audible vibrations, the room can sound subtly off in ways that can be hard to pinpoint.

Such trade-offs are a good example of how listening rooms are never perfect: Increase the rigidity of the walls and floors to reduce the amount of delayed energy, or to better soundproof the room, and you end up reducing absorption, worsening room resonances.

Conventional wisdom says that listening rooms should disappear sonically so that the recorded acoustic space can be projected into the room more convincingly. It's a valid aspiration, but I don't completely share it. A sonically neutral space is desirable for multichannel audio, where so much ambient information comes from the six or eight or however many speakers arrayed all over the room—one reason I never went in for multichannel despite its theoretical superiority. But in two-channel audio, reflective walls and other imperfections are an intrinsic part of the experience. I like the fact that two-channel audio is a big, imperfect mux that nevertheless works really well. Multichannel is a more perfect system, but I distrust perfection. I'm not suggesting you should leave your listening room alone—not necessarily. If you break an arm, go to a hospital. If you've got a big honkin' bass mode at 60Hz or 80Hz, or a window that vibrates at your normal listening levels, deal with it, preferably via genuine acoustical means. If the room is too reflective, add some well-stuffed furniture—just not leather, which reflects sound.

But some subtle sonic imperfections are best left alone. They're distinctive aspects of your room's sonic character. They can make music, or the experience of listening to it, better by rooting it in something real, that sounds real. Minor imperfections are your friends—or anyway, they're my friends.

Perfection, to me, is akin to soullessness. The perfect is the enemy of the good, the creative, the spontaneous, the real. Ask any jazz musician: There are no wrong notes (footnote 3).

Here's the clincher: In the context of two-channel hi-fi, your room is the only thing that's real. Every other aspect of the experience is a psychoacoustic illusion. Do you really want to filter out that one thread of reality? This may be heresy, but I want to hear my room in the music and the music in my room.

Sonic anonymity is a valid aspiration in audio, but it's not an aspiration I share. It is possible to seek excellence without seeking perfection. What I'm seeking roomwise—musicwise—is something I consider richer and more characterful. I want a good, authentic room, not a perfect one (footnote 4).—Jim Austin


Footnote 1: Herb Reichert has expressed similar thoughts about hi-fi, although he was writing about components, not rooms. I acknowledge the debt. Still, I come by this commitment to imperfection honestly: My research in physics, carried out in the late '80s through the mid '90s, focused on imperfections—specifically defects in materials. It showed—not for the first time of course—that defects can form lovely shapes and patterns and that they're responsible for some of the most important properties of materials.

Footnote 2: Before we curse our fate over the physics of standing waves, we should consider that precisely the same physics is at work in almost all musical instruments.

Footnote 3: I've seen variations on this quote attributed to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Probably they both said it.

Footnote 4: J. Gordon Holt wrote about listening rooms in March 1983 and Thomas J. Norton wrote about designing a dedicated listening room in October 1991. Stereophile's reviews of room acoustics treatments can be found here.—John Atkinson

COMMENTS
rt66indierock's picture

I know a lot of reviewers they missed a bass note was missing.

One of the reasons I have been happy with the audio systems I've assembled over the years is I have worked to get rid of annoying things to me and stopped. There is no perfection or a real need for it.

A good article, I hope you continue this kind of thought process.

Presence's picture

I found Russ Herschelmann's series of articles circa 1999 in Stereophile Guide to Home Theater most informative for deriving room dimensions. It operates using the Bonello theory that states that a minimum of 5% difference between bass frequency resonances allows adjacent bass notes to remain pitch distinguishable from one another.
Herschelmann illustrates a spread sheet allowing the user to input room dimensions scaled to be at least 5% apart, the objective being to design/raise adjacent resonances out of the typical and perhaps impossible to treat 65Hz-90Hz area to 150Hz and above. The article illustrates how Room Ratio formulas which were derived during the slide rule era [A. Alton Everest] as well as "Golden Ratios" are still superficially popular to this day but are not optimal, remaining in use only to keep the math simple. When input to the Bonello spread sheet, they all produced adjacent resonances around the very troublesome 80Hz area.
Great article.

drblank's picture

is 8ft ceilings. Not only does it create modal pressure issues between floor and ceiling, you don't have any room to add treatment to the ceiling. It's better to have 10' for higher, ultimately 14' is best, but not many homes have ceilings that high.

