“Play the system, hear the room.” Those words resonate in my head as if spoken by some evil sorcerer bent on driving me crazy.
Those words, however they may be viewed, are an important catalyst in learning to understand the sonic presentation your system creates. If you think your room is not responsible for altering your sonic picture, think again, because that’s exactly what it does.
When I bought my new home in December of 2016, I was giddy with excitement. Not only because I had this new, big, beautiful brick home in a great neighborhood, but because I had, at long last, an audio room. Ok, the garage and the large kitchen were also nice, but my real motivation was the audio room. I tell people I bought a room and a house came with it.
When I first saw the audio room, aka the “bonus room,” I knew I would have some issues to address. Most prominently were two finished dormers on each of the long walls. My home is sort of “L” shaped with the garage sitting perpendicular to the road and the bonus room above. On each side of the roof that covers the garage and bonus room is a dormer. The upstairs, due to the finished bonus room, has slightly more square footage than downstairs.
Those two dormers were of particular concern. Cut-outs and alcoves are not ideal for audio rooms. However, because the long walls follow the roof pitch, at about 80” up, the side walls angle over at almost 45 degrees. Not so bad when it comes to standing waves. I had both good and bad. I felt like I could pretty much solve my main issues with room treatments.
After fitting the room with acoustical panels, things didn’t seem quite right. The center image was not really in the center, it was shifted slightly to the right. I had several songs with a low bass note when suddenly and inexplicably, the bass note was no longer there. Pfff… gone like the wind. That’s called a room mode, or my preferred term, “bass suck out.” I also noticed the imaging was better to the right of the right speaker than the left of the left speaker. I thought I was either losing my mind or my hearing needed to be checked.
As I sat one day trying to figure out who was to blame, the room or me, I got curious. I got out my digital measuring device and checked the distance between the side walls – particularly in the front, the area of image development. Three measurements, three different distances. I also noticed the dormers did not look to be the same depth. A quick pull of a tape measure confirmed my suspicions – one was four inches deeper than the other – I have no idea why. And here I was using those dormers as datums for measuring the side wall distance for each speaker.
Well, no wonder things didn’t sound right. My investigations were not yet finished. A trip downstairs to the garage for the four-foot level to check the plumb of the walls completed the story.
My walls are not built parallel, one side wall is not plumb, and my use of the side walls for speaker placement was wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course, things didn’t sound right, they weren’t. Builders don’t necessarily build walls to absolute perfection or for a two-channel audio system. That is the first realization when looking for a home with an audio room.
I decided to do things differently. I took a measurement of the distance from the outer wall of the left dormer to the same on the right dormer. I then found the center point of that distance and put a piece of duct tape (it sticks to carpet much better than painter’s tape) on the floor with a mark at the exact center point. Now I had a reference to measure from that point out to the left and right. That center point served as the initial reference point for side wall speaker distances.
Because the walls were not parallel, I moved the right speaker two inches closer to the front wall than the left speaker. And whadda ya know, the center image shifted to exactly the center and was no longer shifted to the right.
It took, of course, quite a bit of moving the speakers a few millimeters at a time to get things exactly where I felt like they sounded best. It took time. It took a lot of going from the listening chair to my hands and knees. It did not happen overnight. At long last, I now have very specific image placement, superior imaging in general, and things sound right. And since I’m the final judge on how my system sounds to me, I’m finally good to go. It should also be mentioned that there are many different correct ways to position speakers and a system in an audio room – mine is only one.
What about DSP? Could I not have accomplished the same thing with digital algorithms? Maybe. But I tend to be somewhat of a purist. I feel like DSP alters the musical signal. I’ll be vilified for saying so, but that’s OK. I prefer to work with the room and use room treatments as I feel they improve the sound after it leaves the speaker rather than before. I also listen to a fair amount of vinyl LP’s, so DSP is little more than pointless for that format. I need to get the room right first.
In any event, it is always a good idea to check the measurements of the room, not just where in the room speakers and subs are positioned. When you base your measurements on left, right and front walls without knowing and understanding the room’s empirical dimensions, you may find the sonics somehow seem slightly wrong – that little voice gnawing inside your head that something is amiss.
Know your room. Keep the sorcerer’s at bay. You might be surprised how much easier speaker set up can be – not to mention the sonics they produce.
Play the system, hear the room. Truer audiophile words have never been spoken.