The Fifth Element #31 Page 2

JM: What is the most common acoustical sin of commission that audiophiles commit?

RRB: Well, I don't know if this is the most common, but we have received a few calls that went something like: "I've changed every cable in my system a dozen times, and none of it has fixed my acoustical problems." It's funny, in a way, because it clearly dawned on the person that the cable was not the problem, but they didn't know that when they started swapping out cables. It's also sad, because although good cables can make a difference, getting on the cable merry-go-round can be pretty pricey these days.

JM: Let's say someone is the average Stereophile subscriber, which means he has about $15,000 invested in a two-channel system. What should he do to get better sound?

RRB: Well, as I said before, the one thing is, don't ignore the acoustics. Even if you have $3000 invested in a nice two-channel system, do something for the acoustics. Get the basics right. Now, that might mean reading some books or doing some research on the Web, and doing the work yourself. Many people don't want to go the DIY route, which is why we offer an entry-level service priced at around $1000. We analyze the room's dimensions and contents, make recommendations on what treatment is needed, and deliver CAD drawings with assembly drawings (if they want to build the devices themselves) or a list of prefabricated devices they can buy. Bottom line is, acoustics is probably the most cost-effective improvement you can make in this hobby, so you really need to budget something to deal with these issues.

JM: When someone fills out your room questionnaire and application form, what happens next?

RRB: One of our engineers will call back and go through an interview process with the potential client. They will typically suggest some possible paths and let the client decide if those are realistic for them. There are some rare cases when we cannot offer a good value to the client, based on their limitations. We let that client know this up front, before they've spent one dime. So, filling out and faxing back the application is really a no-risk proposition. If the client likes what we can do for them, they provide a deposit and we begin designing.

JM: Are most of your Level 1 customers happy with what they end up with?

RRB: I think they may be the happiest! These are the people who have been debating "Should I do this?," and finally they take the plunge. Most of them call me to thank us for how incredible the room sounds, how every upgrade they've done is so much more meaningful in a well-designed room, and how our design remains the most cost-effective thing they've ever done in this hobby. That's very rewarding for me, because I wanted our company to meet the needs of as many people as possible. I did not want to run a company that catered only to a very wealthy clientele.

JM: Let's say that someone doesn't yet want to take the step of engaging your firm. Is there any advice you can offer of near-universal applicability?

RRB: My advice would be read, read, read, and then: start small. We have a whole resource page on our website, and we write syndicated articles on acoustics. The basics aren't that difficult to accomplish. The "Listening Room" on our website is an entry-level tutorial on acoustics. This goes through some basic issues, from speaker and listener location to dealing with first-reflection points.

JM: Do you recommend that people get RPG's $99 software package and try to do it themselves?

RRB: We actually sell this and other software packages for the do-it-yourself person. The RPG Optimizer is a theoretical modeling system. It is simple and easy to use, but is applicable only for rectangular rooms. The CARA package is completely flexible and can be used for all rooms, but has a much steeper learning curve. I would also recommend people get a test CD, like our Test CD 2, which has 1/3-octave tracks that are compensated for the nonlinearities of the RadioShack SPL meter. With these two inexpensive items you can get a reasonable idea of the frequency-response performance in your room.

JM: Do you ever get asked to provide advice, and then find that the number-one problem is actually not acoustics but terribly mismatched equipment?

RRB: It's rare, because I think most people who are currently asking about room acoustics are pretty savvy in terms of gear, but it certainly has happened. I've seen low-efficiency, difficult-load speakers being driven with 3W [single-ended triode] amplifiers, and I've seen the converse, where the speakers were around 100dB efficient and were being driven by a 500W amplifier. But fortunately, this sort of thing has been rare, at least with our clientele.

JM: Which is going to sound better: $15,000 worth of equipment in a room with $5000 worth of acoustic treatment, or $20,000 worth of equipment in an untreated room?

RRB: That's not even close. $15,000 worth of equipment with $5000 spent on acoustical design and treatment will sound far better than even a $30,000 system in an untreated room. The acoustics are just fundamental. Effectively, the room is an extension of the speaker. Half of what we hear is indirect sound—sound from the room. It's no surprise it's so important.

JM: What is the equipment-budget level at which it makes sense to go for a more extensive consultation, with on-site measurements? Where does the PARC fit in?

RRB: That is a complex question. First, let's address the PARC. The PARC is needed in existing rooms that do not have good dimensions for consistent bass reproduction. Most existing rooms have this problem to one degree or another, but imagine a room that is 16' by 24' with an 8' ceiling. That room is going to have a huge problem at around 80Hz. When rooms have multiple dimensions that are divisible by each other, there are particular frequencies that are going to be a serious problem, and the only practical way to deal with the problem is electrical correction. Even if your spouse would accept large acoustical bass-treatment products, they are very cumbersome and difficult to make to deal with these types of resonances. So if you are concerned about fixing the bass but are not willing to deal with the installation of large, high-Q Helmholtz resonators, and you have a good system that requires an acoustically transparent fix, then the PARC is the solution.

When we design a room from scratch, we select dimensions that will support good, consistent bass response whenever possible. This means there will be no need for a PARC. No electrical correction is best, if you can get things to work naturally. But, as I've said, that's not always possible. Now as to which level to choose, it depends on your goals and the room. For example, [for] a simple rectangular room that already exists and needs treatment without construction, Level 1 probably makes sense. We can prescribe the necessary products and provide plans for a client to get their room sounding great. It's a very affordable way to really get your acoustics working well. Level 2 is more involved. Our local dealers take on-site measurements, which allow us to refine our calculations for absorption, diffusion, and bass trapping. For rooms that are unusual in shape and surfaces, we require Level 2, because we need the actual acoustical measurements for our calculations.

JM: Who is the customer for the full-boat, Level 3 consultation?

RRB: Level 3 is our highest level. We do full construction documents at Level 3, and all acoustical treatment is built into the room. Usually there is a tremendous amount of attention put into both the acoustics and the aesthetics, so that the room looks as good as it sounds. The Level 3 client typically has a dedicated unfinished space or new construction. They want to push the envelope of what can be done acoustically. Most Level 3 customers are in the home they plan to be in for a long while. Most have been into this hobby for some time, and really enjoy music or movies and understand how important the acoustics are.

JM: Does an acoustically great room have to be ugly?

RRB: Acoustics have no inherent look to them. They have the reputation of being ugly because most prefabricated solutions are less than domestically acceptable for a living room. We do living rooms all the time, and we hide things in coffered ceilings or behind artwork; we use bookcases, and we select high-quality and visually appealing fabrics. On our website there is a Level 1 room (Mr. W) in the "Examples" section. You cannot tell by looking that there are any acoustical treatments in the room, but there are diffusive elements built in behind the wainscoting panels, there is a giant bass trap in the ceiling that is covered with white fabric, and we even went to the extent of building tuned Helmholtz resonators into the corners of the bookcases.

JM: Any final words?

RRB: Yes. The room is really the first, the most basic thing that our sound systems start with, but it is often the last thing we think about. Whether you hire a professional or do it yourself, don't ignore it; it can determine 50% or more of your overall sound quality.

Questions, comments, or reflections.