Temples of sound

April 15, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

For a small handful, it is possible to build temples of sound—a dedicated purpose-built room.

They are rare.

More of us convert existing space into dedicated listening areas that we revere as our sound temples, but the vast majority simply plop down our systems in the living room or den and do what we can to coexist with the needs of everyday living.

In my 45 plus years of immersion into the art of home audio reproduction, I have seen very few stand-alone temples of sound. And of those, fewer still that bettered what I have so many times heard in the more common confines of everyday rooms.

It occurs to me that when we invest so heavily in building from scratch that perfect room we lose some of the gutsy compromises one must make in order to maximize that which we have to work with.

Perhaps it’s like artists who do their best work when they’re unknown and struggling.

It’s often the challenge of making do with what you have that churns out masterpieces.

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27 comments on “Temples of sound”

    1. Weren’t the old Greek amphitheaters the first “temples of sound” featuring most astonishing acoustics? No furniture, no side walls and no ceiling but a live reflecting end (bare front wall seen from the audience) and a dead end (highly absorbing and diffusing rear end formed by the audience). 🙂 Thus the are only some simple but basic rules for a listening room, isn’t it?

    2. jazznut,

      I think that’s true. To me my room is the listening room, to my wife it’s the lounge. The walls aren’t flat, they’re broken up with radiators, the tv, a fireplace, pictures, doorways plus ornamental and functional furniture. Then there’s the carpet, curtains at both ends, three piece suite and of course the hi-fi which is a feature (it’s best feature) rather than blending in. Personally I would like to have a few less items in the room but that’s the compromise I make. Undoubtedly I’m used to the sound of the room and to me it sounds great. Those seeking a minimalist lifestyle would find it cluttered but it’s what I’ve got and have to work with it. One bonus, there’s so much stuff in it, there’s no room for any standing waves.

  1. On receiving an invitation from Paul’s son, I put up a photo of my system.
    I can’t remember seeing one Sound Temple among the hundreds of fellow audiophiles rooms. How reassuring. My audio FOMO; fear of missing out— the only embarrassing ONE among hundreds of perfect systems.
    It isn’t so. We’re all Normals. Mostly.

  2. Paul’s comment rings true since I lived through a transformation of my dedicated room after I got serious about doing something about it since I didn’t like the way it sounded. The problem wasn’t the gear but the ”arrangement” of furniture. I only have my Laz-A-Boy and two other chairs on either side, my large CD rack behind my sitting position which spans the whole width of that wall and a few small pieces on either length wise walls. I also have a piece of carpet (8 x 10) to catch floor reflections. I opened the ceiling (removed the gyprock) and exposed the main floor trusses which run across the width of the room acting like baffles. It also gives me an extra 8” of height after installing gyprock between the trusses. As for the expose electrical wires that were under the original ceiling gyprock my wife came up with a great idea; she wrapped he cables with a brown burlap type material and wound artificial vines, creating the look of greenery between the trusses. But like Richtea wrote; we make do with what we have. I’m one of the lucky to have a dedicated room, but I still had to do major mods to make it sound reasonably good.

  3. You can have decent sounding rooms in non-dedicated spaces but that same gear will sound better in a treated dedicated room. TV’s in the middle, glass window rooms, sofas in front of speakers, speakers pushed up next to the back wall, just don’t make good sounding rooms. I have had the luxury of having homes with dedicated listening rooms for 35 years now where I can place my speakers 7’ or 8’ out into the room from the back wall, have room treatments in all the reflection spaces without worrying if the room looks good or not to the wife. In the non-dedicated rooms, I purchase less expensive equipment and take the WAF into consideration, which can compromise the sound

  4. Those of us who are fortunate enough to drive this hobby to the architectural limit to which it can be taken, that is, to build a sound room exclusively (without video) for audio, like any unique work, is susceptible to intrinsic doubts.

    But, on the other hand, for the undertaking of a work of this nature, as for any other, there must be a certain accumulation of knowledge, without which it can only lead to failure. Being a certified civil engineer gave me the arrests to undertake the task of turning my dream of having a place where I can get the best possible out of my RS1-B.

    The room of yore, itself is based on the ancestral Golden Ratio, whose planes are NOT parallel to each other. Coincidentally it resembles (although not exactly) the Golden Trapagon by Cardas, proposed by him, many years after my construction. However, mine also removes Sharp nodes and the slap, associated with parallel surfaces. The decay is also exponential.

