For audiophiles, the right room is as important as the right stereo

A SOUND SYSTEM

February 20, 1997|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

What's the most important component in your stereo?

It isn't the amplifier or the speakers, though both are clearly crucial. Nor is it the CD player or tuner, even though each should be chosen with care. And though the quality of the cables can make a difference in your system's performance, even they won't affect the sound as much as the component you're least likely to think about: the room itself.

Most of us, of course, don't even think of the room as part of the sound system; it's just the place where the stereo goes. So though the components are kept fairly handy, they hardly dominate. After all, the stereo isn't the focus of the room, right?

For serious listeners it is. Not only do they take the notion of a "listening room" seriously, but they want that space to be a veritable Temple of Tone. For them, the music is foreground, not background, and they'll arrange everything in the room accordingly.

Start with the speakers. Because audiophiles cherish a realistic "soundstage" -- that is, a stereo image precise enough that each instrument seems to occupy a specific place in the room -- they take pains to make sure their speaker placement is perfect. None of this shoving speakers into corners or hiding them in bookshelves; their setup is perfectly triangulated, so each speaker is precisely the same distance both from the other speaker and from the listener. It's not unusual to see audiophiles using tape rules to find the precise spot where the stereo image is the clearest.

That may seem a tad excessive to someone whose idea of a great sound system is something with a lot of lights that comes in its own wood-grain cabinet. But in the world of high-end audio, where individual amplifiers for the left and right channels are de rigueur and speaker cable can cost as much as $200 a foot, anything that will improve the sound is worth trying. Naturally, that can lead to spending a small fortune on stereo equipment.

But no matter how much money you put into your stereo, ultimately it will sound only as good as the room you put it in. It's simple acoustics, really. Just as a symphony orchestra will sound better in a well-built wooden theater than it will in a cavernous concrete convention center, so too will your CD player, amp and speakers sound better in a room with good acoustics.

Just ask Tom McShane. The president of a management consulting firm and longtime stereo buff, he moved up to a high-end audio system about five years ago. But as good as his system sounded, it occurred to him that the sound was being limited by the so-so acoustics of his living room. "The system is the whole thing," he says. "I realized that I could get an incremental increase in the quality of the sound from better equipment, but better sound overall from building my own room."

So he did. Although he had no training in acoustic engineering, McShane had read enough on the subject to have a good sense of what a listening room required. He also had a model to work from -- the listening room of his friend Richard Gerberg, the American distributor for ProAc Speakers. Curious as to what made the room work, McShane took measurements and did some computation using the formulas he found in his audio books. "His room sounded so good," McShane said. "When I ran out the numbers, I could see why." So McShane drew up some specs based on Gerberg's room, hired an architect to draw blueprints, had an audio consultant check over the plans, and had the room built.

Among the features McShane included in his design were walls included in his design were walls that were purposely out of alignment (parallel surfaces can create unwanted resonance in a room), a sloped ceiling (to add presence to the sound), and 3-inch conduits so the speaker cables can run under the floor.

But some of the room's most important features are hidden beneath the paint and flooring. Because there are acoustic advantages to a room that won't vibrate along with the music, mass and rigidity are important features in the construction materials. So McShane's listening room used extra-heavy construction, including a double plywood floor (with everything both glued and screwed down), and double drywall in the walls.

Design isn't everything, though. "You spend all that time planning, and then one day you wire everything up, fire up the equipment, and find out what the room sounds like," says McShane. Then comes the fun of "tuning" the room, using diffusers to eliminate unwanted reflections or bass "boom."

"You're trying to neutralize the sound of the room, so it doesn't affect the sound of the speakers," says Gerberg. Many audiophiles achieve that by using diffusers -- objects specifically designed to absorb or neutralize sound -- to minimize the amount of sound bouncing around the room.

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