Advice Articles

Optimizing the Sound of Your Room

The acoustic characteristics of your room and the placement of the speakers within it have a far greater effect on the quality of the sound you will hear by changing any single piece of electronic equipment. While acoustics can be a confusing subject, and extensive room treatments and alterations can cost thousands of dollars, there are a few simple, inexpensive things you can do to maximize the performance of your room and setup.

There are three important phenomena of room acoustics: room modes, reflections, and wall resonance.

Room Modes
(also known as standing waves) are a function of the dimensions of your room and create uneven bass response throughout a room. To hear the effect of standing waves, play a CD with deep, sustained bass. Unless you are one of a lucky minority, you will hear the bass loudness go up and down as you walk around the room. Where there is more bass and where there is less bass is a function of the dimensions of the room and your speakers' placement. The closer your room is to being a cube (equal length, width and height), the more uneven the bass response will be. If you live in a cube shaped room, move. For the rest of you, keep reading for advice that will help you minimize room mode problems.
Reflections
are just that, reflections of the sound off walls and other objects. Reflections are not bad per se. You just want to avoid strong, coherent reflections. Strong, coherent reflections will color the sound, make the system sound bright, and ruin any chance of getting lifelike imaging. If you have ever heard a sound system in an empty, hard-walled room, you know what we mean. The reflections you have to deal with the most are those that happen within a few feet of the speakers.
Wall construction
will also effect the sound of your system. Walls can act as big resonating panels that can add boomy coloration to the sound. Bang in between studs on the center of a long wall in your listening room. The odds are good that the wall will vibrate and make a booming noise. Sound waves from your speakers will excite the natural resonance of the wall in much the same way. If your room walls are either 1/2" drywall or wood paneling the effect is even more pronounced.

Placement

Speaker and listening positions will have an enormous effect on the sound of your system. We don't have room in this issue to fully explore this topic, but we can give you some general advice.

If your system uses a subwoofer, the main stereo speakers should be placed at least two feet (farther is better) from walls, especially the wall behind the speakers to get the most natural midrange and most open imaging. Optimize your subwoofer placement for smoothest, deepest bass response by following the advice in our subwoofer placement article in issue #3 of The Speaker Specialist (call 800-223-5246 to get a copy).

If your system does not have a subwoofer, vary the speakers' distance from adjacent walls until you get the best balance between bass impact and midrange clarity.

Avoid equal distance placement. A speaker's distance from the front wall (the wall behind the speakers) should not be within 33% of he distance from the side walls. For example, don't place a speaker 24" from the wall behind and 24" from the side wall. If the speakers are 24" from the side walls, place them at least 32" from the front wall.

Avoid placing your listening chair up against a wall. The sound will be artificially bass heavy and boomy. The best spot is at two-thirds of the length of the room. If that isn't practical, move your chair at least a foot away from the wall. If you must have the chair close to the wall, move your main speakers and subwoofer farther away from walls.

Room Treatment

You can minimize bad reflections by placing your speakers far away from walls and by absorbing or diffusing the reflections.

The first thing to do to improve the sound of your room is fill it with stuff. Any kind of stuff: books, furniture, drapes, knick-knacks, paintings. The stuff can be soft, hard, big, little; it hardly matters as long as the stuff isn't flat like the walls. The more irregular the wall surfaces, the greater the diffusion of reflections and the better the sound. Do whatever you can to break up large expanses of bare, flat walls and windows, especially the areas near the front speakers.

The most critical areas to treat are the walls behind and alongside the front speakers and at the first reflection points along the side walls.

To find the first reflection spot, sit in the main (center) listening position and have a friend slide a hand mirror along the side wall at tweeter height. When you can see the nearest speaker in the mirror, you have located the first reflection spot. Treat that area, and the wall opposite, with either sound absorbing materials (drapes, tapestry, or professional materials - see resource list below), or sound diffusing materials (irregular surfaced furniture, broad-blade wood blinds, or better yet, RPG diffusers). If you want to eke out a little more performance, treat the second reflection spot. Have your helper slide the mirror farther down the side wall until you can see the opposite speaker in the mirror. That's the second reflection point.

