April 9, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One of the cures for bland tasting food is to liven it up with the addition of a dash of spice.

In audio, it’s not so easy.  There’s really not anything we can add to the system if we want to liven up the sound. There is, however, something we can subtract.

In my experience, HiFi systems presenting themselves as dull or lifeless are more often than not victims of their environment.

An over or under damped room is often the perpetrator and the first place we should turn to—though often we mistakenly lay blame on the equipment.

It’s true that speakers and electronics have individual voices, but often those are not properly supported within the room.

If your system’s too spicy, or not spicy enough, consider first the room. It’s easy enough to add or subtract absorptive materials like furniture, pillows, and the like (and a hell of a lot easier than equipment swaps).

Our instincts often lead us first to equipment swaps but I think it’s valuable to remember the room.

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28 comments on “Spicy”

  1. Heard this statement some time ago.
    What is the most critical component in any sound system?
    It isn’t the loudspeakers, and it isn’t the electronics that feed them.
    It’s the room in which it all sits.

  2. Amazing coincidence with today’s post and something that happened on Wednesday. I wasn’t planning on any changes but….the brackets that hold the pelmet to the full width curtains at the end of the room where the speakers and subs are gave way, so I had to remove it. (Side issue, I know, who has a pelmet these days but that’s how it is). I was very surprised by the change in the sound. The bass is a bit deeper (where deep bass exists in the recording, not across the board) there is a greater clarity and further realism to the sound and I’m noticing more detail, low level detail is more apparent. Quite noticeable differences to me, being obviously very familiar with the system for such, as I thought, a relatively small change and fully concurs with Paul’s suggestions.
    The difficulty I have now is does the pelmet go back. Aesthetically it doesn’t really matter to me and even though it’s early days I feel sound wise it’s better off. The best thing in my favour is the required brackets are no longer available so refitting will not be easy. Okay, now let me move that cushion and see what effect that has.

    1. Richtea,
      I had to look up pelmet 🙂
      Oh the frilly stuff on top (valence)- Can you not find brackets, or is that a convenient excuse now? 😉

      We can all look, if it helps…

      Have fun…

      1. I am a real estate agent and had to look it up it’s not a term I used other than “can you take that down it is very dated” when I see them in a home and we need to get it ready for market. I suppose I refer to them as a valance, which is not correct actually, but most people don’t know the differences (and obviously neither do I).

        1. Larry,

          Pelmet, valance – Leave it to me to screw it up. Now that I look up valance… my grandmother is still messing with me … For the sake of today’s conversation we’ll call them acoustic treatment. 😎

          Of course I couldn’t even spell valance right the 1st time… freakin’ autocorrect.

          1. Acoustic treatment I will accept! Now let’s see what Richtea has to say :-). From my perspective, whatever decorations or treatments you have in your home that you like, go for it. I only worry about it when it is time to sell it and then I have to ask a client to undo, or homogenize everything for maximum effect in the market.

            I do think valance is the correct term if we are referring to a soft, cloth material at the top. Pelmet is the correct term if we refer to a box-like surround, not a flowing cloth material. I suspect both do the same thing (hide the curtain mechanisms). I would also think that, back in the day, the pelmet might have been considered the more luxurious of finishing treatments.

            Well off to mount my new cartridge today and play around with it. It is an analog day for me.

            1. So now we’re all up to speed on pelmets and valances, or not as the case may be. Every day’s a school day. I tended to use the words interchangeably but your assessment Larry seems correct. You could also find a valance on a bed and a pelmet might colloquially describe a very short skirt.
              Based on that definition I actually removed the valance, a medium weight fabric,12ft wide, 22inch drop at the side reducing to 11inch across the centre. The point really is I was surprised, that what I thought was a fairly insignificant piece of soft furnishing could make such a difference. Of course I now know that I don’t have soft furnishings in the room, just acoustic treatments, which somehow makes them so much more acceptable. 🙂

              As for the brackets Mike, they are very specific to the curtain rail and no longer made. This provides me with the perfect excuse as, at least for the time being, I am enjoying listening with valance removed.

  3. If audiophile loudspeakers are always intensively voiced by the designing using specific tracks it isn’t that strange that each loudspeaker sounds most different when driven by a different amp in a different listening room with a different setup using different tracks and genres of music. Not to mention the differing sound preferences of the designer and end user. Thus it should be most likely that the end user has to optimize the final sound in his living room (mostly not acoustically optimized). I prefer a digital equalizer compensating annoying bass boosts and dips in the presence region for the final “tweaking”.

