Room suck

July 15, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

After writing The Audiophile’s Guide I get lots of questions from folks who aren’t getting all the sonic qualities they hoped for.

They followed closely the steps in the Guide and while everyone that has followed those steps has gotten much better sound, it isn’t always as much as some might have hoped for.

Of course, no guidebook can fix all the ills in a complex system any more than a road map can only tell you where and in which direction you should turn.

A consistent problem I am uncovering in the many room and setup photos sent to me is over damping.

Seems audiophiles cannot leave room walls alone. And who can blame them? Every reasonable picture of a great system sports acoustic panels on the wall.

One consistent piece of advice I can offer folks is to start simple and clean.

Over time and getting the basics right, it makes sense to slowly add back in the absorption or diffusion panels so often adorning listening room walls.

Too much room treatment sucks the life out of music often causing the sound to come directly from the speakers rather than disembodied as we hope for.

Start simple, work your way up—listening to the results at every step—as if you were seasoning a meal.

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53 comments on “Room suck”

  1. I owned some BIK acoustic panels for a few days before the wife said she was going to put them in the street. Fortunately I still had the box and was able to return them. I suspect for many people they are a nonstarter.

    The Audiophile Guide did nothing for my system as when I bought it the test tracks were unavailable and were then available only on SACD. I am one of many who do not have a SACD player and, In my case, never have. Please, PS Audio, put 16/44 PCM versions up for download, at no extra charge after buying the book.

    1. “Reference Music” (the data disk) is a DVD, not an SACD. It is playable on any device that can play DVD’s, including widely available cheap players. While one disk in the set requires a player capable of playing SACD’s or DSD, the other disk contains PCM files that can be played using almost any DAC.

      1. I’m not buying a disc spinner on principle, I haven’t spun any discs for years, most people haven’t, and the disc is for sale in the UK from PS Audio dealers for £60 – that’s $83 in USA money. I could get a DVD player on Amazon for half the cost of the disc. That’s how stupid the pricing is.

        I’m suggesting, not for the first time, that PS Audio do the decent thing, join the 21st century, and provide a download.

        I would return the book as not fit for purpose, except I downloaded it on Kindle.

        1. They provide a download. You have to decide if you’re willing to pay the price. 3 formats for the same price. So the 21st century is here… 😀

  2. Most of the listening/living rooms that I have set-up audio rigs in over the past 45 years have been rectangular & have been in the 15′ x 10′ to 20′ x 13′ range, always double brick walls & wall to wall carpet with medium to heavy curtains on the windows including a bulky (foam internal) two & a half to three seater sofa with a couple of matching single seaters in the listening room…enough to absorb without overly doing so.
    Call it serendipitous or just lucky but when I hear the way some talk so energetically about how crucial room acoustics & dampening are, I can’t relate.
    I guess that if you’ve never experienced a really ‘bad’ room then you’re not going to be too fussed about it.
    Every time I see Paul skulking around Music Room 2, I can’t see a helluvalot of diffraction/absorption panels or any large treatment contraptions around the room.

    Slowly I’m getting more & more reply notifications, via e-mail, over the last 5 days…it seems to be a gradual thing, like slowly turning on a water tap, however, strangely, I also get notifications via e-mail, serendipitously, of other contributors replying to commenting (not me) contributors, like some glitchy or demented artificial intelligence…oh well, I see it as just a humorous aspect of ‘Paul’s Posts’.
    If it makes you laugh, well, it can’t be all bad 🙂

    1. I’d love to know what the “ideal” room is. Wigmore Hall is considered pretty ideal, but St Martin’s in the Fields (built in 1722) the has a lovely drier/harder sound and Holywell Music Room (the first purpose built concert hall in Europe, built in 1748) is about in the middle. At the extreme is somewhere like Harpa in Reykavik that has 1,500 moveable acoustic panels, the stalls rake can be adjusted and a reverberation chamber that can change the reverb from 0.5 to 2.3 seconds (only cost about $700million). One of the best venues I’ve been to is the loft of a 200 year old warehouse. I also go to an award-winning music festival held annually on the second floor of a concrete multi-storey car park. At that unlikely venue this summer we have the Philharmonia Orchestra playing both Brahms piano concertos, Messaien etc. in a 2-month music programme.