    Do not think that this is new, worse than I have invented it, it was already part of the knowledge of Sanskrit prosody.

    It is not my opinion that a sound room (that is part of a residence) has an industrial aspect, on the contrary, it must be a cozy place, for this, the walls of mine are profusely covered by oil paintings on canvas , which doesn’t need to be by Velasquez or Renoir, but which, along with overstuffed furniture, curtains, and rugs, gives it a homey feel that isn’t unpleasant, at least to me.

    This room is not my temple, it is my house, inside my house.

    1. To “graph” a little the idea contained in the first paragraph, (relative to the designers) when Von Karajan was approached about the Berliner Philharmonie (recently built) he replied: “It is a pity that I was not consulted before” This anecdote is well known to music lovers.

  5. I have a dedicated space for my system and vinyl and cds, however it does have the large compromise of a low ceiling. My Carver amazings span almost floor to ceiling, so i make the best of it and it sounds pretty good to me. The best part of the experience is being able to listen without distraction, totally focus on the music without getting in anyone elses way!

  6. To carry the Temple analogy further:
    The Temple – Multi-use Listening Area
    Holy of Holies (Inner Sanctum) – Dedicated Listening Room
    The Altar – Equipment Array
    Judgment Seat – Listening Chair
    Rarified Environment – Dim Lights, Glowing Tubes
    Arc of the Covenant – Shelf or Draw Containing Audiophile Guide
    Holy Spirit – Power Plant Regenerator + Source and Amplification Gear
    Voice of God – Loudspeakers + Subwoofers
    Sin – Distortion
    Blood Sacrifice – Family
    Tithe – 10% of Annual Income
    High Priest – Paul McGowan
    Heaven – A Place Better than the Temple
    Hell – A Bad Listening Room and Setup

  7. I guess I am part of the great unwashed since I have never had a custom build listening room. The only good thing that I have going for my system is that for the last almost 20 years the house in which we live my audio only system is in the great room which is a large open space with 11 foot ceilings. This has really helped to sound.

    I have an audiophile friend who is a a little younger and a lot richer than me is building their dream home in Vail Colorado and it will have a custom built listening room. Vail Colorado, I guess the above should read a whole lot richer than me.

  8. Also don’t have a dedicated room/building, but get lots of leeway with the “Great Room” area that opens to the dining and kitchen areas. Lots of room treatment (love my wife dearly for allowing this) and the sound is excellent. The advantage of incorporating the audio system in the central part of the house is that everyone gets to enjoy the great sound and socialize and discuss. When someone is very curious I ask if they want to sit in the “special listening position” on the couch equidistant from the Sanders ‘Stats and nearly everyone is quite astounded by how fantastic an audio system can sound.

  9. Mine is still only a drawing on a sheet of paper, since 1993.
    With walls that do not run parallel to each other & a high 12′ ceiling…(sigh!) 🙁
    But I’ve done ok with the ones that I’ve ‘inherited’ along the way 🙂

    1. Don’t forget to angle the ceiling slightly relative to the floor. Maybe with an off center, slightly (moderation is a virtue, if you’re into that sort of thing) non-perpendicular crease along the main axis.

  10. In my experience, even being in the business, few people that I have known built listening rooms.

    What positive things I have witnessed that stand out:

    Subwoofers near exterior corners, not just corners with another room or hallway outside.

    High or vaulted ceilings-

    Open doorways to the left and right side of speakers – either on the same plane of the speakers or the side walls toward the front speaker end of the room.

    Rooms that are not square ie 15’ x15’

    Oh and pop corn ceilings seem to help- the chunkier and the uglier the better, I would assume.

    Drop ceilings with acoustic tiles.

    These are some of the things I will look for if and when I move, but all rooms seem to be a crap shoot until set up and verified.

  11. I guess we are very lucky. Though we don’t have a “formal” room, we decided to remake the living room into a reading/music room. We do have couches, but the room is set up for the two-channel system. Equipment hidden, only the speakers, iPad and remote for the DAC are visible. There is some corner sound controls for a feeble attempt to control bass nodes. It works a bit. We have the baby grand there too. It is quite big but cozy room. Vaulted ceilings, non symmetrical, open to the dining room. Who uses “living rooms” nowadays?
    The second system is in the “open” family room to kitchen area. Also, very high ceilings, non symmetrical, thicker curtains on some windows, bookshelves on another wall. The equipment is a 5.1. It doesn’t sound as good as the 2-channel despite the Audyssey attempt, but it is great fo video and “informal” music. When you crank it up, it gets better. We can open the french doors to have music outside in our patio and garden.
    My office has some pro monitors set up for close listening. Amazing sound but they would never have enough muscle for the other rooms. Unless I used a bigger model or many of them together (plus subwoofers).

