WHAT IS THE ACOUSTIC ART?
The "Acoustic ART" system from Synergistic Research is an alternative approach to acoustic room treatment. It dispenses with the use of older traditional methods of absorption/diffusion, consisting of fiberglass stuffing or foam, which are known to have the side effect of damping fine harmonics in their heavy-handed approach to acoustics. The ART system adopts a more "synergistic" approach, based on principles of harmonics, and uses small, finely tuned metal resonators to treat acoustics at pressure points a room. The system I am reviewing includes the full compliment of 5 resonating devices. Although each of the devices in the Acoustic ART system can be purchased separately, for those who might not have the budget right away for the full 5-piece. (I hear there's also a much cheaper 4-piece entry-level version of the Acoustic ART system called the "Basik", but the resonators are not made to the same standards as the full system).
I read some of the enormous controversy surrounding the Acoustic ART last year on the Stereophile forum. It is that very controversy that convinced me that I needed to listen to a demonstration of this system myself, to see "who wins". That is, to see if the efforts of all the detractors of the A.R.T., who were attacking everything about it relentlessly, had any validity behind it. Or if those who were defending it, were right to do so all along. It was imperative that I find out for myself, because no one amidst all of that controversy seemed to have actually heard the system themselves! That, and the fact that I knew I needed some kind of room treatment.
The full ART system consists of two satellites (Magnetron), placed around the first order reflection points. A third one (Gravatron) placed on the rear wall. The fourth (Bass Station) is a little larger than the other three, and normally situated a few inches from the wall behind the speakers, and below the fifth resonator module, (the Vibatron). Which I call "big daddy". Vibatron consists of two very large bowl-shaped resonators, with a dispersion disc separating them, and the affair is connected by a rod of marine brass, permanently placed on a wood support. It is designed to radiate in a 360 degree pattern. The Vibratron also comes with a unique system of ball-shaped magnets, large and small, gold and silver. This can be placed atop the brass rod, and is designed to aid in contouring the effect of the resonator module.
I was not able to do this test in my own system, as I am awaiting a part from France for my amp (I think they are still manufacturing it for me...). I set it up at my older brother's place, but I know his system very well. ( I was the system consultant. Not only the one who chose all of the components and assembled it for him, but I spent many hours in that room, tweaking, listening and tweaking some more).
Digital: Shanling CD-S100
Analogue: Rega Planar 3
Amplification: Naim NAIT
Speakers: KEF 104/2
Speaker wire: NAIM
Cassette: Nakamichi LX3, Nakamichi BX100
This was not the first time I had heard the Acoustic ART, but it was the first time my brother had. He had no idea how these little "bowls" were supposed to work, nor did he even seem like he wanted to. Which is a good thing, because it avoided me having to try to explain it. I only installed the wooden supports at first, to set up the A/B trials to follow. So, without the ART resonators in the room, we started with the first track on A.J. Croce's s/t CD, "He's Got A Way With Women". Which was pleasant enough, and quite a nice recording. Good tune, good soundstage, plenty of piano. I installed the resonators in their respective perches next, and we had another listen. My brother sat there, saying nothing, but looking rather shocked, as he was taking all the information in. I was just kind of grinning.
The biggest changes were that the sound now extended well beyond the boundaries of the speakers in all planes. The dimensions of the instruments and voices the soundstage were much larger, more realistic, and could clearly be located the soundfield. Even more significantly, the tonal definition and timbre of those sounds were improved dramatically, such that the music took on new meaning. Details came out that I hadn't heard before, and they were musical details. Bass notes, for example, were much more controlled, and reached deeper than was possible without the acoustic resonator treatment. And unlike the traditional room traps I was used to, we did not have to turn the volume up in order to try to hear fine details, that are normally swamped by large surface absorptive-type damping.
With the ART resonators in place, you could now hear the full weight of AJ's piano, and the full impact of the wonderful sharp crashing sound it made as he struck down on the keys. In contrast to this upgrade, the previous version had a rinky tink piano sound, a smaller soundstage (along with a confused image), and you could not get into the music as well. Afterward, my brother told me it barely seemed like the same recording. I understood. When I first evaluated the ARTs, I would occasionally find myself checking to be sure I had repeated the same track.
We really did choose a different recording for the next test; "The Anyway Song", from the Lullabye Baxter Trio. It's your typical carnival jazz married with nursery rhyme music, but done to perfection. Again, the Acoustic ART's influence on the music was superb. Every nuance came out of the light, as Baxter's vocals took on life-size proportions. The mood created by the static and bird sounds in the background being more palpable, while there were now bags of reverb emanating from the strike of the bass drum. The whole song became more dreamy, as you got swept up by the melody coming off the cello. I felt transfixed to my experience of listening to the song, whereas in the session without the ART resonators installed, I was easily distracted during play.
