Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

I vividly remember the first time I set up my two-channel system in a dedicated listening room. The year was 2000, I was 25, and I’d just bought my first home. Although I was already eight or nine years along on my audiophile journey, until then my systems had been set up in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment, and before that in my bedroom in my parents’ basement. I was excited to have a 15’L x 12’W room dedicated to my cherished stereo -- even if was still in the basement, it was my very own listening room. In fact, I’d chosen the house partly based on the minimum requirements of a space dedicated to serious listening.

Imagine this room of small to medium size, with typical drywall-on-stud construction, wall-to-wall carpeting, and nothing in it other than a stereo system and a recliner. I placed my speakers along one long wall, and my recliner against the opposite wall -- together, speakers and chair described a 9’ equilateral triangle. This was more or less the configuration I’d lived with in my bedroom as a teenager -- but that room had also contained a bed, a dresser, a desk, a TV, and bookshelves.

The first time I sat down for a listen in my new dedicated space, it took all of three seconds of music at high volume to hear that the sound was intolerably bright, and overwhelmed by reflections -- it was, in a word, unlistenable. Clearly, having a dedicated listening room wasn’t enough -- it was time to look into some affordable room treatments.

Acoustically treating my first room

What I settled on, and still use today, were inexpensive homemade panels that would absorb some of those problematic reflections. I built three rectangular frames of 1” x 6” boards: one 69”W x 47”H high, and two frames 47” square. These dimensions were chosen to accommodate whole strips of 47”L x 23”W x 3”D Roxul Safe’n’Sound acoustic insulation, which is designed to fit between the studs in standard 24”-on-center frame wall construction. I laid these strips two deep: a total of six strips in the larger frame, four in each of the smaller frames. That done, I covered each panel in thin, black fabric, and pressed black-headed thumbtacks into the edges of the frame to keep the cover taut and in place. I then affixed the frames to the walls with simple metal L-brackets.

Large frame

I hung the large frame on the wall between my speakers, and the two smaller frames at the first-reflection points on the left and right sidewalls. (To find the first reflection point, ask someone to move a small hand mirror along a sidewall as you sit in your listening chair -- when you see the speaker in the mirror, the mirror is at the reflection point.)

On the wall directly behind my chair I hung some shelves for CDs, which I suppose acted as diffusors (see photo below). And I didn’t realize it at the time, but my high-backed recliner was also acting as an absorber. In a large room, the accepted wisdom is not to use a high-backed chair, to avoid sounds being absorbed and/or reflected by the part of the chair’s back that’s directly behind your ears. However, this assumes some space between the rear of the listening chair and the wall behind it. If you’ve got painted drywall directly behind your ears, as I did, you either want more absorption on that wall, or a high-backed chair that can absorb sounds. I’ve recently experimented with this in my current room, where the same leather recliner I used in my first room is placed very close to the rear wall (though now I use a blanket behind my head -- leather is somewhat reflective). I tried removing the back of the chair and listening to some music, but the sound was superbright. Ouch.

Chair

My present listening room -- sound isolation first

When I bought my present home, in 2012, I again planned to build a dedicated basement listening room. It was to be the same size, this time with no windows -- and, to make it as quiet as possible, there would be no HVAC vents or intakes.

Now armed with a bit more audio knowhow than I’d had the first time around, I set out to build a room with better sound isolation. Not only that, I finished the entire basement almost entirely on my own -- a ten-month labor of love. The room has double, staggered 2” x 4”-studded walls -- that is, each wall is actually two walls thick, and the vertical studs inside each wall don’t line up with each other. The spaces between the studs were filled with Roxul Safe’n’Sound, for a total thickness of 6” of acoustic insulation. The ceiling was stuffed with two layers of the same. To reduce the loss of soundwaves through the door -- any wall’s acoustic weak point -- I used a solid-core door. The result: when I played music loudly, it was significantly muffled and muted; little sound escaped the room. Below is a picture of my current room under construction.

Room construction

But, as many of you know, all that sound isolation didn’t do much to isolate the rest of the house from the very lowest frequencies. The only way to stop big bass is with mass, and lots of it -- think a concrete room within a room. I wasn’t prepared to go that far, but in the end I was reasonably happy with the amount of isolation I got.

Electrical wiring

I’d always wanted a system in which the only thing between the left and right speakers was the power amp -- the other electronics would be placed directly beside the listening chair, so that I could manually adjust the volume control. So I ran two 35’ balanced interconnects terminated with XLR connectors from behind the chair, through the walls, and out the front wall between the speakers. I also ran an Ethernet cable into the room, and a USB link to the utility room directly behind the listening room, where lives the dedicated laptop I use as a Roon server. For the power amp I installed a dedicated 20-amp circuit that terminates in an outlet at the center of the front wall, between the speakers. The rest of the electronics were fed juice through a dedicated 15-amp line. Hospital-grade outlets were used throughout.

Acoustic treatments

I went back to what I knew, making duplicates of the panels I’d built for my first room, and this time augmenting them with homemade bass traps in the room’s front corners. For each bass trap I cut out triangular sections of Roxul Safe’n’Sound insulation, and stacked them to reach from the floor to the ceiling. For stability, I added two triangular platforms of thin MDF in each front corner, at one- and at two-thirds each tower’s height. I then covered all of each trap in thick black velvet.

