My Quest for the Perfect Music & Home Cinema Experience
After 25 years of designing home cinemas for other people, in 2007 I was finally able to start building my own perfect listening rooms. Music has been my hobby since I was a teenager and my business for almost 30 years and so the construction of these listening rooms was to be the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
My aim was to create a range of rooms where I could share music and film at its very best. Many of my clients are musicians and professionals from the music and film industry and I wanted to show them a higher level of performance than even the finest studios could provide.
The space would also be used to test and demonstrate the latest technologies and to share these with fellow enthusiasts. As my first ever project with no constraints set by the size, shape or location of the room, every element of the building and the systems within it were to be of the highest standards.
The biggest development in home audio is the move towards fully digital systems. Sound reproduced in the digital domain has none of the background noise or loss of quality inherent in conventional audio systems. Think of the difference between tape or record and CD for example.
With fully digital audio systems becoming available, it was essential that our listening rooms be in a silent location. This photo shows where the listening rooms were built, well away from roads, buildings, flight paths and any other potential source of sound.
CHOOSING AN ACOUSTICIAN
With a peaceful location, the next task was to find the finest acoustic designer for one of the listening rooms I wanted to build. This project was intended to push the boundaries of audio and video quality and as such every detail within the building would be chosen to create a space where superlative sound and vision could be reproduced.
I have worked with many acousticians over the years and most are simply not experienced enough in the highly specialised field of small room acoustics. As such, selecting the right company for the acoustic design of our main room took a huge amount of research.
The company I finally settled on was Rives Audio. There are a number of things that attracted to me about their approach. Firstly the majority of their work has been for studios or for those looking for the finest music reproduction. For me the “Holy Grail” of home audio has always been the reproduction of live music and I find the standards in the music industry much more exacting than those in home cinema.
Rives Audio also appealed to me because they do not sell acoustic treatments. Many acoustic design companies exist largely to recommend the room treatments they sell, which creates a conflict of interest. Having heard several rooms with huge amounts of acoustic treatment, I was also very aware of the dangers of putting too much treatment in a room – something that Rives Audio didn’t appear guilty of.
The final thing I liked about the way Rives designed listening rooms is that they aim for a much more natural acoustic than is typically found in home cinemas. A reverb time consistent with a “normal” living room is what I was looking for as this creates a more natural sounding room for both music and film.
THE ACOUSTIC DESIGN
Creating a listening room within an existing structure will always produce compromises that I wasn’t willing to hamper the efforts of my acousticians in any way.
Building on a brown field site meant my new building could be any width and length, with the only restriction being a ceiling height of up to 4m. As such Rives Audio choose virtually every element of my dedicated listening rooms design, construction and finishes as well as its principal dimensions.
After a many conversations and dozens of emails, the design of the dedicated listening room was agreed upon as below. Fully details of the room’s design can be read at the end of this article, but for now a few things worth noting are:-
- The front wall is treated with absorptive material – Rockwall
- Side wall diffusers, made of Medite were included
- Floating “Acoustic Clouds” were specified, again made of Medite
- Floor to ceiling bass traps would hang in the rooms’ rear corners
- Bass trapping is also provided across the whole ceiling void
- The room was designed with a hard floor in mind
I’ve included a few photos of the project but there is little of interest here to share. My project was a little late, slightly over budget and started leaking the moment it was built due to an incorrect tanking membrane specified by the architect.
My only advice for anyone taking on a build like this is never; ever employ an architect or a builder without thoroughly checking both their insurances and references first.
So was it worth the wait?
Overall I’m very pleased with the end result, mostly for the performance I now enjoy but also for what I have learned in the process. Generally the money was well spent except for a few exceptions which I’ll come to shortly.
One of the things that surprised me most about the systems is that with such a peaceful location and quiet rooms I’m now hearing nuances and detail in recordings that I never knew existed. I’m surprised at just how acute my hearing is – now I listen in such a quiet space and to such exceptional systems.
I have had dozens of musicians, audio engineers, composers and audio professionals visit and many have commented that they too are hearing more detail in their own recordings than in the studio when it was being mixed.
Most important for me is that regular music and film lovers feel the same way. Better audio and video quality for its own sake is of no interest to me. What is important is the way this translates to a greater sense of involvement in the film or music you are listening to.
