The Sanctuary — Controlled
It's a sacred place, it's a guarded retreat, it's a haven, and it's in your house — it’s
the listening room. My own main listening room is the living room and, like it
or not, I'm sharing it with other members of the family and visitors. Yet, it
becomes my private sanctuary when I'm listening to music and try to relax. However,
it's difficult to relax when my audio isn't right and even a small imperfection
becomes a big distraction. I'm willing to bet that most audiophiles have experienced
uncertainty and suspicions about their choices of audio gear and, let's face
it, that's why they are always on the hunt for methods and components to improve
the sound. When, after you have purchased expensive cables, AC cords, power line
conditioners, speakers and electronics, the sound isn't quite what you expected,
look around and you'll find yourself IN the one component that directly affects
the sound, namely, your listening room; or more precisely its acoustics. <<Read
Acoustics is a word derived from the Greek word Acouin — to hear — and
it's a complex science quite evident when we look at some of the famous concert
halls — the good ones and the bad ones. We have a fairly deficient one
right here in Toronto — Roy Thompson Hall — and we have a few real
good ones as well — the old Massey Hall and the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga,
a suburb of Toronto. I can't understand why Roy Thompson — built in 1992 — wasn't
designed properly; after all, 20th century's technology made analyzing acoustic
properties as easy as a decent spectrum analyzer. Many more measuring instruments
and computer programs are now obtainable, but, sadly, they lack the most sophisticated
tool needed to get acoustics right — ears. A dog’s ears would be
great, but human ears will do just fine. Roy Thompson Hall is a nice building
to be sure, but it is a terrible listening environment; and yours could be too,
if you don't follow very basic rules and don't use the very best measuring devices
possible — ears.
To correct the problem in any listening environment, a bit of logic, lots of
patience and some furniture may well be all you need.
First, the logic
Let’s acknowledge that we all have things in common; we listen in a room
with walls, a floor and a ceiling. Like any component in the audio chain, the
room too has a voice; some rooms are alive with reverberations (echo), some are
dull sounding and require spirit or liveliness. Almost every listening environment
needs some work to achieve the proper balance of two important elements — absorption
This is where a little logic is needed — and this usually spells compromise.
The audiophile and other family members (mainly the lady of the house) need to
make concessions and come to a mutually satisfying arrangement. Arrangement is
the working word, of course, inasmuch as the next step may be to re-arrange some
of the listening room's furniture.
Before you do anything, you should familiarize yourself with the room's (the
component's) "voice". A look around will tell what kind of listening
environment you are dealing with. Carpet on the floor is a good thing — it
will prevent upward reflections. However, you should know that densely knitted
or woven carpets made of wool have a better absorption rate than carpets made
with artificial fibres; and absorption is desirable in most environments. If
the listening room has bare (hardwood) floors, the situation becomes a bit sticky,
but not impossible to deal with. Adding a carpet or a rug usually does a good
job. Other tricky environments are living rooms featuring ”open concept” designs.
Open concept means spaces open to the kitchen, dining room or some other areas.
Open means trouble, loads of trouble, for it is difficult to place the loudspeakers
appropriately to achieve proper imaging. Higher than 12-foot ceilings also spells
trouble, specifically, bass trouble — lacking proper bass response. The
only remedy for this is to elevate the loudspeakers to the required height — it's
either that or lowering the ceiling, nothing else will do. If you can't lower
the ceiling or elevate a large set of loudspeakers, you can try to using some
of Art Noxon's ASC corner traps, up close to the ceiling. I made it work for
me when I lived in an "open concept" town house with a 22-foot ceiling.
Square rooms are nothing but a pain, and it's not only in your ears. However,
even this can be corrected if you are willing to follow my advice. To make the
following as comprehensible as possible, I'll describe my listening studio also
known as the living/dining room area I have used for over 15 years.
My room's total length is almost 28 feet; about 11 feet of this is dining area
divided by short walls jutting out about three feet on either side. The 11-foot
space accommodates four chairs and a glass-topped table, while in the corners
created by the short walls I placed a vibration-free Core component shelf (reviewed
in Vol.17, No. 1 of the print mag). The main listening area and my additional
set-up is in the 17-foot space created by aforementioned short walls. A leather
sofa, a couple of leather chairs, an ottoman, another component shelf, coffee
table and an 1934 radio/record player console (for some of my components and
for CD storage space) occupies this space. On the carpeted floor, I always arrange
loudspeakers just ahead of the jutting walls, which naturally divide this room
into about one/third segments. All loudspeakers I audition and or review are
placed one third into the listening space (room), and I regard this placement
as an important part to let the loudspeakers "breathe" and to recreate
the front-to-back dimension of a sound stage.
