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KIH #6: (Over)-loading the room

  • OMG. That needs no deciphering. Except to explain what context to say it in. Today I’ll suggest something I’ve thought about and worked with over the past year. To come right out and say it plain, big speakers suck. WTF?

    Generalizations are never right. Neither is this one. Let’s qualify to make sense. If you have a normal-sized 15′ x 24′ or 5 x 8m room and particularly if you listen on the short wall, your nearby front corners can trap so much energy as compound pressure zones that significant resonance and compression effects bleed into your midband and treble performance like an overcast angry sky. The key phrase is loading the room. Too much speaker for the room always does that. And one thing you don’t want to do is load the room. The notion of ‘room lock’ as a desirable pursuit is utter folly.

    That little speaker with a sub below 47Hz (2nd-order low-pass) played this big space with aplomb!
    That little speaker with a sub below 47Hz (2nd-order low-pass) played this big space with aplomb!

    We’re back to KIH #2. With a good headphone you can easily gauge how much mud, opacity and coloration your room creates particularly below 500Hz. If you wanted a similarly clean, transparent, quick and communicative sound from your speakers—you may not–a good 6” 2-way monitor or something slightly smaller won’t move sufficient air to become problematic. But it’ll still extend low enough to blend with a subwoofer at or below 50Hz to remove THX-style 80Hz handover issues. A single sub in the centre of the front wall is sufficient to fill in the bottom octave without introducing the same corner loading issues a ‘good for 20Hz’ monkey coffin would.

    For speakers the last/first octave really is the costliest challenge. A difference of 10 cycles could mean a surcharge of €5’000 – €10’000. It also impacts size and weight too. Growth in girth, height and footprint diminishes your options for room placement. The vertical space taken up by your tower of power also obscures portions of the soundstage. At least psychologically it’ll be ‘in the way’. More physical mass equals more energy storage potential. That’s heavier box talk. And connecting or combining large-amplitude mechanical forces to a midrange and tweeter was never the hottest idea to begin with.

    And we haven’t yet considered how a passive good-to-20 speaker has no means to adjust its bass should your room overload. Nor how such a box becomes far more demanding of your amplifier. It’s really easier (and cheaper) to obtain a refined small amp. To get equivalent refinement and speed from a muscle specimen is a different proposition. Its need only arises from the self-inflicted misery of having to drive big beastly boxes in the first place. Hifi is filled with cures for DIY ailments.

    The smart money should consider a compact 2-way speaker instead. Delegate the low bass to a self-powered subwoofer with low-pass adjustments to well below 40Hz. Perhaps it even sports a bass boost at 20Hz to compensate for leakage with lossy house constructions. Such a threesome will play it far cleaner, transparent and linear; look more attractive; ease the burdens on associated amplification; and cost less.

    Despite greater than usual sidewall distances, Boenicke's B10 still created more midband reflections and concomitant darkness than I found ideal for my space.
    Despite greater than usual sidewall distances, Boenicke’s B10 still created more midband reflections and concomitant darkness than I found ideal for my space.

    It’s a win/win all around. The missus is happier. The space feels better. It’s less dominated by hifi to return to your main room its missing ‘living’ function. No more sonic stickum to enclosures. Soundstage scale goes up. So does overall intelligibility. That means you needn’t listen as loud to hear everything. And you’re back in control of in-room bass balance, not held hostage by primitive passive boxes without controls. Your muscle amp budget can pursue a small luxury amp. Not feeding that amp with the back electromotive forces of burly woofers makes it sound mo betta still.

    What’s the fly in our OMG ointment to make it an over my grave veto? A few interrelated things. Whilst the right good small speaker can play plenty loud for these purposes, it won’t ever move as much air as a big box. If it’s the physical skin assault you crave, this won’t do. By not loading the room, the overall sense of pressurization regardless of volume won’t be the same. For transparency that’s vital. But if you’re used or addicted to pressurization effects, it’s the same no-go. Another side effect of a big speaker’s stronger room interactions can be greater subjective warmth. That’s often equated with more sonic substance or density. The headphone comparison previews once more whether you’re a good candidate for our proposed threesome. It’s bound to play it more denuded and pure than a big speaker that interfaces in unpredictable ways with your room. If you’re used to that however, you might not lust after the ‘headphone in open space’ concept.

