People often ask me how or why I got into acoustics. I got into acoustics before I was a teenager because of my desire to get closer to the music. I loved music, but I could hear my room interfering with it and I knew that this was undesirable. I already understood the importance of set-up from reading books and articles on the subject. More importantly, I had experienced high fidelity from an audiophile friend-of-the-family and wanted to achieve some of that experience to the best of my ability. There is no better influencer than experience.
The thrill that comes from music that has deep bass response, full dynamic range, and a large soundstage was something I, as an eight or nine year old, though was only available with live music. Here I was in someone's' home thoroughly enjoying it with amazement. He could play a record of his choice whenever he wanted, and it sounded like the band was there, instead of a miniaturized reproduction coming from boxes in the room.
Mr. Hollander could tell I was fascinated with what I heard and enjoyed telling me about his hi-fi. Often we would be over visiting and he would have a new piece of gear to demonstrate for me. One particular time he had just installed an Empire 598 Troubadour III turntable into his system. This was a belt-drive, manual turntable, and arm, with a heavy two-piece aluminum cast platter and a walnut base. I had certainly never seen such a turntable for the home. It looked very professional and felt very industrial. He explained how simple it was and how bells and whistles often get in the way of the music. This TT had the lowest rumble of any tested at the time and a nearly un-measurable wow and flutter.
Empire 598 Troubadour III Turntable
Later that evening, at the dinner table, my mother remarked about how large their German Shepherd's paws were. This was an older Shepherd that was quite playful with me earlier that evening. I got down on the floor and reached for one of his paws. He attacked me so fast that I was only seeing black. Mr. Hollander jumped into action and removed the dog from me. I was very lucky ending up with my ear partially detached from my head and a small gash on my shoulder. While my mom and Mrs. Hollander were soaking up blood with towels to go to the hospital, Mr. Hollander removed his Empire turntable and presented it to me. Totally worth it!
My ear was fine after being stitched back to my head. I was now on my way to better fidelity with a great new piece of source equipment for my growing LP collection. I was about eleven years old at the time, and as soon as I turned twelve, I got a paper route and saved up to buy a nice Marantz receiver and speakers to replace my General Electric hand-me-downs.
I love how music has tones and textures, dynamics, attacks, and decays, and the feel of sound on my ear drums. These are all very interesting to me. Music is more than melody, harmony, and rhythm. To capture moods fully requires removing distortions and interferences. To reproduce sound accurately became (and still is) an obsession of mine.
So what have I learned since my humble beginnings? I have learned that home sound reproduction can be closer to the intended performance if you have three ingredients; good equipment, proper set-up, and a good environment. If any one of those ingredients is missing, the experience will be lacking and unfulfilling.
Are you experienced? I obviously remember the first time I experienced high fidelity. It changed my life. I have no doubt that I would have found it soon enough because I was in pursuit. Finding it at eight or nine years old was a nice jump-start in my enjoying music at a higher degree than most. Most people have never been exposed to good playback. They only know what they have experienced. Do you remember the first time for you? Have you turned others on to it?
Over the decades, including owning a high-end store in northern California for 12 years, I have enjoyed the smiles, amazement, and even tears, as I've exposed high fidelity to often unsuspecting people. Music has much more emotional impact when it is big, articulate, and rich in detail. The brain works less on deciphering it and more on enjoying it.
One the highlights in my carrier was while working at the Science and Technology Center at Owens Corning where I was a Senior Acoustical Engineer. I often had to explain the research we were conducting to VIPs. These were not individuals who understood or especially appreciated audio. We had built and furnished two identical rooms as media rooms. The only difference between the two was that one incorporated interior acoustic treatments and the other was left alone with sheetrock. I had selected the same "decent" A/V equipment for both rooms and calibrated them both myself using Class 1 acoustic measuring instruments, etc. Without fail, when we demonstrated the acoustically treated room, the visitors would say things like "I would love to have this in my home." I quickly realized that you did not have to understand or appreciate audio in order to enjoy the difference of an acoustically controlled environment.
AB Rooms Test
This got me thinking- let's perform bio-feedback tests between the acoustically treated room and the untreated room. We had our own onsite medical facility with an audiology booth and everyone had their hearing tested once a year. We did trials with the medical staff and they got into it. I requested volunteers who met a particular "normal" hearing range and received about a dozen participants. We had a very diverse group of volunteers regarding age, culture, area of expertise, etc.
We hooked them up to sensors to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory, etc. before and during a seven-minute clip of "Das Boot" in each room. We played the part where the German U-boat is diving steeply to avoid depth charges from an English Destroyer. The submarine is plunging quickly to depths below its intended design and you can hear the hull moaning as it begins to implode under the pressure. Soon bolts are popping and injuring personnel and then water begins to flood the tiny compartment. It is a scary and intense scene!
We allowed a cool-down period between the two rooms, and we alternated which room was first experienced for each test subject. While studying the results, it was interesting that you could see in the running data strip collected that some individuals were more stressed about the flooding, while others about the flesh wounds, etc. With the exception of one person, who was unusually cool, calm, and collected in both rooms (we think he was re-occupied in thought), every subject had an increase in heart rate, breathing, etc. in the acoustically treated room.
Why? Because they were able to perceive more information and work less at trying to decipher what they heard. Because distortions and interferences were removed, the listeners were more vulnerable to the artist's intent, allowing more receptors to trigger more neurons. The video was exactly the same (ISF calibrated by me), the audio was exactly the same (same electronics and same $1000 speaker model all around, laser aimed, time-aligned and level-matched, etc.). The only difference being that one room had engineered acoustic treatments to control the first-order reflections and the reverberation times across a fairly broad bandwidth, while the other was left typical. There was no pre-conditioning of the test subjects. There was no bias. These were their recorded involuntary reactions to the stimuli. The study proved that acoustics can control our emotions.
A-B Room Pulse Rate
We can take chaotic sound and organize it. We can control how sound propagates in the room so that it doesn't become so damaged. The idea is to receive the sound waves that are produced by the loudspeakers only, and not those generated by external sources, nor buzzes and rattles, reflections or resonances that are not part of the original art. When we do so, we are treated to a much richer experience. When the acoustics are under control, sound quality suddenly becomes a larger realization, and it becomes much easier to distinguish. Said another way; a good acoustic environment will allow for more emotional impact, and allow for a better (more accurate) judgment of sound quality in recordings and equipment. Isn't that the goal? We want to enjoy the music at full potential and we want to be able to make accurate, reliable decisions regarding equipment choices. When we are heavily influenced by the room, we can do neither and will continue to chase our tail trying to achieve audio nirvana.
About Normal Varney