Tesla famously said, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” These are the fundamentals of sound that we experience on a daily basis. Especially, every time we listen to music or enjoy movies. How these sound elements interact in an environment is what we call acoustics and within this subject, we will be dealing with the implications for you and your room.
Every room has its own sound and every surface in your room will reflect, diffuse or absorb sound to some degree. The combination of these interactions is what creates your “room sound.” You may notice that an empty room sounds quite different than a room full of furniture. This happens for the same reasons that clapping your hands in a parking garage and clapping your hands in your closet are two totally different experiences. The room shape, distance between walls, ceiling height and surface material all play a part in how the sound will react in the space.
Generally speaking, hard surfaces will reflect sound and soft surfaces will absorb it. When setting up your room these are important things to consider, especially if you just dropped some cash on a great set of speakers. To get the most out of your investment you’ll want to make sure the environment your speakers are in will do them justice.
You wouldn’t point a spotlight at your TV while watching it would you? The equivalent can happen on a sonic level if you’re not careful. The primary concern will be controlling reflections, as they wreak the most havoc with room sound. It’s not that reflection is necessarily bad, after all that’s what makes a concert hall sound so good. But, most homes don’t have great sounding rooms designed for listening. So, we just want to tame them because highly reflective rooms tend to sound overly bright and unbalanced.
If you have a choice of rooms, choose one that is not square. A square room tends to have more issues with standing waves and other harmonic distortions due to all the walls being parallel. This can cause certain frequencies to resonate more and others less, creating an unbalanced sounding room. A rectangular space is a considerable improvement acoustically, while an oddly shaped room can be even better. Having different angles will help to naturally diffuse the sound as well. Also, be aware that high ceilings can greatly reduce the effectiveness of bass in the room. So, if you’re endowed with epic vaulted ceilings, you might need to employ multiple subs to effectively spread the bass throughout the room.
Here are 5 things you can do to help cut down on unwanted reflections:
Laying carpet will drastically improve your space. Since hard surfaces are your enemy, removing the giant one below your feet is quite advantageous. Have you ever been to a movie theater without carpet? Me neither. But, if you aren’t able to swing a full wall to wall shag-job, a few strategically placed rugs will serve you well. You’ll mainly want to focus on open areas of the floor, especially between your sitting position and the speakers. This will help clear up dialogue from the center channel that can be muddied by floor reflection. Use as thick a rug as you can, when it comes to maximizing the effectiveness of this technique.
We all love vitamin D, but if you have windows in your room you’ll want some heavy curtains to block those horribly reflective windows. The bright slappy reflection off of glass produces a very poor acoustic environment. Plus, if you have thin single-pane windows, every bird tweet or car that drives by will infiltrate the movie you’re watching. Curtains will help curtail the poor reflections and minimize extraneous sound from outside. Some movie theaters even use curtains along the walls to help control reflection there as well. For sonic purposes, the heavier the curtains, the better. Besides, who needs all that nuclear-fusion radiation glaring up your widescreen.
Once you have carpet down and curtains up, it’s time to position all your stuff. If the room is rectangular, it’s a good idea to put the TV and front speakers along the short wall to maximize projection. Your mix of furniture and décor will also aid in controlling any rogue reflections. Couches, chairs, plants, animals, etc. can be very effective in this, but again remember that large hard surfaces are the biggest problem areas. So, avoid the large ceiling mirror and the 40 x 60 glass framed image of My Little Pony. If you have an enclosed room with a door, consider replacing the cheap hollow door with a more solid one that seals. This will not only help prevent the theater sound from escaping the room, but it will help keep outside noise from adulterating your listening experience.
It might seem odd, but bookcases make very good sound diffusors. Having multiple small reflective surfaces (books) in an irregular pattern will help scatter the sound and prevent direct reflection. A perfect place for this is on the wall behind the sitting position, but a side wall can work well too. This might not be a good solution for anyone who’s heavily OCD and likes to evenly line up all their books. You’ll need to make sure you position the books so they protrude at varying levels to ensure the sound has variety of small surfaces to reflect off of. The magic here is in the physical unevenness of the collection, not just their eclectic content. By using this method not only will you diffuse some of those pesky reflections, but you’ll look way smarter by owning some books.
#5 Acoustic Panels
Using dedicated sound treatment is very effective. The problem with this usually involves aesthetics. Most people don’t like having pieces of foam or fabric hanging in their living room, but there are many companies that make canvas looking panels that can have printed artwork on them. That way you can have your sweet childhood paintings hanging on the wall and soak up some of those bad reflections. Most companies like GiK, Acoustimac and Auralex will even help you make a treatment plan if you provide them with your room setup. Plus, there are lots of articles that will advise on techniques for the proper placement of room treatment. With all this being said, let’s be clear that you don’t need to overdo it. With everything mentioned in this article, you may only need a little bit of dedicated absorption material.
Balance & Harmony
Having covered many ways to help bring your room to the level of sonic nirvana we all desire, we have keep in mind that our setup often involves compromise. Most people don’t have a dedicated theater room, so they are dealing with a multifunction space that needs to maintain a general aesthetic appeal. Although the perfect acoustic environment may not be possible in most scenarios, with a little creativity you can at minimum bring a horrible room up to an acceptable level. Once you’ve identified the trouble spots and addressed them as effectively as possible, one of your last steps is to run the on-board room correction software on your receiver. While it’s a good practice to let your ears be the ultimate judge in determining your final settings, using something like Audessey (or whichever room correction you have) can pick up and adjust for acoustic anomalies that couldn’t be addressed physically in the room. Again, don’t treat these settings as an end-all-be-all (we don’t want the machines taking over!), but as a good reference point. This is the time to really let your ears guide you to the “promised land” making any final tweaks that are necessary. Time and patience are your friends here, so have fun, be creative and enjoy the fruits of your labor by basking in a well-trained room filled with the luscious auditory emanations of your favorite speakers.