Big-Hall Acoustics and Hi-Fi

What do New York's Lincoln Center and the typical Stereophile reader have in common? Both have recently made large investments to achieve sonic excellence.

I doubt that very many Stereophile readers have spent as much as Lincoln Center did on the renovation of Geffen Hall: $550 million. But then few audiophiles' systems are supported by the likes of David Geffen, a $100 million contributor to the Geffen Hall project, or Joseph and Clara Wu Tsai, who gave $50 million.

Geffen made his contribution several years ago, setting the stage, as it were, for the renovation. Tsai's late-2020 contribution helped accelerate the work so that it could be completed, or almost completed, while the hall was closed due to the pandemic. The renovated hall reopened a year and a half earlier than first projected, on October 7, 2022, two weeks ago as I write this (footnote 1). It's also fully paid-for, debt-free.

When the hall first opened in 1962, as Philharmonic Hall, it was an acoustical disaster. Harold Schonberg, the New York Times's main music critic, put it kindly, writing that the hall sounded "antiseptic" and "very weak in the bass, with little color and presence." Others weren't as nice. After conducting his Cleveland Orchestra there for the first time, George Szell suggested they tear it down and start over.

Instead, they tried to fix it. The first renovation took place the following summer. Minor renovations followed in 1965 and '67; all were aimed at fixing the hall's sound. A large 1973 contribution by Avery Fisher—founder of Philharmonic Radio Co. and Fisher Radio (footnote 2)—led to the hall's rechristening and helped pay for the first major renovation, which took place in '76. That renovation is generally viewed as a partial success.

When I moved to New York, I was excited to live just a 20-minute subway ride from the home of one of the world's great orchestras. Yet, after a few concerts—most memorably a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto when, for long stretches, I couldn't hear the violin—I stopped going.

The just-completed renovation was major, as you'd expect for $550 million. The interior was gutted and reconfigured. The number of seats was reduced, the stage was moved forward 25 feet, and seats were installed behind it. The average seat is now much closer to the stage than before.

For its reopening concert, the program included Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and San Juan Hill, the latter a new composition by Etienne Charles (footnote 3) named for the African-American/Puerto Rican neighborhood that was razed to build Lincoln Center. Thelonious Monk lived for a while in, or on, San Juan Hill.

How did the music sound opening night? I don't know; I wasn't there. Notice has been mostly positive, and even some of the less-positive reports seem to me quite promising: "insufficient bloom, but great clarity." It will be a while before I render a verdict. Here, I'm making a different point.

One reason Philharmonic Hall was such a failure acoustically is that the builders ignored the acousticians, making it bigger than it should have been, with many more seats. Even so, in those days large-hall acoustics were hit or miss. A 1986 Carnegie Hall renovation messed up that hall's famed acoustics. The cause, they eventually discovered, was that concrete had been added beneath the wooden stage, which had vibrated sympathetically with bass instruments. Removing the concrete restored the glory of Carnegie Hall. Contrast that with the 1976 Avery Fisher renovation, when they discovered that wood paneling mounted on lath was absorbing energy, killing off bass. The solution: Glue the paneling directly to the plaster.

Since then, large-hall acoustics has matured. Judging how music sounds in a space is subjective, but most halls built or renovated over the last two or three decades have seemed successful. But why and how has the field progressed? Is it because our understanding of the science is better? Because we now have superior computational tools—can model a hall's acoustics before hammering a single nail?

No doubt, science and computation have played important roles, but consider this, from a recent New Yorker article by Rivka Galchen about the Geffen Hall renovation. Galchen is interviewing Christopher Blair and Paul Scarborough, the two main acousticians on the Geffen Hall project. "In the past, acousticians relied primarily on what was easiest to measure—things like frequencies and reverberation times," Galchen wrote. "Blair, in an essay on concert-hall design, noted that this started to change in the nineteen-nineties, when acousticians 'began to rely more upon their ears, informed by historical precedence, than their measurement devices....'

"'By the time of the tuning rehearsals, it's entirely in the ears,'" said Scarborough, the other acoustician, quoted in the article. "'We'll do measurements to document it, and measurements get you to ninety per cent, but the ears get us that last ten per cent.'"

Sound familiar?

Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars
Over the past eight months, no album has received as much play on my system as Melissa Aldana's 12 Stars, the saxophonist's Blue Note Records debut. There's a quality to Aldana's playing that's uncommon: She can wail like Coltrane at his wildest and simultaneously maintain a tangible sense of calm at the core, a kind of Zen state. In an interview in this month's issue (see p.109), jazz expert Ken Micallef, who for years has written both music features and equipment reviews for Stereophile, probes Aldana's approach to jazz. She cites other influences, but her spirituality and approach to practice—she obviously works very hard at her craft—evoke 'Trane most of all. A fascinating read.

Footnote 1: To commemorate the Tsais' contribution, the main performance space in Geffen Hall will be called the Wu Tsai Theater.

Footnote 2: Apparently in Fisher's day, the old joke—"How do you end up with a small fortune in hi-fi? Start with a large fortune!"—hadn't been invented yet.