    Only my wife does not want/have a dedicated system for her music in her office. She comes down and plays in the 2-channel, or plays the piano. The guitars are in my office.

  12. One thing that might surprise people is that in asymmetrical rooms with asymmetrical furnishings, the tonal character of the left speaker may not match that of the right speaker, due to differences in room reflectivity and absorption. You may not even be aware of it, but if you play PS Audio Demonstration Disc and listen to Paul’s “left voice” and then Paul’s “right voice” you may hear a tonal difference in your room.

  13. Very recently I have made an investment into very modest audio equipment-first time in 45 years.

    A few audio sites have solicited pictures of users systems. As I look at images of systems many times the cost of mine, I find the majority have their equipment setup contrary to every suggestion Paul has in his recent setup book.

    So as I see speakers enclosed in bookshelves and others with their speakers placed almost against wall, it has me stop and realized my small setup might be on more firmer foothold than I first realized.

    I’m just happy to be a 1% of the 1% who want to hear more from the music they listen to. I recently read Neil Young’s, “To feel the Music” and his quest to get the music industry to go back to the way consumers use to be able to “feel” his music.

    I was lured into having thousands of songs on a device that fit in my pocket. For almost 30 years it was how I listened to the music of the 70’s and 80’s.

    But not anymore. Now it’s not only that music, but listening to other music. Finding PS Audio song list on Qobuz and streaming tracks Paul suggested one listen to to really “hear” their system has been invaluable. Hearing tracks by other artists I have never listened to prior has me really listening to music and hearing things I never heard on my mass consumer system.

    Life (Music) is Good.

  14. As a Manhattan apartment dweller in NYC, reality doesn’t afford me the space for a dedicated listening room. However, I’ve managed to place my Martin Logan electrostatics a decent distance from back and side walls, facing the length of the room so they have enough room to breathe and create a very good sound stage.

  15. Well, I have a dedicated room–for the past 20 years. Sometimes it has sound good, sometimes not so good. Experienced listeners reactions have always been a smile or “Wow!” but I I’ve never been fully satisfied until now.

    I’ve had lots of time available for the past year so I spent a good part of it making changes to my room. Now I’m satisfied–although that doesn’t mean I won’t hear something I don’t like in the future.

    The most critical change this year was getting my sub’s and other speakers’ phase correctly aligned using the Octave setup disk (even a tiny difference in phase appears to have a major impact on SQ). Other important changes: getting the distance from each pair of speakers the same within a half centimeter (I have 9 to be able to play Auro encoded music disks); using wooden jigs to set my listening position and toe-in on some speakers; and most important, listening critically and writing down what I heard so I could keep track of what I had tried and come back to an earlier setup it an experiment failed.

    Note that all these changes were to the room, not to equipment. Paying attention to any room–dedicated or not–is a) cheap (but very time consuming) and b) likely to yield better results that buying another piece of equipment.

  16. Take a small band.. A quartet, or trio. Have them play in your living room. Then have them play in your kitchen. Have them play in your basement . Attic? Have them play in a community center public room.

    They will sound different in every room. Musicians know this. Audiophiles are still catching on.

  17. Mine is not a Temple of Sound, more of a small, but nice personal shrine. It does have a fairly large number of attendants in the CD racks and the LP box. Plus a couple of stables of thoroughbred unicorns (SACDs in Schiit-speak).

  18. I vaguely remember reading an article in an old Audio magazine about live end-dead end listening rooms. Anybody know anything more recent, or did it turn out to be a dead end (yeah, redundant phrasing) theoretical concept?

  19. Having the resources to perfectly accomodate our sound systems is like many other things in life: if we waited until we had enough money to get married, buy a home, start a family they wouldn’t get done.
    We just have to get on with it and enjoy the life we can make without regretting what we can’t have.
    I enjoy favourite music even if its via MP3 in the car, Airplay at home, or hard-wired lossless cd/vinyl.

  20. I love the responses I get when new people come over to my home and look around my living room and say “ what the heck are those on your walls??”
    I kindly say, “ those are acoustic panels. They’re for sound treatment in the room.”
    Then the person usually says “ oh! I thought they were speakers.”

    Kills me every damn time. 😉

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