Working the Room

Changing his tune: Rogier van Bakel's listening room shortly after demolition began. The space had been an old two-car garage. (All photos by Rogier van Bakel.)

As happy moments in one's life go, this one was supposed to be up there: the time I first heard my stereo rig in the new, custom-built listening room in the back of my home. It had taken eight months to get to this point, starting with gutting the garage and rebuilding the floor and walls. (We kept the roof.) By the end, all-new doors and windows had been hung and treated with acoustical sealant. Extra-thick drywall and mass-loaded vinyl were installed for better sound insulation. A dedicated power line was brought in.

Credit where due: The new room was my wife's win-win suggestion. For a few years, I'd performed my reviewing duties in our living room, a good-sounding space that nonetheless had three problems. A variety of stereo gear had begun to occupy practically a third of the floor, making our digs less suitable for family use and entertaining. When my wife and kids went to bed, I couldn't really crank the volume anymore—and I love listening at night, at (I confess) elevated volumes. Lastly, the living room sits on top of a basement, suspended over joists. I had to be careful with the placement of speakers to keep the floor from acting as a tympanic resonator.

The new room avoided all that. Though it's attached to the house, it was built with enough insulation that I can play music to ear-splitting levels at all hours. And as I type this, under my feet is a seven-layer, open-faced sandwich of gravel, a 10"-thick concrete slab, plywood subflooring, rubber sheeting, oak planks, a thick pad made of felt, and a wool rug that covers about 80% of the floor. No resonator effect.

During construction, there'd been surprises—some costly, others just a brief pain in the neck. Dolefully eyeing our dwindling funds, I learned that drywallers and electricians easily outearn journalists. Also that despite vertical tarps and scrupulously closed doors, construction dust is the most penetrative thing known to man, except maybe 1980s Radio Shack tweeters. The white, powdery substance somehow wafted into bedrooms up to 70' from where the rebuild was taking place, giving our interior the appearance of a coke lab.

Then there was the glum discovery of—I kid you not—a dead dog, whose half-petrified corpse lay a foot or so under the crumbling, century-old concrete floor. The contractor surmised that the poor thing was a wounded stray that had worked its way into the garage's shoddy foundation, perhaps needing a quiet place to die. I thought of Stephen King (who lives only an hour away), and how in Kingworld, the unearthing of the mutt would have set off a series of terrible events, Pet Sematary–style (footnote 1).

Luckily, we made it to early 2023 without gory calamities. January 27 was inauguration day. After we assembled the midcentury equipment console and chair, my teenage daughters and I maneuvered my Focal Utopia Scala Evo reference speakers onto the rug. I connected the Scalas to a HiFi Rose RS520, queued up some favorite tracks on Qobuz, and sat down in excited anticipation. This was gonna be great!

Read this out loud in your best Ron Howard voice: It wasn't. The music sounded not just subpar—it sounded horrendous. Slap and flutter echoes skittered like high-velocity marbles exploding off the walls. Every song I played was smeared, muddy, incoherent. I had to wonder: The home theater expert who'd informed me that drywall is a pretty good absorptive material (footnote 2)... had he been pulling my leg? I felt the way Charlie Brown might after Lucy snatched his football away.

A panel discussion
To be honest, the disappointment wasn't completely unexpected. In the fall of 2022, I'd absorbed much of the sixth edition of F. Alton Everest and Ken C. Pohlmann's Master Handbook of Acoustics and all of Jim Smith's Get Better Sound. It seemed inevitable that my medium-sized room (15' × 21', with a 16' gabled ceiling) would need a good number of acoustical panels. My friend Aaron, a math-minded audiophile with a solid knowledge of acoustics, agreed to help. We settled on more than 20 panels of various sizes, most 4" thick, including bass traps for the corners and a quartet of 2' × 4' clouds—overhead absorbers that tame reflections from the ceiling. We also ordered two skyline diffusers for the wall behind my listening chair.

Despite our commitment to good acoustics, compromises were necessary. The goal was always to create a listening room that, big speakers notwithstanding, could just about pass for "regular" living quarters, preferably a combination of modern and rustic. So we had to find solutions that wouldn't make the space look like a control room. The skyline diffusers can pass for works of art (and most non-audiophile visitors assume that they are). The Dorothea Lange black-and-white canvas over the electric fireplace—her gorgeous 1939 photo of a Southern country store with Black men sitting on the porch—is an absorption panel at the same time. (It was custom printed to my size specifications by ATS Acoustics, with a file downloaded gratis from the Library of Congress (footnote 3).

