Room or speaker?

October 8, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

There seems a persistent notion that rooms need to be of a certain quality in order to take full advantage of what a speaker has to offer.

If your room isn’t good enough then investing in a wonderful pair of speakers is a waste of resources. Kind of like the idea that if you’re not a gourmet you cannot appreciate fine food.

Poppycock.

Of course it is true our rooms play a huge role in helping and hurting our HiFi system’s performance. There can be no disputing that. Where I draw the line is in supporting the belief a room has to live up to certain standards in order to take full advantage of every nuance available.

Speakers always outperform the rooms they play in.

A notable exception might be with dipoles. Indeed, not every room can take full advantage of all that a dipole has to offer. Dipoles need space and the front wall impacts how they sound.

That said, I would still argue that even in the unfriendliest of rooms the qualities of your speaker will be appreciated way before any room difficulties stymie their performance.

When it comes to rooms vs. speakers, ignore the room and focus on the speaker.

You can always help a bad room sound good but it’s not possible to put enough lipstick on a pig of a speaker.

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32 comments on “Room or speaker?”

  1. I think this is simply incorrect. The analogy is also incorrect, a better one would be to suggest you could enjoy gourmet food served to you on a park bench in the freezing cold.

    I’ve plugged in my stereo in two rooms during construction, largely stripped out with hard surfaces and no treatment. They sounded truly unbearable. The smaller room was the worst. Once I started putting furniture and treatment in the rooms, the change was simply enormous.

    The main living area of my house would be totally inappropriate and a waste of money for a good 2-channel audio system. Besides the acoustics, in family spaces you have the limitation of where you are allowed to place the speakers, you can’t just put them where they sound best. That’s why so many consumer speakers are designed to work well close to walls, because usually that’s where they have to go.

    Several dealers have told me personally and also posted online that in poor rooms you can often get better sound from a good speaker with an 6” or 8” mid-bass and tweeter than from some speaker that is too big for the room and almost certainly a waste of money. That may also explain why the BBC-type speakers with an 8” mid-bass have been hugely popular since the 1970s, as they work well just about anywhere.

    1. Snell Acoustics, Audio Note, DeVore Fidelity, Harbeth, Spendor, Graham Audio, just to name a few.
      England’s T20 team has just arrived in Australia 😀

      1. Indeed, for good reason average British speakers rarely go above a certain size and bass impact. Simply because British homes seem to have smaller rooms in average I assume. And probably because British Hifi focus always was different from US Hifi focus. This different individual focus doesn’t have to be the one of the customers, it may to a degree just be the one manufacturers and press push in different countries.

        In case of adjustable speakers in bass (DSP or similar) I’d see more options for bigger speakers in small (or better say non optimal) rooms, but that’s quite new and still quite expensive.

        1. jn,
          In my current 18′ x 13′ x 9′ listening/living room, I am constantly amazed
          by the depth of the bass response that my O/93’s can produce.
          Everyone has their well-known bass tracks & when 2 x 10″ (7.75″) two-
          way, 45lb box-speakers can make your spine shake, albeit moderately
          (but still), you just know that a subwoofer is completely unnecessary.
          PS Audio quotes down to 28Hz for their ‘aspen FR30’ & so does
          Devore Fidelity for my O/93’s & I can definitely feel it 🙂

        2. To be successful, British brands have to export, and Harbeth’s business is about 90% export, plenty to the USA. As FR suggests, you can fill a room with even modest sized drivers. One of Britain’s oldest brands, Tannoy, is famous for speakers with 15” drivers, although the cabinets are designed to go flat against the wall. Also, USA-made brands are popular in the UK, I use one, but there are plenty.

          Most manufacturers design speakers in ranges to suit different size rooms. I think the worst and possibly frequent mistake people make is their first decision: “what is the best speaker I can afford?” rather than “what size speaker will suit my room?”

        3. I’m not so sure anymore about what I wrote regarding different countries’ Hifi philosophies.

          On the one hand, it could be mainly my historical but no longer accurate memory, on the other hand there still seem to be certain different focuses. Maybe a nice extra topic.

          1. Wilson, Martin Logan, Magnepan come to mind. The popular Dutch, German and Italian brands are popular.
            The weak Pound helps UK exports, will harm imports from the USA.

            You don’t see the USA speakers with arrays and mult8ple drivers.

  2. If I had a dedicated home-audio listening room, then there’s no doubt that I would audition some dedicated room treatments.
    By the look of MR2 at PS Audio you don’t need that much.
    However, whilst my listening room is also my living room, that has to be shared with others, then
    soft furnishings & shelving will have to absorb & diffuse for the immediate future.

  3. I’m with Paul, that investing in a wonderful pair of speakers is no waste of resources even in a bad room (enough money resources to make this decision provided).

    However there are at least two aspects where I’d say, most of such great speakers (not only dipoles) would be a waste of money and possibly even counterproductive:

    If one doesn’t have enough flexibility to place them for proper performance (too close to front wall, which strongly limits for the majority of speakers….limiting, not outcome-orientated asymmetric etc.).

