Your Listening Room Can Make or Break Your Music

The Opera House, Sydney, Australia.  Built for musical performance.

It’s a given that serious music listeners want playback to sound as much as possible like the original performance.  Typical listeners focus exclusively on their stereo system and source media.  However, gear and media are only part of playback quality.  Room acoustics have a major effect on musical fidelity.  It’s too bad acoustics are usually the last thing considered.

There’s a lot to be gained by making your listening room sound better.  As opposed to continually spending ever-greater sums on increasingly exotic stereo gear when the room still has easily correctable faults or unrealized potential.  Doesn’t it make sense to get the room sounding its best so you can really hear your system before spending more time and money on component upgrades?

 Much effort goes into design and construction of a concert hall to assure music performed there sounds fabulous.  Most rooms used for playback were built to be lived in, not for listening to music.  So most rooms where folks listen to music suffer from significant acoustical faults.  We get used to how bad they sound so we don’t notice.  We aren’t aware enhancement is possible and also quick, easy, and can be affordable.  How rooms affect sound is just not on most listeners’ radar even if they care about how their music sounds.

Music is sound whether it’s a performance or playback of a recording.  So it’s subject to the same laws of acoustics in the living room as on stage. You can’t live in a concert hall but you can significantly improve the sound of any room you live in by installing an acoustic conditioning treatment.

Considered globally, listening rooms sit somewhere on a scale from hard or "live" to soft or "dead."  Either extreme distorts music playback.  Also, any room will affect sound unevenly by altering some frequencies more than others depending on its contents.  For a vivid example, my own listening room has masonry walls, a wooden ceiling, ceramic tile floor and sparse furnishings.  This kind of room is highly reflective.  Without correction it has a dry echo.  In fact, it’s an outright echo chamber.  It has the sound of vacant spaces.

Cathedral at Bath, England.  Good for monophonic chant but polyphonic music turns to mush in cathedrals.

Even a small amount of sound energy easily overloads small, empty spaces with excessive reverberation, creating a sonically blurry, distorted environment.  Sound appears exaggerated and unreal.  Musical notes begin too abruptly and stretch out too long.  Sounds reflect and collide, mix and interfere with each other in a sonic chaos.

To compensate, before room treatment I played music at a lower volume than optimum.  A room that’s too hard does not support sound fidelity.  It can make digital music especially horrid because it exaggerates some of digital sound’s inherent negative qualities.  My room’s dry echo has been completely eliminated by acoustic treatment.

The opposite example is a room loaded with soft furnishings – stuffed furniture, thick carpet, soft wall covering, heavy drapes, and an “acoustic tile” ceiling.  Here, sound is absorbed and muffled – over-damped.  You may feel a sense of pressure or develop headaches.  It takes extra effort to hear talking clearly so it may be difficult to hold a conversation.  A soft room muffles sound so you would tend to compensate with more volume. This room also does not support fidelity.

Note that simply bumping volume up or down doesn’t counteract room hardness or softness because the room acts as a physical sound filter, affecting some frequencies more than others.  This creates unnatural sound peaks and valleys.  Tweaking volume simply makes the distortions sound louder of softer.  Ideally, you’d want the music to sound louder or softer as a whole but not musically filtered.

Considered in more detail, a listening room may have shapes, spaces, or contents that react to specific frequencies or timbres. Everything inside any room interacts sonically to some extent as music washes over it all.  In a familiar example of resonance, an operatic soprano sings a sustained note at a high volume that shatters a crystal wine goblet. I had a cupboard where dishes rattled only at certain musical moments.

Shattered by Resonance

Shattered by Resonance

Every object has some characteristic sonic response, both reflecting and absorbing sound at different frequencies and possibly resonating.  Any enclosed space will resonate at characteristic frequencies.  The shattering goblet stores up energy and starts to sing a duet just before it explodes.  Resonance generates sound artifacts as stored energy escapes. During playback, these sounds that are not in the recording are generated by the room.  Many different objects contribute simultaneously or at different times during playback, obscuring finer details in the music.  Some objects (large and soft ones) just suck up sound like a sonic black hole.

Sound is radiant energy that is reflected or absorbed in an environment.  In a given room, the sound of music playback is the sum of the global room response (softer or harder) plus all the individual responses of every object in the room.  That’s why your listening space is an integral component of any stereo system you play inside it. No matter how advanced or exotic your stereo’s technologies, your room and its contents always participate in reproducing the music.

There is no perfect listening room outside the concert hall. If you ignore your room and set up a stereo system, you default on much of your system's potential musical realism.  You need an effective acoustic room treatment in your listening area if you want to enjoy sonic integrity in your music. Then any music in that space will sound better than otherwise.

Once you have a stereo, A/V sound system, a guitar, or even a grand piano in place, acoustic room treatment should be the very next item on your agenda because your room audibly degrades fidelity due to phase effects and conflicting echoes and resonances. When you create good acoustics, the tuned listening space reveals your stereo system's true potential for natural, realistic playback.  The improvement is immediate and usually astonishing to experienced music listeners.

Many traditional approaches to acoustic treatment rely on selectively absorbing sound by strategically placing soft panels and tubes called "sound traps" on the walls and in corners.  These sound traps can absorb sound peaks but they are absorbent only.  A different system relies on either blocking or reinforcing various frequencies using resonators made of wood and precious metal alloys.  They convert some of the sound energy in the room to tune a room like a musical instrument.  In my experience, this system based on selective resonance effects is more powerful and effective, less obtrusive, and easier to learn and use.  You can move it from room to room easily and conveniently.

Resonators actively adjust music's acoustic responses by re-purposing a fraction of the sound in the room.

Resonators actively adjust music's acoustic responses by re-purposing a fraction of the sound in the room.

In a newly tuned room, you may suddenly hear music substantially more realistic across the board, whatever the genre or volume level.  It may sound as if you upgraded one or more stereo components or even that you completely replaced your stereo with a system of much greater fidelity.  It may sound like you moved up from lower grade digital files to higher resolutions.  A well-tuned room works with the music you play like the wooden body of a cello works with the vibrations of its strings.  My own room treatment caused a quantum leap in sound quality.

When your room is tuned, you’ll hear music playback more realistic than ever before. Typically, listeners describe a wider and deeper soundstage; more separation between sound sources; much greater detail and more vivid realism; more articulate instruments with richer timbres and tonalities; less stray vibration in the room at higher volumes; and nuances they never heard before in familiar recordings.

Is there a cost downside?  As a rule, passive treatments generate better results than active acoustic boxes but can be purchased for far less. Acoustic measures cost from near a hundred to several thousand dollars. If you can afford even one good stereo component there is effective room treatment within your budget.  

If you care about how music sounds but you don’t have acoustic conditioning yet, your best strategy is to make your next audio investment be an effective treatment.  If you love high fidelity music, I predict you’ll think it’s worth multiples of the effort and cost.