About that fireplace: I chose it for heat and atmosphere, even though the 3' × 2' glass front is highly reflective. For critical listening, I often end up covering the pane with a 4"-thick panel—after turning off the heater element, mind you! When it's chilly out, a heat pump installed over the 18' × 4.5' gear closet to my right helps keep the place comfortable. (Hot tip: Running a couple of class-A amps can help, too.)

Footnote 1: For a Google-supplied Easter egg, search for "Pet Sematary" and watch the top of your browser window.

Footnote 2: See, page 96.

Footnote 3: See


curious777's picture

Why does the race of the men in the photo matter? Why other them?

Do you generally list the race of people you write about? It's disturbing at a whole bunch of levels.

partain's picture

I was confused for a sec until I saw you were using "other" as a verb . It is quite effective at describing something humans do all the time...but shouldn't , We're all in this boat together , ...and BTW , it is sinking .

JRT's picture

The photograph and description are available at a webpage at the US Library of Congress website at the following link.

edit: I revisited my post to remove a lengthy section of copied text obfuscating my point. Please go to the webpage at the above link and view the photograph (taken in July 1939 in rural Gordonton, North Carolina). Read the associated description. Race seems to be an important aspect, and was mentioned in the citations provided there.

MatthewT's picture

What a way to go through life, worried about "othering" someone when describing them.

Jim Austin's picture

... such decisions are ultimately mine. In this case, very little thought was required. Race is absolutely central to that photograph, as RvB points out elsewhere in this thread in more detail. I won't say more because to do so is to risk offending the critic, which I have no desire to do.

Happy New Year to all,

Jim Austin, Editor

MatthewT's picture

The "critic" is perpetually offended. Thanks for your response.

supamark's picture

wish it was still on.

Pretzel Logic's picture the best part of being offended.

teched58's picture

I have to defend Jim here 100%. The usage in the caption is descriptive and appropriate. Any publishing professional would handle this the same way Jim and Stereophile have. I certainly would/would have.

It is beyond comprehension that the peanut gallery somehow thinks this is related to DEI/CRT.

RvB's picture

@curious777. Thanks for voicing your concern. I take it you didn't follow the link we provided in the footnote about the photo, which would've taken you to a high-res version of the image and, crucially, the photographer's original caption.

Please scroll down in this thread for my take on why the word that offended you is entirely germane to the description of the photo (that post is titled "Dorothea Lange's own caption of her photo").

Context, as they say, is everything.

Glotz's picture

Reacting without thought was everything. lol.

Wonderful story and I am utterly happy for you. The room looks stellar. Who needs a garage!?

supamark's picture

Are you a Black man? If so, you have every right to be offended (or not offended!) personally as your lived experience is yours. If not, you have no right to essentially tell Black men about which things they should be offended. They're adults who know what they're bothered by, and don't need other people to tell them - just like anyone else. It's insulting. This would be true for any group of which you are not a member. Since you didn't mention being a Black man in your post and used the term "them" instead of "us," I'm going to make an educated guess that you are not. In which case, why are you insulting grown men?

Also, as noted below it's a modernized/shortened version of the photo's actual description at the Library of Congress and things must be properly cited, as this was. Are you mad he didn't mention the White guy in the doorway? Did you even know he was White? It's a very low rez photo and I couldn't tell without the full Library of Congress description from the photographer.

Mark Phillips,
Contributor, Soundstage! Network

MatthewT's picture

We may have mis-gendered those "men". How dare we assume?

supamark's picture

from the photographer is quite clear (and she was actually there), try harder next time.

MatthewT's picture

To the word-police. At least we didn't dead-name them.

supamark's picture

Maybe you could try and grow up, or at the very least get a lot better at trolling.

Culture warriors on the right, like you, are the most tiring thing of the last 5 years. Yep, that includes Covid (which made me very tired when I had it, so... yeah).

Note I said tiring, not deadly or horrible.

Tromatic's picture

I'm a registered Democrat, vaxed, had covid twice.

supamark's picture

That at no point did I speak to you and couldn't give two shillings how you identify politically. I am glad you are vaccinated vs Covid, since that's the only way to minimize its damage to society without perpetual masking.

In fact, I even checked this comment thread and this is your only comment (as of this writing). To add to my confusion in/re your reply, my comment had nothing to do with Covid/vaccines beyond emphasizing how tiring the person I was speaking to is, and a disclaimer that I was not minimizing the damage Covid hath wrought.

If this is an alt account for the person I *was* speaking to, well... that's just really really sad.

