Our ongoing investigation into how home audio is changing in 2014 has unearthed a surprising nugget of sonic wisdom, for those of us who are trying to take home audio just a little more seriously. Now that legitimate digital music services sound so good, fans no longer have to put up with dodgily-encoded MP3s from Napster and the like — and so it’s worth it, for many of us, to give our music the sonic respect it deserves, whether we want to spring for new player hardware or not.
The single most important thing you can do to improve your sound is to improve the physical mechanics of its reproduction — mainly, your headphones or speakers. It’s always worth paying more for either of these than you think you really should, because nothing else can make your tunes sound better (i.e. stirring, soul-restoring, inspirational, mind-blowing, empathetic, mournful, joyful, and everything else it can make us feel) than making the conversion of ones and zeros into vibrating air as clean as possible.
We asked renowned audiophile and author of The Audio Expert Ethan Winer for some advice to share with our readers on the best thing they can do to improve their audio quality in the home. According to him, the answer has nothing to do with electronics:
“The single best way to improve audio clarity is to add some acoustic treatment to the room,” said Winer. “Even one 2×4 foot acoustic absorber panel placed at the key place on each side wall will improve the clarity of music enormously. Most ‘average’ people have no idea about this, and most probably wouldn’t consider adding panels in their living room or bedroom anyway. But it’s the correct answer. Serious audiophiles and home theater owners do understand the importance of room acoustics, and some have extensive treatment.”
He’s talking here about preserving the clarity of the sonic image. Here’s a simplified version of what happens when you listen to two speakers in a room (image via Acoustic Fields):
By some estimations, only a tenth of the sound you hear from your speakers reaches you directly. The rest of it bounces off your walls, floor, and ceiling before it reaches your ear. The above is actually a pretty big reduction of what’s going on, but it depicts the primary reflection points, which are the biggest deal, because they’re the loudest.
Sound takes time — a lot of time, compared to, say, light — to travel through air. When some of the sound representing your favorite song reaches your ear directly as the crow would fly, and some of it bounces off your walls, different versions of the same sound arrive at your ears arrive at different times. There’s a word for this: “muddy.” No matter how good your speakers are, your music’s not going to sound crisp if it’s strongly reflecting before it gets to your ears.
Audiophiles like Winer take this stuff far more seriously than the normal or even advanced music fan A) wants to, and B) is willing to pay for. The average person does not want to live here just to fight echoes, and is probably not willing to invest in lots of foam to place on their walls.
As such, Winer’s recommendation that people who want better sound in the home put a relatively small acoustic absorber (he means something specifically designed for this, but you can also use a tapestry, easy chair, or anything else to absorb some of those primary reflections.
To find the right spot, consider the location of your speakers and the place where you usually listen to music. Sound reflects sort of like light, so imagine where you’d see your speaker if there were a mirror on the wall, and put the absorption material, whatever it is, where that mirror would have to be to let you see your speaker from your couch, or wherever else you listen.
Doing this might not be the most fun you’ll have all week, and it doesn’t even involve the purchase of shiny new electronics, but assuming your speakers are okay, it’s the best way to get better sound in your home.