Getting the most out of your hi-fi – Part 3

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Just upgraded a component and wanting to hear the difference? How do you get the best out of your system? We take a closer look at the finer details of hi-fi.

Room acoustics play a large part on the sound characteristic of your hi-fi. To assess the acoustics stand in the middle of the room and clap your hands once, loudly. An acoustically dead room will produce no echo. A lively environment will create a ringing echo. This assessment is important when thinking about how to change the room acoustics. A room with lots of flat surfaces, large windows and wooden flooring will create more reflection of the sound and therefore more echo. Some reflection is good for the musical imaging, but too much and sound will be bouncing off all walls. Not good at all.

reflections2Generally most people will not want to kit out their listening room (or ‘living room’, as those not of an audiophile persuasion sometimes call it) with endless amounts of dampening foam, sound defusing boards and bass traps sticking out of the room corners. Fret not: there are much better, ‘partner friendly’ solutions to creating studio style acoustics.

Imagine all of your walls are mirrors. Now imagine all the reflections the flat walls give. Sound works in much the same way light does: flat surfaces (mirrors / walls) reflect much better than soft furnishings. As previously mentioned, some reflection is good for creating a wide soundstage. Side walls bounce the sound so that it would seem the music is coming from outside the room. This can create a very wide soundstage. If instruments and musicians are getting thrown all around, making it difficult to pinpoint their position, try adding soft furnishings, such as wall hangings or curtains, either side of the speakers.

Too much reflection from the rear wall can cause the sound to bounce back, and cancel out certain frequencies. This is called a standing wave – the wave of the sound moving towards you is completely inverse to the sound bouncing off the back of the wall. What is sometimes worse is if the soundwave bouncing from the back wall is in phase with the sound wave coming from the speaker. This effectively doubles the power of the soundwave, creating artificially amplified frequencies. This can sound boomy or harsh, certainly not a desired sound characteristic. The easiest way to stop this happening, in all forms, is with more acoustic dampening. Much like the side wall reflections, wall hangings, curtains or uneven surface furniture (such as bookcases or cabinets) can dampen any reflection and improve the sound.

As for vertical reflection, a bit of height usually works well. If the room has sloping ceiling, take note of the rear wall reflection tips mentioned above. Wooden floors are usually a bad influence on hi-fi sounds, but this can be overcome quite simply. A rug positioned in front of the loudspeakers will stop the downward reflection, creating a more realistic soundstage level with the ear. Once again, imagine the floor as a giant mirror; if you could see the speaker in the mirror, then usually some form of dampening should be considered. Loose pile rugs, as well as looking good, work a treat.

Myself, like a lot of traditionalist audiophiles, have an increasingly large collection of records. If you are lucky enough to be in the same position then you also have a fantastic rear wall dampening device. Open storage units, much like the type you get at Ikea, filled with records have uneven surfaces and disperse the sound effectively. Bookcases filled with books, CD racks, any type of storage or display case (excluding those with glass-fronted doors) work well.

Much like speaker placement, there is no exact science to room acoustics. The key is spending some quality time listening, moving things around, then listening some more. Trial and error being the key term. Some people will prefer a very muted room, whilst some will prefer lively acoustics. Myself? I prefer a wide soundstage, helped with quite flat side walls. However I do appreciate good dampening in the back of the room (where I sit), as this helps give a more accurate and dynamic sound.

Let free the interior decorator inside yourself. Get creative and your hi-fi can have a whole new lease of life.