      One day someone clever will design noise shaping software that can replicate venues or alter the acoustic characteristics, much like how Hauptwerk does with organ software.

      1. They have. See, for example, “The Virtual Haydn” (Naxos NBD0001-04) or “Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia” (Cappella Romania CR420-CDBR). These are deliberate efforts to reproduce the should of particular locations. All Auro 3D disks, and many SACD’s, are indirect efforts to duplicate the sound of the space in which music was recorded.

        1. Alia Vox have done many recordings in the original performance locations around Spain. Many of these are on multi-channel SACD. They are the only SACD’s I own, as they are dual layer and in those days I had a CD player.

      2. Ken Kessler has opined on more than one occasion on the virtues of Alastair Robertson-Aikman’s listening room at SME Limited in Steyning, West Sussex (phonograph records and turntables, the horror, the horror!). As a still-patriate Yank on the west side of The Pond (plus half of the North American continent), I do not know if they offer tours (please resume the practice soon, Paul; I’ll bring my vaccination card: two shots of the Pfizer back in March), but if not too distant, it might be an interesting visit.

    2. FR, I’m with you. I have been lucky. With my floorstanding box loudspeakers postiioned about 9 feet to 10 feet apart and my listening chair about 10 to 13 feet back I have never had room issues as long as the room was furnished. I never found that tweaking room furniture or wall hangings did anything positive or negative. My loudspeakers are not fussy. They give a precise center image and have a wide dispersal, so precise placement and toe-in angle is not that critical. With my speakers, once I position them according to the general rules (per Audiophile Guide and other typical rule-of-thumb advisories) I hear the center ball. Minute changes of an inch or two here or there do not make any difference whatsoever.

      A good mix of furnishings and hard and soft floor, wall and ceiling surfaces, as well as varied angles in the reflective surfaces has given me good results from the get-go. When the room is empty of furnishings, floor rug and window shades, my system sounds terrible. Too much reverberation, no stereo image. The sound comes from everywhere, incoherent, slurred — a mess. Normal furniture with a few throw pillows and an area rug has provided just the right amount of damping for me.

  3. Isn’t the goal of (high-end) stereo to perfectly reproduce the sound of the concert hall or the recording studio both acoustically optimized. Thus in our listening rooms two problems have to be solved: cancellation of the inherent inter-loudspeaker crosstalk and minimizing every negative effect of the inherent listening room acoustics on the sound – finally you want to hear the recorded concert hall “singing” and not your listening room. No wonder there is near-field (!) monitoring and a listening position as far as possible from the rear wall when mixing and mastering recordings! I guess in 99.9 % normal listening rooms show no near-field set-up.

    1. My nearfield ‘bed-phones’ home audio set-up is incredibly
      dynamic & very immersive & since I listen mainly to Rock ‘n
      Roll I have no idea how it would sound in a concert hall.

      1. Good morning FR`!
        Did you ever get to see the rock group Smashing Pumpkins live?
        Trust me when I tell you this!
        I caught them live at Carnikey Hall live in 1994.
        The big room they played in, really work for their sound.
        But as not to drift away from the topic too much, I was listening to a video on You Tube yesterday.
        The guy was giving out instructions for setting a room up for recording studio use.
        This mite sound crazy, but he said something about people using egg crates to dampen the room.
        But he also went on to say, “this is a fire hazard.”
        But he lost me after awhile, when he started talking about things like rubber fome and fiver glass.
        He also went in to a lot of things that are way over my head.
        But then, he started talking about speaker placement.
        He says to have your speakers about 3 feet away from the wall both behind them, and the same distance away from the side walls.
        My question is, how do you do that if you don’t have that kind of space?

        1. Hi JP,
          I’ve always listened to Rock ‘n Roll concerts at outdoor venues
          …I’ve never done an indoor one.
          You can obviously only do what you can physically do regarding loudspeaker placement in a room.
          ‘Steven Not To Be Confused With Steven’ & I have found that you often get a better sonic result in a room the size of which I have described above (2:56am) if you set up so that your loudspeakers fire across the room, instead of length-ways, this usually means that said loudspeakers wont have any sidewall issues.

