[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

April 2001

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

Welcome back my friends,
to the show that never ends.
We’re so glad you could attend.
Come inside…come inside.

My listening room is square.
The acoustics are a bear.
Here’s some earplugs you can wear.
Come inside…come inside.

Sorry folks…sometimes I just can’t help myself. Those readers pushing 40 and older are screwed. You now have an Emerson, Lake and Palmer song stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Younger folks, write that name down. ELP is overdue to be rediscovered by the younger generation.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, the room thing. No luck convincing the wife to tear out the walls and rebuild in a "non-parallel" fashion, huh? Me neither. Oh well, the dust from the remodel would have clogged up your tonearm bearings anyway. Sour grapes.

Perhaps your solution is a little "room roulette." Who says that your system has to be stuck in that small, square family room in the back of the house? The dining room might be a good choice. A rectangular room that opens into the kitchen at one end. Place your speakers down there and they have some room to breathe. Speakers like to breathe. Think of adjectives used to describe good sound: "airy, open, spacious...." See, speakers need to breathe. Of course, be careful not to trip on the cables as you run to the fridge for a beverage. Move that gorgeous mahogany dining-room table into the family room with the television. You won’t have to worry about TV trays anymore, or spills on the carpet. We all know you eat in front of the television anyway.

That idea doesn’t fly? How about the master bedroom? All you do is sleep in there, right? Well, most of the time. Oh come now, if the back seat of a Buick didn’t cramp your style years ago, then…

OK, OK, so we’re stuck with the family room, or living room, or whatever space you and your system have been relegated to. Just remember that it could be much worse. I heard about a man who had proudly purchased a pair of large, full-range MartinLogan CLS electrostats. He brought them home and set them up and was just getting them into position when the interior decorator showed up. The MartinLogans ended up being pushed flat against a back wall. Talk about audio hell.

Let’s look at a couple of typical scenarios. We’ll start with the long and narrow room. I live in an area with many 1920’s bungalow-style homes. Most of the living rooms are about 20 feet long and about 11 or 12 feet wide. A room with these proportions might work well as a miniature bowling alley, but for sound it causes some problems. Most people tend to place the speakers on the short wall and sit further back. In a room like this you’re going to have a helluva time with not only first reflections, but second, third…. Get the picture? The sound waves will go careening back and forth like a ping-pong ball before they get to you. Talk about muddying the sonic waters. You will also end up with the speakers so close together that the soundstage will be more like a sound pedestal.

A couple of ideas…

If you must use the short wall, then get your butt up close. I’m talking nearfield listening here. By moving yourself up close, you lower the possibility of those soundwaves getting to the walls before they get to you. The sound will be less confused, and your soundstage will be much wider. Nearfield listening works. There are even speaker manufacturers out there that design speakers with this in mind. The giant Nearfield Acoustics Pipedreams come to mind. These six- and seven-foot-tall line arrays are pure magic, but only when listening up close. Will this mess up the aesthetics of the room? Probably. Who wants a chair stuck in the dead center of their living room? Besides us, of course? Think "mobile" folks. Find that cool-looking listening chair that you can move in and out in a moment’s notice. One of those stylish Danish chairs of black leather and bent wood might be just the ticket. "We’re going MOBILE…keep on movin'…"

Well, I got rid of that ELP song for you. Now you can enjoy The Who for awhile.

But where is it written that you must use the short wall? Longer can be better. Isn’t it "a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll"? Just keep changing that mind music. In my last house I was forced into the long-wall situation. I, like the masses, was sure that the results would be terrible. But after some playing around, I found some incredible results. I pushed the listening chair right up against one of the long walls. This allowed me to pull the speakers out into the room some. I spaced the speakers farther apart than I normally would. Since there were no walls near the sides of the speakers, first reflections were virtually nonexistent. What I ended up with was a deep, wide soundstage that was quite listenable. The images may have been a little wider than they should have been. The bell on the saxophone was closer to baritone than to alto in size, and the keyboard on the piano may have grown a few feet. Compromises? Yes, but aren't there always? This was sound I could live with.

Now let’s talk about squares. Hey, I saw you reach for that pocket protector, and no you don’t have to stop listening to those Jim Nabors records. The squares I’m talking about are rooms. Nasty cubes! The land of the boomers. In last month's column, I made reference to the problems associated with square rooms. Imagine the stereotypical white rubber room. Many of us audiophiles should probably spend some time in such a place. Anyway, the occupant of such a room can bounce from wall to wall as hard as he’d like, but he’s not going anywhere. The cube-shaped listening room is like a rubber room for sound waves. They just get stuck. The ones that are the biggest bother tend to be those of the lowest frequencies, thus the name "boomers." What you need is giant acoustic sponges. The good news is you already have some. Your queen-sized sofa, that over-stuffed chair, the carpet and pad -- all are acoustic sponges. They soak up some of these boomers.

Some spots need a little extra, though. Corners. Corners are the worst. You need to be aggressive and set traps for those ornery boomers. Start by getting the speakers out from the wall a ways. Now we have a place to set our trap. The obvious way is to visit your local audio retailer and purchase a pair, or a quartet, of bass traps. These monoliths, placed in the corners, will certainly take care of the problem. But pretty? Only to us audio-geeks. There are more aesthetically pleasing solutions. Shelves full of books will trap some of those suckers and make you look smarter as a bonus. We could all use a few more IQ points, even if they’re just perceived. Oriental screens or room dividers can hide bass traps, as well as piles of blankets, carpet scraps, pillows or any other pile of stuff you can use to soak up those waves. And speaking of pillows, an arrangement of Persian or other highly decorative pillows could prove pleasing to the eye as well as the ear. If you have windows in the corner, or even if you don’t (I won’t tell), heavy draperies could help. For all you Dead Heads out there, I hope you saved those beanbag chairs (retro is in, you know). Well, you get the idea. Get creative and trap those puppies.

Are these the only problem room shapes? Of course not! L-shaped rooms, tiny rooms, cavernous rooms and rooms of various geometric shapes all have their problems. Even if you have a nice rectangular room of, let’s say, 23' by 16', you’ll have problems. But what fun would it be if we didn’t have some problem to solve? It’s part of the disease. The day that we sit down and can’t find something that needs tweaking, something that we can't improve upon, some reason not to spend money is the day we will probably trade in our systems and start down the road to another obsession.

But fear not, comrades. I’ve met very few who have fallen. So many upgrades, so little time….

...Bill Brooks


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