Chris Whitley's "Blue Chicago Moon" turned out to be an excellent test track for the Acoustic ART. It was here where the differences were most amplified, thus far in the listening session. With the ART installed, you could now see the sound field extend way beyond the speakers themselves. You could hear a much greater range of contrast in the dynamics of Whitley's vocal performance, which better communicated the emotional purpose behind it. You felt the drum kit, more than just hearing it, as without the ART installed. It was there, on one side of the room. We were also able to hear deeper into the music, as things got that much more transparent, and bass melodies that were difficult to follow before, came out of hiding.
On the Stereophile forum, Buddha had asked if there were ever differences observed from one recording to the next. I said I would listen for that, and I did try to. I would say that I don't think the ARTs are having more of an effect on some recordings than others. But that some recordings can be perceived as having a greater change than others, due to quality of the recordings themselves. For example, the differences were more linear than dramatic, on Opal's "Happy Nightmare, Baby". The recording is ho-hum, compressed, and very much your typical pop recording with a lot of electronic effects. Once you got into a better recording, like some of the stuff from Songs:Ohia or the A.J. Croce, there was a much starker contrast between ART-in and ART-out.
My brother is by far, not the first person I've demonstrated the ART system to. And so far, nobody attending a demonstration had any difficulties hearing its effect. Which tells me that for most people, the effect of the full Acoustic ART system is not a subtle one.
There is no way I am going back to using traditional bass traps, room traps, triangular pillows and sculptured foam, that ended up destroying too much of the music. The cost of my Acoustic ART system was half of what outfitting my room with conventional traps cost me, and yet the ART system produces a degree of quality that I was never able to obtain from the traps I used to have. There is also no way I plan to continue listening in an untreated room. I consider good room treatment an essential component in a serious music system. The Acoustic ART was one of the best purchases I've made in audio.
THE LOCATION AND REMOVAL TESTS
A few people were curious about the effect at different locations; ie. near-field, far-field, etc. So I did some listening specific to this. Including both sitting nearfield/farfield, and walking around the room to get a sense of the change in acoustic effect. My overall sense is that the resonator system treats the whole room, and there is no particular localization effect, or pockets where the effect is not heard as well. Apart from the obvious effects of changing your ears relative to the speaker drivers, as you change your position in the room. I think the reason for this assessment is explained by my single resonator test, detailed below. Where, I discovered, that "the Acoustic ART effect" is still there, even with a single resonator in the room. It just isn't there in the "power and the glory" of the full 5-piece system. Yet small changes in the placement of the resonators can affect various characteristics of the sound, depending on what you change or how. I also did very brief (incomplete) testing on each of the modules, to better relate their individual effect. Briefly, they are:
Magnetron: There are two in the set, and I found that removing one of these, made a great difference to the sound. I did not observe the stereo image shifting with the removal of a single Magnetron on either side. But the sound became more congested, and less well defined with its loss. From its removal, the midrange was harsher, and vocals there were less clear and distinct.
Gravatron: From a picture, the Gravatron could easily be mistaken for one of the Magnetrons. However, it is subtly different physically, and so is the perch it sits on (no magnet). Removing this resonator produced harsher midrange, a reduction in mid bass, weaker definition in the bass overall, and the imaging was less distinct as well.
Vibatron: This is the big daddy, the one that looks like a sculpture of a planet. It probably caused the greatest change from its removal. Upon which, all sounds lost their original quality of definition. Details were hidden behind each other. Bass went not nearly as deep as before, and the notes now bled into one another. Background vocals did not have their own space in the soundstage, as they once did, and were now blended with the instrumentation. Dynamics suffered as well. We played around just a bit with the magnet assembly that is fitted on top of the Vibatron. Normally, it points straight up so I steered it toward the wall. The sound was perceived as a bit darker, after that. So tone can be varied with it, and I have a feeling there is a lot that can be done with this option.
Bass Station: It seemed that many of the core elements remained with its removal. Yet... (as my notes say! ), I could not imagine living without it. Realizing upon its removal, that it brought "more" to everything. More "air" around the notes, better transients, tone, depth, body, weight, etc. It allowed me to hear individual melodies, that were no longer as apparent, in its absence. It provided character to bass notes, in keep with what its name seems to imply, but affected the rest of the range as well.
Single Resonator test (Magnetron Pt. 2): This is where I removed all other modules from the room, and just kept a single Magnetron. Switching it left and right occasionally, and removing it from the room, in order to compare it to the untreated room. As mentioned, the "Acoustic ART effect" was there with the one Magnetron, just nothing like the full system. I would still qualify the one Magnetron resonator as a night/day effect, for me, versus untreated. Though it does not seem to be specifically designed to affect bass frequencies, I noted that it appears to have no distinction about frequencies, having at least some perceptible effect across the range. Small as it may be, it took the edge off the harsher qualities of the sound, provided a richer bass experience, superior resolution in timbre, and I found myself more lost in the music with it in place. More headbanging, if you will. All of which made me realize, this would be very convenient to bring along while traveling. To improve my sound in nearly any location.