          1. I saw Smashing Pumpkins exactly once, but it was outdoors in Minneapolis (1998).
            I swear there were over 200,000 in the audience, but ‘official’ counts were ~125,000.
            Darned good show.

          2. FR, I have my speakers on the long wall, just as you suggest, which minimizes sidewall issues. That works because my speakers are not very sensitive to distance from speaker to wall behind the speakers. Also, behind my listening chair the room opens to an adjacent room. If there were a wall right behind the listening chair, then speaker placement along the short wall would probably be better, so there could be greater distance between the listening chair and the wall behind it.

          3. So Fr, are you saying that, the way I have my monitors and subs sat up in my bed room works best for me?
            I have the monitors and subs in the corners pointing out at me, in angles.
            This way, I can set on the foot of my bed, and listen to my work, as I do it.
            So instead of the sounds hitting the wall behind me, the sounds are hitting my ears directly.
            My bed room, is 14 by 14 square feet.
            But sense the monitors are setting on top of the subs, they are right at ear level when I’m either setting down or standing up at the foot of my bed.
            When I get threw with the work, I bring it in to my living room, and play it on my every day system.
            I do this because, the system in the living room, has much larger speakers on it.
            They are a 3-way design, with 15inch woofers in them.
            They are being driven by a Jolida JD-1000P all tube power amp.
            I have those speakers facing the couch in the living room.
            Most of the time, my wife and I both listen to and watch TV using that big system.
            But to us, rather it’s TV, or music.
            Either way, it still sounds good to us.
            It’s whatever works, right?

            1. JP,
              Right !
              My bedroom system is a pair of 5″ two ways on Cinder block stands jammed in (2″ from) the corners of the room, across (180deg) from each other, facing my ears…it works an absolute treat & the resulting bass response is pretty amazing.
              The queen size mattress operates like a passive woofer, radiating bass into my body.
              The room is 13′ x 11′

    2. Whilst I’d agree with your goal of high end stereo I think it’s worth mentioning that not every venue where live music takes place is acoustically optimised. If we can accept these live flaws it’s not unreasonable to expect some flaws at home. I think it’s unrealistic to expect that every recording, from whatever live venue or studio can be perfectly reproduced in our home.

      To be honest I don’t think I have experienced these room problems apart from rarely the very occasional low bass note sounding a bit boomy or flappy but, as the equipment has improved so has that, and the room hasn’t changed.

      It’s a much happier and more relaxing place to just sit back and enjoy the performance.

      1. Richtea, I agree. There is always going to be a low bass note that sounds a bit boomy. The distance we place our speakers from the wall will always guarantee that at least one bass frequency will be boomy, due to standing wave physics. I have one CD where I have tried everything to get rid of a boomy bass note in my system and room, but have to conclude that the boomy bass note is part of the recording, and has nothing to do with my system and room. Few recordings have even bass, so why should we fuss so much to achieve bass perfection in our systems?

  4. You’re so right Paul. I only use the existing Furniture. Added some Book and CD Shelves on the right Spot and love the WAF of the whole Installation (although Focal Aria 948 and 926, not small…). Greetings from Belgium, Marc

  5. The first half of Fat Rat’s comment are pretty much exactly my first thoughts on reading today’s post. Any more soft furnishings in my room I’m sure would over damp it and I certainly don’t feel the need for acoustic panels. Apart from the fact that most I have seen are not only unsightly but also not in keeping with a domestic lounge or domestic bliss. If you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated listening room or a minimalist style room I’m sure it’s a different story.

    Off today’s topic but at least still hi-fi. I was reading this morning that Roksan have just launched the Attessa range which to my surprise includes a new CD transport. What do they know? Obviously don’t think that CD is dead yet. Along with a turntable, streaming amplifier and integrated amplifier most bases are covered. Just waiting for the cassette deck now 😉

  6. I was surprised that Floyd E. Toole in the book Sound Reproduction Loudspeakers and Rooms chapter 8.1 FIRST-ORDER REFLECTIONS in a “MEMO” recommends for stereo listening leave side walls reflective at first-reflection points. There is often the opposite recommendation available.

