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KIH #2: Removing the room

  • A day after penning KIH #1, the notion of an ongoing column arose. Kinda like I’d done a decade ago with the short-lived Auroville for Positive Feedback. Or the longer running Y Files for SoundStage! Of course all columnists fret. One day they’ll run out of things to say on the very subject they’ve pinned their column to. KIH for keep it honest would seem to have legs. We’ll see how far those legs agree to take us.

    Though it’s often more lip service than action, in our heart of hearts we know. Our room is the biggest culprit, the biggest disturber of the peace. Nothing affects frequency response as violently as our speakers do. How they elect to interact with our specific environment is entirely unpredictable. Shy of acoustic treatments or DSP/analog compensation, our only options are where exactly we place our boxes and where our seat ends up relative to them. But there’s more. Irregular absorption versus reflection affects our room’s decay signature. Certain bands will be more damped, others more lively.

    Add that we weren’t in the mastering studio to compare the live microphone feed to the approved master file. Neither did we compare said master file to the final CD in our hand. Nor to the file we downloaded from Qobuz. How do we know what anything is supposed to sound like, exactly? If we don’t know that, what do we aim for? By what means do we judge our progress?

    Using a non-amplified live event as reference is a joke. What venue? What seat? And unless it was a Jazz trio or single girl with guitar, chances are the actual ensemble wouldn’t fit into our room to begin with. Andreas Vollenweider’s band I heard in Montreux occupied space at least 4 times the width of mine. And why use purely unplugged music as reference like the American magazine The Abso!ute Sound proposes if most your favourite music contains at least amplified bass guitar if not e-guitars driven into deep distortion?


    The moment I see reviewers talk of “transparency to the recording”, I cringe. Unless the writer recorded it, he couldn’t possibly know. The best we can do is schlep the same tired old recording from show to show, shop to shop, friend to acquaintance. If we hear it over as many systems as possible, it produces a well-educated but still averaged guess. That’s far better than nothing but still cloaked in unnecessary colorations.

    There’s a far easier more convenient solution. Headphones. They’re still no absolutes on linearity but clearly massively superior to loudspeakers. Conventional headphones use a single driver with no crossover. That’s the exotic widebander faith without filter network phase shift. Now it’s simply liberated from the room’s imprint and offers far better more extended bass. By removing the biggest bloody variable of them all—what our room does to the frequency response and how its non-linear absorption and reflection values shift decay rates—we’re getting far closer to hearing things as they really are on our source material.

    Obviously unless they were physically floating at some distance, headphones can’t stage much wider than the space between our ears. They only move air inside the ear canal. There’s no in-room pressurization on our skin, no gut attack from violent bass transients. And there’s no natural cross feed. With speakers both our ears hear both speakers. With headphones each channel is assigned to just one ear. From all this follows that the headphone presentation is fundamentally different.

    For our purposes however it matters not. Key is taking the room out of the equation. That immediately shows us a far more nude reality stripped of enhancements, bloat and arbitrary colorations. Particularly below 500Hz we’ll hear what’s really going on; what the relative balance of things ought to be. Superior headphones run off proper headphone amps (or quality sockets on preamps, DACs or integrateds) also reveal minutiae which speaker systems tend to obscure.

    If you’ve ever measured the consistent background din of your room during the day, you already know. Hitting 40dB is a happy number. That means any signal quieter than that gets mixed with noise even though you’ll hear your room as normally quiet unless a lorry rumbled by, some neighbour slammed a car door or your air con went off. If you can get closer to 30dB during the night, you’ll be living far out in the countryside with zero traffic. Lucky you. Most of us don’t.


    Headphones with a solid seal around the ears eliminate a lot of that. Presto, a free win in dynamic range on the micro end of the scale. That means keener visibility on the tiny stuff. If you go back to your big rig now and don’t hear some or lots of it… at least now you know. Ditto should your speakers miss bass extension and pitch intelligibility. Does your room overdamp the upper harmonics because with headphones you hear far more on-string action and longer spiderwebby decays? Are lyrics easier to follow over cans? Did resolution go up?