Most rooms/systems don't need ceiling treatment, but if your speakers are within three feet of the ceiling, treat the first reflection spot on the ceiling (in front of each speaker) with absorbing material. If your floor is not carpeted, place a thick area rug (with pad) in between the speakers and your listening position. If you have any large expanses of glass in the room, use heavy drapes to absorb, or shutters to diffuse, the reflections.

If the wall behind you is a wide, flat, empty wall, treat it with diffusing material. Generally, you want to have absorbing materials in the front half (the end your TV and front speakers are in) and diffusing materials in the back half of the room. Resist the temptation to over-damp your room with too much absorbing material. An overly dead room will sound dull and lifeless with little sense of spaciousness.

To minimize the effects of room modes (standing waves) you can add bass traps in the corners of the room. Start with the corners behind the front speakers and add traps to the rear corners if needed. There are several commercially available bass trap products from companies like ASC and RPG that are quite effective. If you are very ambitious, technically minded and tight with a buck, both F. Alton Everest's "The Master Handbook of Acoustics" and Robert Harley's "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio" describe how to build bass trap devices. Homemade bass traps are difficult to build correctly. The commercial traps are effective and look nice. Stop being a cheapskate and get the real deal.

Treating Boomy Walls

If the knuckle test tells you that your walls are resonating (we'll bet they are) you have a couple of options. The first is to replace the original wall material with heavier material like 5/8" or 3/4" drywall. That involves a lot of hard work and/or money. Widescreen Review Audio Editor Richard Hardesty developed a more practical solution that any do-it-yourselfer can easily and cheaply make. This clever device also doubles as a reflection-absorbing panel.

"Absorptive material was applied to the walls from floor to ceiling beside and behind the speakers and along one side wall. I used multiple 2x4-foot by 1-inch thick Owens #705-rigid compressed fiberglass panels glued directly to the wall surfaces between a stiffening frame made from 2x2-inch pine studs. The 2x2s were attached to the wall with drywall screws through the sheetrock and into the interior studs. Each of these 2x2 frames included two vertical and three horizontal studs to prevent the drywall from flexing. I covered these framed panels of compressed fiberglass with designer fabric and finished the edges using mahogany molding. This damping method serves a dual purpose: it absorbs reflected energy at frequencies above 200Hz and prevents the storage and release of low frequency energy by the flexing of the drywall panels."
Excerpted with permission from Audio Perfectionist Journal Issue #2 Copyright? 2000 R.L. Hardesty

What About Equalizers?

Some audio enthusiasts and professionals believe that equalizers can solve room acoustics problems. An equalizer is a tone control device that is divided into many bands. Polk speakers are accurate enough that they generally do not need external equalization. However, equalizers can be very useful tools if you have difficult acoustics to deal with. Equalizers are best left to be calibrated by a professional with the proper tools and knowledge. Improper equalization will result in very poor sound, in many cases even worse then no equalization. Equalization is no substitute for proper placement and room treatment.

Room Treatment Resources

Materials

Common household decorations and materials, such as drapes and bookcases, make effective sound absorbing and diffusing tools. But sometimes professional, purpose-designed products are the best solution. Many companies make room treatment materials. Some of the more popular brands appear below. These materials are often expensive, but with judicious placement, a little material will go a long way.

RPG

Specialists in sound treatment materials of all types, RPG offers everything from home audio room treatment kits to professional materials found in concert halls and recording studios.
Phone: (301) 249-0044
http://www.rpginc.com

Sonex

Sound-absorbing foam sheets and ceiling panels.
Phone: (612) 520-3620
Fax: (612) 521-5639
http://www.mhtc.net/~lowey

ASC

Various room treatment materials including bass Tube Traps (bass traps) and Sound Planks and Sound Panels (absorbing panels).
Phone: (800) 272-8823
www.tubetrap.com

Acoustics First

Various acoustical treatment materials.
Phone (804) 342-2900
www.acousticsfirst.com.

Owens Corning

Acoustical wall systems.
www.owenscorning.com

Information Sources

The Master Handbook of Acoustics (Third Edition) by F. Alton Everest (McGraw-Hill 4408). This book is very technical, but if you want to know nearly everything there is to know about acoustics, this is the book to get. Audio Perfectionist Journal by Richard Hardesty, (particularly issue #2) available by subscription from www.audioperfectionist.com. The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley (Acapella Publishing 800-848-5099).

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This article was last modified Jul 22, 2014

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