Listening Chez Wes
Doug Schneider was riffing off the
top of his head one afternoon, when he blurted, "Hey, I just had an idea! Now that
you've got a digital camera, why don't you write about your listening room?"
Why not indeed? After all, I chose my current residence
because of it -- and it does have a huge effect on everything I listen to.
When my wife was offered a job at NYC Technical College, we
were delighted at the prospect of moving back to New York. We had a nice house in the
north woods of Connecticut, and I'd turned the basement into about as fine a listening
room as I'd ever had, but we missed the city and that, as they say, was that.
So we figured it might take as many as four or five
weekends of concentrated looking, given our previous apartment-hunting experiences, and
started the search months before we intended to move. We spent a day out in Astoria,
Queens, figuring the combination of affordable rents and every variety of ethnic
restaurant known to man was hard to beat.
It was one of the most frustrating days of my life. We'd
walk into a realtor's office, fill out forms and then discover the agent had a few places
to show us -- if we wanted to return the following week. I have no idea why, but out of 10
or so realty offices we visited, only one was motivated enough to actually show us an
apartment to consider, and it was a warren of dark, cramped rooms; definitely not fun to
live in -- and just as definitely not suitable to an expansive listening experience.
So we hightailed it back to Brooklyn and pondered our
options. Our old Brooklyn nabe, Park Slope, had become phenomenally trendy (read: expensive)
in our absence, so we figured we needed to move further out. In fact, maybe we should go way
out and consider Bay Ridge, which is about as far in the direction of Staten Island as you
can go without actually getting on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We looked in the Sunday Times
and sure enough, there was an ad for a three-bedroom apartment in our price range right in
the center of Bay Ridge, so we called the realtor and went to see it.
Now, you have to understand that we never expected
to actually see that apartment. In our experience, whenever you called a realtor
about a specific, advertised apartment, it always turned out to be unavailable but, whaddayaknow?,
there was one sort of like it for just a few hundred dollars more. So we went out
to Bay Ridge quite prepared to be baited and switched.
Imagine our surprise when the realtor actually took us to
the advertised apartment! It was the upper floor of a pre-war duplex and we walked up the
stairs and into a huge, sun-dappled 12.5' by 26' by 10' room. Before even seeing that
there were other rooms, I said, "We'll take it!"
The eat-in kitchen proved adequate (actually, it's pretty
good for a NYC apartment, since it even has a pantry) and the bath and bedrooms are
decidedly on the small side, but we had that immense front room to work with, so we signed
on the spot.
The house features lathe-and-plaster construction, so the
room is solid and reasonably quiet. Its proportions aren't quite the Golden Mean, but
they're about as close as I dared hope. The room is carpeted with wall-to-wall, over which
we have laid a heavy area rug. Two walls (one side and the rear) are essentially covered
with record shelves, filled with records -- the best room treatment I know of. The other
side wall is dominated by bookshelves overflowing with books, which is a close second. The
lack of complete symmetry probably also helps keep the room from being too dead.
Records and books in shelves -- especially if you resist
the urge to stuff 'em into a solid mass -- break up the sidewall reflections. Think of
them as diffusers, if you want. No need to worry about my shelves being too orderly! My
technique of "organizing" recently employed software and reading matter by
stacking them on any close-to-hand surface also probably helps break up acoustic
Besides, I feel really comfortable in
rooms overflowing with books and records. That's one reason I love hanging out in John
Atkinson's listening room. It sounds good, yes, but all those books and records make me
feel at home. It's also the detail I remember best about visiting Michael Fremer's sanctum
sanctorum a few years ago -- to get into his basement lair, we had to wend our way
through a maze of LP shelves bowing under the weight of his constantly growing collection.