    Finally, don’t discount the benefits of a true infrasonic subwoofer by pointing at a traditional twosome as the religiously appointed only way to do proper stereo. Our sub’s primary duty is to recover spatial cues tied to very long wavelengths. Yes low bass will extend lower too if and when it’s on the recording. But that’s actually secondary to the improvements on space and scale you’ll hear even on music which lacks primary LF data. With nearly 10 different rooms across my hifi career, I’ve never once obtained bass as linear, extended and non boomy as I do from a proper powered sub.

    Before most audiophiles can open their minds sufficiently to contemplate this approach, they must drop or at least temporarily set aside conditioning around the topic. Subs have gotten a bum rap as primitive home-theatre explosion devices. Few audiophiles use them purely for the lowest octave. That makes all the difference. Small monitors are assumed to be dynamically compromised. That returns us to our prior KIH feature on SPL. Acquire a tablet SPL app to know how loud you play. Aside from a few head-banging exceptions, this should be quite sobering relative to the usual propaganda and what it means for speakers that support your actual requirements.

    Two-way speakers have another leg up on their three-way competition. The all-important midrange isn’t filtered twice (top and bottom to hand over to tweeter and woofer respectively). If you don’t think that matters, ask a few speaker designers. If they’re honest, they’ll admit how much harder it is to duplicate their best two-way’s midband performance with a more-way.

    Today’s threesome proposition has a final wrinkle. Your two-way monitor (or compact floorstander) could become a tweeter-augmented widebander. That means a midrange driver of unusual bandwidth. This can push the tweeter crossover frequency above 6kHz to fall outside human hearing’s most critical zone. As you’re no longer needing such drivers to do low bass, you can avoid big rear horns and similar band aids. This opens doors which remain otherwise closed but could be entertaining and satisfying to explore. Especially for routine low-level listening the 94dB+ sensitivities of many widebanders can be a real boon.

    The li'l ones again. Because they literally worked better than the 4 times costlier B10, I traded the latter for two pairs of the W5 minis. In case you thought I wasn't walking this talk.
    The li’l ones again. Because they literally worked better than the 4 times costlier B10, I traded the latter for two pairs of the W5 minis. In case you thought I wasn’t walking this talk.

    To conclude, too much speaker for the room is probably the commonest most counterproductive mistake we as audiophiles make. Saying no is the first step to sanity and greater satisfaction. Once you watch what you thought were intrinsic room issues dilute or vanish because the speaker suddenly plays rather than fights the room, you’ll be all smiles. Chances are so will be your wallet. Enter old Chuang-Tzu. Easy really does it. 

    Further information: Boenicke Audio

    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. Hi, while I may not have gone as small as your pictures show, I recently bought a pair of Zu Soul Superflys to replace my Klipschorns and am really enjoying the change. I have a largish room with the speakers on the long wall and good bass was almost non existent with my 20W valve amp at reasonable listening levels. The Zu’s have solved that.
      The Klipschorns used to be my fathers and were in a small room. We used to enjoy sitting a pair of Videoton Minimax’s (6″W and 10″H) on the top and my friends used to think it was the ‘horns they were hearing. Always good for a laugh! As in a lot of instances, less really is more.
      regards, Ian

    2. hee hee, you should hear what tannoy 15 inchers do to a 20 sq mt room.
      94 db plus sensitive wardrobes however are ideal for low level listening in the same spaces.and yes,room lock is an aural obscenity,and so is butyl bass.
      from rome

    3. I still retain a number of bigger speakers than the W5 but except for the AudioSolutions Rhapsody 200 I’m really down to exclusively 2-ways. And that suits me best.

