Do Listening Room Acoustics Matter?

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Do Listening Room Acoustics Matter?


We spend a lot of time worrying about the quality of our audio components or somewhat silly things like cables made from mithril.

People who spend perhaps too much time thinking about sound know that there is more to what you hear in your music than how good the sound systems itself is.

Many things can influence your perception of sound; some of which you have no control over. Of the factors we can do something about, the nature of the actual room you sit in is very important.

The way that sound bounces around your listening room before entering your ears has a dramatic effect on listening quality.

A Hard Knock Life

Yes, the sound that leaves your speakers does directly enter your ears but it also goes everywhere else; if you are listening in a place with more tiles than a bathroom, you’ll end up hearing a version of the music that’s unrecognizable compared to what the recording artist intended.

Luckily there is quite a lot you can do to a room that colors your audio in a way that’s undesirable. You can do it properly and buy some studio diffuser and absorber panels to create just the right amount of room reflection.

This is obviously optimal and I have some reviews of exactly those products up on this site, but there are more than a few reasons that you wouldn’t want to do this.

First of all, it’s expensive! Sure, individual panels may not be that pricey, but you need more than a few to make a real difference. It adds up quickly and you may end up spending as much as you did on your actual sound system.

The second reason you may not want to stick a bunch of foam pads on the walls is because it can ruin the look of your room. If you have panels on stands it also takes up room, so unless you have a room that you can completely dedicate to listening, an alternative way may have to be found.

Eye On the Prize

Regardless of how we achieve it, what exactly do we want the outcome to be? Acoustic treatment of a room, as it is known, is basically about controlling the way that sound bounces around a room before it reaches your ears.

While you may think that completely eliminating reflectance or “reverb” in a room is something you’d want, the truth is that there needs to be some level of reflectance present for a good listening experience.

Rooms with no reverb do exist – they’re called anechoic chambers. These special sound analysis rooms are eerie and if you’ve ever been in one you’ll know what I mean. Sound becomes dead in the air. There’s no life to it and certainly it’s not pleasant to listen to.

So when we treat a room acoustically it’s about getting the levels right.

Reverb is Good

In Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House, reverb is what brings the music to life. Those large concert spaces are carefully engineered to reflect and enhance the sound to make it epic and moving.

The relatively tiny room most people will listen to their music in has a very different relationship with reverb. Instead of widening and enlivening the sonic space, it ends up muddling and distorting the original sound as it leaves the speakers.

As I mentioned above, we need acoustic absorbers and diffusers to modify the audio experience in your listening room. If we can’t (or don’t want to) do that with specialist panels, we need to find another way to do the same thing.

Evaluation Form

To figure out whether your listening room is set up right you have to assess it for reflectivity. Usually a listening room has you sitting a few feet from your stereo speaks with them angled and spaced in a way that allows stereo separation to be clearly audible.

Tracing sound reflection is super complex and scientists and engineers have to create very complicated simulations to model it properly. Luckily for us, we don’t care about that; we only care about the PRIMARY, or first surfaces, that the sound bounces off. This is not too hard to figure out.

A wall, tile, or anything else with a hard surface is going to reflect sound to one degree or another. Soft objects such as carpets, wall drapes, or upholstered furniture is going to absorb some of it.

Use Your Imagination

So in your mind’s eye you have to imagine the sound radiating from your speaker in a spherical shape. That bubble of sound is going to expand through the air until it encounters an object in your room. Try to imagine where in your room that sound bubble touches first and you’ll have found your primary reflective surfaces.

These primary reflecting surfaces are the ones most responsible for reverb that destroys sound clarity. These are not the only places you should place absorbing or diffusing objects, but they are the most important.

Mix and Match

It’s not always easy to tell if a household object like a bookshelf or carpet will diffuse or absorb, but generally if it’s soft and thick, it will absorb. On the other hand, thin drapes will let the sound pass through, but diffuse it somewhat before it bounces off the wall.

There’s no hard and fast formula to figure out when you’ve done enough. As with most things in fine audio, you’ll have to use your ears to hear the difference. If you can’t hear any difference, chances are that you have to add more.

It looks like a 50/50 split between diffusion and absorption works pretty well, but don’t completely cover every surface with stuff. The whole point of taking this approach is to have the room look pretty normal but have it cleverly set up to optimize your listening experience.

Location, Location, Location

Remember that it’s not just about putting stuff in the room to curb reverb. You can also change the distance you sit from the speakers and the angle at which you set the speakers.

The most common advice I’ve seen is that you and the speakers should form a triangle, with you sitting at the corner with the sharpest angle.

The speakers should be a distance apart that’s 85% of the distance they are from you. This should mean that your corner of the triangle is 50 degrees. From this position, sometimes it helps to adjust and angle the speakers slightly to help cut down on reverb.

Also, depending on the room dimensions, it may even help to rotate your whole setup 90 or 180 degrees to avoid directly hitting bare glass or that one bare wall. When it comes to room acoustic treatment, there are many ways to skin a cat after all.

If you do feel like you want some professional treatment gear, head over to my reviews on acoustic paneling for some good ones.

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