Look at your set-up, divide your (listening) room into three equal segments (approximately)
and try to place the loudspeakers in one of the two (invisible) boundaries thus
created. This very simple step will render an instant improvement as you have
just created a deep sound stage (I get about 11 feet of it). The loudspeakers
should be placed equal distances from the sidewalls, if possible about three
feet away from the sidewalls. If you must place them closer to the wall, toe
them in by a few degrees, not too much, as this affects the width of the sound
stage you wish to create. (If the speakers are toed in too much, you‘ll
shrink the sound stage, the horizontal spread). In addition to a much-improved
sound stage, this set-up eliminates most corner reflections and undesirable bass
augmentation. The one-third dividing method works all the time, and with every
loudspeaker system ever designed, including dipolar, bipolar and electrostatic
loudspeakers. However, the plan is not written in stone and, if not feasible,
pull those loudspeakers away from the back wall as far as practicable — it
will help, though the closer to the rear wall the shallower the sound stage.
As anyone who has attended trade-shows can tell you, small and or square rooms
pose the most difficult problems — standing waves everywhere. (Standing
waves are stationary orders of alternating zones of high and low energy (antinodes
and nodes) set up in an acoustical space when reflections between its boundaries
are in synchronism). Most professionals in the industry know this and I respect
those who have overcome acoustic problems in square rooms, but I can't understand
why there still are quite a few pros who fail to set up systems correctly.
If you have a small and or square listening room, don't despair, the problem
can be remedied. Use the corners of the room to your advantage by placing the
loudspeakers so that they face (diagonally) the other corner. Arrange your electronics,
either behind the loudspeakers on a shelf or somewhere accessible in the room.
Remember that the classic set-up is with the source components and preamplifier
away from the power amplifier(s). I recommend a 20-foot run of interconnects
and an eight-foot run of speaker cables if power and preamps are used. It isn't
a mortal sin to place the electronics between the loudspeakers (on a stand),
if you must. If you have an integrated amp, keep it close to the loudspeakers
so that you can use an eight-foot pair of speaker cables. Many years ago Bruce
Brisson of MIT fame published a paper in which he maintained that an eight foot
run of speaker cable avoids impairing phase shifts — a timing error through
a part of the frequency range of a signal comparative to the remainder of its
range. And many years ago, I put the theory to the test just to discover that
Brisson was right.
To gain sound stage depth and enhance focus (on the performers), cotton and wool
fabric curtains on the rear wall behind the loudspeakers will do a very good
job. I have used fabric-covered vertical blinds with excellent results. They
can be pulled back or rotated, thus providing the balance between absorption
and reflection. The adjustments come in handy as the blinds' angle can be changed
to accommodate various acoustical scenarios such as how many "absorbing
bodies" (listeners) are in the listening area. Here is where you should
trust your ears and adjust accordingly. If curtains or drapes aren’t feasible,
tapestry or other (textile) wall-hanging behind the speakers on the rear wall
What not to do
Don't use any hard, reflecting diffusers behind the speakers; don't place absorbing
panels or furnishings next to, or outside of the speakers — it will diminish
the tweeters' performance.
Don't use synthetic fabrics for curtains or rugs, if possible — it works,
but with limited success.
Do not treat the walls facing the loudspeakers (the listening area). It is my
belief that sound should bounce off the wall behind the listening seats, return
toward the opposing wall, where it should be absorbed. This will re-capture ambiance
(if properly recorded) and take you to the original recording venue.
Testing the results of you arrangement
Fire up the system, sit down on your "listening chair", and then stand
up. If the focus on the stage has changed, you got it wrong, but if focus has
remained steadfast and you can clearly determine the sound stage boundaries,
things are in decent order. Next, walk slowly toward the stage. If you have correctly
arranged the speakers, focus on instruments and voices should remain firm as
you walk closer to the speakers and you should have the impression that you are
walking closer to the stage where the musicians are performing. Next, stand outside
the room near its entrance and listen carefully. If you can still make out the
location of the sound stage, pad yourself on the shoulder, you have become an
acoustic expert without even a glance at a spectrum analyzer.
I'd like to stress, that all of the above is not predicated in the complicated
science of acoustics, but is rooted in hands-on experience which, incidentally,
seems to work better than most science-based methods I've checked out. At any
rate, get the help of a friend and try my simple method for your audio set-up.
You may find that you are quite able to rule your listening environment and enjoy
the music more than ever.
Have a great musical day,