So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 5
As Trinnov’s Jon Herron mentioned in Pt. 4 of this series, when you sit down to watch a movie or listen to music, the sound generated by the electronics and speakers is perceived in three key ways. Firstly, there’s the sound that travels straight from the speakers to your ears. Secondly, there’s the sound bouncing off the walls, floor, and ceiling one, two, or three times, which takes a slightly less direct path to your brain. Then there’s the fainter echoes and reverberations that ping-pong around the room.
Every room generates its own mix of those three elements. It’s what makes your room sound like your room—its unique sonic fingerprint. But here’s the thing: It’s also what makes your room sound decidedly unlike the claustrophobic interior of a submarine or the rolling dunes of Tatooine or the craggy and cavernous wastes of Cirith Ungol.
That’s one of the main reasons I selected the Trinnov Altitude 16 home theater preamp/optimizer to serve as the centerpiece of the trade-show booth’s audio electronics. But as Jon pointed out, to fully deal with all of the acoustical issues in a room, you need a combination of digital signal processing and passive acoustical treatments. The rule of thumb is that you should strive to absorb about 20% of the reflections and scatter 25% of the reflections from the walls and ceiling. You would generally place more absorption toward the front of the room, and interleave the absorption and scattering materials.
That last point was one of my biggest sources of stress in helping to design this room—or at least, it’s the source of stress that stands out most in my memory. Why the stress? Because at this point in the design process, my co-conspirators—Mike, Melinda, and Marcelo—were spending most of their time talking about midcentury modern furniture, lighting sconces, draperies, throw rugs, and other floor coverings. And all I could think was, “These people are going to murder me right in my neck if I start hanging egg-crate foam on the walls.”
Still, if we wanted the speakers and electronics to transport attendees to other worlds (or at least more interesting corners of this world) with minimal distraction from the room’s temporary and non-traditional construction, I knew we would need some sort of acoustical treatments. So, I reached out to Anthony Grimani—former Dolby Labs and THX exec and current owner of PMI (Performance Media Industries, Ltd)—for his guidance in treating the room as best as possible without making it look like a recording studio.
Anthony Grimani explains how a diffuser works
Not only was Anthony’s advice invaluable, but his company also just so happens to manufacture exactly the sorts of treatments we needed for the room. We did go back and forth a few times on placement, trading renderings until absorbers were optimally placed to deal with first reflections on the walls and ceiling, and diffusers at the back of the room to randomize reflections into a sense of reverberations and create a more enveloping listening environment.
Even after we had the passive acoustical treatments specified and virtually placed, with instructions passed along to the booth construction company, and a followup visit scheduled by Grimani to fine tune the placements during installation, I have to admit that I was still nervous about all of this. In my final rendered sketches of the room, the treatments just sort of looked out of place. They didn’t, to my eyes, evoke the living room environment I knew everyone else on the design team was shooting for.
Those fears were allayed the first time I actually laid eyes on the space once it was fully constructed. And they were further allayed as the first attendees filed into the room for a demo. As the first movie clip came to an end, I heard a woman at the edge of the room lean over to a friend and whisper-yell, “I love the 3D sculptures on the walls. They’re so abstract but so pretty!” It took me a second to realize she was confusing Grimani’s diffusers for artwork.
Lessons learned here: Sometimes you can’t plan for every single contingency when designing a home entertainment space. Things in the real world don’t always look like they do in quick 3D sketches. But just as importantly: Don’t assume that performance-oriented design choices will necessarily conflict with décor-oriented design choices. In the end, the acoustical treatments I was so worried about wound up giving the room a funky modern vibe that worked great with the look we were going for. And if we’d had more than a few weeks to work on the design, and if we knew then what we know now, who knows? We may have even made the acoustical treatments the design focal point of the room.
Granted, in the real world, that means having conversations with interior designers about the benefits of acoustical treatments, their physical design, and where they need to be placed for optimal effectiveness. But ultimately, all of the pieces that come together to create a luxury entertainment space should be a collaborative—not an antagonistic—process. No necks need to be murdered in the creation of any room.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.