Glotz's picture

Stick to the f'ing story at hand about his f'ing room already.

What are your thoughts about his complete garage transformation?

Do you like the way the room decor looks after completion?

Do you need others to cancel and how can I show you the door for additional cancellations?


MhtLion's picture

I did not agree with your comment at first. But, I gave some thoughts, and I think you are right. There was no reason to mention "Black" in that sentence. He could have said "country store with men sitting on the porch". I think it's a typical example of an unconscious bias. Because I'm sure Rogier did not think about it but happened at the unconscious level. So no, I don't think we should blame him for that. But, that being said, I wish our society will one day refer any man as a man without a color indicator. Latino, Asian, or Black, do we really need these prefixes? What difference does it really make? On further thoughts, looks like Stereophile reviewers are not a diversified bunch. Again, I'm sure it's not by a conscious decision, but another example of the unconscious bias.

RvB's picture

"I wish our society will one day refer any man as a man without a color indicator. Latino, Asian, or Black, do we really need these prefixes?"

A very nice sentiment. But I've argued elsewhere in this thread that in the American South of 1939, which is when and where Dorothea Lange took the photo, this would have been wishful thinking.

We can't be sure whether, in Lange's mind, there was a profound racial subtext to the photo. But it's there regardless, and pretending it isn't does the cause of equality no good. On the contrary.

I'll refer you to my other comment for more.

tenorman's picture


James.Seeds's picture

Give it a rest, the man shared with everybody his journey in building a dedicated listening room that by the way looks great and I can only be envious, but you mongoloids chastise him about a print on the wall. Since when has it become a crime to describe something with the word "Black" and "South" you'd all probably complain to your congressman if the print was called Negro Athletico. And to point out that there are more men in Stereophile, wow, we have Sherlock Holmes in our mist, he just told you his family isn't interested in the equipment just like you're not interested in The View.

Ortofan's picture

... was it a just-over-five-figure cost (as in just into six figures)?
In other words, was the cost just over $999,999 or just over $99,999?

Anton's picture

No telling. I took it to mean just over 100,000....i'e. just over the 6 figure mark.

We will see, maybe!

RvB's picture

For now, a more [ahem] affordable one ("just into the six figures," as you say) will have to do. But yes, as a pedant myself, I have to concede the issue with my chosen phrase!

supamark's picture

I'm in the process of a whole house remodel (well into 6 figures but well under 7, ugh old houses) that includes the listening/drumming/recording room, and your ceiling in a lighter stain is exactly what I wanted but due to cost it's getting nix'd. It must be reviewer renovation season since Kal is also renovating, and like Kal we moved out for the reno. Unlike Kal, only half my house has a roof right now.

Mark Phillips,
Contributor, Soundstage! Network

PS, ignore the haters for your proper citation. And seriously, I so want your ceiling.

RvB's picture

Thanks. The roof of the garage was the only thing we kept. Of course that dictated the shape of the ceiling. The drywallers implied that it would cost a lot to drywall those large angled surfaces (I get it, it's awkward and tiring to install that stuff over your head) so I went with pine instead. Easier to handle.

Plus, I live in the Pine State so the material is plentiful and relatively affordable.

Before it went up, I had the pine stained to more or less match the caramel hue of the oak floor.

I like that where the pine boards meet, acoustic breakup occurs (more than with a smooth drywall ceiling anyway). That helps with the sound, too.

Might this scenario be cheaper than you thought?

Best of luck!

supamark's picture

of my ceiling that's the problem - I can't get it to peak like that due to the cost of framing it. At this moment my house is nothing but studs and half a roof lol. I was going to go with alternating 1x4 and 1x6 stained pine (I'm in Texas, so not far from yellow pine country in SE America) with bevelled edges for diffusion. It will be /-----\ instead of /\.

On the upside, it will be easier to play with diffusion and absorbtion up there (still 11 feet high), but at the cost of a promenent single standing wave instead of near infinite ones that even out for my floor/ceiling dimension. Oh, and I'm finally going to have to break down and get full size/range speakers (oh the horror, speaker shopping!)


RvB's picture

Dorothea Lange's own caption of her photo is "COUNTRY STORE, 1939. A group of African American men sitting on the porch of a country store, with the owner's brother standing in the doorway."

The reason she mentioned race isn't much of a mystery. We learn from looking at the photo, and reading the caption, that the owner's brother -- who towers over the porch-sitters and is the only person who doesn't look weary -- is white. Obviously the owner was as well.

Considering that the scene is rural North Carolina in the 1930s, I'm not sure that this is as immaterial as we would wish it today.