      Next month I’ll be moving to new digs twice the size. I’d be very surprised if I changed my mind. But with moves you never know until you’re settled in and fire up the system for the first time. Fun and games ahead. I hope -:)

    4. I’ve been pondering a 2.1 setup for quite some time now. I’m looking to add scale and deep(er) bass to my standmounts. I’ve resisted dealer recommendations to go with floorstanders. I’ve been in this game long enough to know that in my 10 x 15’ untreated room that would most likely be a mistake.
      I think I came to the conclusion that I was a “standmount guy” many years ago after borrowing some B&W 801s and KEF 105’s. I felt no sorrow after returning to my diminutive BBC monitors.
      Your article has reinforced my decision. Now I need to decide if I start looking for a sub to go with my current monitors or start with a clean slate and get a 2.1 kit. I use an El Cheapo ($150) but surprisingly listenable Klipsch Promedia 2.1 in my office and and sometimes wonder what kind of sound 10-20 times that amount could buy.
      I’d like to avoid having a honking BIG BLACK CUBE spoiling my current minimalistic setup. Something like the REL Habitat 1 “looks” interesting but it’s not cheap.
      Not sure about setup either. For instance REL and Velodyne appear to have two different approaches.

    5. Depending on whether your mains are ported or sealed, you’ll be looking at a 24dB or 12dB per octave roll-off. Ideally your subwoofer’s low-pass slope would match that. In my experience subwoofers work far better than their reputation if used primarily for just the bottom octave. That means they need to have a variable low-pass filter that goes down to at least 40Hz and ideally lower. It also means the mains ideally should be solid to 55Hz and perhaps be -3dB down at 40Hz. In such scenarios I don’t hear big subwoofer integration issues. I use my Zu Submission line-level via a second pre-out from my preamp. And its output is set quite low but with a narrow bass boost at 20Hz.

    6. Srajan, after 15 wonderful years with my reference rig centered around SL’s Vivaldi’s taking up the entire living room, I have swapped tv and music rooms. I now use a pair of Kef LS-50’s in a very small room. The reference rig was like a Formula One Car; fantastic, but all you could do was get in, drive fast, ,and concentrate, and the music had to be played at the right level or it was pointless to sit and listen. My new, small system has an intimacy that lets me enjoy music at lower volumes and is killer on voice and acoustic instruments. And yes, due to the small room size, it plays plenty loud enough on Rolling Stones music. So you and me are both “two-way” guys now. Warm Regards, Craig

    7. Hiya Craig. Perhaps simplification is a sign of maturity? Young men like fast cars, fast women and are impressed by how many notes a guy can play in one bar. They go to really loud concerts and like to impress themselves and their mates with their hifi. Specs are important, more power is better and so on -:)

      It seems the road to eventual balance must first go through boredom with excess – which most of us can’t circumvent theoretically or by observing others but have to actually do. So for many of us being impressed by simplicity tends to come later in life. But better late than never, eh?

      Hope you’re enjoying your new setup. Are you still in the Bay area or Sonoma County?

      • Hi Srajan , nice to correspond. Lavish Hi-Fi in Healdsburg is over two years old; I regret not being able to advertise w/ you, but I don’t make those decisions. After much acoustical work, my “little room” now sounds like a pro, near-field control room. I even managed to effectively use and blend in a good little sub, but it took all my accumulated knowledge and great effort to overcome the LF problems that are at their apex in small, almost square rooms. But I have it now, and it offers as much or maybe more involvement than my reference rig did; the quality of intimacy w/ the music is intense and even holds up at low volumes , unlike my former system. It’s a very refreshing change and has put me back in very close touch with music on a daily basis.Best, Craig

    8. Srajan, this is very interesting! And after reading 6moons for a couple of years, I’m ready to trust you – your opinions generally seem to be very well-founded. I’m just wondering about the music. As you mention, small 2-ways + sub won’t be great for “physical skin assault” at ear-splitting levels, which is pretty obvious. But what about other large-scale music, such as orchestral music? I still have some doubts there.