Footnote 3: Juilliard grad Charles's Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol 1 was Stereophile's Recording of the Month for June 2019.

miguelito's picture

Very interesting and unexpected... Some of the audio cognoscenti I (and probably you) know have spoken highly of the hall. I need to go soon to hear it for myself.

cgh's picture

The points in this article, again, run parallel to my experiences in luthiery. Density and Young's modulus and well-tested geometries inform the initial construction, but tapping and ears and the person determine the ending construction... and we're left with two camps, one arguing the final measurements via FFTs and amplitudes of various modes around the quantitative tests... and the other arguing evenness of register and projection around the subjective experience. etc. etc. One thing is for sure, whether it's instruments or hall design, the old masters figured out 99.9% of the solution not with computers but with their ears. Hats off to those that came before.

mmole's picture

My father was a structural steel engineer who worked on the support system for what they called "acoustic clouds" in the original Philharmonic Hall. The "clouds" were a system of large panels that hung over the orchestra but could be lowered for more intimate chamber music recitals. He attended several test sessions before the Hall formally opened and reported that the clouds "didn't make a damn bit of difference."

Jack L's picture


I doubt the "several test sessions" he attended would be be a full-house attendance.

FYI, those up-down acoustic reflectors or "clouds" are pretty popularly used in major concert hall world wide. They normally designed for full-house attendance which provide maximum sound absorbance. Any such "test session" can never tell the real situation, OK !

Jack L

Jack L's picture


I did not have the chance to attend concerts in Carnegie Hall.

Yet I got a LP: "Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 performed by Vladimir Horowitz/New York Philharmonic conducted by Eugene Ormandy" a live recording in Caregie Hall in 1978.

It sounds pretty decent in my humble system in my basement audio den. No acoustic issue at all.

Yes, it was before its 1986 acoustically 'disastrous' renovation !

Jack L

Jack L's picture generally viewed as a partial success." qtd J.A.

Well, I don't know much about Lincoln Center acoustics as I never attended any concerts there yet.

Yet, I own a LP dubbed as "The Concert of the Century", a digital live recording of operatic excerpts performed by 3 opera superstars: Joan Sutherland of Australia (my very favourite soprano), Marilyn Horne of USA & Luciano Pavarotti of Italy (my very favourite tenor), with New York City Opera Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge, husband of Sutherland at Avery Fisher Hall in March 23, 1981. The whole event was also a live television production by Lincoln Center for the Performance Arts, sponsored by Exxon, etc ete etc.

Peter G. Davis reportedly gave rave appraisal in the New York Times:
"In its essentials,the concert could be heard as an old fashioned glorifcation of the human voice, as a phenomenon to be wondered at for itself alone. Viewed in that light, perhaps these singers did give us the Concert of the Century."

WoW, what a phenomenal complement ! From such review, I don't see any problem in the hall acoustics that could have messed up the perfomance at all. It was in 1981, only a few years after its "first major renovation" !!!!!

Also, I am happy with performance reproduced in my humble system - livelike & crytalline transparent, with zip acoustical issue at all.

Listening is believing

Jack L

rt66indierock's picture

I can live with 90% measurements and 10% listening. My refence albums and recordings have specific things I listen for and measure.

Happy Holidays and stay safe and warm.


Jack L's picture


May I know what referene album, recordings..for measure what ???

Listening is believing

Jack L

rt66indierock's picture

Here is a sample of my reference albums and recordings.

Pet Sounds, does it present you with a wall of sound? Sound stage depth is a failure to reproduce what Brain Wilson intended.

All the Young Dudes, one is the drum kit in the right position and two is the drum kit stretched? If the drum kit is in the wrong position or stretched then the sound stage is not reproduced properly.

This is part of how I measure sound stage by listening.

On the Border and the Bands brown album, played back to back with tell me if the component or system is fatiguing. Any fatigue will show up after this test.

Naturally by JJ Cale has a primitive drum machine in places that is hard to reproduce properly.

I have recordings of banjos of various types. Very hard to reproduce properly. So hard that even someone as out of touch as the late Art Dudley noticed it and commented on it.

Part of how I measure sound quality.

This is half of the albums and recordings I’ve used for almost fifty years to evaluate audio equipment.

I haven’t changed the music I use except for adding Waiting for Columbus in 1978 and The Nightfly in 1982. The formats have changed.

Jack L's picture


When you said "measure", it gave me the impression of you meaured quantitively with instruments. Now I know you mean to "measure" the music qualitatively with your own ears !!

Why not ? Music is for our ears which should have the final say.

I fully agree.

Although I measure sound pressure of the music with sound level meter & audio spectrum analyser. I only use my own ears to 'measure'
the overall performance of the reproduced music as the final say.

My virtual "measurement" is to visualize the reproduced performance in term of width, depth & height of the soundstage, precise positioning & realistic live size of the performers & music instruments, spatial ambience & sonic decay etc etc, at the realistic volume level of the original performance if possible. Never too loud or too low !!!

Unlike many audiophile who prefer closing their eyes, I always audition with my eyes WIDE open to enable me to visualize the performnace reproduction.

I just wish reviewers add their impression per above criteria to their reviews instead of only decribing how it sounds - bass, mid or high etc. Such sonic preference is very subjective for the individual reviewer, & may not be as appealing to the readers.

As I said here before, sonic is soo personally subjective like one's meat is another man's poison. Many readers may take such sonic comments of the reviewers as the holy grail. But not for yours truly - live performance is my Holy Grail of produced music !

Listening with own ears is believing

Jack L

xtcfan80's picture

rt66 "Even someone as out of touch as the late Art Dudley" ???
The late Art Dudley forgot more about music and sound reproduction than all Stereophile site posters put together...including you and me.