Many people are actually moved to tears by what they see and hear which I’m sure would make the artists very happy indeed.
For anyone looking for a high quality home cinema, my advice is to spend as much time researching and auditioning as many options as possible before committing to any product, designer or installer.
If you don’t do you own research you are vulnerable and will most probably be recommended the most expensive, most profitable products available, rather than the most suitable for your project.
A good home cinema should be in use for at least 10 years and so is really worth thoroughly researching. Trust your own eyes and ears and you will save yourself a fortune and end up with a much more enjoyable system.
One huge distinction that is easy for the novice to miss is the difference between companies who are expect in audio and video performance and those whose skill lies in integrating and automating systems. The two are completely different skill sets and typically a different company will be required for each.
In spite of how much audio equipment the UK produces there is no manufacturer, shop or show you can visit where you can experience truly life like music and surround sound. While audio enthusiasts may enjoy the equipment they collect, audio professionals or anyone intimately acquainted with live music simply will recognise they simply aren’t realistic.
The hifi industry perpetuates the myth that good equipment will give life like audio and this is measurably and sonically incorrect. Conventional audio systems can provide good quality results with a combination of room design and treatment, careful product choice and careful optimisation and calibration of the system.
Alternatively Steinway Lyngdorf audio systems can be used in conventional rooms for truly accurate results. Typically this requires little or no acoustic design and treatment.
The real surprise is that in spite of a huge amount of time, effort and money being put into the design of one particular purpose built listening room, it is the Steinway systems in the other untreated spaces that provide truly life like sound.
Having spent a huge amount of time and in excess of £30k on the acoustic design and specialist build of this room, I now feel this money was wasted – except for what it has taught me.
I am now certain that regardless of how well a room is designed, truly accurate sound quality cannot be achieved without some form of electronic full range room correction. When the right room correction is used, many of the expensive additions to a room that an acoustician would recommend should not be used and will actually reduce sound quality.
The only audio equipment I know of that you can buy that has the fidelity and the quality of room correction to deliver do this, are the all-digital systems made by Steinway Lyngdorf. When this equipment is used, no room treatment is typically required for optimal performance.
A year ago I delivered some components to British Grove Studios which is regarded as one of Europe’s finest studios. I heard my favourite “Brothers In Arms” track in 5.1 on the very system and in the very room it was mixed on. This should have been acoustic Nirvana.
After listening to one track I commented that it sounded bright. I would never have believed that my hearing was acute enough to pick up on the shortcomings in one of the finest recording studios; however the engineer conceded that it was about 4db up at 4Hz.
Like my main listening room, this recording studio was clearly built to the highest standards by one of the very best engineers in the business; however the fault in either the system or the rooms’ acoustics was immediately apparent. This same engineer subsequently visited our facilities and within seconds of hearing the Steinway Lyngdorf Model D Music system in a completely untreated room, remarked how natural it sounded and how “it bought his own recordings to life”.
I don’t have great hearing. I’m quite sure yours will be as good or probably better than mine, however having lived with Steinway Lyngdorfs truly accurate music and film for 5 years, I had the confidence to critique a system of this quality after a brief listen.
The systems I listen to here in untreated acoustic spaces are simply far more accurate than any studio I have heard because the technology they employ.
QUOTES FROM RECENT VISITORS
“In 20 years as a musician, these are the most life like music system I’ve ever heard.”
“Absolutely amazing, the best demos I’ve ever heard or seen”
“It really was like being there at the performance.”
“This system simply puts other every high end system I’ve heard to shame for a fraction of the cost. A real bargain. I want one.”
“It’s like nothing I have heard before. It just makes you smile.”
“I don’t have the words in my vocabulary to convey just how good that set up was. Let’s just say, that everyone sat there in awe”
“I could feel my jeans and shirt moving…..it was just incredible!”
“The bass power is beyond belief; it is quite literally breath taking.”
“This was by far the best film watching experience I’ve ever had, no other home system, cinema or IMAX cinema has ever come close.”
“A visceral experience but such good fun to hear and FEEL.”
“The Steinway Model S sounded better than any other system I’ve ever heard.”