THE BLIND TEST
Even after hearing the effect with his own ears, my brother still seemed to have some doubts about whether something this small was really having an effect, or whether he was being influenced by the idea that it could. Then I remembered the challenge that Buddha, on the Stereophile forum, made to me about doing an SBT (single blind test). (He suggested I wasn't "curious" enough, if I hadn't done any. And I explained I didn't need to, because the effect of the resonators in the room is not something I felt I was in doubt of). So I suggested doing an SBT, with me as the test subject. A natural choice, since I was very much more familiar with the sound of the ARTs.
Obviously, this would mean I would have to do the test blindfolded. So the entire time, I had a t-shirt wrapped around my head to use as a blindfold. The idea was that my brother would exit and come into the room, and either leave with the resonators and bring nothing in, or simply leave, and then come back, leaving them in place. Although I already couldn't see, to ensure that I couldn't hear any cues, we had loud music playing from tracks on the test CD, in between playing the test track. I got 9 correct out of 10, over the twenty trials. The one I got wrong was the last one, and I think my ears were just tuckered at that point.
THE HOME THEATER TEST
Before leaving, my brother was curious to know what effect the ARTs would have on his home theater system upstairs. Which was truly bare-bones, bottom-of-the-line stuff. It's one of those "home theater in a box" systems ("Daytek" brand). I was game, because I was curious myself what effect would be heard on this, if any. Since it certainly had no pretensions to high end sound. We sat down and popped a CD into the 5.1 system, so I could hear what I was dealing with. The sound was annoyingly dreadful. Tinny and canned, lacking in spatiality, musicality, dimensionality, and whatever else ends in "ity". I guess there's only so much you can ask of five small plastic speakers, and a particle board boombox sub, that probably sold for $150 or less. With a free DVD player and amp thrown in. On the plus side, it had nowhere to go but up.
Once we set up the ARTs in the room and had a listen to the CD again, we both agreed that it sounded like it was no longer the same system. As though a major upgrade had been made. The tinniness was gone, replaced by rich, warm sound with body, depth and character. Only occasional traces of the canned quality remained overall. The sound was more open, involving, detailed, true-to-life and immense. The differences seemed greater still than with the hifi system. That's ironic, because it's not the sort of system you would marry with the full Acoustic ART! It made more sense to test it on movies though, because that's what this set up was exclusively being used for.
I am a 2-channel guy solid, but in comparing movies with and without the resonators in the room, I quickly realized that having an Acoustic ART system in a home theater situation made a whole heck of a lot of sense. Even though this was just a test situation, where a few minutes were viewed at a time, I found the ART effect changed the whole relationship I was having with the movie. With it, I was more involved and immersed in every movie we put on, and realized right there, how much cinema sound is part of the story playing out on the screen. There was almost a hyper-real quality to detail, with the ART resonators installed. Sounds heard in the film were not localized, as they were in the untreated room. On "Paris, Je T'Aime", just the ding of a truck startled you when struck, and the note hung in the air, decaying slowly. Whereas before, I never even noticed it!
On "X-Men: Wolverines", my brother commented about the ART effect overall. Saying that it was as much fun listening to that movie on the Home Theater system with the acoustic ART, as it was listening to music earlier on the audio system. On "Extract", I noticed the bass in the country tune playing at the beginning was very much tighter and better defined than in the session without the ART. Even the FOX Searchlight theme music opening "The Wrestler" showed grandiose differences. This was especially apparent in the bass area. Without the ART system, the soundstage collapsed, the bass drum lacked the fidelity it had before, and it was not even heard as a separate element from the rest of the orchestra. Following the intro, there is a montage shown (to convey the wrestler's history), where a lot of different voices are talking at once. With the ART system removed, this became a dull, homogenized mishmash of chatter. Which you didn't pay much attention to. In contrast, when we placed the ART system back in the room, not only was it clearer what was being said, but it stayed in the conscience.
On "Henry Poole Was Here", the ART effect created a soundstage that was voluptuous, in comparison to the untreated sound. As a result, sonic elements that soundstage clearly stood apart from each other. Voices were sharply defined and clear as crystal. I could effortlessly hear the changes in the echo characteristic of the room that the real estate agent was in (near the start of the movie), as she moved around the room. I was more attuned to the nuances in the actors vocal performances as their vocal characteristics came out more, and without really thinking about it, more responsive emotionally to what they were saying. So the experience taught me there is a lot involved in home theater sound, that goes way beyond getting the channel levels or positioning right. And that having an ART system installed as part of the home theater experience can be addictive! Although I will still prefer to listen to music on 2 channel, where movies are concerned, I think I've become a fan of the home theater experience! For sure I'll have to bring one of the resonators to the theater with me, next time, and see what comes of that. Maybe go with 4 other people, instructing them to sit in the prescribed locations! ("Okay... Gravatron... you go to the back of the theater...")