The following series of articles by Rives Audio is being published in collaboration with PFO as a means to address the issue of the "room" and how best to maximize your musical pleasure.
A Perfect Room?
"What is the perfect media or listening room?" I get asked this question quite often. It's frequently phrased more like this: "If money were no object and I could do anything, what would be the perfect room?" My response is usually something on the order of "It depends." And that's very true, it depends on a lot of things, but mostly it depends on the client. There are so many facets that go into the listening room, and the most important is the desires of the client. I have a pretty good idea of what my perfect listening room would be like, and I can almost guarantee that it would not the same for many clients. Most people are surprised by my answer. The say, "No, come on, really, what's the perfect listening room." So, I have to explain to them, how it is different depending on the desires of different people. I decided this would be a good topic for this month's column.
I always like to compare our job of reproducing music to that of producing music. The challenges of reproducing music are very different from producing, but it's always good to go back to the source—the production of the music and what happened there to understand what is likely to happen when you try to reproduce that experience. So let's take a look at venues for producing music. There are symphony halls, opera houses, jazz clubs, concert halls, stadiums, coliseums, auditoriums, grundge rock band basement bars, recording studios, recital halls, and the list goes on to just about infinity. Now, what are the differences for these venues? There are many ranging from type of music, type of instruments, number of people in the audience, and sound reinforcement (which almost makes it reproduction rather than production).
So why is this important? In sound reproduction we should capture the original event. That's the goal, whether it's a symphony, chamber music, opera, jazz, rock, rap, hip-hop, or techno, we aim to capture the event. Is it really possible? Have you ever walked passed a bar and immediately known: "That's live music in there". It's immediately obvious. You don't have to see the band, you don't have to even be in close proximity, but you can hear that it's live and not a reproduction.
The main reason for this is the mixing used to produce commercial CDs or LPs. Particularly in the bass a fair amount of compression is commonly used so that when played back at moderate levels all the instruments and vocals can be heard. In a live event, there is much less, often no compression used.
Now let's go back to the listening room—the perfect listening room. Is there only one perfect listening room? Well for you there might be, but it's possible there isn't. We once had a client that came to us with a dream of building 4 different listening rooms, all with very high end equipment and all very different. One room was for symphonic, one for jazz, one for vocals, and one when he wanted to rock the house. This man loved music—all of it. He was not afraid to spend the money to have multiple rooms to be optimized for each type of music. When he first contacted us, I thought—this is crazy 4 rooms. Why not put all the money into one super home theater and one awesome 2 channel room? Clearly money was not an issue here. After spending quite a bit of time and interviews with this client I began to understand his depth for the passion in this hobby. It wasn't about having a whole bunch of rooms, it was about having an optimized environment everything from size, to lighting, for each mood for each type of music. One of the rooms was to actually be quite small and intimate, while others were to be quite large and seat 10 people. This was early on in our company's evolution, but it was a very quick awakening and appreciation for the variations on what may be the perfect listening room.
Now let's go to your home. Do you have more than one system? I do. I'm not going to admit how many I actually have—so don't e-mail me and ask. All serve a different purpose and when I was purely in this hobby I didn't even really realize what I was doing. My reference system was simple. I knew what I wanted and I designed the room and the system to deliver it. But what about the other systems. I didn't realize that the family room system created a wonderful jazz and chamber music background—not consciously anyway. But now, I realize that was sub-consciously my goal and I did achieve it. So, what are your multiple systems like? Yes, even those computer speakers. They too serve a purpose, the question is, do they serve it well?
So what are the parameters of "the perfect room?" What would the perfect room be for you—or is there one? Do you need multiple rooms to deliver what you are trying to achieve? Here are some things to think about. Do you listen to a broad range of music from solo female vocals to hip-hop? How many people listen in your room? How loud do you listen to music? What draws you into the music—the micro dynamics of the rosin coming off a bow, or the macro dynamics of the bass drum causing your chest to beat?
You've probably listened to many speakers. Some have strengths and some have weaknesses. Horns tend to be dynamic, while planar or electrostats have inner detail. This is not to say that electrostats can not have dynamics, nor is it to say there is not a horn with good micro dynamics and inner detail. Rooms are similar in that they can have strengths, balance, or weaknesses. A larger room can deliver better imaging and more uniform bass response. But a smaller room will give better bass impact at the expense of not being as even in all places.
One of our clients wanted the ultimate room—a cost no object objective. He listened to everything, but he only wanted the room to seat 1 to 3 people. One of his comments to me was: "I want the symphony to have the expanse of a real symphony, but I don't want Diana Krall's head to be 6 feet wide." That comment was really apropos. We came up with a design that actually changed the acoustics in the room to optimize for different music and different sized sound stages.
So you want the "perfect room"? Would Pavarotti sound right in a jazz club? Would a symphony sound good in a basement? What do you want your room to do? Since I know you will ask. Mine will seat 3 people. It will not be terribly large and will be optimized for jazz and vocals. My symphony will be smaller than a real symphony—but that's okay for me. What's more important—is what is important to you. What do you want your room to do?
If you are planning to design or have someone else design a room for you, you should know the limitations and obstacles, such as those mentioned in this article. Ask questions about what can be expected and what the likely biggest obstacles are. Most of us do not have unlimited space or resources, and even if we did, there are still issues and obstacles that always have to be overcome. The more you learn, the better prepared you can be to ask the right questions and insure that the design for you will be your perfect room.
Please visit www.rivesaudio.com, who has provided this series of articles on acoustics. Rives Audio is the leading consulting and design group for small room acoustics and has an extensive resource section where you can learn more on acoustics as well.