“The bigger Steinway system was breath taking……the sound was immense…..the bass was unreal I thought there must be bass-shakers in the sofa’s.”
“Both Steinway set ups were the best I’ve heard for home cinema, the smaller system just defied everything I’ve previously read about audio. Very small speakers, about the size of a hard back book, placed in a large room with no acoustic treatment and they sounded so big and clear”
“The scale, dynamics and clarity of the soundstage was a joy to behold. We are talking truly reference.”
“Simply stunning. And the music playing in the movie ‘Project X’ sounded like you were right in the middle of a night club!”
“The Steinway systems! I was expecting them to be fantastic but they totally exceeded my expectations, especially the little Model S. That system is spell binding, I’m not going to try to explain how it sounds but it’s so different to any audio reproduction system I’ve ever heard. Anyone who is into their music/movie systems really needs to experience it for themselves.”
“My shirt and my trousers were flapping!”
“If I was to have a cinema room in heaven, I’d gladly accept any of these systems”
“I have been to lots of AV shows and had many demonstrations of excellent home cinema systems but what I heard and made most of those memories pale into insignificance.”
MORE ABOUT THE SPECIALIST ROOMS ACOUSTIC DESIGN
So what did the acousticians’ skills achieve?
There are a number of basics that have been very well taken care of in this room that anyone who has a basic understanding of home cinema acoustics would recognise. The front wall is acoustically “dead”, with the addition of a Rockwall covering. This helps reduce the reverb time a little and ensures that at the critical front soundstage, all you hear is direct sound from the speakers.
The rest of the room largely consists of hard surfaces, with diffusion on the side walls and ceiling. All this work is critical, but it is basic stuff that I would have addressed anyhow.
SIDE WALL DIFFUSION
To me, this detail has been a resounding success. The sounds you hear from the sides of the room are critical in creating a realistic soundstage. Lexicon did a huge amount of research on this subject decades ago and it is an area I find lacking in 99% of surround systems as they simply don’t surround you in sound.
The hard, diffusive side walls ensure that sound from your front speakers will bounce of the side panels creating a more immersive experience. There is a trend these days to think “I need some acoustic treatment” with little knowledge of what or why something is required. I now see many systems compromised by the addition of absorptive wall treatments which will actually compromise sound quality.
The side wall diffusers in this room recommended by Rives Audio show how to do the job right. With their inclusion and the use of Tripolar surround speakers, this room provide the nearest thing I’ve heard to a seamless 360 degree soundstage.
With the high ceiling in this room and the relatively short listening distance, I see these as being nothing more than expensive decorations. These were a bad idea and a potential source of rattles.
The bass traps hang floor to ceiling in the rear corners of this room. The ceiling also had 60 or so bass traps hanging in the void above it. To me this is biggest and most costly mistake in the design of the room. Let me explain…
When the room was completed I used the MK 150 speaker system for initial testing as it is a combination used in the production of many film soundtracks I would be demonstrating and one I have installed in hundreds of different rooms.
First impressions were not good as the room sounded bass light. The quickest solution was to add subwoofers until we were using 4, dual 12” subwoofers to achieve the quality and volume of bass I was looking for. This combination created good, but not great results and it seemed illogical to use so many subs to produce bass and to then absorb most of their output with bass traps.
After much trial and error and talking to Rives Audio they advised I take the bass traps out until I achieved the low frequency I was looking for. After months of testing, I ended up removing 95% of the bass in now provided by a pair of our own custom designed sub bass systems.
Compromising of two floor to ceiling stacks, each with 4 x 18” drive units in bespoke room-matched enclosures, each driven by 10,000watts of amplification, the result is quite literally breath taking. With final calibration and equalisation with REW, the result is the deepest, most powerful sub bass system you will ever experience. Recent visitors have commented that the audio in this room goes beyond trouser flapping and has become “hair parting”. With useful bass down to 5Hz and 130db sound pressure levels, this is a system that any movie lover must experience to appreciate what is possible in home cinema reproduction.
In the past I had never advocated the use of bass traps and the design of this room only reinforced this feeling. For me bass traps are an antiquated and very low resolution solution to a high fidelity problem.
The World’s Finest Music & Home Cinema Systems
…..waiting for you to enjoy.