Building a Listening Room

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Loudspeaker cables,
Room treatments
Building a Listening Room

By one standard, this room’s design and construction are expensive and elaborate. But it is by no means the state of the art. One can spend a lot more money on a room’s construction and AC power. For example, Magico founder Alon Wolf spent $250,000 building the factory’s listening room (it looks and sounds magnificent). I know people who have spent on their AC ground more than I spent on my entire room—it involved, in part, a copper ground rod buried in an electrolytic slurry of precise chemical composition that must be constantly kept moist. One can spend seven figures building a listening room. Wonder what a multimillion-dollar room looks like? Go to to see what’s possible at the state of the art.

I chose a construction technique that I thought would give me the best performance for my budget. Unfortunately, building a listening room as part of a house entails financial demands from the room simultaneously with the substantial financial demands of building an entire house. During the many long hours working on the listening room, alone with my thoughts, I wondered if what I was doing was worth the expense and effort. Did I go far enough? Did I go too far? What details had I overlooked? Would the room sound any better than a conventional room? I know several audiophiles who have built expensive dedicated rooms that sounded awful. Until you set up a pair of speakers in the room and listen, there’s no way to know how the room will sound.

So, Was It Worth It?
It was thus with great anticipation that I listened to the first music in the new room. I brought to the house the system I’d been living with in the temporary space—Piega C711 speakers, First Watt F7 amplifier, Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series2 MQA, Aurender W20, Berkeley Alpha USB, Wireworld cable. It took only a few seconds into the first track to hear that this same system sounded dramatically better in the new room. It was a wholesale transformation, not a matter of minor improvements in a few areas. The sound had a solidity in the bass, a sense of effortlessness on dynamics, and an expression of music’s rhythmic flow that I had not heard before from this equipment. There was a quiet between the notes that heightened the impression of realism.

But it was only after living with the reference system (see sidebar) and its much deeper bass extension and wider dynamic scale that I came to fully appreciate the room’s contribution (or more precisely, lack of contribution) to the sound. For starters, bass in the new room is extremely linear, smooth, and highly resolved in pitch and dynamics. The Wilson Benesch Eminence loudspeaker has extraordinary bass articulation on its own, but I could hear that the room was allowing this speaker to reveal nuances of texture, dynamic shadings, and pitch that I’d never heard before on familiar recordings. Every new LP or digital file was like a voyage of discovery, hearing detail in bass lines that had previously been blurred—the individual notes had been relatively undifferentiated in timbre and pitch.

Kick drum, the rhythmic foundation of much music, had a solidity and dynamic impact that were startling. Instead of the kick drum sounding like a low-frequency thump, the system conveyed details about the mechanism by which its sound was created, including the beater hitting the drum head and the resonant ring of the drum. I could hear fine detail in the lowermost octaves. Moreover, the sound of kick drums varied more from recording to recording than I’ve heard before, suggesting that their “sameness” I’ve experienced in the past was the room’s sonic signature imposed over the drum’s sound.

I could use just about any piece of music to illustrate this precise sense of pitch, bass articulation, and dynamic agility, but I’ll choose one that many of you are undoubtedly familiar with and one in which the sonic improvement rendered a large difference in musical perception: “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from Paul Simon’s Graceland. The track starts with just the gorgeous vocal harmonies spread out across the soundstage, then the lone guitar, and then the drums (a couple of pick-up beats on low-tuned toms) come in followed immediately by the remarkable fretless bass guitar playing of Bakithi Kumalo. I’ve heard this track on many systems, but never one like this. The suddenness of the drums was startling, and the fluid bass playing pulsated with energy, vitality, and the joy of music-making. This sense of life continued throughout the song, anchored by the tight kick drum and Kumalo’s extraordinary inventiveness in playing his instrument. It was absolutely sensational and thrilling. This precision in the bottom end was apparent on just about any music, and proved a defining quality of the new room.

Several years ago when reviewing a speaker with heroic cabinet construction, I used the term “self noise” to describe how the speaker didn’t seem to add a low-level “chatter” or chaotic noise to the music. The speaker had a spooky sense of realism, with instruments appearing seemingly out of nowhere with startling immediacy. The speaker also resolved very low-level textural and spatial cues that were lost by most loudspeakers. As a result, the sound had a delicacy and density of information that accurately conveyed instrumental timbre, while also vividly portraying the size of the recorded acoustic and the spatial perspectives between instruments and between the ensemble and the surrounding hall. I’m hearing those qualities in the new room, and I speculate that it’s because the Iso-Wall structure is doing for the listening room what the inert speaker cabinet did for the loudspeaker—reduce the low-level chaotic motion that imposes a threshold below which information cannot be resolved.

Hi-fi systems have always seemed to me to change their character on loud peaks, or when the music is played loudly. On the peaks the sound congeals; individual instrumental textures tend to be smeared into a single big sound; and the sense of space collapses. The sound on peaks becomes less liquid and more mechanical, the music losing the pristine clarity the system is capable of delivering during quieter passages or at lower volume. I had always assumed that this was simply part and parcel of reproduced music—a characteristic of amplifiers being pushed, or the mechanical structures in loudspeakers reaching their limits. We’ve all had the experience of bracing ourselves, or tightening up, anticipating a loud passage on a familiar poor recording that is shrill or distorted. I think that we tend to do that on a micro scale on any recording simply because of these expectations. But hearing the system in the new room made me realize that much of this congealing of the sound on musical peaks is the room distorting, not the speakers or amplifiers. After the bass clarity and dynamic fidelity, the next most dramatic and musically significant aspect of the room’s performance is the absence of this phenomenon. High-level peaks maintain the same clarity, resolution, and timbral quality of the lower-level signals. I had the feeling that an artificial limit had been lifted from the music, allowing its full dynamic expression. Moreover, peaks had a sense of ease and effortlessness that encouraged higher playback levels and simultaneously greater relaxation and involvement. And so I can play the system louder and still maintain the sense of ease and clarity of individual musical lines.

After discovering the importance of the listening room’s contribution to sound quality, I consider it another component in the signal path and will list the ASC Iso-Wall System as part of my reference system in future reviews.