Room Acoustics Writ Large

Since writing about Manhattan's renovated Geffen Hall in this space in our January issue, I've attended two concerts there. I thought I'd report back. The first of the two performances—the hall's "Grand Gala" concert, though they didn't invite me to the fancy dinner afterward—included works by young Puerto Rico–born composer Angélica Negrón (You Are the Prelude) and Ludwig van Beethoven (Symphony No.9). The second included works by Stravinsky (Symphonies of Wind Instruments), Bartók (Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, with Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan), and Sibelius (Symphony No.7).

I'm ready, tentatively, to call Geffen's acoustical renovation a major success, if an idiosyncratic one. It is now a great (if slightly odd)-sounding hall. (A caveat: There are far more great music halls in the world that I haven't heard than that I have heard. I have a rather small sample to compare Geffen to.)

Almost everyone praises Carnegie Hall's acoustics—and Geffen sounds nothing like Carnegie, which is rich and reverberant to a point where, for me, the music gets in its own way, at least at the seats I'm usually sitting in. I've never sat up front.

The Geffen acoustic is very dry and clean, with very well-controlled—I'm tempted to write "carefully engineered"—reverberation. Music played softly by a single instrument can be heard clearly, easily, and with full timbre even toward the back of the orchestra section, where I sat both times. (I've so far sat in the 23rd and 27th rows, once in the middle and once toward the left side.) The hall has serious grunt; impactful bass reaches far back.

Beethoven's Ninth is always a thrill, and bass Davóne Tines was extraordinary as soloist, but the most successful performance I've heard so far was the Sibelius. That's probably because of the music's clean textures—notes rarely got in the way of notes, and that familiar Sibelius momentum was unimpeded. Another likely factor: Between the two performances, the orchestra had more time to get used to the new acoustic.

Negrón's You Are the Prelude was a fascinating experience. At one point in the piece, a large chorus (the same used in the Beethoven) bent a complex chord off-pitch until it became black noise, harmonic shifting into anharmonic. It was like a black tunnel opening up in space. (I have a touch of synesthesia, and I saw exactly that.)

The Bartók was less successful. To avoid blocking the orchestra, the two pianos had their lids removed. Their sound wandered up to the rafters (or would have if there had been rafters) and got lost.

I've made contact with one of the two principal acousticians and will interview him for a Stereophile feature. I want to explore the connection between large-hall acoustics and the challenges we all face in our listening rooms. I'm hoping he'll lead me on a Geffen tour.

I need to hear more music, from a wider variety of seats and sections; I'm especially curious what the upper levels sound like. Meanwhile, if you make it to Geffen Hall for a performance, drop me a line and tell me what you think. My email address is

Siberian Pianos
I don't just listen to a lot of music; I read a lot about it, too. The most interesting of the music-related books I've read recently is Sophy Roberts's The Lost Pianos of Siberia (Grove Atlantic, 2020).

Roberts is neither a musician nor a music scholar. Rather, she's a British adventure-travel writer. This is her first book, but she has extensive clips from prominent magazines including Condé Nast Traveler, Financial Times, and 1843 magazine from The Economist.

Early on, in Mongolia, Roberts meets up with Odgerel Sampilnorov, an "extraordinary pianist" who learned to play on "an old instrument ... trucked in from the modern capital, Ulanbaatar." With assistance from a patron, Sampilnorov trained for nine years in Italy. She gives local recitals inside a ger, better known here as a yurt, "on Giercke's Yamaha baby grand." (Giercke is Odgerel's main patron.) "Outside the ger's wooden door was a wide plateau cupped by mountains, the steppe's velvet folds studded with tombs and ancient standing stones left by successive waves of nomadic people. Yaks and horses, more numerous than people in Mongolia, grazed on the riverbank below." That Yamaha, though, was "out of sorts," which sent Roberts off in search of another piano.

Roberts sets off through Siberia, which, as we learn, has a rich musical history. As she seeks a piano for Odgerel, she tells stories about the land through the lens of its musical culture. Among many other pianos, we learn about a very special upright, found in a piano tuner's shop in the imposing Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. The piano is a Grotrian-Steinweg, made by the German company formed when one Heinrich Steinweg moved to New York, changed his name, and started a piano company.