  4. I feel that I’m very lucky with my listening room (18’x13’x8.5′)
    My 2 & a half seat sofa vibrates like it’s got butt-kickers built into it (but it doesn’t) when the bass gets visceral (90-100dB) from my 3-way floorstanders, so it must be absorbing a lot of the duff-duff.
    I’ve got a large pillow & a folded up comforter positioned behind the floorstander that is nearest to a corner & a 4’x2.5′ sheet of 1.5″ thick poly-foam behind the one that is nowhere near a corner.
    It all works fine for me.
    No muddiness or boominess & great thump with my slam.
    One thing of note though that I heard today, & I can’t figure it out, is a remastered MCA CD of
    ‘The Royal Scam’ (God bless Carlton, Randal, Dias, Parks, Rainey & Purdie) that I bought 3 years ago, it’s always had a distinct lack of the higher frequencies, ie. I’ve always had to turn the treble around to 3 o’clock (about +5dB) on that particular CD…extremely disappointing for a remaster.
    However, today, after sliding another IKEA bamboo chopping board under each floorstander (that’s a total of 3 under each one now) which have now done about 400hrs burn-in since new, I found that I only needed to turn said treble gain control to 1 o’clock (+1.7dB)…huh!?
    Surely raising the tweeters another mere inch & a third is not going to increase the top end of the frequency range by so much; I mean I’m only looking at maybe a degree & a half closer to TDC (on-axis) for each tweeter.
    Are my ears working better today?
    It could be, but nothing else that I played had such a marked increase in treble this afternoon.
    Oh, I also bothered to bi-wire said floorstanders last week.
    It could not be just one of those changes that could make such a marked difference to that CD…
    I know what it’s deficiencies are, I mean I’ve had the damn thing for three years now & I play it at least once a month…minimum.
    It must be a combination of the 2 changes that I mentioned & maybe my tympanic membranes being in a very happy & receptive mood today…
    otherwise, as we say in Australia, “It’s got me f#@ked!”

    Pommy Steven,
    Go & have a break if you must, but please come back to us when
    you feel refreshed & rejuvenated…you will be sorely missed 🙁

  5. I agree generally.

    However it’s always fascinating how better equipment/cabling etc. can solve things that would have meant a total reconstruction of the room with the old equipment (e.g. due to even bass problems).

    I experienced multiple times how the same room blossomed out with different equipment and all problems seemed to have been fixed…and on the other hand I also experienced rooms that wouldn’t sound with any equipment.

    It’s really no black/white matter and the above recommendation can be extremely right but also extremely non-solving, still expensive and laborious.

    But what can be said is, that even when room improvements don’t help enough to cure a bigger problem (in case it’s strongly caused by limited equipment and/or synergy), it’s always good to have those measures done as they at least improve things.

    The main problem with the correct advice to look at the room first is, that most audiophiles can’t change anything exactly at this point unfortunately (for family reasons).

  6. I’ve been reading Paul’s emails for a while now. Today I remembered that there’d be comments as well, so I clicked on to the site. Interesting – not just about today’s topic, but more generally, having looked at yesterday’s, too. Seems there’s a rather fun, inter-oceanic exchange going on (Brit, ‘Merican, Oz – am I right?) Thus thought I’d pitch in.

    It’s right, this guidance about rooms. And it’s right that often most of us mere family mortals can’t really do much in terms of audio ‘treatments’. (How I envy that stereotypical, audio-nut ideal of a great, big den of some of our more fortunate, less cramped cousins. Not really on these shores. BTW, if I may be quite irrelevant for a mo, I like to think I am descended from your great East Anglian hero – largely ignored in Britain – Tom Paine.)

    My experience? I have had the same system now (nothing PS Audio yetawhile) in three different houses. It has sounded different in each. I’ve enjoyed music in them all, but think the current modest little room actually has the best sound. The first I thought was a great room: for a living room in the UK on the large side at about 24 X 13′. An improvement I made there was to have speakers firing across rather than down the length of the room. I had a turntable and increasingly-large record collection there and had lots of fun. The second house was a real compromise with a corner position. What makes the current one so different, other than it being smaller and squarer than the first? I don’t really know. I have used an upstairs bedroom as a sitting room. Maybe it’s that.

    Anyway, enjoy the music, wherever you sit.

  7. I have no doubts that the room can be as important as any speaker or piece of equipment. I purposely underdamped my dedicated room and at first, wanted all new equipment. Then I over damped so the room was virtually ‘dead’. Then second, wanted all new equipment again. Slowly over the course of a really long time I started removing damping and diffusion, while also chasing bass nodes. I finally stumbled across a combination that just made things sound just right for me.
    Having ‘the luxury’ of a dedicated room was a giant help.

    Equally important for me was the isolation of equipment, and the coupling of the speakers to the floor. Especially the front firing subs.

    I was convinced I needed new speakers at a minimum, now they sound as good, (maybe better) as when I initially started auditioning them 30+ years ago, and at this point see (hear) no reason to change.

    To sum it up in my experience .,. New source devices were a big improvement in the beginning, (computer driven audio) new amps helped, (but they were a necessity since the old ones needed repair) different pre’s (tube vs solid state) add a slightly different ‘flavor’ to the sound. The room, (now treated) along with speaker placement melded the flavor(s) and let things turn into something really good that I didn’t expect.