SVS setup

The photo above shows my first system in my current home: SVS Ultra Tower speakers and an Emotiva XPA-2 amp. You can see the large absorption panel on the front wall, a smaller panel on the sidewall, and the bass trap.

What it sounds like

Counting my original and current room, I’ve had a listening room of the same size, with the same three absorption panels in the same spots, for 20 years now -- I’m well accustomed to this sort of treatment of this sort of space. Many different components have trooped through these rooms in those years, and each one has changed my system’s sound -- but nothing has affected the sounds of these systems as much as has the room itself.

I recently spent some time listening to a world-class system at the home of Doug Schneider, the SoundStage! Network’s founder and publisher. The system comprised Vivid Audio’s awe-inspiring Giya G2 Series 2 speakers, an imposing pair of Constellation Audio Revelation Taurus monoblocks, and EMM Labs’ Pre preamp and DA2 Reference DAC. This system retails for well into six figures, and is one I could never dream of affording -- nor could many SoundStage! Access readers.

Doug’s room is very different from mine -- it’s much larger, he’d placed the speakers way out -- 8’ -- into the room, and its sound is livelier. It’s also got a lot of stuff in it, the kind of clutter that produces a natural mix of absorption, diffusion, and reflection. The room has a typical sound -- conversations sound “normal.” Conversations in my own room sometimes have what sounds to me like an unnatural lack of echo.

As a frame of reference, below are recent pictures of the front . . .

System today

. . . and back of my listening room.

System today

Listening to this dream system in Doug’s room, what I first noticed was the room. The Vivid-Constellation-EMM system produced a powerful illusion of incredibly deep soundstages. While I’m sure the components can take some of the credit, I’m betting it’s the fact the speakers were 8’ from the wall behind them that played the biggest role in Doug’s room. In my room I feel I get slightly more soundstage width, but not nearly the same depth.

The next thing I noticed was that voices sounded a little echoey compared to what I’m used to, likely because Doug’s room is much livelier. This dominated my impression of the system for 15 or 20 minutes. What’s more, despite the huge difference in cost, I preferred the sound of my system in my room. After 20-25 minutes, though, my ear-brain system began to adjust to the new sound, and I began to appreciate all this supersystem could do -- in particular, its effortlessness at reproducing loud volumes, and its dynamic snap and contrast, especially with well-recorded drums. But after a satisfying 45-minute listening session, I still thought that, overall, I marginally preferred the sound of my setup.

My point is not that a damped room is better than a livelier and more balanced room, or that my components are better than his. It’s that the room affects the way a system sounds more than the components that make up the system itself. Each of us may have a preference for how live or dead we like our rooms to sound, and over years of listening -- in my case, 20 years -- we become accustomed to those preferences. I bet a lot of audiophiles would listen to my system and say “It sounds too dead,” or “This is too much like a recording studio,” and that would be fine. I like the fact that my room lets me hear deeply into recordings without masking any detail -- something like a good pair of headphones.

If I could, would I do anything differently?

Not much. Sure, I’d like a bigger room, so that I could get a bigger sense of musical scale. I also wish I had more sound isolation, so I could crank up the volume any time of day or night without disturbing anyone else in the house. But these things would cost a lot of money, or require a new home -- a lot of money. Not gonna happen.

When I built this room I owned floorstanding speakers, and had been committed to floorstanders for many years. Since then, I’ve become a huge proponent of satellite-and-subwoofer combos, for reasons I’ve explained in a series of articles here on SoundStage! Access -- and all of the satellite speakers I’ve chosen have been two-way minimonitors on stands.

Marchand

Because I use subwoofers, I’d make two minor changes in my room, given the opportunity. First, I’d run two pairs of balanced interconnects through the walls, from the preamp to the power amp and to the subs. Second, I would have installed another 20-amp dedicated circuit, for the two subs I currently use. Now when I crank bass-heavy music really high, the room’s lights sometimes dim in sync with the music -- an additional dedicated circuit would mitigate this issue. And with my single pair of balanced interconnects from preamp to amp, I’ve had to use line-level bass management external to the preamp, using the low-pass filter in my subs and a custom, passive high-pass filter built by Marchand Electronics (see photo above). With two pairs of balanced interconnects in the wall, I’d be able to use a sophisticated preamp with built-in bass management, such as Anthem’s STR (which I’ve discussed in another series of articles on SoundStage! Access), without having to run interconnects across the floor. Oh well -- as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Don’t neglect the room

Not everyone can have a dedicated listening room, and not everyone can install big, intrusive acoustic panels in their rooms. But in most rooms there’s usually something that can be done to improve the sound -- even such simple things as different deployments of typical household furnishings. For absorption, consider area rugs over a hard floor between the speakers and the seating area, and/or thick curtains; for diffusion, try bookcases at the points of first sidewall reflections. Even a blanket thrown over the back of your high-backed leather chair or recliner can make a big difference. Perhaps the most important yet cost-effective thing you can do is to try to achieve left/right symmetry of speaker placement: the left speaker should “see” the same stuff and distance to the left wall as the right speaker to the right wall.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment -- for example, if you want to know what bass traps can do, gather up all the sofa cushions in the house and stack them in your listening room’s corners. If that improves the sound, consider buying some proper bass traps or making your own, as I did. Think outside the box, and when you’re tempted to scratch the upgrade itch, keep the room in mind -- you might be able to spend less money on room acoustics than you would on a new component, and make a much bigger improvement in the sound.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstage.com