[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

March 2001

The Trials and Tribulations of the Non-Dedicated Listening Room – Part I: The Tour

"Hey, honey! What are you doing with that sledgehammer?"

"What…this?" you say, as if you really hadn’t noticed the 25-pound demolition hammer in your right hand. "Well…uhhhh."

"It certainly better not have anything to do with the stereo. I’m not having that big ugly hammer sitting on top of your CD player or something. It was bad enough when you put those nasty looking Shocky Rocks, or whatever you call them, on everything. Don’t even think about having that rusty old thing sitting around!"

"Oh no. Nothing like that. I was just reading an article about how non-parallel walls sound so much better, so I was going to…"

You didn’t think the little lady could move so fast. Before the last word leaves your mouth, the hammer has changed possession, is raised above her head, and you are moving quickly for the front door. Please God, let it be unlocked.

If you only had a room of your own. The perfect room . A "golden cuboid" with non-parallel, heavily insulated, double-thick walls, acoustically treated to eliminate slap echo.

The only furniture would be the [cue up sounds of Benedictine Monks chanting in the background] LISTENING CHAIR [music builds and then fades]. Banned are the sofas, loveseats, end tables, coffee tables, curio cabinets and ottomans. Goodbye, knickknacks and pattywhacks. Pottery, statues, vases, and various decorating accessories can only serve to collect dust and cause nasty reflections. Pictures of the kids? You remember what they look like, don’t you? Take out the ficus trees and plastic ferns. Bring in the Tubetraps and CornerTunes. Light dimmers? Forgetaboutit. Who needs those nasty noisy things messing with my AC? In fact, the only circuits you really want are the dedicated, shielded, 30-amp circuits for the equipment. Candles are in my plan.

Oh if it could only be so.

[SMACK! WHACK! BAM! The sound of our plane landing in reality, the place most of us are destined to end up.]

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Reality. We will begin our tour of the "non-dedicated listening room" after I inform you of a few rules. First, if any of you are allergic to Patience, I would suggest leaving the tour at this time. Also, if you came here expecting to see the rare Perfect Situation, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. Please be careful not to bump into the Compromises. You will find them to be quite abundant, and they are very sensitive about their shortcomings. If you will step this way, the tour will be starting shortly.

Our first stop is the front door. In this case, it enters right into the listening room, a.k.a. living room, entertaining room, front room, homework room, a room in which just about anyone who feels like doing anything at all can drop in. This often leaves our audiophile feeling crowded, frustrated and irritable. Although many solutions have been attempted, the only effective ones have been LATE-night listening sessions or signs reading "Quarantine -- Anthrax virus present". Don’t mind the audiophile -- he’s used to having people tramping noisily through the room.

As for the overall layout and dimensions of the room, I would call this room typical for its sort. The room is only 14 or 15 feet on a side and close to square in its shape. This cube-like form causes all sorts of problems with standing waves, which we like to call boomers. The short dimensions of the room require the speakers to be placed quite close to the front wall, making the boomers even more aggressive. And notice how close the speakers are to the side walls. Another problem. When those waves leave the drivers, they hit the walls first. We call these first reflections bouncers. These bouncers and boomers can only be tamed with acoustical treatments, which the audiophile’s wife deems aesthetically unfriendly and therefore unnecessary. Pitiful sound, but my, the decorator is a genius, don’t you think?

Notice the hardwood floors. Check out how they bounce if we walk too heavily. If we all jump together we can make the needle on the Rega jump to the next track. Who says turntables don’t have remote controls? Don’t you just love how the floors look, refinished with six layers of polyurethane? They look like glass, which is what covers the entire right side of the room. The coffee table is also quite lovely with the marble top. And what about that nice big 36" GLASS television screen between the speakers? Can you say LIVE ROOM? This room is so live that if you slap your hands together to check for echoes, the room will likely slap you back.

Look at our "listening chair." The pillowed sofa may not be audiophile-approved, but at least it’s a comfy place to fall asleep when our listener tries for one of those late-night, uninterrupted listening sessions. Is that a drool stain I see on the pillow? Our boy does need his beauty rest. Besides, the room needs all the absorbing material it can get. Speaking of which, check out the overstuffed chair by the windows. It almost covers the front of the right speaker. Oh well. Isn’t that what balance controls are for?