    The list of what to inspect can get quite lengthy. Though it’s not a perfect or complete inspection, it’s terrific feedback on how to keep it honest. If in the end certain things about the headphone experience don’t meet your approval, you should at least be able to more clearly articulate what your speaker system does better/differently/worse. Now you’ve voiced it that way on purpose. You didn’t inherit it by acoustic accident or because of how your components decided to interact on your behalf by pure chance. That’d be the tail wagging the dog.

    This type of insight is very useful. Whenever audiophiles converse, one of the biggest stumbling blocks beyond ego is understanding what the other person means. The less specific we are, the more vague and useless our comments get no matter our helpful intentions. It’s as though we were talking our own language just to ourselves. Even if you prove ultimately mis-wired for appreciation of the very different headphone perspective and gestalt to never use it for pleasure (some people just can’t get used to it or love it on its own merit!), owning one good headphone will open up new insights. What’s on your recordings? How does your room change things? What might you like to do about it all? Knowing that is empowering. KBO. Keep buggering on!

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. One thing that’s always mystified me is some supposed audiophiles who say, “I don’t use EQ.” Every room, every set of speakers, every set of headphones, and every listeners’ ears are at least slightly different. I have a DAC and headphone amp attached to my laptop that also provides a line-out signal for my 2.1 desktop speaker rig. I use a different foobar 2000 EQ preset when I’m using my headphones than I do when I’m using my speakers and subwoofer. It’s basically a given that my 2.1 speaker rig is going to sound different than my headphones because there are so many different variables. To me, there is generally always a benefit to using a small amount of EQ to compensate for characteristics of the gear, the room, or just my own hearing ability. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the use of EQ.

    2. My first rule of hifi is, whatever pleases you is right. All the rest is wanking. Unlike mastering engineers who use hifi as a tool to inspect and perfect their work, we are in it (should be) for pleasure and self gratification. More fidelity or adherence to theoretical ideals needn’t conflict with that. Whenever it does, I simply vote for pleasure over conformity to abstract ideals and ‘looking hifi respectable’.

      I’ve experimented with very heavy DSP -based speaker/room correction. Certain things got obviously and lots better (particularly the sub 500Hz band’s linearity) but other things like flow and energy transmission suffered. Too much digital attenuation seems to kill something and I hear the same with on-chip digital volume controls used outside their ‘harmless’ range. A future KIH feature will be about that.

      On my Astell&Kern AK100, the digital EQ turns out to be quite sucky over headphones. It immediately throws a blanket over things. It even affects the digital output. That doesn’t mean the EQ concept itself is to blame, just that this particular implementation isn’t that sophisticated. The whole deck is $699 so that should go with the turf.

      I think that mild equalization strategically done can be very effective. The difference between a full and lean sound for example can often be a very small difference in just the right area. Whether doing lots of it digitally doesn’t steal too heavily from Jane to pay Bill I’m not sure yet. I’ve not reviewed enough of such product to have enough experience.

      In your case you have a clear preference for using what sounds like mild equalization. That in itself settles it. You like it better. You win. -:)

      All this type of hifi discourse can so easily derail into rigid do’s and don’ts when the real issue is personal enjoyment. All the unwitting rules & regs that measurements seem to throw up so easily can cripple people from experimenting for themselves and defying certain rules & regs just to see what might happen and whether they like it better or not.

      One kind of EQ I enjoy a lot is what Simon Lee built into his Eximus DP1 and Stello HP100MkII headphone amps. It’s analog and only operates in the bass where most headphones crap out. My Audeze LCD-2 are natural-born bass masters who get ridiculously elephantine with that boost. They don’t need it. But a lot of other cans really benefit not by turning into silly bass monsters but by depicting more scale and space just like what a good subwoofer does that only handles the first octave and isn’t dialed to boom but just to sneak in some ambient data which otherwise are inaudible.

      The longer I’m at this hifi thing, the more I appreciate how little I know. This column isn’t meant to be a ‘Ask Doctor Ruth The Expert’ pulpit. It’s meant to share a few basic things I’ve learnt or begun to suspect to (hopefully) encourage people to question certain things and try out different ones. And the interactive nature of John’s site means I get to learn from readers too. That’s a win/win.