As far as dealing with low frequencies? Yes, there are products on the market to address that. But they are large, you need many of them especially if you have lots of large bass drivers and you're music is played at decent volume levels.. OR, some acoustic engineers can design the low frequency absorption into the actual wall, so you don't see it, but you definitely hear the bass more clearly.

Here's a link to a site of at least one company that makes high end low frequency absorption devices, but can also design and build the actual structure or even design the room where you build it on your own.

https://www.acousticfields.com/state-of-the-art-acoustics/

The link above is for a project they designed and built for the customer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFXfAux7wYA&feature=emb_logo

The link above is a project that the customer built based on the designs given to them. It shows you a little about the behind the wall so to speak.. It's a great and informative video.

The most important thing is the room. Golden Ratio dimensions is only a starting point, at best. Some put a little too much importance on being a Golden Ratio.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

So, we don't need a perfect sounding room forever :-) ......

Kal Rubinson's picture

It has been since March, so it is getting to seem forever.................

Bogolu Haranath's picture

This 'March Madness' started since March ...... It seems to go on forever :-) .......

Joe Whip's picture

I have designed my room so that it adds just a little flavor to the sound mix. Completely flat wasn’t what I wanted. I find this to be particularly helpful with live recordings.

Spla'nin's picture

Great reminder of how much influence the room has on overall sound. More content & tips of this type would be helpful to both young and old in the pursuit of great sound in real spaces. Thanks

ChrisS's picture

Like the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-In CD and the ones produced by Stereophile (https://www.stereophile.com/features/338/index.html) may be useful in assessing and making adjustments to the acoustics of one's listening room and the sound of the stereo system.

georgehifi's picture

Best thing I've done ever in some 50 years of audio, which improved the imaging and depth of imaging immensely, was to remove the wall between the speakers, but still left a meter each side for bass loading.
Listeners can't believe what they see with the imaging and hear with the imaging when they come for a listen. You can visualize imaging >10mts out into the back yard. https://ibb.co/xDnzVdC

Cheers George

Roger That's picture

I’d argue that rooms are a wanted part of the sound reproduction.

No one would love to hear music on an anechoic chamber, and I’d argue that most recordings would sound bad on an open field (like setting up a stereo system in the middle of a beach).

Some rooms are mostly damaging to any audio system, while others can add a mainly beneficial “character”.

Acoustic treatments can help (but not solve all issues), but trying to solve all problems in the low frequency range is near to impossible (trying to make it “perfect” on those regions would often end up using insane amounts of room space), especially in a regular room (not a room made from scratch with acoustics in mind).

This is where I found some older audiophile approaches somehow out dated, because if we consider that the aim is to sit in the sweet spot (unlike a home-theater setup, which must account for more people), then applying precise and careful parametric EQ/DSP below the modal range of the room will always bring a better bass response (at the sweet spot).

It has never been more accessible to accurately measure those room problems (which I would define as decisive for accurately correcting only what needs to be corrected), and this can be done by most audiophiles that are willing to put the time and effort on it (isn’t this a passion after all?).

This still needs to start with the same principles around loudspeaker and listener placement in a room first, and our ears can never get out of the equation at any point of the process.

But by addressing the major problems below the modal frequency of the room in a more active way, we can not only improve its amplitude consistency, but also the overall “tilt” of the in-room response, which can also be used for fine tuning the overall spectral balance without ever touching the signal above that modal frequency (let’s say 300Hz for a rough estimate).

