Home Entertainment Systems New London CT
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More and more homeowners are taking the plunge and purchasing high-end home theater or sound systems with the hopes of kicking their home entertainment experiences into the stratosphere. But after researching various products, sound-testing them in audio showrooms and writing big checks, many buyers are frustrated to find that once these systems are set up at home, they don't sound nearly as good as they should.
That's because, as industry professionals know, a system's speakers and electronics contribute only 50 percent to the quality of the sound. The other 50 percent can be attributed directly to the acoustics in the room in which the system is placed. In other words, you can buy the most expensive sound or home theater system in the world, but if you set it up in a room with bad acoustics, it's probably going to sound like a $99 boom box.
Acoustics is something most people don't notice until it's a problem, says Russ Berger, president of Russ Berger Design Group, an acoustical and architectural design firm based in Addison, Texas. Berger should know: His firm has serviced some of the country's most renowned recording studios, in addition to maintaining a solid client base in the residential market.
The acoustical ambient environment in the room will have much more of an effect on what you hear and perceive than what is coming out of the speakers, Berger continues. A poor-to-mediocre system can sound its absolute best in a good room. On the other hand, with an expensive system, it doesn't matter how much money you throw at the electronics. In a bad room, it's always going to sound bad.
So what exactly is acoustics, and what does it mean for homeowners?
Contrary to what many people think, acoustics is not simply an item applied to a wall or ceiling. While this can be a part of the process, it's more than that. Acoustics is an applied science, Berger explains. It's a function of the existing constraints of the space, the expectations of the homeowners and the limitations of what we can actually do.
How sound bounces around and blooms inside the room, how the noise within the space is controlled and how the sound that is generated inside the environment is isolated are all factors that acousticians experts on solving acoustic problems take into consideration.
What works in a large room, such as a performing arts facility, doesn't really apply to homes, which are much smaller. The biggest challenge in small rooms is that they tend to have resonance in the bass region, because the room is really an acoustic cavity, like a loudspeaker, says Anthony Grimani, president of Performance Media Industries, a Fairfax, Calif. "based audiovisual consulting firm that specializes in home systems, production, broadcast and audio recording.
When you play music in them, some notes resonate like crazy. They bloom in the room and stay there much longer than other notes. So instead of the bass being nice and tight and even and smooth, it just gets thick and unintelligible.
Room bloom, to coin a term, is a result of the characteristics of sound in a room with reflective surfaces. When you're sitting in front of a speaker, you're hearing both direct sound, which comes right from the source, as well as sound that is reflected off the room's walls, known as reverberant sound.
Reverberation is the refusal of a sound to die. In a room with a long reverberation time, sounds bounce from wall to wall to ceiling to floor, old sounds mixing with newer sounds and making music and speech unintelligible. On the other hand, a room with too short a reverberation time is perceived as acoustically dead. The ideal is somewhere between that of a concrete parking garage and a carpet store (see Taming Reverberation on page 58).
To achieve the desired results, acousticians use various techniques to promote the diffusion and absorption of sound. Diffusion redirects and scatters sound to improve the listening experience, while absorption reduces bright reflected sound. To diffuse and/or absorb sound, acousticians can use:
Reflective surfaces such as well-angled walls
Absorptive materials, which are specially made acoustical treatments
Diffusion surfaces, which are more specially made acoustical treatments, often with raised surfaces.
If you are able to shape the space, you are able to promote diffusion and create reflective energy when you want it, and reflect energy away from where you don't want it, Berger explains.
While some specialty treatments may be applied, acousticians also take into consideration the elements already in the room. There are standard materials that are absorbent, reflective and diffusing, Berger says. Hanging paintings on the wall, putting up tapestries, angling the wall to create elevation differentiation on the wall, putting up a bookcase and filling it with books all these things are, in essence, part of the acoustical palette that change[s] how a room is going to sound.
Solving Acoustic Problems
Depending on your needs and budget, you have a number of options available to you if you want to improve a room's acoustics. As Berger described above, you can use bookcases, carpets, paintings or tapestries to improve the way a room sounds. You also can install acoustic treatments. If you're handy, you can make your own acoustic panels, or you can purchase and install decorative panels and treatments from such companies as RealTraps and Echo Busters.
RealTraps makes a variety of acoustic treatments, including freestanding 9-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide MondoTraps and 2-by-2-foot MiniTraps, which are installed at the tops of walls and in corners. Prices range from about $110 to about $270. Echo Busters makes a number of decorative acoustic treatments, including wall-mounted Echo Busters and Double Busters, as well as Corner Busters, which you can place in the ceiling corners. The panels are available in a wide variety of colors and are priced from $165 to $600.