      It’s weird that one has to first become some sort of ‘authority’ only to tell people ‘trust yourself and go with what feels right’. If you screw around with your car and don’t know what you’re doing, you might have an accident or kill someone. If you screw around with your hifi, the worst that could happen is that it makes no sound. Since here we’re not talking about DIY and modifying stuff where you might electrocute yourself, the really worst thing that could happen is that you don’t like an outcome. So you just put it back the way it was before.

      I appreciate that this wasn’t a formal tech response to your question but that’s how I feel about it. I find headphone and speaker listening to be two very different things and live music another thing altogether. I can enjoy each on its own merit and in general don’t use EQ except for Simon’s. But if I come across something tomorrow that does a better job than expected on the EQ front, you bet I’d use it -:)

      Finally there’s the issue of being a reviewer and reporting not from some idealized place nobody can relate to. If I had professionally installed acoustic treatments and an abnormally large room, whatever I report on wouldn’t be applicable to folks living in normal rooms without such treatments. If I used cosmetic surgery via EQ to correct for review loaners, nobody else would hear ’em that way unless they used their own compensation (which would be different from mine).

      I thus prefer to keep it simple and basic so it’s easier for readers to step into my shoes. That’s also why I take lots of pictures of my room. It gives you a sense for the layout and size so you can correlate to your own situation and triangulate a bit. It also explains why I don’t really use EQ. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t -:)

      • Interesting – the ‘blanket’ induced by the Pro-EQ setting on the AK120 I find preferable to EQ being switched off (which on some cans is just too lively up top).

    3. Purists will probably scoff, but I sort of miss those bass and treble knobs from the old-skool integrated amplifiers (Luxman, Leben, etc). Maybe we’ll start seeing more forms of (hopefully non-destructive) DSP built into DACs as a whole. Settings for bass, treble, warmth, pre-ringing, etc.

      I remember some of the Fujifilm digital cameras offering filters that immitated slide film (Velvia, Provia, etc), so maybe we could see tube filters on the digital side one day. Obviously it wouldn’t as good as the real thing, but I wouldn’t mind making a compromise and getting an all-in-one DAC/headamp unit if it offered up some sort of simulated Mullard midrange or Leben-esque wetness.

      • This is what I was aiming for when I wrote about Instagram filters being an enjoyable colouration. An audio equivalent would likely be equally popular…but licensing brand name attribution for Mullard/Leben/whoever filters could be a hectic legal proposition for any manufacturer daring to pick up the challenge.

      • Is the iFi Audio iTube (which sits between the DAC and the amplifier) not already one of these tube filters you seek?

        • Yep, quite probably. A second pair of interconnects needs to be factored into the purchase though.

    4. We’re already seeing more or less comprehensive EQ facilities in powered speakers from the likes of Genelec and PMC. Boenicke Audio’s active bass systems run on Italian PowerSoft modules with very adaptive software-controlled EQ. Check out my industry feature on 6moons on my Boenicke ‘factory’ tour. There’s a screen shot of the PowerSoft interface in there that shows what’s possible for little money. There are other powered speakers which come with their own measurement microphones and auto calibration based on a range of measurements. And then there are any number of software plug-ins which can be seated in PureMusic or Audirvana (I’m sure also in equivalent Windows player software but I’m a Mackster for music) that can EQ your passive main speakers all over the place.

    5. Dirac was exactly who I had in mind. XTZ from Sweden has a small active speaker with Dirac DSP on board. Didn’t know though they’d teamed with Amarra. Clever. Clayton Shaw of Emerald Physics used PureMusic’s plug-in panel and FabFilter to run speaker and room correction via TeamViewer remote access when I reviewed his speaker. That was my first hands-on experience with massive DSP correction supervised by someone with experience. It’s a few years later now so one assumes much has happened on that front. Definitely something to look into -:)

      • Yes – and there are also the DEQX chaps just up the road from me here; they offer speaker correction and room compensation DSP solutions. They do some of the US shows and are about to launch a new digital pre w/ onboard DSP (I believe).

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