I’m not implying in any way that this can or should be used as a substitute for good loudspeakers, amplifiers, sources (etc).
But it can definitely improve the whole listening experience in a way that no audio cable ever will, despite the fact that all of these adjustments (cables included) can be done simultaneously.

None of this is new, and most studios have been using active monitors and some “room EQ” for several decades now, including many audiophile reference recordings.

This might require bi-amping on some cases, but I honestly feel that this a better reason for adding another power amp than the older traditional bi-amp mindset.

The room will still add it’s own character to the sound, but some of it ends up tamed.

I know that many audiophiles will cringe at the prospect of changing the signal, while being ok with letting the room changing the signal by a far greater amplitude.

But I’d argue that finding the loudspeaker that has the better interaction with our own room’s acoustic is a hit or miss experience, and one that is increasingly harder to try before actually buying the loudspeakers, as specialist audio retailers are getting rarer and further away from most regions but some main cities.

I honestly believe (by theory but also by experience) that this can act like the ice on the cake of any amazing sound systems (unless it happens to be already way too close to our goal of a perceived sonic “perfection”, in which case I probably wouldn’t add anything else).

It wasn’t that long ago that audio spectrum analysers were somehow expensive, while having a low resolution that would identify tonal balances, but not precisely identify specific room modes (and the main ones), which in turn would make any fine adjustment way harder and less precise than it is today.

This is not the case anymore, but the audiophile community is often the most reluctant to move one.

If we were talking about cars, this would be like those who defend that carburettors were “the real thing”, while discarding all the advantages in performance and precise engine tuning that came along with it.

There are definitely still a few who actually like the “analogue” way of injecting fuel into an engine, but mainly for nostalgia or lack of means to address the most efficient way of producing power of any engine and fine tuning its response to any specific need.

But this is only my opinion on these audio subjects (if founded on some science), and not any kind of universal truth.

The most important principle that I defend on audio discussions has been (for a few decades now) that no one but the buyer needs to love the sound of any system, cables or whatever.

Cheers.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Those of you who have access to the Wall Street Journal might enjoy this article:

Fifty Years After Designing Electric Lady Studios, Architect Cuts New Track With AI

Acoustics pioneer John Storyk and his team built a tool to help them optimize musical recording and performance spaces for low-frequency sounds

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fifty-years-after-designing-electric-lady-studios-architect-cuts-new-track-with-ai-11596457800

Excerpt:

WSDG has started to employ NIRO in work for its clients, using the tool in almost 20 projects, including new studios for Sony Corp. of America; rapper, singer and songwriter J. Cole; Mike Gordon, bass player and singer with the band Phish; and Hollywood composer Carter Burwell, WSDG said.

WSDG [Walters-Storyk Design Group] is using NIRO to help design Spotify’s new recording studios in the Arts District in Los Angeles. WSDG is the lead architect and acoustician for all acoustic rooms, such as control rooms, studios, isolation booths and podcasting studios.

remlab's picture

So we may as well put a positive spin on it.
but when reviewers talk about incredibly subtle differences between pieces equipment while glorifying their very imperfect rooms?
There's some cognitive dissonance involved if you ask me

tonykaz's picture

Guys like Bob Katz describe building Listening Rooms along with all the detailed 'tuning' they go thru ( including finding the 'right' sounding amplification systems ).

I find happiness with non-reflective surfaces and low ambient Sound pressure levels.

and

a nice Russian pre-amp tube that delivers a fragile & astonishingly high sound quality.

and

Careful cable selection ( like Bruce Brisson wires ) that makes startling performance enhancements.

Setting up a listening room is one of the wonderful & peaceful joys available only to Audiophiles.

It's kinda like building your own Carnage Hall, which ( I think ) is well worth the effort.

The 'Listening Room' is every Audiophile's first component, isn't it?