    If the non adjustable bass impact of a speaker generates serious problems, one didn’t have before and one can’t solve due to room and placement limitations.

    ——-

    IMO it is much more important then to choose the right speaker for this limited environment, than the best one for the money, or one that plays better (or more full range etc.) in a different, more optimal environment.

    1. Where my audio system used to be we have the TV and underneath it a unit that is 3m wide. To put in a stereo, any pair of floorstanding or standmount speakers would have their drivers almost 4m apart, more than the distance from the seating position. It just would not work, you would get a big soundstage and little if any imaging. The only solution would be bookshelf speakers on top of the 3m long unit.

      Look at Paul’s book, talking about triangles for set up. If you can’t place the speakers to get close to such a triangle, you have the wrong speakers.

      My solution for that room is a high quality ceiling system with great dispersion and DSP.

  4. I highly recommend to start with a pair of single driver crossoverless widebanders in a near-field set-up in your given listening room. The resolution of finest details is stunning comparable with headphones. And yes, they produce bass – however not at those levels of sound pressure preferred by FR 🙂 . And don’t forget a finding in psycho-acoustics: our ear-brain system is able to reconstruct the fundamental tones when only hearing the overtones of an instrument. Selecting now multi-way loudspeakers (with complex crossover designs and inherent phase problems) requiring bigger listening distances might give you higher SPLs for the frequency-extremes but they also require huge efforts for room treatment and speakers-positioning and a lot of compromises. Adding a subwoofer for the widebanders might be a more enjoying decision! Once I had heard what a widebander (and it doesn’t require a monster amp) can do I sold my huge loudspeaker towers and my multi-horns loudspeakers! My best decision ever! And today there are more and more highly sophisticated active loudspeakers designs featuring intelligent DSP solutions!

    1. I’m with you, I enjoy sitting relatively close to a pair of 3-driver speakers that are closely aligned, including a single 8” bass driver. It best suits my room. With a lot of speakers, probably also FR30, it would not work.

  5. I agree the you can get optimal sound from any situation, and get things sounding at a very high level.

    However, there is no way I can make my 20’x12’x8’ room sound like a large room with vaulted ceilings. There is a tunneling effect to the sound in my room that is a limiting factor that is unsolvable. I can get amazing sound, but there is a next level I simply can’t get to.

    When you can get use a larger room (like a great room with vaulted ceilings) there is an openness and flow that is very simply next level. My favorite sounding systems have always been in a room like that.

    I have tried various speakers in my room. If they get too large, they actually sound worse than a “lesser speaker” with room to do its thing. If I had to choose, I would rather have my current speakers upstairs in my great room than the next level model speaker in my current room.

  6. From my perspective the room dimensions are what dictate the final sound, especially the bass response, bumps and dips. Aesthetics in many situations also play a key roll in many situations. I’m able to fit large (tall) dipole hybrids into a small room that sound pretty freaking good. On the other hand they aren’t considered full range. Enter subs to cover the bottom end. (Not to subterranean depths but musically down to the 30Hz range) Too much bass or the slightest wrong placement and they start f’ing with almost all the upper frequencies. Then starts the long dance of playing with the room…. Dispersion, absorption, when those are changed, the dance with the speaker placement begins anew. When I had them in a very large common area the placement was much easier, the sound was good and the sound stage grew taller. The down side was I couldn’t listen when I wanted, the way I wanted without disturbing the household.

    So while in some sense I agree with todays post, I also disagree in some sense. If you’re lucky enough to have your own unshared audio space that you can do what ever you want in then your flexibility increases. If you’re restricted by other factors then take note of them and look for something that fits your confines better. Where I agree most – don’t settle for a pig of a speaker. (It has a tendency to squeal)

  7. The speakers will be more important than the room they’re in as long as the amount of direct sound one is hearing is greater than the amount of indirect sound. Seems obvious to me. So the closer you listen to your speakers the more the speakers will dominate what you hear. I doubt anyone listens to speakers in a room where the indirect sound is greater than the direct sound (Do you know anyone who sits behind their speakers to listen?!)

    1. In 1979 I briefly owned a pair of 15″, three-way Cerwin Vegas.
      The 15″ woofer & 1″ dome tweeter faced forward, however, the horn mid-range
      driver was positioned in the back panel firing to the rear, & so the loudspeaker
      had to be at least three feet from the front wall to allow for the mids to adequately
      reflect off the front wall.
      I don’t see that loudspeaker design anywhere anymore.

  8. I always buy the best speaker I can. My view is – you won’t get the best out of your speakers w a bad room but that is just a variable I’ll deal with as I know I have better upside if I can tweak the room.

