The State of Sound

AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE

The weakest link

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They are keeping things from us – that could be a good summary of this blog post. Indeed, when you start looking into HIFI systems, you will hear a lot about components, speakers, and cables. However, the space in which you will be listening to your sound system is rarely mentioned. Those who sell HIFI products are often rather quiet when it comes to this topic because only a poor salesperson would tell a potential customer that a system’s sound may be very different in his or her living room. Yet, some speaker manufacturers, like Focal, do not fail to remind consumers that “the listening experience generated by a HIFI system depends in large part on the acoustic properties of the listening space.”

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This Friday, I am therefore the bearer of both good and bad news for those of you who are wondering about how to approach sound reproduction in your home.

Let’s start with the bad news: you are going to have to set aside the beautiful memories of the incredible listening experiences that you had on the sales floor and accept the fact that you will obviously never be able to attain the same level of sound quality in your living room.

The good news is that you do not need to whip out your checkbook in order to work on or improve the performance of your hifi system, as long as you take the time to reflect on your current set-up and commit to making some changes to your listening space. That said, there is no need to transform the latter into a sound “bunker.”

I can already see that some of you frowning, so let’s be clear: the use of low-quality components or components that are poorly matched will never produce good results even in a sonically balanced listening space. In contrast, it is very easy to spoil the output of an excellent system if this oft-neglected weak link in the performance chain, the space in which your system will be used, is not taken into consideration. Of course, accounting for your listening space does not mean that you should forget about the other links in the chain, such as supplying your system with power, a topic I will touch upon in a future post.

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Setting up your listening space: traps and tips

I talked to Samuel Harsch, an acoustics expert from Lausanne, Switzerland, about setting up a listening space. He stated, “A poorly conceived listening space can lessen the quality of sound produced by a system and reduce the system’s performance by up to 80%. First, you should use a closed room. The more open a space is, the more complicated its acoustics are going to be. Ideally, you also want a rectangular room. The most common acoustic problems result either from too much reverberation or from overly dominant low frequencies that affect bass clarity and definition by generating a hum.

Reverberation issues are easy enough to fix because too much reverberation just means that you need to do a better job of damping your space. You should therefore avoid rooms with too many overly reflective surfaces, such as windows, bay windows, bare walls, or tile flooring. Experts recommend setting up your system in a room with “softer” floors (carpet, sisal, or rugs), covering any windows with curtains, and furnishing the room. The furniture will help muffle sound; sofas and armchairs are good dampers. However, be careful. You want to find the right balance because filling the room with too many sound-absorbing objects will lead to a sound that is dull and flat. For example, shelves that are not overfilled can act as good diffusers.

Eliminating low frequencies is a more complicated problem to solve. You will have to install absorbent panels called “Bass Traps,” whose mechanical properties result in the frequencies being “swallowed up.” However, these panels are often large in size and not exactly discrete; installing them requires the help and support of specialists.

0511-1007-0917-3658_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Horrified_Woman_clipart_imageThe living room: negotiating a compromise

When setting up your hifi system, you have to deal with the limitations of your listening space to the best of your ability. These limitations may also include the use of the space by other family members. I am sure that some of you have already heard the following comments:

–  I don’t want those speakers in here. They are ugly and too big!

– You can’t seriously be thinking about putting those HUGE speakers that far away from the wall?

–  Do you really need all those cables? (Those that sell fantasies and wireless speakers can look forward to a profitable future given this common complaint)

position speakersBest speakers placement

A few months ago, I was shocked by the difference in the acoustic properties of my living room after I simply moved the piano a few meters. I therefore strongly urge you to give it a try; moving around your furniture can be very effective. The placement of your speakers is also key. They should not be placed too close to any angles or walls. If they are, they may end up causing unwanted resonance in the room and artificially increasing the bass. On the other hand, if the bass is too weak, you can try to move the speakers closer to the walls to improve the balance.

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Certain manufacturers have picked up on the fact that speakers are often placed too close to walls and have designed their products accordingly. Some of their models can be placed right next to or even hung on the wall, as is the case for the EMP Nano “flat” speakers made by Jean-Marie Reynaud; the small speakers Folia can be installed like regular bookshelf speakers or also hung on the wall.

For those who want to explore acoustic correction even further, check out this web site: http://www.lafontaudio.com/criteres.htm

I have just started putting together my first 100% Made in France hifi systems. You can see my progress and some of the steps on my Facebook page. For now, I have three amplifiers and CD players (Atoll and Micromega), four pairs of speakers (Focal and Davis), and three pairs of modulation and speaker cables…as well as three different listening spaces. More is to come…

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