With assistance, financial and otherwise, from locals, the piano is refurbished and transported to that Mongolian ger for Odgerel's use. "Kostya and I would lie on our backs on the tent's yak-hair floor," Roberts writes. Kostya is the man who rebuilt the piano. "Both of us liked listening in. Sometimes Kostya cried, sometimes he smiled, overwhelmingly proud about the piano's sound he had spent months repairing."

In the end, this book is about the value of music and our attachments to things, the meaning we and history imbue those things with, and how it all comes together to make our lives better.

On the book's website, Roberts presents gorgeous photographs by Michael Turek (who accompanied Roberts on many of her journeys), recordings of Odgerel playing various pianos mentioned in the book, and impressive videos of people and landscape, also by Turek.

Odgerel has an album on the major streaming services, the oddly named Mongolian Composers Piano Pieces.

All of these, but especially the book, are highly recommended

ok's picture

an interesting read. Thanks for sharing!

Doctor Fine's picture

There definitely should be more discussion in the magazine about the challenge of room setup. The finest gear on the planet will suffer if you place it poorly. But get it to line up with the room and Bingo!

I am amazed Stereophile never wants to discuss this fact. Is it because the admission of how hit or miss system synergy can be is an unpopular idea in the land of consumerism? Where money is the cure for all ills? Except it's NOT!

I realize the duty you have to introduce gear quickly in the rush of commercial progress. But some way forward needs to be found to put setup information on the front burner. The consumer needs to realize that everything in audio interacts with the signal to improve or destroy it. Getting things to click is a big deal. Much more of an art than most folks realize.

Our failures in some instances are a result of poor setup. And the room always has the last word on what occurs. So much so that it can be pointless to describe the gear without including how it worked in a particular room and why did it sound that way? Each piece of gear has quirks that change depending on the room. And you need to know what you are working with to understand how to avoid problems with it.

All of which takes time and does little to "sell" product. So I get it. However some attempt to deal with reality would be most welcome. And acoustic considerations always weigh on gear when favoring one selection over another. At least in my experience it does.

John Atkinson's picture
Doctor Fine wrote:
I am amazed Stereophile never wants to discuss this fact.

Google is your friend. See

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Doctor Fine's picture

And let's stop kidding the Muggles. It's really all about how we make great sound happen in a particular room. The gear is just means to an end, the room is the BIG SHOW and you always hear the room unless it's a nearfield rig.
Need more mid-bass punch? Try turning those sub boxes parallel to reflect room energy stronger. Or maybe an angle will work. Too soft vocals? Maybe move your rack out of the front wall because it is deleterious to your imaging. Leave a reflector in the middle! Maybe a mirror, a TV or a painting would do the trick!
So how about a regular column showcasing a complete system install? A Manhattan apartment with bass noise restraints? A far-field BIG system setup? A regular living room size with ONE/TWO or NONE subs.
All the considerations about getting great value for money at $100,000? $50,000? $25,000? Why spending less than $25,000 might shoot you in the foot. Did you expect a Steinway but only pay for a Baldwin? How the room can ruin a great sound and what to do with your choices?
I say keep the subject on the consumer's radar. so that they get better results and brag about their expensive systems more. And not just the few "audiofools" that nut-out over the subject of anything with a meter on it. Make regular guys EXCITED about what they bought and how amazing it sounds for the money. Yes. $100,000 is a BARGAIN when it sounds like THIS!
And so forth.
The Doc

Kal Rubinson's picture

Doctor Fine wrote:


The gear is just means to an end, the room is the BIG SHOW and you always hear the room unless it's a nearfield rig.

................or one uses modern DSP for room correction.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This is something I plan to discuss in the context of a future review. We are in the process of changing aluminum wiring to copper. At least, as much as I can legally change.

As for the room, I've been working on it for years. I wrote an article for Stereophile years ago about creating the room. Happy to write another about room treatment, wiring, and other issues.


Kal Rubinson's picture

We are in the process of changing aluminum wiring to copper.

A great idea for safety, at least.

teched58's picture you're just trying to confuse Jason :)

mememe's picture

Even with a room specifically built and dedicated to music listening, DSP is the final tool for achieving a sound that brings out the best in our chosen equipment. The future progress of DSP tools will only get better - and hopefully cheaper to implement in future audio products.