Make Your Listening Room A Listening Room
Many years ago, a wealthy friend asked me for advice on spending the $100,000 he had budgeted for a new stereo system. After going through all of the usual questions with him, like "What kind of music do you like?"; "How loud do you like to play it?"; "How big is your listening room?"; "When you're listening to music, what do you listen for?"; and so on, I told him something like:
"If I had a hundred thousand to spend on a system, I'd spend thirty thousand on all of the component, including the record player (turntable, arm, and cartridge), the CD player, the speakers – remember that this was a lot of years ago, and that a really great speaker system at the time, the Avalon Ascent, for example, was only about $15,000 – plus all of the electronics, and all of the cables. Then I would spend twenty thousand on creating and furnishing an acoustically as-near-perfect-as-possible listening room. And, finally, I would keep the remaining fifty grand for use toward my (then of the appropriate age) daughter's college education."
Adjusting for today's pricing would certainly change the actual amounts, but the proportions would still remain pretty much the same. Are you surprised? Don't be: The room it plays in is – and always has been – a major contributor to the sound of any audio system. And, from the point where you've achieved a basically good set of components up to where the sound you're hearing is seriously approaching a duplication of reality, a dollar spent on improving the acoustics of your listening room may very well be worth more to your listening experience than two or three dollars spent on better equipment.
The fact of it is that even the world's best speakers and electronics can't sound good and can't "image" or "soundstage" properly (or even achieve proper tonal balance) in a room that's working against them. And, even in a "good" room, a person sitting in the wrong place won't hear those things, either.
In a very important way, listening rooms are just like cables (my own personal area of greatest expertise): Unless you're specifically trying to create sound for some special purpose (to produce an "echo chamber effect, for example, or a tone control) the very best ones are those that do nothing at all except to simply allow the music to pass through unchanged. A big difference between them, though, is that, whereas getting cables to truly do "nothing" (or even to come really close to it), is fiendishly difficult and can be amazingly expensive, major improvements to a room's perceived sonics can begin with things that are cheap or even free, and can greatly enhance both sonic accuracy and your musical pleasure without ever having to go anywhere near such extremes as demolishing your listening room and hiring an acoustician to re-design it and supervise its re-construction. Best of all, some of the greatest and most obvious incremental improvements can come at or near the very bottom of the cost and effort scale.
THE FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT STEP IN CREATING A GOOD SOUNDING LISTENING ROOM IS TO RECOGNIZE THAT THAT'S WHAT IT IS — A LISTENING ROOM!
If visual aesthetics, WAF ("Wife-Acceptance-Factor"), or other issues are keeping you from moving your speakers out into the room or rearranging the furniture to get the best and broadest "sweet spot" (the listening position(s) where everything comes together to image and soundstage best); or if you can't use textures and finishes, rugs and wall-hangings, or whatever else you need to get the very best sound, you don't have a listening room; you have some other kind of room that has a sound system in it, and you'll never know how good that system really is or what it's capable of sounding like.
Once you decide that your room is for listening, take another look at it, from only that standpoint: How is it shaped, particularly as regards the walls behind and to the sides of your speakers. Is it symmetrical as relative to the positions of the speakers? If not, is there another way you could arrange your system and furnishings to make it more so? If it is symmetrical, are the speakers placed to be equidistant from the side walls and just about the same distance from the back of the room? Where are the doors? Do they affect your sound quality? Is your sound better with them open or closed? Would your system sound better if it were placed differently as relative to the door(s)? Or anything else?
On entering the room, would a stranger know, just from where things (including your "sweet spot" listening chair or sofa) are placed, that the main purpose of that room is related to your system and not to something else? If it doesn't look like a listening room, but like some other kind of room with a stereo system in it, that's what it may actually be, and you may need to either change your orientation or your expectations.
Certainly the music we listen to will be the same – same notes, same performance – whether it sounds good or not, and whether or not there's a realistic stereo effect. People listened to recorded music in monophonic sound, exclusively, for more than a half-century after the first Edison recording. That doesn't mean, though, that mono or a less than perfect stereo effect is the best way to hear it. Stereo sound requires that the original music be recorded and reproduced in (at least) two (right and left) channels, and the size, shape, and ambience of the recording venue is a major contributor to the total stereo effect, which will be lost if your own room superimposes its own characteristic over them.
Even with identical speakers, driven by identical right- and left-channel electronics, if the walls to the sides of and behind the speakers are at different distances from them, or if they absorb, diffuse, or reflect sound differently, the stereo effect, imaging, soundstaging, and even perceived frequency balance, can be changed or compromised, and – with the exception of just the grossest right/left ping-pong ball effects – the spatial detail retrieval that we pay so much money to buy and expend so much effort to achieve can be muddled or even lost, entirely.
Many solutions are simple, and many needn't cost anything at all: First make the decision about your listening room: If that's what you intend it to be, make it so by rearranging it the way it needs to be to give you the very best sound. Articles on room layout and speaker placement abound on the internet — find them; learn from them; and when you're rearranging things, remember that the space between your listening position and the wall behind you can be nearly as important as the space in front of you, between you and the speakers.
Remember, too, that "room treatments" don't necessarily need to be things built or designed for that specific purpose. Carpets and wall-hangings, room dividers, draperies, and vertical Venetian blinds (set their angle to make them variable reflectors), if properly placed – even where there's no window for them to cover – can be nearly as effective, while often costing less and adding to the beauty of your room. Broad-leafed plants (Fiddle-leaf fig trees are among my favorites) can be excellent sound diffusers, and can be used to good effect in corners and other critical spots in your room. And the best part is that, for sonic effect, they don't even need to be real, so no maintenance or watering is ever required.
You'll be amazed at how much sonic difference – especially in the areas of imaging and soundstaging – following these simple suggestions can make. And you'll also be pleased at how much more the difference will be than if you had just put an equal amount of money into the purchase of different or better equipment.
Do this, and then all you have to do is to turn on the system, put on some tunes, lean back, close your eyes, and...