      It seems like high-end 2.1 systems are rare – is it because designers are conservative, or customers, or perhaps both?

    9. Orchestral music actually has little information below 40Hz though it’s particularly hall data that seems to come to the fore with an infrasonic subwoofer. And tympani and such will gain in majesty and general as you’d expect. So yes, a 3- or 4-way speaker might have the advantage on not getting confused at all when things get dense and busy whilst the simpler filters of 2-ways can retain general clarity advantages but compress a bit during mayhem. So it’s important to ask oneself how often one partakes of Bruckner or Mahler or Strauss spectacles at serious levels vs. less complex fare. If large-scale classical is a main part of one’s diet then perhaps the 2.1 approach isn’t the most ideal. As you can probably figure, I do very little large-scale orchestral as I find it too big a playback disconnect in a normal living room.

      That said, my Dutch writers Marja & Henk own the Avantgarde Duo Omega as well as the Arcadian Audio Pnoe. The former are proper 3-ways with active bass systems, the latter is a single-driver very big horn. Their main system uses the Pnoe (good to about 45Hz) plus my Zu Submission sub for the bottom octave. And their room is a solid 100sqm large. With the right 1- or 2-way speaker plus sub even big orchestral comes off well. I’ve been to their place.

      In the end most 2.1 systems use their subwoofer over 2+ octaves. If you only run the subwoofer over one octave or less however – *that’s* when things change in its favor at least to my ears…

    10. Srajan , of all the acoustic tasks a fine system needs to accomplish, pour moi anyway, proper tonal balance, neutrality, open-ness, dimension and above all voice quality rate above the challenge of “scale,” a challenge generally not met by most’big’ systems, and when it is, usually accompanied by a lack of intimacy, tone color, and naturalness. I just heard a 200k$ system yesterday that could play at live levels. Yes, but there was no ‘sonic surprise,’ everything sounded the same. Even then, anytime you try to reproduce a very large space inside of a much smaller one, it is a sonic anomaly that also is a bit problematic. In a big room, a top floor-stander optimally placed is very desirable, but in smaller rooms, the high-end compact monitor type loudspeaker is a far more pleasing alternative once one stops thinking of a stereo as a glorified P.A. system; big mistake!

    11. Srajan,
      So nice to discuss relevant audio topics w/ you instead of the usual off-course discourse one often finds. I have been submitting articles to, one in the January issue, and in the current March issue on which I’d love your feedback. How do we get audio specialty manufacturers to realize that they all have more in common than different? Have you seen my group and fledgling site or the excellent the ?I urge all involved with 6 Moons from any angle to help in bringing all the positive energies together. PONO deserves a huge hurrah whether or not it fits a particular perspective. I’ll say this from down in the trenches; the public is finding out about DACS and hi-res PCM now, and this can only be seen as fabulous. High-rate DSD may be even better, but confusing the public again about formats as this industry has historically done is the worst possible idea at this critical juncture .

    12. Saw your article on ETM. Very nice. I moved house yesterday and just got my PC up and running – and even have sound even though it’s still shitty.

      The potentially huge thing about Pono is a new Apple-type iTunes stores called PonoMusic except with uncompressed and potentially even hi-rez music. Of course Qobuz and Bandcamp already exist and so do others but to the average user they may still be too esoteric as music sources. Again I agree, Pono looks like a terrific venture to introduce better sound using ‘ordinary’ music–i.e. not audiophile crap–which regular folks love. It’s potentially the biggest thing to happen to music consumption since the iPod -:)

    13. If I read the tea leaves correctly, the hi-res flowers now popping up in the digital music garbage dump could ultimately turn the dump into a flower garden. Pono and all the other energy may or may not be successful on their own, but if the public could be mass- informed of the low cost of memory simultaneous along with mass awareness of hi-res music, it could all eventually cause I-tunes to offer hi-res. The fact that the Pono player can store 1600 tracks at @24/96 FLAC should be a good reason to leave the compressed storage of Mr. I-Pod goodbye. Yes, I know that I-pod classics can sound good, but I have little doubt that the sound quality of the Pono player and the material provided will be vastly superior, and the other, smaller I-pod models are much more popular at this point.

