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Return of the audiophile

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As more and more people opt for purist audio systems, installers need to consider acoustic treatments more than ever before, writes Anthony Grimani.

Great news! The audiophile is making a comeback!

Recently, I have seen a strong worldwide resurgence in the demand for both 2-channel and 5.1 or multi-channel systems with high-end components, where the focus is on pure audio performance rather than aesthetics or high-tech integration.

There are a number of possible reasons for this – social, economic, and technological, but it’s a good thing for our industry, regardless.

We’ve all done our share of custom dedicated home cinemas. They are fantastic when they work properly, but it’s tremendously challenging to make that happen. As a result, more and more clients are avoiding them; they just don’t want the hassle or the expense.

An audiophile system can present a better solution – for them and for you. The products are typically high-margin, so you make money on the front end (literally and figuratively). Plus, the systems are self-contained and vastly less complex, resulting in fewer automation and integration headaches. The goal is a purist, bullet-proof system where the audio signal path is as clean as possible and the music comes on when you hit the power button and play!

One thing that does not change, however, is the need to address acoustic issues in a room. In fact, with an audiophile system it is more important than ever because the room’s sole purpose is to produce great sound!

Such a room is still an enclosure that causes standing wave resonances. These need to be treated with bass traps effective down to 30Hz. The wall boundaries causing correlated mid and high frequency echoes must be addressed as well, with absorption  and scattering/diffusion effective down to 250Hz.

Every time you sell a system, you must sell acoustical control. It’s every bit as much a part of the system as a pre-amp or speakers. You wouldn’t sell a system without those, would you? And, just like any other component, there are specs you should know for acoustical tuning treatments. Absorption should be made of dense fibrous material and should be at least 10cm thick to ensure it works effectively down to 250Hz.

It’s a common mistake to assume that thinner panels absorb less sound. The thickness of the panel has little to do with the amount of sound absorbed. Rather, it affects the frequency range over which the panel operates.

Thinner panels only work at higher frequencies; if you use them, you can mess up the spectral balance of the system. The same concept is true for diffusers. They should be more than 10cm thick to work effectively down to 500Hz.

Ideally, all of these acoustical units should be positioned according to an engineering review. Absent that, there are a few rules of thumb to follow.

First, absorption should cover about 10-20% of the wall surfaces. Diffusion should account for another 20-30%. Absorption and diffusion should both be distributed evenly around the room, not crammed in one or two places. For instance, don’t put all the diffusion on the back wall like we did in the 1970s. In fact, it’s actually better to cluster absorption near the middle of the back wall to catch front speaker reflections bouncing back to the listening area.

Second, it’s not terribly useful to put anything but mid-bass absorbers on the front wall, as the speakers radiate few or no mids and highs in that direction.

Third, bass traps should go in the corners, where standing wave pressure is highest. Be wary of resistive absorbers (fibre or foam-based) that claim to work on bass. To effectively absorb low frequencies, you need 1m thick material, or you need some kind of mechanical or resonance-based device.

After observing something of a lack of effective and affordable acoustical treatments on the market a few years ago, yours truly decided to develop a line of products to fit the bill. (These are now available in Australia through Wavetrain – www.wavetrain.com.au) In fact, we’ve put together something called the “Audiophile First Aid Kit” that’s designed to get audiophiles and dealers alike started in the world of acoustic treatments effectively and painlessly. Each kit contains six SWETP-S abfusers that work to both absorb and scatter sound from mid-bass all the way up. Below that, two spring traps handle bass absorber duties quite well down to 30Hz – even if I do say so myself!

The trend back toward audiophile systems provides an excellent opportunity to sell acoustical tuning products.

Custom home cinemas were always a challenge in this regard, because interior aesthetics are so important to so many clients. However, there is a pride of ownership factor that takes over for audiophiles; they want their attractive and expensive audio components to be on display for everyone to see. It’s part of the overall experience.

Acoustical tuning – whether it’s the First Aid Kit or something much bigger and more exotic – can be part of that, too. In addition to improving sound quality, it enhances the performance-first look-and-feel of the room. Performance, after all, is what audiophiles are all about! 

About Anthony Grimani

Anthony Grimani

Anthony Grimani is president of PMI, Ltd., a home cinema engineering firm, and MSR Acoustics, a manufacturer of fine acoustical tuning systems. MSR is represented in Australia by Wavetrain (www.wavetrain.com.au).

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