    1. I was surprised as well to read your post so I found Dr. Toole’s very detailed article. He said the following:

      “The portions of side walls responsible for first lateral reflections are specified as “optional areas: absorb, diffuse, reflect. It is a decision to be made by the customer and/or the installer. People who assert that I am in favor of lateral reflections obviously did not finish reading my book”.

      Since there are so many variables involved, it’s the audiophile’s choice to suit the music genre and room. I visited Music Room II and much preferred the wider soundstage and imaging of my smaller dedicated room with first reflection treatment.

      1. Full citation:
        “Memo for Listening room recommendations: for stereo listening, leave side walls
        reflective at first-reflection points. For multichannel listening it is optional. Audio
        professionals may have their own preferences—it’s all right, they are just different.”
        I did finish the book. I think the book is worth reading and as well as listening whole album, it is good to read whole book.
        I find it is allways good to try with and without whatever treatment I try.

        1. Totally agree and I very much respect Dr. Toole. He has contributed much to audio science. I own a pair of Revel F208 speakers which I understand benefited from his design work with Harman International. His own speakers are the great Revel Salon 2’s.

        2. The important point with Toole’s work is he also discusses the “spinorama” of speakers and what they should look like in order to get a better performance.
          In my big room, I have a rather open area on one side and a hard wall on the other. Somehow, maybe because of how my speakers perform, the sound is not affected to the point of distraction. When in the center position, the sound is fine.
          My only issue with the room has been trying to tame the low frequency modes. Some notes higher, some lower.

          1. “central paradox” is another interesting point – it is about ability of human extracting original sound source – something like listening through the room than in the room. Maybe too complex story to repeat it here.
            So another opinion on room treatment:
            “Those who have read through the book this far know that the requirements for good sound start with a need for good loudspeakers. If this is accomplished, the rest is greatly simplified. No amount of “room acoustics” effort or expense can compensate for poor loudspeakers. However, as we will soon see, some conventional acoustical practices have the potential to degrade sound from good loudspeakers. In a very real sense, the overriding rule for interior room acoustics should be “do no damage.” Humans have a great natural ability to extract detailed information from sound sources in rooms (see Figure 19.1).”
            (Floyd E. Toole: Sound Reproduction Loudspeakers and Rooms)

  7. Being lucky enough to have a dedicated room. I first started with it way underdamped. Then once I had things set-up and positioned, I purposely way over damped the room. Over a long period of time playing with sub placements and adjustments along with removing / changing room damping characteristics I finally found a very acceptable set-up. The speakers ‘disappear’, the sound stage lifts, deepens and widens, the images are rock solid. The tonal balance is good, the low level details are good.

    2-3 years until retirement… any new gear coming will be in that time frame… had a chance to listen to some new gear for 3-4 hours yesterday. Maybe there will be a major change… at least I have a tenuous hold on the room for now…

  8. “Maybe there will be a major change…”
    Don’t do this again Mike 🙁
    I think I speak for all if I say that the suspense is killing us. Don’t leave us in the dark.

    1. No suspense. No decisions…. Yet…. 😐

      Spent the time with Mac’s, Levison and AR.

      I’m pretty pragmatic, so this won’t happen over night. Choices will depend on if I keep the speakers I have….

      Maybe I should take up growing mushrooms instead. That way I can stay in the dark and eat sh*t 😀

      1. Mike,
        I think I speak for all if I say that by all means stay in the dark (as long as you’ve got a good supply of vitamin D tablets) but we can’t really see the point of you eating sh!t.

        1. Maybe I should have said smell like shit…. 😀

          Either way, having the opportunity again to listen to something new and different, in an environment other than a packed show, has shown me that what I currently have is not far off the proverbial mark. It’s the final choice(s) depending on which way I go that will be fun.

          1. Ha, we don’t want to eat it, we don’t want to smell like it, neither do we want to talk it.
            Not that anyone here is I hasten to add.

            Surely I can’t be the only one who thought of this?

            1. 🙂 surely not Richtea

              But you have to admit talking it is the easiest…. And least tough on the other senses.