In three of my room's corners, I have stacked
16" Tube Traps bass traps. Behind the electronics, arrayed along the front wall, I
have two groups of three 9" Studio Traps. The rear wall is covered by records, with
one 9" and two 11" Studio Traps centered between the two banks of record
The combination of Tube Traps and records and books results
in a slightly dead, wonderfully linear-sounding room. The room is far from completely
dead, but completely flat surfaces are few and far between, so there's no flutter echo or
spitchiness audible. Sustained tones have a long, slow, natural decay and no single
frequency region seems unduly boosted. The room will support deep bass without boom or
even much in the way of a rattle -- god, I love lathe and plaster. I lived in a
McApartment complex in Santa Fe for six months where the sheetrock-on-aluminum-stud rooms
would ring like a bell at certain frequencies.
In our early days here, we split the room in half with the
sofa and sat in one half to listen to music, or the other for TV or movies. This retained
the acoustic benefits of having such a large space, but meant that for both music
listening and home theater, we were listening in the near field. This was ultimately
unsatisfactory, so we got rid of the sofa (bye-bye afternoon naps!) and rearranged the
furniture so we could move it from one end of the room to the other depending upon whether
we wanted to listen to music or experience home theater.
My wife generally sits in a knock-off
of an Ekornes Stressless chair, while my comfy chair is a Mission-style Barcalounger,
whose broad arms support a lap desk that enables me to use my laptop right in the sweet
spot. A few other occasional chairs, an oak rocker, and a well-worn wing chair provide
easily transportable guest seating.
Now, you're probably thinking that switching the room
around every time we want to change from music to HT sounds like a lot of work. It is --
but it allows me to set up the room optimally for hi-fi and HT. Remember, this is what I
do for a living, so of course I'm willing to do the work -- especially if it means I don't
need to rent an outside HT "studio."
And it works pretty well, while still preserving a modicum
of the illusion that the listening room/theater is also a functional living room, suitable
for entertaining. That may be the most important element of all. I don't totally buy into
the whole feng shui myth, but I do believe there are "good" (read:
comfortable, full of positive energy) and "bad" (read: unwelcoming, unfeeling)
spaces. Our living room is one of the good 'uns. Surrounded by records and books, it feels
welcoming -- and it's a good space to talk in. All those records, books, and room
treatments improve the comprehensibility of conversation, just as they aid the
articulation of my hi-fi.
What lessons could be transported from my room to yours?
Well, first off -- records and books go a long way toward making any room sound
good. However, some judicious room treatment, especially bass traps, almost always makes
things sound better.
Remember to always leave some empty space behind
your listening position. Sitting right up against a boundary will distort tonal balance
and rob your system of bloom. (Unless you are deliberately following Audio Physics'
near-boundary listening philosophy, in which case, nevermind.)
No matter what size your room is, pay attention to the
reflection points on your walls, the floor, and the ceiling. Unquestionably, you receive a
lot of reflected sound from all of these, but there are fairly obvious first-reflection
points where the sound from the speakers bounces directly off the wall and into the room. That's
where you do not want to place your listening chair because that early primary
reflection will arrive ever-so-slightly out-of-sync with the speakers' direct sound -- and
that sounds like the dog's breakfast.
If you have a small room, you'll probably have to place
your listening spot in front of the spot where the sidewalls directly reflect the
speakers' first reflection. This will give you tightly focused, very direct sound. That's
reasonably appealing; however, if you can, sit behind that point, but still well
away from the rear wall, and the sound will benefit from the room's natural bloom. That's
the sound I like -- and that's what I get from my current room.
And the most important thing is to keep moving stuff around
until the sound clicks into focus. My current placement scheme took me almost two years to
come up with, but dedicating one end of the room to hi-fi and the other to HT has improved
the sound of everything I listen to.
Last, don't stint on the comfy chair. I know guys who have
spent tens of thousands on their hi-fi, who sit in director's chairs for hours on end
listening to music. Director's chairs aren't comfortable; in addition, they tend to
position the ear too high for most speakers' tweeters. My Barcalounger puts my ear at just
the right height, especially when I kick back and recline in it. Even better, it feels mahvelous
-- all for less than some companies charge for a 1m interconnect!