A Room that Allows Perfect Sound? Let Me Know When You Find One
sound wave
Delivering a system that creates high-performance sound can be problematic in some rooms.
By Frederick J. Ampel

In the ever-evolving audio and acoustics industries there are very few statements that can be carved in solid granite. One of them is that almost all of your sound systems will have to function within an enclosed space — in simple terms, a “room” of some type. A second immutable fact is that there has never been nor will there ever be a “perfect room” for any application. Rooms are inherently hostile to sound systems. They have walls, reflective surfaces, windows and all sorts of other components that make it virtually impossible for any sound system to function at its theoretical best.

Thus, system designers, installers, consultants, specifiers and you as the decision maker/purchaser face a constant series of problems in delivering the kind of performance from installed sound systems you have been “promised” or conditioned to expect by the relatively high dollar-to-performance ratios found in most consumer audio products. It is disturbing (or should be) to realize that in many cases so-called professional systems cannot approach even iPod performance levels on a consistent basis.

The problem is both simple and complex at the same time.

The simple part is this: each and every room is unique, and each one presents a different blend of physical, structural and architectural challenges and limitations that can make even the most expensive loudspeaker system function well below its potential.

The complex part is that in reality it is possible to design a room to meet a specific functional specification and approach a reasonable compromise between reality and cost of construction design and materials. Unfortunately there’s a fly in that ointment. Even with the knowledge that a space is going to be used for a specific purpose it remains a “truth” that the vast majority of architects and related professionals have no useful working knowledge of acoustics, room acoustics and how what they design will impact the acoustical environment that emerges in the finished space.

Why the recognition that no loudspeaker system operates in a spatial vacuum escapes these professionals is one of the great mysteries of modern day architecture. It’s like ignoring the fact that a building will need bathrooms and lighting to be functional and useful to its occupants.

In point of fact, the loudspeaker/room combination has far more to do with the perceived sonic impression of any other factor. Extensive, decade long studies conducted by the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Audio Research Corporation unequivocally


About the author
Frederick J. Ampel is the president and principal of Technology Visions Analytics consulting in Overland Park, Kansas. His work in the pro A/V industry for over 40 years includes live sound reinforcement, broadcast audio production, audio systems design and installation, systems integration, hardware design and development, market assessment and analysis, small room acoustics and system integration. He was the founding editor of Sound & Video Contractor and has chaired standards committees for AES and InfoComm.


Comments
Posted by John Mayberry  on  07/11  at  04:57 PM
Having been in the business for 30 years, in my opinion this is one of the best articles ever written on the subject. It is VERY unusual to find an architect that both knows and cares about acoustical quality- the majority are fixated on the visual world. Most have no formal training in acoustics. Mind you if there's no money in the upfront budget for acoustical treatment you're already in trouble before the first CAD drawing is ever delivered. Generally speaking, most architectural firms have a consulting acoustical engineer "on retainer" as part of the game. Their findings and recommendations are rarely (if ever) properly implemented unless the client resolutely demands it.
Posted by Larry  on  07/12  at  04:45 PM
Fred: Thanks for an excellent article in Tech Decisions. We've done home cinemas for 25 years and recently started a commercial division specializing in houses of worship. We've always concentrated on doing all the audio, video, lighting and control systems, but we've never really done much with acoustical treatment, mostly working with the interior designer on introducing as many soft materials as possible; carpet, drapes, cloth covered furniture, etc. What would you suggest would be a direction for me to look in becoming familiar with how to design acoustical treatments for the areas in which we work; home cinemas and large sanctuaries? Thanks, Larry
Posted by Kevin Lake  on  07/17  at  04:35 PM
I recall the days when the weakest link in the audio chain was considered to be the speaker. Most experts seem to agree now, that the room is the weakest link. I have heard inexpensive systems sound wonderful in a "good" room and expensive systems sound horrible in a "bad" room.
Posted by Audioguy  on  07/23  at  02:32 PM
Learning about Acoustical Materials Larry, Thank you very much for your comment. Methods of providing acoustical control in rooms, including absorption, diffusion, and a host of other related technologies are something everyone in our business should have a basic understanding of. Getting any space into better acoustical “shape” will inevitably help the sound systems you design/install/specify perform more effectively. Here is a list of resources and a crucial book you should look into. The http://www.alibris.com site is a great source of gently used books at pennies on the dollar. The Egan book is just one of many they have. Good general information and regulatory guidelines can be found at: www.osha.gov. You have to drill down a bit, but there is useful information on the site. Another very useful resource can be found on the US Gypsum site http://www.usg.com/index.html. The company is one of the world’s largest manufacturers’ of acoustical tile, sheetrock and similar materials. The best book I know of that is not a heavyweight engineering text is David Egan’s Architectural Acoustics (J. Ross Publishing Classics) [Paperback] http://www.amazon.com/M.-David-Egan/e/B001IXRQ4Q/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1. Additionally the ProAudio Reference http://www.rane.com/digi-dic.html is a great source of concise definitions and explanations of most acoustical terminology and well worth bookmarking. It is a free resource to anyone needing impartial answers to the “what does that mean” type questions. I hope this gives you a good start towards finding the information you need. Feel free to post additional questions or comments anytime, and again thanks for your comment. Frederick J. Ampel
Posted by Audioguy  on  07/23  at  02:39 PM
Learning about Acoustical Materials Larry, Thank you very much for your comment. Methods of providing acoustical control in rooms, including absorption, diffusion, and a host of other related technologies are something everyone in our business should have a basic understanding of. Getting any space into better acoustical “shape” will inevitably help the sound systems you design/install/specify perform more effectively. Here is a list of resources and a crucial book you should look into. The http://www.alibris.com site is a great source of gently used books at pennies on the dollar. The Egan book is just one of many they have. Good general information and regulatory guidelines can be found at: www.osha.gov. You have to drill down a bit, but there is useful information on the site. Another very useful resource can be found on the US Gypsum site http://www.usg.com/index.html. The company is one of the world’s largest manufacturers’ of acoustical tile, sheetrock and similar materials. The best book I know of that is not a heavyweight engineering text is David Egan’s Architectural Acoustics (J. Ross Publishing Classics) [Paperback] http://www.amazon.com/M.-David-Egan/e/B001IXRQ4Q/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1. Additionally the ProAudio Reference http://www.rane.com/digi-dic.html is a great source of concise definitions and explanations of most acoustical terminology and well worth bookmarking. It is a free resource to anyone needing impartial answers to the “what does that mean” type questions. I hope this gives you a good start towards finding the information you need. Feel free to post additional questions or comments anytime, and again thanks for your comment. Frederick Ampel Chief Audio Advisor
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