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Q&A: Audio Expert Stirling Trayle Explains Room Acoustics, How To Optimize Audio Systems

Audiophiles understand the importance of room acoustics and set-up. But many do not fully understand how to accomplish a proper acoustical methodology for their listening environment. Stirling Trayle with Audio Systems Optimized is a leading expert in managing a room’s acoustics and optimizing an audio system for superior sound. His work takes place in the listener’s home on their system. Trayle has worked with clients all over the world to startling results, and his services have provided remarkable sonic improvements. Trayle recently answered questions from Audiophile Review’s Paul Wilson regarding room acoustics and sonic management techniques. 

Why is the room so important in achieving superior sonics from an audiophile system?

This is a pretty difficult question to answer. I’ve seen — and worked on — some of the most elaborate and expensive audio systems in the world. Many are situated in professionally designed and treated environments. But I also work with markedly less extravagant systems, placed in environments that could charitably be described as implausible. I’ve seen wildly successful and wildly unsuccessful results from both types of environments. The room is, of course, important, but how do we define that? In terms of a room’s sonic contribution, most homes allow for surprisingly excellent sonic results with very little acoustic treatment. Typical homes have irregularly shaped rooms, and are furnished with a considerable amount of items that can double as sound absorption and sound scattering devices. In this way, the everyday things in your space can serve as acoustic treatments — though not scientifically derived. So, a typical living space can often make for a good to great listening room. 

Often overlooked is looking outside the room, i.e., the influence of noise from outside the room, and that noise’s ability to permeate your space. This impacts how quiet a room can get. The quieter the noise floor of the room, the greater the dynamic range the system can achieve. Typically, it’s the low-level dynamics that we tend to mask most effectively. There are several standard and scientifically derived solutions for addressing room acoustics and noise floor. However, many professionally designed concert halls and consumer sound rooms worldwide do adhere to modern formulas and techniques, yet fail to provide a superior music experience. So yes, of course, the room is important. I’ll probably get a lot of heat for this, but I think we don’t yet have a complete enough understanding of sound propagation in rooms — and how that sound propagation correlates to the functionality of our ear/brain mechanism — to consistently design and build great music listening rooms. There is an “art” of room design, and because of the complexities involved, it goes well beyond simply measuring impulse response data. Tuning a room is a bit like building a musical instrument, and along those lines, we are still trying to figure out a Stradivarius!

What room mistakes do audiophiles typically make? 

Many audiophiles try to exert too much control over the energy in the room. Very often, I begin the speaker set-up phase of my services by removing as much of the existing room treatments as possible — eventually adding it back as needed, if at all. A little bit goes a long way, and it is all too easy to over-damp or kill the essential delayed energy our brain needs to build a complete picture of what we are hearing. I think that in an effort to cure what problems they are hearing, many audiophiles try to apply some imperfect scientific principles regarding acoustic treatment with a “more is better” mindset. My experience is that much of what they are trying to solve can be cured with a more in-depth understanding and implementation of the speaker set-up process.

Also, not addressing the AC line feeding the stereo system. By comparison to the price of most components, having an electrician install an appropriate dedicated line to the stereo system, while ensuring there is a low impedance ground from earth to the service entry, is the least expensive and best way to improve any system.

Which is better, DSP or acoustical panels? Or both? 

Most of my clients are “purists” — accordingly, they want to have as little electronic influence over the music as possible. I tend to concur, so for me, the better choice would be an acoustic panel solution. But additionally, in order to use DSP, in the context of addressing room behavior by altering speaker behavior, it would require a thorough understanding of the mechanics of sound propagation. As I mentioned previously, I do not think we have a perfect handle on this topic yet. Using DSP to create a particular environment or playback effect can be a lot of fun. However, DSP doesn’t necessarily allow for controlled, considered sound room creation.

What is an ideal size for an audiophile listening room? 

Bigger rooms and smaller rooms each offer their own set of unique challenges. A listening space with many tightly grouped room modes in lower frequencies will likely become problematic and difficult to control. If, as a consumer, you’re considering building a room, there are several room mode calculators available on the Internet you can check out. After you plug in your room dimensions, these will provide a breakdown of room modes. As soon as we begin to consider windows, doorways, HVAC, furniture, etc., the room node calculations can become skewed and extremely difficult to predict. Knowing the theoretical or general behavior of your room can be helpful with how to approach an existing room — like where not to put your listening chair. Keep in mind, though, that these calculators will only give you theoretical results — there are many considerations that will determine your sonic outcome. Interpreting the data one collects and how to apply it is very difficult to determine. 

Additionally, when determining the right room size, bear in mind that a big room has a great deal of air mass. Therefore, a big room requires significant system capabilities that can move such air mass. This typically means large speakers, powerful amplifiers, and a generous budget. A fairly common room size for a U.S. consumer might be something like 16 x 12 x 8. This size room is moderate in dimension and air mass and has nicely spaced room modes. A room this size shouldn’t be problematic for speaker placement, and the requirements of air pressure changes over a fairly wide band shouldn’t be too difficult for most competent full-range audio systems to achieve.

Which is better for two channel audio — a rectangular or square room? Why? 

Rectangular. A square room has powerful standing waves that are stronger and more difficult to control than those generally found in a rectangular room.  Since there are not too many square rooms in most homes, this would most likely be a room by design, to which I would ask, “Why?”

Do audiophiles pay too little attention to the room and too much attention to the equipment?  

Equipment is fun. Room acoustics, electrical systems, HVAC noise, flooring, windows, and doors are less fun. However, paying attention to these basic things can yield great rewards — and a much better return on your audio component investment. Today’s modestly priced audio components are capable of delivering very compelling performance improvements, even revealing that which is most exquisite about the music we love. But just as these components, handled with care, can help us become more truthful to the process of reproducing music, their neglect can reveal the issues we’ve failed to address in considering the basics. The more thoughtfully you consider the audio system as a part of an ecosystem — rather than the ecosystem — the more rewarding your music experience will be.

PAUL WILSON: There you have it, a thumbnail sketch for enabling your audio room and the musical presentation to sound their best from one of the leading experts in all of high performance audio. We thank Trayle for his time and for sharing a small slice of his years of knowledge and experience with our readers. 

For more information on services offered by Stirling Trayle, visit Audio Systems Optimized.

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