Tonight instead of reading
about and lusting after the latest great audio product
reviewed in Stereophile or The Absolute Sound, try
tweaking your listening room instead. You will probably
get better sound than if you added that latest great
piece to your system and still get some of the same
satisfaction of upgrading your system. The only thing
you won’t get is the ego boost and
bragging rights of saying you just spent thousands of
dollars on the next great ______ (fill in the blank);
but you also won’t get the bill.
Many years ago I figured
out a way to keep off the upgrade spiral while still
having a good sounding system. Instead of investing
$X,XXX (or $XX,XXX) on the latest___________ (fill
in the blank), I have opted to spend an order of magnitude
less and tweak my room. The room and your system setup
will dictate to a far greater degree what sound you
get than what equipment you put in your system. This
of course assumes you have reasonably competent equipment
to start with. You can’t make
a mid-fi system sound like high end no matter how good
the setup. However, I have heard very expensive systems
sound like mid-fi since those people didn’t have
a clue as to how to setup systems in a room.
Some audiophiles will
spend 30 or 40 hours setting up their system in a room,
most spend more like two or three hours. Over the past
5 years I have spent well over a 1,000 hours (OK, so
I don’t have a
life outside of audio and golf) trying to get a sound
back in my room that I had before I “upgraded” the
room with new flooring and carpet. I learned an important
lesson: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
My sound room is less than optimal, but
through various sound treatments (which I built myself)
and excruciating attention to detail, I am able to get
very good sound from my system. The one advantage I have
is that I have a dedicated room and no wife. I can do
whatever I want in the room without having to worry about
how it looks or the sound changing because something
else was added to the room.
While a dedicated room
is best, you can still get good sound from a room in
which you must not only listen but also live; however,
you do have to have an understanding wife that will
allow you to rearrange furniture to meet music rather
than visual aesthetics (is there such a woman out there?).
One thing that is common in all of the rooms I have
helped set up is that changing the position of things
along the room boundary will always have noticeable
(good or bad) effects on the sound. Additionally, for
those of you who have your equipment between the speakers,
try moving various pieces of equipment on the rack
around. You don’t have
to move different equipment to different shelves, just
try moving one of the pieces slightly forward or back
or side-to-side on the existing shelf. Try setting it
at a slight angle to the back wall. All of these changes
should provide at least slight changes in the sound;
some may provide very significant changes.
I firmly believe that
only after you have optimized your system to your room
should you look at “upgrading” the
system. Because you will get a variety of sounds by changing
your room, you will get a better understanding of what
your system is capable, and,more importantly, what your
listening biases are. With your room as a constant, you
can make far wiser equipment decisions that complement
your listening biases rather than make up for room deficiencies.
Two hints on upgrades. First, except for
CD players and wire, what was state of the art 20 year
ago is still very good today. Most of the changes in
audio have been small increments, not orders of magnitude.
Second, different does not equal better.
I do wish to provide
a word of caution in optimizing your room. Something
happened the other week that was counter-intuitive
but brought home the importance of listening to a variety
of sources before optimizing the sound in your room.
I had purchased the soundtrack to “Marked for Death” for a song
by Jimmy Cliff (the only good thing about the movie).
After paying $35 for a used CD because the soundtrack
is now out of print (PT Barnum was right, there’s
one born every minute), I was eager to play it in my
system. I cleaned the CD and degaussed it, placed it
in the CD player, and sat back to enjoy- wrong, it sucked.
It sounded worse than when I heard it over satellite
on my video system- lifeless, boring, and uninspiring
were the words that came to mind. I understood that this
was not going to be a reference quality recording, but
I was not prepared for how bad it sounded.
I decided that I would try to tweak the
room some more using Jimmy Cliff as a reference. After
about 4 hours, I got the recording sounding pretty good,
at least to the level I had expected when I first got
the recording. I then went back to my standard 5 reference
recordings and found that I had overblown images and
some nasty peaks in the upper midrange. I then went back
to the Jimmy Cliff recording and started making more
room changes. I ended up with a little less liveliness,
but a pretty good soundstage with three-dimensional instruments.
I then went back again to my 5 reference recordings and
found that they sounded better than before I got the
Jimmy Cliff recording.
The results of this
were counterintuitive to my previous thinking. I had
always assumed you wanted to take 4-5 of your best
recordings and use those to optimize the room; however,
based on this last experience I am beginning to think
that you should also include recordings that are not
quite to reference level as well as reference level
recordings when trying to optimize the room. I am beginning
to think that while reference recordings are well done,
they may be “too” well
done to truly show the flaws in your system set up. You
need to have other, lesser recordings to help show where
system changes are needed.
Optimizing your room is work and takes
time. Room changes will not always be positive. Many
times it will feel as though you are taking one step
forward and two steps back with every room change. However,
ultimately, your system and sanity will be better off
as a result.