Before buying any piece of audio equipment — specifically loudspeakers — it’s necessary to remember that your room is the single most important component in your stereo. Even the best stereo system in the world can fail to deliver the sonic experience you were expecting if it is set up in the wrong room, or in a setting without proper acoustic treatment.
Concert venues, houses of worship, movie theaters, and recording studios utilize acoustic treatment to minimize or eliminate acoustic issues and while there are domestic issues to consider in the home setting (is your spouse going to let you set up bass traps or absorption panels in your living room?) the reality is that every room has acoustic issues and there are reasonable solutions to make your new pair of loudspeakers sound even better than they did in the store.
Your Room and Its Acoustics: What to Know
Everything about your room matters: the shape, dimensions, surface materials, position of windows and doorways. Sound waves interact with the room and the objects within it as they travel to your ears. So before you buy anything, think about the type of loudspeaker you are considering and how it might interact with your room.
If you plan on using a typical living space, like a den or a living room, measure your room and determine how far back you will be sitting from the set-up location of your loudspeaker, and how far into the room you can set them up. If (like most of us) you have domestic considerations, it’s unlikely that you will be able to position your new pair of loudspeakers 3-to-5 feet from the wall which might allow them to sound best; more open, deeper and wider soundstage.
Modern homes often feature a lot of windows. This isn’t great for sound as the reflective nature of glass can negatively affect spatial cues and make your system sound very bright. There are solutions to this which we will discuss.
Room shape and dimensions have a critical impact on the bass response. Bass waves require space to unfold, but that doesn’t mean bass can’t sound great in a small room if you make some acoustic changes. Sound waves generated by your loudspeakers are either absorbed by objects in the room, reflect off surfaces within your room, or pass through the room itself into an adjoining space. A rectangular room is often better for acoustics than a perfectly square room for these reasons.
Floor surfaces can have a significant impact on the sound, too. Stone, tile and marble without any type of area rug can make your system more forward sounding or bright. Hardwood floors absorb sound more effectively, but they also require some form of area rug or carpeting to minimize reflections and low-frequency information. Heavily carpeted rooms will often sound acoustically dead if combined with too much furniture. The key is to find a balance between lively and dead.
Practical Ways to Improve Sound
Professional acoustic products, such as acoustic panels, work as intended but they generally look out of place in a home. Because the primary concerns are minimizing the first reflection points and improving the bass response of your loudspeakers within your existing space, there are a number of practical solutions that you can implement.
The behind wall. The wall surface behind your loudspeakers should never be too hard (bare walls) or too absorptive. A wall unit filled with a mixture of books, picture frames, and even records will minimize reflections (depending on the type of loudspeaker) and absorb bass if you have to place your loudspeaker up against the wall; in a scenario where your loudspeaker is really close to the wall, bass will wrap around the rear of the cabinet, reflect off the wall and arrive at your ears out of phase with the rest of the sound. Music will always sound like it’s coming from the wall devoid of any soundstage depth or width.
The side walls. The first reflection points along the sidewalls can have an enormous impact on the imaging and overall clarity of the sound. It’s somewhat surreal how treating these two points can make everything sound more three-dimensional and focused. You will require an assistant for this but it’s a quick fix. Sit in your normal listening position and have your friend walk with a small mirror along the surface of the wall until you see the loudspeaker’s (starting at the loudspeaker itself) reflection. Mark this with a pencil on both walls. In a professional setting, acoustic panels of varying thickness are used to absorb frequency information. In a domestic setting, consider using bookshelves, wall hangings or even artwork (without glass) at these points.
The furniture and floors. Furniture can be used effectively to minimize reflections and absorb excessive bass; a large sofa or wood coffee table can be very effective. Glass tables should be avoided as they will exacerbate the problems we are trying to fix.
Carpeting or area rugs can be a huge source of improvement because they will reduce room noise, impact reverberation, and absorb reflections. If possible, stick with natural fibers like wool which have better absorptive qualities.