Tony in Venice

Mikk's picture

Near field listening isn’t without it’s own issues, of course, but can go a VERY long way towards mitigating unwanted room influences and can provide a stunning audio experience within a very small (and family-friendly) space...

RH's picture

Nice article Jim!

When I remodeled my room for both home theater and 2 channel listening I consulted an acoustical in the design. Acoustic treatment is cannily hidden in to the design. The result has been a really nice sounding room for both home theater surround and my 2 channel system.

For home theater duty, black velvet curtains pull around the whole room which makes for a nice "black box" effect, especially good for cutting wall reflections to my projector screen to maintain contrast. But also adds a bit of deadening for the surround system.

In everyday use those curtains are hidden away in the corners behind thicker brown velvet curtains, also bunched in to the corners.

But the thick brown velvet curtains can, themselves, be pulled along any wall, and gathered as desired, so that I can control the areas of reflectivity (upper frequencies) and add or subtract liveness to the room. I love being able to very easily tweak the room acoustics to taste, and it has helped all sorts of different speakers sound their best in the room.

As you say, no room is perfect, but I haven't felt the need to add DSP to ameliorate problems either.

RH's picture

^^^ sentence meant to read:

When I remodeled my room for both home theater and 2 channel listening I consulted an Acoustician in the design.

(I can't edit posts because when I do they disappear in to moderation purgatory)

Lars Bo's picture

A very interesting AWSI, Jim.

I agree: Perfection is soulless. As validity of any musical presentation, claiming imperfection is like calling offside in a gastronomic critique.

Nothing is neutral (in an absolute sense); gear, rooms, recordings etc. all "sound". Everything sounds but not all play, i.e. musically with great emotional authenticity. Naturally, this is a specific subjective truth, but it always will be if the focus is not just the sound of a steady wind blowing through a harp, but rather a human being musically playing same harp.

Regarding the influence of the room, I find, as with most things in audiophelia, that good rooms are balanced. Especially, the room-bass, more so than gear-bass, can often lean heavily towards more "punch" than "tone", which can really weaken a clear pitch and mess with the whole harmonic expression of much music (just as an example, the key chord diatonically have five "family" chords only distinguished by a clear fundamental).

Thanks, Jim.

Michael Fremer's picture

Since most audio enthusiasts situate their systems in real not studio-type rooms I think it best for reviewers to review in such rooms as well, though not in terrible, totally untreated rooms. I've visited guys with square rooms and tall ceilings and often with 'stuff' between the speakers. The rooms sound bad. No wonder they are always swapping out gear looking for something that will never exist in their room because of the room not the gear.

However, it's important to not confuse what's seen in room measurements with what's heard (same is true of speaker measurements). As Siegfried Linkwitz once told me "You use your eyes for seeing and your ears for hearing. Do not confuse the two! Don't rely upon what you see in measurements to tell you what you will hear" (or words to that effect). My room, about 15x21x8 has a bass rise seen in every measurement yet for some reason or reasons it doesn't result in "boomy bass". The room also has outstanding measurable decay time an acoustician who visited and measured told me. It also has a concrete slab floor and a combination of 4 feet tall cinderblock foundation and above that softer wallboard and typical framing. The combination of hard and soft plus plenty of room treatment but not too much combines to produce a good sounding space as visitors always find. A pair of skeptical Russian engineers approached me at store event and one said "How can you put up with the boomy bass? We see your measurements". I told them I don't have "boomy" bass. I invited them over. They came with their test CDs and played tones, music, etc. then they huddled. Finally one said "you right! No boomy bass!. Good bass!" I said "Let me play a record for you". "No we don't like records". But I made them listen. They couldn't believe what it sounded like. So they said they were going to buy the same music on CD ("Porgy and Bess" Maazel and Cleveland Orchestra). I said "It won't sound like that, I promise you." Two weeks later one of the guys called and said "We got CD you right. It doesn't sound anything like that record. Why is that?" I said "I have no idea, I just know it's so." lol

Doctor Fine's picture
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