Context. Readers don’t listen to loudspeakers in a field or anechoic chamber. And neither do reviewers. When eyeballing loudspeaker assessment, or that of gear hooked into a loudspeaker system, should we not ask: how much do we know about the room in which the review took place? It’s a question every reader should ask, if only as part of his/her internal dialogue.
At one end of the hifi publication spectrum we note (manufacturer supplied) photos of the product in question sat in isolation under studio lights or in a heavily visually styled space (for lifestyle shots). These photos might look slick but they’re not necessarily informative. The context of the room is missing. At the other end, we see sites like 6moons who always show the hardware in situ.
Self-shot images of loudspeakers, electronics and especially the room in which they are listened to, they throw open the windows on a review. The reader can then relate the reviewer’s room to his/her own. How are they similar? How are they different? Conversely, showing in-room shots can have a downside: they open the door to prejudicial asshattery from certain quarters of the Internet. 🙄
A big/ger listening room will, in the main, acoustically accommodate big/ger speakers. Conversely, a larger room is where smaller loudspeakers will sound lost, tepid, weak in larger rooms and/or scream for subwoofer intervention.
This reviewer’s Berlin apartment is cut by concrete walls into four rooms and a hallway: bedroom (Schlafzimmer) and bathroom (Badezimmer) upstairs; kitchen (Küche) and living room (Wohnzimmer) downstairs. A kitchen-located spiral staircase takes to an upper landing.
The bedroom hosts the headphone rig where it’s possible to sit and gaze out over neighbourhood rooftops as I listen. Look – you can see Potsdamer Platz from here. To the left, the Die Welt hot air balloon goes up and down from dawn till dusk.
The living room is where the loudspeaker system sits. Measuring 6m x 5m, it’s not quite as large as the room I used down under.
A smaller room generally means smaller loudspeakers. Welcome to standmount city. For this reviewer, that means a pair of KEF LS50, in passive and active ‘Wireless’ versions, and ELAC’s Uni-Fi BS U5.
However, with proper wall clearance, ELAC’s floorstanding Uni-Fi F5 also work nicely. Pushing SPLs northwards with Berlin’s most ubiquitous music genre – techno – means putting a sock in the lowest of each of the ELAC’s three rear-firing ports.
These aren’t this apartment dweller’s only options. As discussed by Srajan Ebaen in a recent KIH post, loudspeakers with dispersion patterns that interact less with proximate boundaries or those that use DSP to feed rear- and side-firing drivers that cancel early reflections will also work.
It’s not just a (semi-)active world. Previous experience with passives from Magnepan and Spatial Audio confirm their out of the box dispersion patterns are small-room compliant.
And if passives don’t play ball, it opens us up to investigations into room-correcting digital pre-amplifiers (G’Day DEQX, Ni Hao AURALiC) or a Dirac-infused integrated (Hello Arcam). With these products measurements become inescapable.
Ceiling height matters too. The bedroom and living room offer identical dimensions – and could have been swapped over – but the bedroom’s higher ceilings proved too tough to tame.
A slightly lower ceiling downstairs meant less echo, particularly once the walls on three sides were peppered with the most basic of acoustic panels, corner bass traps and vinyl. The biggest down turn in room liveliness was netted by lining 80% of the hard-wood floor with three super-sized IKEA rugs.
The floor-to-ceiling windows that sit behind the listening position proved unresponsive to foam panel coverage. Perhaps the distance between window and sofa is just right. Or perhaps it’s because this glass rear wall and the concrete front wall aren’t parallel; perhaps the rear’s inward slope sends the majority of reflections downwards?
Whatever the real reason, bringing the loudspeaker plane forward, closer to the listening position, allowed me to hear more direct sound and fewer room reflections.
The room still isn’t perfect. In all but the listening position it sounds too lively. The addition of a bulky armchair and yet more vinyl and books will no doubt help. For all but loudspeaker and loudspeaker amplifier testing, this is where headphone listening comes into its own – the room is removed.
The hardware you see in the header photo isn’t all that exists at the DARhaus. A recent visit from a well known loudspeaker manufacturer representative led him to observe with some degree of disappointment, “I was expecting Jodrell Bank!”. An out-of-shot storage area keeps things tidy – this apartment is a living space as well as a place of work.
Keeping things tidy also helps us maintain focus – that the room is more critical to sound quality than any component sitting therein and that it’s all too easy to lose ourselves in a sea of hardware A/B testing; that’s my job, yes, but it sits beyond the scope of this post.
Sometimes we need to take a step backwards and observe our hifi world with a wider lens. Readers might ask the same of their preferred reviewer/s. This is my (new) German world. Herzlich willkommen.