OK, enough of the story. But most of you are shaking your heads in agreement by now. So few of us are able to even get close to that "golden cuboid." My room is not as bad as our audiophile friend’s, but it’s not that far off. At least I’ve convinced my wife to use a spare bedroom for the video viewing area. Actually, this doesn’t completely solve the television problem; but let’s discuss that another time. For now let’s divide our problems into categories.

First, room shape and size. Squares are a problem, as our story discussed earlier. Rectangles are better, but how wide? If it’s narrow like a hall, then that’s probably about how wide your soundstage will be. The problems don’t end there. How about the ceiling. Too low and, well, you remember the bouncers. Too high and your room may begin to sound like Carlsbad Caverns. Cathedral Ceiling? If you’re really lucky, it begins lower at the speaker wall and opens up like a band shell. If not……have you ever put a funnel in your ear and had someone speak into it? Hmmm.

The floor is certainly an issue. Hardwoods, left bare, are not much better than tile. Carpet is always a plus. I have hardwoods and, well, they sure look pretty. Some of us are blessed with the sonic fortune to have the floor of our listening room located on a concrete slab. The rest of us have a basement, or other room below. And folks, if your floor creaks and groans it’s not because it doesn’t like your music. It squeaks because it moves. A good thing? At least not a bad thing? Sorry. The only thing that should be vibrating is your speaker cones, ear drums and -- well, that’s between you and that lovely lady sitting next to you.

Now it’s time to start filling that room up. Unless you live alone, have no friends, and have decorated in a strong minimalist oriental décor, this means furniture. "Who needs more than a distressed leather English lodge chair (hint for my wife)." I’m with you, guy. Other than a small "acoustically inert" place to set a beverage, the listening chair loves its solitude. If you actually find a way to sell this to your other half, let me know. What you need to realize is that everything, and I mean everything, that is moved into the room affects the sound. Overstuffed chairs, pillows, cushy ottomans, sofas, tapestries and any other soft items can be considered sound sponges. They suck up some of the sound waves that come in contact with them. Coffee tables, end tables, sculptures, glass, lamps and other hard items can be considered sound mirrors. They send the sound waves zinging off their surfaces in other directions. Some sucking and zinging can be a good thing. Keep your mind on the topic. Audio, remember. Too much sucking and the room becomes lifeless and dead-sounding. All emotion and feeling will also be "sucked" from the music. To much zinging and you’ll feel like you had 12 cups of coffee too many. Everything will seem too immediate, hard and confusing. Oh boy….

If you feel like stopping for a glass of good bourbon at this time, feel free. All this sucking and zinging has me a little worked up too. You wanted the truth, didn’t you?

Your room may also have a few idiosyncrasies that merit your attention. Do you have a fireplace? I assure you that the opening of your fireplace acts like a mini cave in your room. Ever yelled into the opening of a cave? If your fireplace and mantle sit out into the room a ways, you have two additional areas with a "whole lotta wave-trappin' goin' on." Nooks, crannies, and shelves -- oh my. Nooks, crannies, and shelves -- oh my. Just look around folks; the dangers are lurking everywhere.

And then there’s the power issue. Remember when your mom told you not to share your glass or silverware with anyone else? Germs, right? Well, your electricity works kind of like that. It’s not only the things in your own house, like the computer, television, microwave, and refrigerator that are sources of AC germs. You can even get infected from your neighbors’ stuff, and radio waves from who knows where. Don’t you just want to give your circuit breakers a good bath right now?

Have I got you feeling kind of hopeless? Are you ready to trade your whole system in and start watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island night after night? Well, take heart, folks. All is not lost. There is hope for you yet. You may be deep in "Audio Hell" at the moment, and to tell you the truth, none of us will ever stop making little side trips there, but in columns to follow I’ll try to guide you out a bit. I can’t stand to see audiophiles in pain, so next time let’s at least shoot for purgatory. Until we meet again….

...Bill Brooks


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