A U D I O... P A P E R
A listening room - what for?
by Steve Deckert
May 1998 - revised June 2002
A listening room is a room where you listen to music - or is it a room that listens to music? Actually it's a room that plays the music you listen to....
We basically have two things going on here, and we need to clarify which side of the fence you want to be on. There are two basic kinds of listening habits, one of them is called "passive listening" and one is called "active listening". Passive listening is sometimes referred to as "background listening". Perhaps we should call it "hearing" since the person doesn't really actively listen to it.
A Passive listening system can be anything from a clock radio, to a fairly nice home stereo system that seamlessly blends into your decor and gets turned on for the purpose of filling the room with music which can then be enjoyed from anywhere in the room. (We ALL started out as passive listener's with our speakers along the wall or in the corners didn't we?)
An active listening style makes the stereo system the focal point of a room dedicated solely for that purpose. This format allows a much higher resolution of playback to occur, and since the stereo sound field can be experienced in three dimensions rather than two, the enjoyment of it can change into an almost holy experience.
In a dedicated listening room, the freedom to control speaker placement and reflections makes having such a room a scientific experiment to see how much resolution can be resolved.
So, we have two rooms, one is a listening room with no furniture, only your stereo system and the other is (usually) a living or family room with the speakers placed in book shelves, or along the walls somewhere. And yes, I'm sure on occasion super intelligent beings can finagle it in such a way as to have combined the two without compromise.
The bottom line is that many people buy expensive "high end" audio gear and set it (improperly unbeknown to them) up in their family rooms and decide they're audiophiles. They buy and read the high end journals and then wonder what in the world "delineation" and "layers" mean. I'm not saying it's any fault of their own, only that too many people are spending too much money trying to get better imaging and more depth, or just overall better sound and aren't realizing the goal they seek is unobtainable in this scenario.
Buying overbuilt machined connectors and garden hose size speaker wire when the fundamental room acoustics are poor (usually the case) is not a real good return on your investment. Ironically the sonic benefits of high end cables and tweaks are largely masked by poor room acoustics.
I would agree that we're all in a spot because how many people have a spare room large enough to be a good dedicated listening room? I've been there and the vast majority of us are still there. Hell, what do you do? All you can do is perform the WASP speaker positioning procedure (Wilson Audio Setup Procedure) or similar procedure and find the single point in your room with the least amount of evils and then hope you can find a way to live with the results.
Oh, and yes, I almost forgot... there are those $250.00 acoustic pillows you can stick to your walls, or even better than that.... magic "tuning" dots that you can also stick - and that by the shear act of using them will free you of the bondage of this dilemma. In fact I heard that if you paint your CD's green, put an M&M on the top of each speaker and stick a Brazilian carrot in your ass while sipping ginseng tea your stereo will never sound better!
Hmm. how's that for freedom of speech? Anyway, the point is high end stereo gear was designed and intended to be set up in a symmetrical stereo array with the speakers a good distance from the rear and side walls for one simple reason - to recreate the space, depth, and focus of a live performance. You see, IT DOESN'T TAKE HIGH END GEAR to reproduce two-dimensional sound fields.
You know in the early days I didn't used to know what "imaging" really meant. And the expression "sound stage" was curious to me as well. Growing up as a young lad my favorite places to put speakers was ON the wall and in the corners. This gave the most punctual and tight bass response. In those days, bass response was about the only obvious thing that changed from one stereo system to another - so I thought. My ignorance wasn't tied to stupidity, I had just never been exposed to a "sweet spot" where the sound was a good 100 feet deep, twice the width of the speakers and completely three-dimensional. On the day that happened, everything changed. Prior to that day I read about it until I was blue in the face and couldn't relate. Still I find it magical to sit in my listening chair with two speakers in front of me and not hear anything come out of the speakers. The sound just comes out of the air from different spots as though there were actually musicians there!
Okay, enough AUDIO CLASS 101 and on to the important stuff. (Understand all types of people read this web site, not just engineers and audio geeks.)
For those of you who are on the side of the fence with the living/family/TV/listening room thing happening, this is the end of the article. For the rest, read on to get you own holy chamber for audio induced out of body experiences.
It is common knowledge among those who've tried to find out, that the ideal listening room is rectangular and fairly large. The reason for the larger size isn't so you can put your speakers farther apart, it is so that there is more space between your speakers and the reflective surfaces of your room.
In a small room, wall reflections ALTER what you hear from your speakers and always in a NEGATIVE way. At the same time, room dimensions create a comb filter effect that is responsible for variations in frequency response that can reach 12 dB or more as well as change by that much just from moving your head. Ever wonder why your stereo doesn't sound the same way twice? If you have, it's in part the comb filter effect of your room dimensions on the frequency response!
Having a dedicated listening room where the stereo is the main focal point makes it possible to deal with the evils of room acoustics. Even dimensionally problematic rooms and small rooms can be vastly improved if you know what you're doing and why!
I would encourage you to consider a dedicated room, even if it's a spare bedroom, garage, or basement. The science behind it is as fascinating as audio gear and the reward will come to those who really listen.
Lets face it, the average listening space in most homes is inferior. I would say 75% or more simply suck. Most show rooms are no better. CES or trade shows are usually worse. Where exactly do you find a reference for understanding what a good sounding room is! Without being able to actually comprehend how vast the improvement would be to your own gear in a better room it is unlikely that you would spend any real money on room treatment. Add to that the complexity of room treatment compared to a designer power cord, it's no wonder we waist our money on the power cord.
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