    14. Well, the current Pono Kickstarter campaign shows without a doubt that there’s audiophiles out there who didn’t know they were. It’s been an audiophile credo that only exposure breeds desire for better sound. Now a campaign spearheaded by a recognized musician backed up by proper marketing again focused on recognizable musicians adding their endorsements informs people that better sound is available than they currently enjoy… and purely on the strength of that promise (and the low price of the Pono player) they commit to a purchase of what they haven’t yet heard.

      In short, the very act of being informed activates them into audiophiles as folks who give a shit and desire better sound but didn’t know it until now.

      We all agree that audiophilia has done a poor job of informing the masses. Pono demonstrates another outreach, except this time by musicians addressing their own audience neatly bypassing the tech-centric audiophile press and dealer network. We’ll only know how many signed up when the Kickstarter campaign closes but it seems set for a record run. Which is brilliant news. There’s tons of audiophiles out there just waiting to be activated as the current sleeper agents they are -:)

      • Yes, it might awaken some of those dormant audiophiles but whilst I applaud the motivation and the delivery, I think there a better ways of awakening those souls, especially when you think about the money needed to get up and running with even a modest Pono music collection ($2k-3k).

    15. John, any and all efforts to raise the level of generally available sound quality should be supported, considering how far down the median has dropped. And if we can enable mass awareness of the benefits of better sound, then why should it be just for the few anyway? If all this PONO and other hi-res noise compels I-tunes to offer hi-res, then we will have won the battle. If the public shows little interest in better sound despite all efforts, then batten down the hatches; when the boomers go bye-bye, so will audio specialty business. No one in any position of influence should be anything but supportive of Neil Young’s battle to “get back to where we once belonged”.

      • Yes, his message is good and I applaud it….but it’s a BIG opportunity missed. Mastering quality has a bigger impact on SQ than hi-res audio. So does the hardware we listen on. Most of my non-audiophile pals listen to music through their TV or laptop speakers. That for me is a waaaaay more pressing issue than delivery format. Underneath Pono’s hi-res message is that good sound quality is expensive! $1500-$2500 for 100 albums! There are more effective ways to expose people to better sound and that (in my mind) starts with their playback hardware choices.

    16. No question, the quality of the original recording dwarfs the choice of playback format; a great recording cuts through everything. But it would be impossible to start from the mastering end. I do hear though, that there is some movement in the upper-level pro recording community to set a standard for a good-sounding recording. No, the benefits of hi-res won’t really help crap gear, except maybe in some instances motivate the owner(s) to upgrade the stereo ’cause there’s obviously so much more music on hi-res than the bare bones of MP-3. To an extent, as much as marketing matters, it’s the sound of the music itself that will drive this whole thing to fruition , and the improvement in sound will be most evident and meaningful on good playback equipment. The success or not of hi-res will go hand in hand with what gear people use to explore these greatly improved offerings, and also with an understanding that fast food on the go and sitting down to a great dinner are completely different experiences. If nothing else, folks will be able to know they are hearing the difference after a short exposure and comparison to the current abysmal standard.

      • But if Pono’s aiming at the mainstream, do the mainstream have the equipment to resolve the improvement in the jump from MP3 to hi-res? Will they see the value in dropping an average on $20 per Pono album when they can stream almost ANYTHING in MP3 for $15 /month?

    17. John, the improvement in widely available sound quality must accompany the presentation of hi-fi and ‘sole activity’ music listening in a new and far more relevant light, re-inventing the now tarnished image of hi-fi as a highly pleasurable wellness tool ,
      the “organic food” of music enjoyment . whereas MP-3 ‘s deficiencies classify as the “fast food” This , in combination with the 24/192 audio feed, may well compel a surprising number of people to return to the original thrill that can only be obtained one way. I much prefer to be in the ‘glass half full’ group and spread the positive message.

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