But how many of you are getting the best out of these pricey assets? A large screen plasma TV is useless if you have to keep adjusting the volume. A CD player is no good if it makes Jimi Hendrix sound like Jimmy Buffett.
Odds are it’s not your equipment to blame, but rather your room. Good acoustics are the key to getting your money’s worth from all that hi-fi gear. Many modern homes, with their low gib ceilings and large windows, are very acoustically unfriendly.
Acoustic expert and musician Shane Taylor, of Hamilton’s Sound and Picture Specialists, has a knack for explaining complex sound issues to technically illiterate folk like myself.
Shane witnessed first hand the decline in acoustic quality when playing live gigs. He looks back on the 1980s wistfully: “every pub was carpeted – you’re stuck to the floor because of the booze on the floor – there were heavy heavy curtains everywhere, and you could belt it out in there and it sounded great.”
The nineties, however, were a different story: “suddenly all the curtains disappeared, the carpet got ripped up for a polished concrete floor, and when you did a gig there it sounded terrible. You had everything turned right down, and you could hear the people more than yourself because everything’s amplified.”
To restore these venues to the good old days could cost publicans tens of thousands of dollars. Thankfully, with some creativity, the rest of us can fix our home acoustics for much less.
‘Soften’ the room
The worst sounding rooms are built from brick or plastered with gib. Shane describes gib as “your worst enemy, because it’s basically a thin piece of concrete nailed onto very thin pieces of wood. It’s a trampoline.” Wood itself is better because it has a “more natural tone.”
The most effective step you can take is softening the room. Get creative: audio waves will hit a brick wall hard – something known as ‘slap echo’ – but will sound far nicer if it instead bounces off a soft Mexican rug that’s been hung on the wall. This was, incidentally, all the rage back in the seventies.
Curtains, especially pleated ones, are also great. “Pleated curtains are your best friends,” says Shane, “the heavier the better. A mat on the floor if it’s concrete, a soft couch, maybe a few puffy pillows – they all make a big difference.”
What about a wooden table instead of glass? “No table!” Not even a coffee table? “A coffee table in the middle of the room is the worst thing you can do actually, because the sound ‘pings’ off it: it’s called ‘filter comb effect’ – it pings off it and comes up to you.”
Shane’s a realist however. “The first thing you learn in this game is ‘be practical’. I’ve got a recording studio – you can be stupid in a recording studio – but at home you have to just be practical.”
One customer’s wife used her veto power to keep their coffee table, so hubby simply threw a big woolly rug over the table whenever he wanted to listen to music. “The voice just sprung right out, it made a huge difference right away.”
Have the right speakers
Shane has seen many cases where people have opted for small, inconspicuous, unobtrusive wall speakers. The end result is a sound system that is neither seen nor heard unless turned up loud.
These sound even nicer than they look
Floorstanders provide a more solid sound for those who are more interested in what speakers sound like rather than how they look. “The floorstander sounds great at very, very, very, very quiet volumes. Those things [wall speakers] only sound good if they’re loud. So it’s the opposite to what they’re actually aiming for.”
A set of good-looking floorstanders is a no-brainer; they will improve both the room’s aesthetics and acoustics.
Get your room in shape
If you are lucky enough to have a choice of potential living/listening rooms, go for the one that’s not simply a square box.
The acoustic room at Sound and Picture Specialists is not only rectangular but has wall supports and parts of the ceiling lower than the rest. This is good for sound, says Shane. “The more odd shapes the better, because all those random shapes are breaking up the reflections and scattering them in odd places, whereas if the room was just a cube with nothing in it then everything would be very uniform. It’d be like shutting yourself in a toilet and singing.”
It doesn’t have to be rocket science
As long as you soften those hard surfaces, have some decent floorstander speakers and a room that isn’t beyond redemption, you can transform it from a ‘slap echo chamber’ into a place where music and voices come to life, a site where you can hear something new and interesting with every listen.
Shane sounded a word of warning before I left: “It [acoustics] is a very, very intense subject, and there’s a lot of real strong opinions on it.” Many of those who feel strongest work out their acoustics using all sorts of formulae and instruments.
For us non-tech folk, says Shane, just try stuff. “If you do something and it sounds better you do it more; if it sounds worse you go back to square one and try something else.”
Do you have any suggestions for stuff to try? Let us know in the comments section or over at our Facebook page.