Quick, what’s the single best upgrade you can make for your dollar to improve your audio system? Better speakers? A new amplifier? The latest DVD? Thicker, better cables?

While any of those choices may be your inclination, and your local component dealer can flood you with colorful literature and mind-dazzling bench test data to persuade you, experts agree: None of the above. In virtually every home theater, media room or listening room, nothing will matter more than improved room acoustics!

Want proof? Go to any well-outfitted audio showroom and listen carefully to differing systems side by side. How hard is it to tell a difference, especially with systems priced similarly? Next, visit two locations demonstrating the same system. One will sound remarkably better because the room acoustics are naturally better in one of the rooms. Therein lies the explanation of why, so often, a customer buys the system of their dreams, gets home, sets it up? and is disappointed. It doesn’t sound as good as it did in the store.

Bench test data will also bear this out, if you know how to interpret the data. So often one component will appear superior to another on paper, but in reality, how does the human ear respond to the apparent gains from one to another? Too often the difference is simply too minor for the human ear to detect. But compare data on dialogue intelligibility or early reflections and you’ll see that even small gains can be very significant.

Acoustical engineers generally agree that 15% – 20% of the cost of any system should go into room acoustics.

Acoustical Treatments

The more savvy home theater designers recognize this fact and will often include acoustical treatments in their packages. Companies such as Acoustical Solutions, Kinetics and Acoustics First are three companies that provide a wide variety of treatments for many budgets. Higher end projects often make use of RPG Diffuser Systems products for diffusion of sound and absorption of very low frequency waves. The problem here lies in intelligently selecting the right materials, the proper amounts and the proper location to install them.

Most revert to basic acoustics: Absorption everywhere. Absorption is readily available in many styles and prices. The problem of installation persists, often adding to the true cost, but significant improvements are made when reflection points are addressed and bounce back, or echo, is controlled. The room may not be suitable for other uses as conversation may seem unnatural, but for home theaters, it may be worth the sacrifice.

Common absorptive panels do nothing for low frequency, thus room mode problems may still go unaddressed. A “dead” room, over-treated with absorption, may need some diffusion to liven things up and return to a natural state. But how do you know?

Proper Analysis is the Key

A number of analytical devices are available to diagnose and identify acoustic problems of a room, and virtually every room has problems. As one designer noted, “When the sheetrock goes up, we’re all in trouble.” He recognizes that any contained area is going to play havoc with high fidelity sound. But identifying the specific problems in any room is a job for a true engineer. A specialist.

Leading the pack for “do-it-yourself” room analysis are Gold Line and Sencore, two reputable companies that provide metering devices with instruction manuals to launch a neophyte on their way to room analysis. Kudos for helping to inform and assist designers in proper room acoustics are well deserved. Any home theater designers not availing themselves to such technology, or hiring specialists that do, cannot be taken very seriously.

But many designers or builders fail to tap into all the power available through these diagnostic devices. Most settle into a comfort zone of testing for frequency response, looking for a “flat” room. While this is an improvement over simply putting absorption everywhere, it is one of the least critical tests for a home theater. However, educating oneself to perform all tests necessary, understanding and interpreting the data properly and knowing what to do from there continues to be a problem industry-wide. It’s generally recognized that a true acoustician is still worth their weight in gold, as acoustician rates would validate.

So, are proper room acoustics only available to the high-end market? Not if SoundWalls, LLC has their way.

Fitting the Right Acoustic Package to the System Components

On the merit of the above accepted principle that about 20% of ones’ system budget should go into room acoustics, SoundWalls has a package for every budget, which includes installation.

Their “First Enhancements? line introduces simple treatments in key areas to address first reflections. Analysis isn’t needed for this level of treatment as the benefits to properly placed absorption on the first mirror points are well understood.

Going beyond this entry-level treatment logically calls for analysis. But for those who can’t afford, or don’t want to afford, a personal acoustical engineer at a retainer of $2,000.00 or more, CA Analysis Services are available. Starting at a retail price of only $599.00, data is collected and uploaded to a website where a fully certified acoustician analyzes, interprets and recommends exactly what treatments are required on a choice of three levels: Good, Very Good and Excellent. A six-page report covering a suite of five tests is issued, outlining in detail the specific character of the room acoustics. This can serve as a blueprint for current and future addressing of acoustics since the room will basically stay the same.

Through this analysis, treatments can be recommended for any price level or budget desired. Only in this manner can the most gains be achieved for the dollars spent. If desired, a second measurement and evaluation will be made validating the improvements that were promised. On the highest level, a home theater may actually be certified by SoundWalls? and Component Acoustics? to be of the same acoustical performance as the latest in commercial movie houses! A must for the truly serious theater owner.

The name Component Acoustics? is certainly appropriate. Just as other components are matched in quality, price and performance to the other system parts, acoustic packages by SoundWalls are outlined according to budget pricing. Upgrades remain available, creating the most sensible approach for home theater builders to address acoustics.

Cutting-edge Technology Calls for Cutting-edge Acoustics

With so many advances made in the electronics field, where $10,000.00 today buys a better system than $40,000.00 bought a decade ago, it’s time that room acoustics be part of every designers or builder’s package. To deny a customer proper room acoustics is to deny them the full enjoyment of the electronic components they’ve paid for.