  8. Thank you all for the words of welcome. Paul, I used to play clarinet, from B flat to contrabass, now I play the stereo. I’ve been known to tinker with keyboards, at one time I had two Hammond D3’s that I rebuilt and refinished.
    I am in total agreement regarding the sounds of a room being very influential to the resolution of a sound system. I have had my present system in three very different houses as well, in my present location my “listening room” is actually a loft that is open to the entire house. The sound has been good, all things considered, at least when I sit in the loft to read and listen in the morning. In the rest of the house it simply provides sound. I am in the process of moving and with every piece of furniture that is moved or removed the familiar sound, 30 year old speakers and 25 year old amp, becomes something different. I can hardly wait to see what is required in my new home to make this system sing again. The comments I have seen so far in this space, and expect to continue to see, will certainly be useful in tuning the new listening space to work with the equipment.

  9. My room is over the garage and the typical room with partial slant ceilings. When I designed how I wanted to layout the room, I knew I wanted to split the room in two. One side two channel and the other theater. Towers on the theater side and bookshelves and subs on the two channel side. So far its worked out better then I thought. I did build some base traps with some very unique planters that my administrators mom gave me. one in each Conner of the room. It works for now. And I too had no clue as to what “pelmet’s” were? I thought it was a full wall of theater curtains 🙂 shows what I know 🙂

    Keep listening.
    Hey, I scored an out of print Miles Davis a few weeks back but haven’t gotten it yet. Music Direct is the slowest shipping outfit that I have ever bought from!!! 🙂

  10. Usually if I removed my ex-wife from the room everything sounded better, more relaxed, even tempered…..she was a passive aggressive limited range back seat driver.

  11. I’m of the belief that if the drum kit being recorded is 6 feet tall from kick to cymbal, then if you want true reproduction then the drivers ought to be 6 feet tall. Line arrays, Mags or Electrostats all the way baby!
    Otherwise you’re just watching a blockbuster on your cell phone….

  12. Paul,

    In a post that you provided a link to Chris’ comments on speaker, Chris mentions that you prefer your IRS not to be on axis but to listen to them slightly off axis. He says it is because you prefer the “ambiance” provided by listening off axis. Apologies if the words are not exactly those, but I assume they are close enough.

    I found that comment very interesting. Is it because the IRS on axis are too “bright” for you? I presume that the ambiance you like is provided by a smooth off axis response. Or to use technical terms, a smooth spinorama. This would be precisely what Toole found in his research too and this is why we ended up with the Harman curve. I don’t think that your IRSs were ever measured in an anechoic room, but I wonder if any of you used REW in your room to test the frequency response of them when they are on axis or in Paul’s preferred position.

    Chris’s comments also suggest that your speakers will have to have a good and even response off axis to be “voiced” (I dislike this term) to your liking. Many modern high tech speakers like D&D and Kii tend to have very smooth off axis response. You can see how complicated the front baffle of the D&D is in order to get this with the larger midrange speaker they use. It is in the area of hand-off from the midrange to the tweeter where you get these discontinuities, or where it becomes difficult to overcome. Pro monitors designed to be heard close to them tend to avoid this problem, but in other speakers dependent on the room, it is more difficult.

    I would love to see a REW curve of the IRS in your preferred spot.

    1. We’ve done many measurements of the system on and off axis but I don’t think we stored any of that data. I can scrounge around in the library to see.

      A properly designed speaker should be even in its on and off axis response. That’s one of the keys to building a great and musical speaker. It’s also one of the means we have of creating a three dimensional soundstage.

      1. I agree! This is why I was asking you this question. Good (even) sound dispersion is key and very difficult to achieve.

        I am just curious at the performance of the IRS in this aspect. Especially given what Chris said about your preference.

  13. What a GREAT metaphor! Sometimes you just nail it.

    Spices are the last thing you add, just as acoustics are the last transform between the musicians and your ears. Spices started out as corrective, covering up deficiencies in the main ingredients just like acoustic treatments. They are the easiest ingredient to under-do or over-do, and their affect is not entirely predictable.

    That said, signal is sacred and you can never spice a second rate meal into perfection. Using acoustics on the front end (zero knob recording) is like sushi – no cooking nor spicing required.

  14. Agree 100% Paul. Tame the room and experiment with moving the speakers around first before blaming the component or speakers. Personally I prefer moving speakers closer to walls or corners to get the tonal balance right even at slight expense of the sound stage.

  15. Yes. This is why I don’t like EQ, especially with headphones. A dash of this and a dash of that to alter frequency responses in the low, mids and Highs often lead a listener into some unnatural territory. With loud speakers I absolutely believe room treatment and speaker placement should set a stronger presidence rather than EQ’ing the crap out of something. 😉
    More often than not, spicy in audio just isn’t flavorful. Lol

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