The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXIV: The Listening Room
"You know Marc... he can never stay put."
My now 89-year-old dad said that about me to a full room of people a few years ago, and I was surprised when he said it. Sure, I do tend to move every few years but I don't want to be described by a parent as you know, the middle son, the one who keeps bouncing around the country for no good reason. One of my internet forum "adversaries" even accuses me of being constantly on the run from the law. No, my old suburbanite friend, I'm actually in a witness protection and every time you post this shoddy claim, I have to move again.
After more than four years in New York State, I have returned to the Pacific Northwest. I lived in Vancouver WA from 2007 to 2009, but now I'm on the Oregon side, living just outside of Portland. Colleen and I always talked about retiring somewhere in the PNW, although that's still a few years away. Nope, she got promoted and I can write this drivel from just about anywhere so I agreed on the change of scenery. In fact, I'm writing this right now from a hotel room while I wait for the moving truck to deliver my stuff. I've spent the last two weeks like this, staying in places that aren't my home, without access to my gear and my music.
Portland, however, is a great town for music. I'm happy to be back. I still do music reviews of PNW bands since I've stayed in touch with most of the publicists who work from here. Now maybe I can return to seeing live music whenever things return to semi-normal. There are many reasons to be a happy PNW audiophile--good high-end audio dealers, lots of industry friends and manufacturers in the immediate area, and one of my favorite record stores of all time, Music Millennium.
Yet something is stressing me out this very minute, as I write this. Will my new listening room sound as good as it needs to sound considering my current job? I normally get a little nervous about setting up a system in an unknown room, but that was sort of my job for eight years as an importer and distributor and high-end audio show exhibitor--I'd walk into an empty hotel room and set up an entire system in just a day. That begs a few more questions such as "What is my normal process when I move into a place sight unseen?" (video tours can be surprisingly uninformative, I've discovered). That's followed by "Have I just been really lucky in the last few places?" Finally, I arrive at "One day are you going to run out of luck when it comes to your listening room?"
By the time you read this, I'll have sorted it all out--for better or worse. But right now, I only have an empty room to look at, and all I can do is guess how this room will sound once everything is delivered. It's not a small room, which is good. It might even be slightly larger than the listening room we had back in Rochester, which managed to sound excellent. It's not quite the blank yet magnificent slate that the 24" by 18" family room in Colorado was, but at least I don't have to deal with those 12" ceilings I had in Texas.
What do I look for in a solid listening room in a new space? The first thing I do when I look for The Room in a new house is figure out where the speakers will be located. I'm an audiophile, and I want everything to sound its best, so I'm not as concerned about a practical, somewhat normal living arrangement (in other words, we don't keep pushing loudspeakers up against the back wall when we're not listening to music). My first task in The Room is locating The Wall.
The High-End Audio Wall can be a relatively rare beast. Recent architectural trends have leaned toward open floor plans dominated by a great room (lately, home designers have been making rooms smaller and squarer because they're more energy efficient). Unless you have massive loudspeakers and somewhat powerful amplifiers, there's a good chance you won't be able to land the low frequencies with your typical open floor plan. You'll need The Wall, and it can be tough to find it when there are plenty of windows, doors, high ceilings, fireplaces and other architectural flourishes that do nothing for good sound.
The Wall is ideal when it is long enough for speaker placement that's about eight feet apart and at least two or three feet from the side walls--which should be mirror images of each other (this is why I've grown to hate fireplaces, especially fake ones, because they break up the room). In other words, if there's a corner at one end and the plan opens up into another room at the opposite side, you'll have some tweaking to do. The Wall must also have at least two AC power duplexes to plug in all the gear--even though I use power conditioners and can work with a single outlet if needed.
There should be no doors or windows on The Wall, but if there is you'll need heavy curtains or drapes to cover the glass and other smooth, reflective surfaces. Finally, you'll need to allow for at least a couple of feet of empty space behind the speakers. In other words, the room needs to be big enough for all the stuff you want to put in it AND allow proper positioning of the speakers. That's not always simple.
Once I locate The Wall, I look at The Ceiling. Does it have acoustic treatment, or is it shiny and smooth? For the last few decades, people have been removing the old-fashioned popcorn ceilings in favor of a leaner, more streamlined look, but it's not good for the sound. Every time I've dealt with a smooth ceiling, I've had to add more room treatment devices--bass traps, corner traps, absorption and deflection panels. When I see a popcorn ceiling, I know that the room reflections will be easier to tame and hopefully eliminate. It makes me smile to look at that ugly mid-century cottage cheese-looking crap over my head.
The Floor is important, too. In Texas, we had slab floors, and they're probably the best. They're solid, they reduce vibrations, they support the weight of loudspeakers, amplifiers and even sound racks (I don't know how heavy my new Fern & Roby equipment rack is, but I can't move it without disassembling it first). Place heavy equipment on a slab floor, and you'll probably get deeper bass and a lower noise floor for your analog rig. It's all about stability.
Since I left Texas in 2013, however, I've had nothing but suspended wood floors. They don't absorb vibrations as well. You'll probably have to tiptoe up to your turntable to avoid the needle jumping out of the groove. Suspended wood floors are not ideal for high-end audio systems, but most homes have these types of floors these days so you'll have to work a little harder to get the same level of sound that a slab floor provides. You'll also need to level all the equipment, especially the turntable. Cartridges won't track the groove right and tonearms won't glide properly when the table is not level, which is something you can clearly hear. The hardest part is that the heavier your audio system, the more the weight will bend and warp the floors over time.
Obviously you can't get a perfect Wall, Ceiling and Floor every time. Once you've made your compromises and decided on a new home, you'll have to do your best and hope you can carefully tweak The Room over time. You've set up the system along The Wall, you've moved your speakers into the general area and now you're ready to deal with the rest of The Room. I start with the listening chair. It's not always a chair—sometimes, it's a couch. But it's The Spot where you will be doing your critical listening.
The Spot, in many cases, will form the third angle of an equilateral triangle that consists of the speakers. This triangle will vary in size and type according the how the speaker was designed, and how irregular the room boundaries are. In addition, The Room should not have square boundaries that can create standing waves and reflections in the room. Rectangular rooms are always best, although there is some lively debate about setting up along the short wall and the long wall. A perfect cube of a room is ideally the worst place to put an audio system due to all the reflections.
In fact, The Ideal Room lacks parallel and perpendicular surfaces. Think about slanted walls, or cathedral ceilings--this all helps to control room reflections.
That's what I look for in a listening room, an empty one that cannot yet tell me how it will sound once all my furniture has been dragged through the front door. Once the listening room has been mapped out, I can start the measuring tape rituals and hand-clapping and, of course, lengthy listening evaluations to extract the best sound possible from any particular room. But I have to start in that empty room, that blank canvas, and I have to be creative.
This room in this new place is sort of a mixed bag. It's fairly big, big enough to allow for a diagonal system set-up if I want. It has popcorn ceilings. Even though the room is on the second floor, the plasti-wood floors are laid upon a very solid surface that doesn't feel particularly soft or pliant. I've poked around in the corners and there seems to be a lot of concrete in the main structure of the building. That's good.
On the bad side, there are a lot of windows and The Wall is open on one end. I need to build an alcove with some piece of furniture. And, most importantly, I have no intelligence on the neighbors. Will they be assholes? It's happened before. That's what makes me nervous about the idea of starting over in a new room, but I can feel a growing excitement. This is going to be fun.
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