              The visit yesterday also opened my eyes / ears to the value of the brick and mortar. Too bad it’s 5 hrs away… but doable in a day ….

  9. I’m a firm believer in bass traps. Most rooms really need to flatten the bass response at just about every listening position. Also, if you’re using conventional “dynamic” speakers you can’t ignore the first reflection point on the side walls.

    With my hybrid ‘stats there are specific room treatment challenges that I think I’ve addressed. Since the speakers are dipoles you want to allow some reflection behind the speakers so conventional bass traps aren’t great. Fortunately, GIK has an option called “Range Limiter” that reflects significant high and mid frequencies while actually absorbing more bass than a conventional trap.

    Also have used diffuser/absorber combo panels between the speakers and behind the listening position. Imaging is great. Only hardwood floors (no carpet) and a leather couch so not too absorptive overall. Very happy indeed but this does take time and requires a slow and measured approach as mentioned above.

  10. Paul,
    You have a unique skill set that took a lot of years to learn after an educational foundation. Most can not pick up a book an make an audiophile room from directions or ideas.
    A good example of what I mean, put me in a kitchen with easy instructions on how to bake a cake and it would never come out of the oven as you would expect. Cause I have no concept, of measuring, mixing, cooking temperatures etc, etc, . Best your book does for me, general ideas on what can be accomplished and explored.

    1. Yes, good point, David. You’re absolutely right. That’s always the challenge when trying to craft a self help book. Fortunately, unlike baking, I had the advantage of the companion SACD to help guide folks. It’s one thing to spout off instructions and measurements and advice, quite another to achieve them. With the examples on the CD, it’s a lot easier for folks who listen, then they do or do not have what we’re hoping for. They can then go back and work until they get it.

      For me, the examples on the disc coupled with instructions of how to tweak until the examples get you where you’re going were the key to this tome.

      1. I agree that the disk is essential. My experience suggests that more detailed instructions could be helpful. For example, on “Room bass response” (Track 7), there are three things to listen for:
        –Volume: is each note equally loud? If not, moving the subwoofer (or full range speaker), or changing the crossover frequency, may help.
        –Pluck: Is there a definite pluck at the beginning of each note? Absence of pluck, especially in the crossover region, suggests that there is a phase issue that can be adjusted via the subwoofer’s phase control. Or that some driver in the system is deliberately set in reverse polarity which means you either live with imperfect bass or change speakers.
        –Pitch: Are you hearing the fundamental tone on the deepest notes? Or are you hearing the first harmonic (one octave up)? Is that fundamental heard as the bottom of a series of overtones that distinguish a bass viol from a tuba? Or is the fundamental so loud that what you hear sounds more like a sine wave than a bass viol?
        This suggests that we could all profit from a Community site devoted to adjusting rooms that will welcome detailed discussion of how the disk can be used to improve sound.

  11. I love the term self-help books. If you could fix something yourself (including your emotional well-being) you wouldn’t need help in the first place. They should be called help books.

    Don’t blame me for this statement it was George Carlin.

  12. Good topic Paul, quite timely. Not sure it’s generally known that it’s best to start at the bad point and just SLOWLY mitigate and listen THOROUGHLY at each increasing treatment step. Like a couple of weeks or a month each step to get around psycho-acoustic adaptation. Our human/animal brains have 1000s of years of conditioning that sound needs an immediate reaction to run from danger and many times the reaction is over the top.

    Unless you have and really know how to use real-time room analysis (RTA) tools, you have to give your mind time to adapt and ‘level-off’ to the change – otherwise you will be tempted to over-compensate. Thus we have the trap many audiophiles fall into.

    Kinda like Scotch, a wee dram at a time….

  13. Last year I experimented with four 2″ X 2ft square GIK Acoustiscs-2A Alpha Diffusor/Absorber panels. Although having virtually no room for fancy room treatments, I was willing to try these panels behind my component/speaker set-up wall and listening position back wall. After a full month and many hours of room placements and detailed listening sessions (trials on every wall surface and about every configuration I could come up with), I returned the panels. I simply could not Improve any facet of the soundstage presentation, nor any areas of the room’s acoustics that I enjoyed in my sweet listening spot! So, with wall treatments consisting of french double door window shades (to the left), double closet decorative doors (to the right), bare sheetrock speaker and listening walls (all walls adorned with oil or watercolor paintings) and decor consisting of a plush love seat listening position and carpeted flooring, my 90sf dedicated quasi-near field music room is neither too dead or too alive, but just right!