    I guess I believe in the buy once rule. Get the best you can afford and in the long run you will spend less vs churning thru lesser equipment that you will continually upgrade. I’m not really a rich guy. At least I don’t feel like it. It’s all relative I guess. But I do have what many would consider ridiculously priced speakers. You guys might not… but go talk to the rest of the world. Lol

  9. Could it be that the room is more of an indicator as to the speakers that will be placed in it for many people. Looking at the header pic for this post shows a large room that is well decorated. Any system component to be placed in this room would surely require the approval of the home’s architectural and decorating committee (usually one person), and the committee would certainly rule on the budget as well. The owners of this home would likely have greater resources than those of say, an apartment, and the speaker of choice more likely to be a focal point of the room.

    1. Jack, your answer makes a lot of sense to me. That’s the smartest way of making any speaker purchase. Unfortunately, if you move to a smaller room and already have speakers, that may be an issue.

        1. JF,
          Often it may be dependent on how expensive & how extensive said ‘committee’s’ collection of shoes & handbags, & possibly jewellery, are…this can afford you
          some leverage when it comes to spending on home-audio gear 😉

          Good ol’ Rumpole…what he meant to say was “Happy wife, happy life”

  10. In my opinion, Paul is partially right. One should not shy away from buying good speakers just because room isn’t perfect. However, I have learned the hard way ( i.e I spent money that I should have not spent ) that when it comes to speakers and rooms SIZE matters. I have a big room and I put average size speakers and amps in it. It never sounded right. I added subwoofers to help, but it always sounded like a patch job. I should have lived with what I had for a while longer and saved money so I could buy big speakers and big amps like I have today. When I sold those average size speakers to a friend who but them in an average size room with an average size amp, the speakers sounded wonderful.

    When you have a small room you can stuff speakers that are too big for the room into it and you can get them to sound OK. But, do you really want to spend big money on big speakers and get OK sound? 🙁

    When it comes to rooms and speakers SIZE matters!

  11. [When it comes to rooms and speakers SIZE matters!] Agreed Tony!

    If that weren’t true, then Paul and Chris wouldn’t be building the FR20s, FR10s & stand mount monitors!

    I believe the best success at achieving a balanced 2-channel soundstage is with an acoustic/aesthetic sized speaker system that complements the listening rooms dimensions. As Paul eludes to, the room doesn’t need to be perfect (none are), just arranged/tuned to achieve the person’s desired sonics. Even a “pig of a speaker” (cost, looks or sound wise?) in a well “synergistic component setup” can work the magic that really good stereo recordings are capable of!

    Now a well designed, well engineered and well implemented transducer speaker system will assist in reaching/exceeding your sonic goals easier and quicker (good looks desirable). Look at the Borresen M1 (small speaker)…might be the best stand mount on the globe…just be ready to take out a large 2nd mortgage. However, believe a few others (possibly the FR20/10) would give you equal success at a small fraction of the entry price!

    Bottom line, matching your speaker size to the room size will be the most cost effective, efficient, and productive goal achievements to obtain sonic bliss!!

  12. Assuming today’s post is a chose between speakers or that room I’m opting for the room.
    Especially since it appears to be on the fairway of a golf course somewhere. ✌️ 😀

  13. Saying a quality speaker cannot improve sound in a bad room is like saying a well-engineered car cannot improve the driving experience on a bad road.

  14. Paul’s comments are right on the money. At the same time, from the past I can offer examples of designers who tried to work around room problems with varying degrees of success. Paul Klipsch needed corners for his horns, but that often worked against the triangle idea. His solution was a middle channel, which solved many problems. James B. Lansing wanted to sell stereo when wives didn’t like two speakers in their living rooms. His solution was the Paragon and similar hideous monstrosities, which we are well rid of. One final example, using Paul’s lipstick on a pig prompt, Bose 901 speakers could be made to sound quite acceptable. They needed a clear, unobstructed back wall, preferably stiff, and at least six feet clear to side walls and again the triangle to the listener. If you have all day I can write a dissertation on the Altec Lansing 1/3 octave equalizer fiasco. Suffice it to say, mankind has progressed.

  15. Paul my personal experience has differed. I had a system that sounded absolutely sublime in three different homes, bringing tears to my eyes, goosebumps and raising neckhair frequently. Then I moved to a fourth location where I had a dedicated listening room with unfavorable dimensions, 24 ft by 12 ft. I could not get the original speakers (Tympani T1Ds), to sound right and produce the same magic. So far still consistent with your observations. But then I changed out to other highly regarded speakers, including B&W 801s, the original Alons, Revel Studios, AvantGardes. I also switched preamplifiers (to the highly regarded ML 326s) power amps (switching to Krells and Mark Levinsons). Although I managed to improve things somewhat, gaining the same magical experience was just not possible

  16. “Where I draw the line is in supporting the belief a room has to live up to certain standards in order to take full advantage of every nuance available.”

    ??????Poppycock back at you Paul. ;). I usually agree with most everything you say but your statement just doesn’t make sense or in the alternative it is simply too binary in its approach. The room does need to live up to some certain minimum standards. I also think in general people do not think enough about the room in which they are placing their speakers. At some point if you are going to spend a bunch of money on your audio gear you should be considering the type and quality of the room and the corresponding necessary treatments to get the best out of the speakers. Peace to you and your excellent sounding room.

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