Acoustical Magic

I was doubtful. My listening room, which is also my office, has all sorts of odd angles, so any sort of acoustic panel treatment would be based upon best guesses. You see, sound from loudspeakers has a tendency to bounce off all sorts of surfaces, and not just once. It bounces off the carpeted floor, but it’s also absorbed by the carpet. So we have — and every room has — a combination of reflective surfaces and surfaces that absorb sound. Mine was more complicated because the room sits under an angled roof, so the area above the stereo system and speakers, and the area above the listening area are both ceilings that come down at about a 40 percent angle. Then, there’s the unpredictable carve-outs for two window dormers, one behind each loudspeaker, and two more carve-outs, one on each side of the listening area — one for the entranceway and the other for a tiny windowed cove filled with a wooden rocking chair. And, then, there are lots of books and records and shelves and two closet doors. Any attempt to measure all of this and predict the sound patterns is folly.

And yet, somehow, everything sounds pretty good. Very good, in fact. Not because we got lucky, but because several skillful technicians assessed the room several decades ago, and got everything right. Well, almost everything. The missing piece has always been the long wall behind the listening position. The lingering question has been whether to add an acoustic treatment — soft panels — to absorb some of the reflecting sound behind my head. Associated with that question — would the addition of panels deaden the room, resulting in less reflectance, but also, less of a lifelike sonic presentation.

One way to find out. Try it. Obsess by staring aimlessly at websites that explain everything without resulting in my actually understanding anything at all. I kept reading, kept researching, but ultimately, I needed to experiment with sound panels in my listening space. I looked at lots of websites, but the one that seemed most accessible and the most, well, professional in its presentation, was a Florida company called Acoustimac.

Their acoustic panels come in lots of sizes, and you can custom-order any size you want. I started by thinking about 12-inch squares, and I figured I would space them an inch or two apart. The whole area is about 15 feet long, or so, so I started thinking in terms of, say, 12 panels across and maybe 3 panels down for a total of 36 panels. Then, I started thinking about the amount of work that would involve, and decided not to build a matrix of smaller squares (though I did have some cool plans for a range of colors, as I will explain below).

Ultimately, it made much for sense to go for just two panels, each one two feet high and four feet long. Big difference from my original plan. I asked the company whether I should go for the two-inch thick panels or the one-inch thick panels, and I went with their suggestion for the two-inchers. Now, the question of color and fabric. Lots of options, but for my purposes, the standard DMD canvas was fine, and I paid $5 more for beveled edges on each panel.

It’s easy to get lost in the options: photographs, graphics, abstract art — whatever you want to see on the panels, they can make it. After pasting samples of dozens of solid colors on my wall — it’s behind my computer, and I did not want to choose anything distracting — I chose blue.

They shipped two panels. I thought it would be easy to connect them to the wall. I was wrong. This is beyond my skill level. Why? Well, they’re not heavy, but they are bulky, and they need to land perfectly straight, not hang like a picture frame. The way this is done is with French brackets that sort-of slide into one another. All of this required a professional installer, and, as it turned out, their special laser beam because (who knew?), my walls are not exactly even. Once they figured it out, mounting came easily.

Special thanks to Jason Bobb and the Soundvision team for excellent work on the installation.

Once installed, everything was easy. With fingers crossed, we turned on the stereo, and hoped we would not hear a newly-created mess. Would the vocals sound crisp and alive? Would the bass be unenthusiastic? Would the… you get the idea. Was all of this a good idea or a bad idea, or no idea at all because we should have left things as they have been (for decades)?

Actually, it was kind-of perfect. More or less, we moved any distracting reverberation away from that back wall, so the performers all took their proper places on the sound stage in front of us — in sort of a 3D pattern around the front of the room, not just from the loudspeakers, but as a real presence with greater focus and clarity (which was pretty great before). Somehow, it worked, first time out. It sounds terrific and now, I’m recommending this bit of sonic experimentation to anyone who is serious about listening to two-channel stereo recordings. Fascinating and fun. And, of course, always helpful to be surrounded by professionals — both on the Acoustimac side and also from Soundvision for installation.

Post-Script: After I learned about acoustic paneling, I started to notice it everywhere. Two of the many examples shown on the Acoustimac website are below:

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