In an effort to address interior design, some acoustic treatment manufacturers have come out with acoustic panels that are disguised to look like art. Acoustic Innovations Maestro Panels, for instance, feature solid hardwood frames and decorative fabrics in a variety of colors. And Gershman Acoustics makes acoustic panels with stylish fabric designs that can integrate with the dcor of a room.
If you're outfitting a dedicated home theater or entertainment room, you may have to think a little larger. For example, PMI, through a partnership with the MSR Inc., distributes CinePanel, an acoustic treatment package for home theaters that provides sound absorption and diffusion. Homeowners can install the treatments, although a professional installer is suggested. Kits are available for five standard room sizes, with costs ranging from $3,200 to $6,100.
When budgets allow, Grimani suggests that acoustic treatments be hidden almost entirely. To me, the best look when there are speakers, woofers, acoustical treatments and wires running along the walls is to build a cloth layer in front of the real wall that is 6 inches offset from the wall, and hide all of the materials behind that layer, he says. With this approach, the cloth layer simply looks like an upholstered wall.
If you're more serious about your home's acoustics, you can hire an acoustician to assess your home and provide consultation, acoustical analysis and testing, and system design. Grimani explains that his firm offers a number of services to homeowners who are in the process of building home theaters. These services include:
Room sizing and layout
Speaker positioning in the room
Correct positioning of all of the listening seats
The implementation and placement of acoustic treatments to control sounds bouncing around the room
The implementation of a sound isolation system to make sure the room does not transmit sound and vibration out to the rest of the residents, or the other way around.
To determine what they are dealing with, acousticians measure background noise reverberation and electro-acoustic frequency response. Instruments such as spectrum analyzers, signal generators, digital volt meters and test microphones all reside in the acoustician's toolbox.
According to Grimani, focusing on achieving good room acoustics is only half the battle. If you put very good speakers in a room but the room has no acoustical control it's noisy and has sound isolation problems, where you hear people walking around upstairs the performance will not be up to the potential of the gear, he says.
That's why, Grimani says, many of his clients enlist his firm to handle the acoustics in their home theaters, and wind up hiring his team to take care of acoustic issues throughout the house. If there are too many hardwood floors everywhere, when you walk in the bedroom you may hear it in the living room below, he explains. One way to remedy this problem is to install a floating floor, in which the hardwood is separated from the structure of the floor by a layer of specialty rubber, reducing the sound of footfalls and making the home a quieter place.
Stephen Haas, president of SH! Acoustics in Milford, Conn., concurs, noting that a home shouldn't just look good it also needs to sound good to be an enjoyable place to spend time. A homeowner may have spent a lot of money on a gorgeous home, but when you go up the stairs and step on the marble floor, it sounds terrible because there is nothing to control the sound between spaces.
You may have noticed acoustic issues in your own home. When you are watching the news, for instance, you want the newscasters voices to come across loud and clear something audio professionals refer to as speech intelligibility. You may want to turn up the late night movie without disturbing sleeping children in acoustics-speak, this is called sound isolation. When acoustics are taken into consideration, these issues can be resolved using some of the techniques described above.
Sometimes we are even asked to look at sonic and acoustical landscapes outside, Berger says. If you have a pool and you have guests over, you don't want to disturb the neighbors, and you don't want to hear air-conditioning units in the backyard. Remedies for outdoor acoustics problems vary. Acoustic Sciences Corp., for example, offers two sound barrier systems, called Soundfence and EarthWall, which homeowners can use to control noise and sound outdoors.
The Cost of Acoustics
Getting a concrete answer about how much it can cost to improve the acoustics of a home entertainment room or a whole house is difficult, since there are so many variables involved. Acousticians will tell you it's less expensive if acoustics are considered while a home is being constructed, rather than as a retrofit. But the rest depends on what the homeowner is trying to achieve, how the space is configured and, in the case of a retrofit, how much of the home must be torn up. One acoustician noted that it could cost anywhere from $6,000 to $60,000 if you bring in a professional who recommends specialized treatments.
Ultimately, how far homeowners want to go with acoustics is up to them. According to Berger, there is a solution for almost any reasonable budget. A good room will support the equipment in it it doesn't have to be overly expensive, just appropriate, Berger says. I encourage people to stretch and put their money into the construction now, because it's a lot more expensive to do it later.
Freelance writer Carolyn Heinze (firstname.lastname@example.org) works from her office in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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