Lange worked extensively for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, observing and recording poverty, despair, and exploitation, but also resilience and dignity. Alongside Gordon Parks (who, in the spring of 2005, I had the honor of meeting), Walker Evans, and Lewis Hine, she is one of my favorite American photographers. Looking at their work and retroactively applying our color-blind ethos may feel comforting in an ideal world. But it'd be hard to argue that the American South in 1939 was an ideal world.

Neither is today's.

And I'd venture that all four of those titans would tell us that "not seeing race" perhaps misses a central point of their work.

Rogier van Bakel

RvB's picture

The caption I quoted was given by this website: I just noticed the text there had been altered.

In the interest of truth and transparency, this is Lange's caption as given on the website of the Library of Congress: "Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men are sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway. Gordonton, North Carolina."

Emphasis mine.

MatthewT's picture

Wish I had one like it.

John Atkinson's picture
MatthewT wrote:
Wish I had one like it.

I visited Rogier last July to measure loudspeakers, and his room is indeed a superb listening space.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor Stereophile

Anton's picture

Time for a "Real Audiophiles of...." series.

supamark's picture

Of all the trash TV out there, I would actually watch that. Or not, ain't none of us middle aged dudes pretty lol.

Anton's picture

On a good day, we are young old people.


bhkat's picture

Looks like a great space to listen to music. As someone who has been called the n word multiple times in the past, I see nothing wrong with your description of the picture. Some people are looking to get offended, those people can be ignored.

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for your entertaining and informative account of your extensive project! It looks——and no doubt, sounds—like a great listening room.

JRT's picture

RvB ... I enjoyed this article about the conversion of your old garage to a nice new listening room. Congratulations on a successful project.

On the subject of problematic interference from the 35_Hz Eigentone associated with the room's modal response standing waves, I suggest that you contact Bob Katz and ask him about his use of PSI Audio AVAA C20 analog active bass traps in his studio. He reviewed those in an interesting article in Stereophile published 01 June 2016.

Here is a link (copy/paste into your browser).

My understanding is that as of recently he was using those in the corners behind his listening position (rear corners rather than front corners). The corners are pressure nodes for all of the orthagonal room modes in a rectangular room, and so the corners on the floor are a good location for actively damping those modal resonances by interfering with the Eigentones.

Given that those AVAA C20 are still current product available new, and Bob Katz has gained years of experience in using those, a long term review follow-up would be interesting.

JRT's picture

As follow-up, I think that you might find interesting and useful, Keith Howard's article from 2008, "Anti-Node: Active Room-Acoustics Correction", at the following link (copy/paste the URL address into your web browser).

windansea's picture

I also use Class A in the San Diego winters to warm the room.
And Class D in summer.

windansea's picture

The wall behind the listening position seems awfully close. I have that problem in my living room, and reflections off the wall behind me are a problem.

My best listening room had 18 panels of Owens Corning acoustic insulation, maybe 2 inches thick apiece. Leaned one against the wall, with gap behind it, then another stacked on top. Covered in burlap. Looked HORRIBLE, deadened reflections so much that I could hear the purity of my stats (which as dipoles put out enough reflections without further assistance from hard surfaces).

RvB's picture

...when I listen to my reference speakers. That's where they sound their best, so I think I'm alright there. But it does vary with new speakers that arrive for evaluation. The chair is easy enough to move to where everything falls into place, soundwise; and like all of Stereophile's writers, I put in the time to find that sweet spot.

cgh's picture

Thanks for this report and a peak into your home. It was enjoyable. I hope you enjoy and good luck / fun with the tweaking!

I chuckle because I've been almost the mirror image: I decommissioned my dedicated room, which also included tubed and Focals. (The tubes and focals are in storage and I simplified with solid state and wilsons - side note: the focals and their nth order xovers were interesting with my tubed gear...)

Severius's picture

You have to be not stupid, but flat out mentally retarded to believe that. Rock on.

Trevor_Bartram's picture

I have Menieres disease so I know about hearing loss, it's not fun. Please do not play your wonderful system at ear splitting levels otherwise twenty years from now you'll regret it. I'm surprized nobody else picked up on this!

barfle's picture

Thanks for covering your room treatment story, and to hell with those demanding political correctness according to their own personal definition.

My latest (and probably last) room is asymmetrical and has a few non-parallel surfaces, so standing waves aren’t much of a problem, but like every room, some treatment is beneficial. I’m having my sister, who likes to quilt, make me a hanging for a reflection point on a non-absorptive drywall wall.