    Recording and genre dependent, the Soundstage can easily extend 10-15ft outside of the side walls, 15-25ft above the 2EX monitor placements and 10-30ft beyond the back listening wall for an Amazing Stereo 3D Presentation (very holographic). This Large soundstage and ambiance depth places instruments and vocals in their proper place and size, with wonderful air around details and harmonies, respective to the recorded venue, space and miking techniques. Linear bandwidth extends well beyond the limits of my hearing and micro and macro dynamics are stunning with presentation never becoming too soft or too overpowering. My Sierra 2EX monitors Completely Disappear…you Visually See Speakers, but Hear Music, just glorious natural Live MUSIC!! 🙂

  14. I have many years of using lots of absorption in two different rooms.

    I have the ability to finely alter equalisation and that is essential because as you add absorption the frequencies above about 150hz get soaked up and you need to boost treble, When it comes to bass you need specialist traps.

    I’d recommend anyone to start by adding as much quality bass trapping as they can, make EQ changes and then worry about adding absorption for the higher frequencies. In my experience as I added more absorption I could hear extra detail because the walls are reflecting less. To me it makes perfect sense to add absorption and EQ rather than reflect the sound. My room is dead as a dodo and that’s obvious the moment you walk into it. However live recordings, even of CD quality, can sound astonishingly dynamic and the room is large enough to have no obvious major resonances (I unfortunately get a suck out at bass frequencies – I’d like a much higher ceiling).

    I’ve had two well known industry figures visit my set up and neither has left without congratulating me – one said it’s a great system, the other said I should be very proud of what I’ve achieved (it’s not just the room treatment/EQ, it’s also feeding it a very good digital signal into a great digital crossover with decent amps driving the speakers actively).

  15. Alas, my listening room sucks for sure. Married with kids in a small house the ONLY place I have for my modest system is a family room decorated by wife with only one place to set up my system.

    1. You can still get great sound, even in a family room, Assuming you can pull the speakers enough away from the wall, you can move your listening chair to a good spot when listening, and the wife and kids will be quiet enough so you can hear the music. And leave the speaker grille cloth on, so the kids won’t be as tempted to poke on the speaker drivers

  16. I have been into Rock n’ Roll music for at least 60 years. There is no such thing as unamplified R n’ R if the band uses electric guitars and almost all do. I have heard small venue, large venue and outdoor venue R n’ R. I have heard R n’ R at the Beacon, Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, all are considered to be excellent sounding venues. I use these experiences as a general guide to good room sound.

    I have heard various room correction devices at audio shows. The treatments all seem to deaden the sound and ruin the dynamics. The only room treatment I use is a rug on the hardwood floor between the speakers and the listening position. There is no “coffee” table or anything else between the speakers and the listening position.

    I would never sacrifice my all analog sound by using any kind of DSP to get “perfect” EQ. I have to gone to great lengths to get my digital source ( PS Audio DAC and transport ) to be as analog like as possible.

    If you need more bass get a high quality subwoofer ( REL is highly recommended ). If you must apply EQ to enjoy the sound hunt for a Mark Levinson Cello Palette and use it.

    As always, YMMV

    1. Have you listened to rodrigo y gabriela (they seem to have a fondness for all lower case personal nomenclature; who am i to disagree)? Two kids from Mexico with heavy metal sensibilities who went to Europe and discovered flamenco music. They got a couple of nylon strung acoustic guitars and while busking around Ireland, they developed their own style of playing and then proceeded to shift a whole bunch of paradigms. Turns out you don’t need a Strat and a P-bass plugged into a couple of big Marshal stacks with a set of Ludwig/Zildjian traps (e.g.) to rock out (although that obviously works fabulously well, also).

      1. I saw them play at the Hollywood Bowl. They are very good and entertaining. It is interesting that in most tunes Gabriela plays lead.
        Their videos are very good too. The NPR one is excellent.

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