It's the Room, Stupid!

by Greg Graff
September 21, 2006 - 2007

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.