You can buy the finest stereo system around, but if the acoustics in your room are out of whack, you’ve wasted your money. The audio can end up sounding boomy, unclear and distorted, making it hard to understand the dialog of a movie or the vocals of a music CD. No amount of tweaking your components is going to fix it. That’s just a band-aid approach. You need to get at the source of the problem: the room itself.
There are many elements that can make a room acoustically unfit. A hardwood floor, huge floor-to-ceiling windows, an exposed wall of brick, a high ceiling and heating and cooling ducts can all contribute. Even furnishings, like a pool table or a massive marble coffee table can throw the audio for a loop. So how do you deal with these acoustic maladies?
That depends on your budget and listening style. If you’re an audiophile who demands perfection, consider hiring a professional acoustician to analyze and treat your room. Otherwise, you could tackle the job yourself by adding some simple and affordable pieces to the room (see below).
So what exactly does an acoustician do? We recently posed this and other questions to Dr. Bonnie Schnitta, a professional acoustician and owner of acoustical consulting and engineering firm SoundSense, East Hampton, N.Y.
What’s involved in an acoustical evaluation?
We break the room into two categories: acoustic separation and acoustic environment. Acoustic separation reduces the amount of sound that can enter or leave the room. The last thing you want is to hear the toilet flushing while you’re watching a movie. By the same token, you aren’t going to want a loud action scene wake up the kids. An acoustician will design the correct acoustic skin to contain the sound. The proper acoustic environment ensures that the sound from your system reaches your ears as it should. We make sure that there is no bias in certain frequencies, and that there is no excessive reverberation, which happens when sound waves reflect harshly off surfaces in the room.
How do you accomplish this?Another simple cost-effective solution is to add heavy curtains to the space.Dr. Bonnie Schnitta, SoundSense
Acousticians use a variety of mathematical tools and sophisticated modeling software coupled with their experience to determine what types of materials to use, where to install them, and how to alter the structural elements of the room to make it sound better.
What are some of the common elements that could be added and/or altered to improve a room’s acoustic characteristics?
If the client has a very tight budget, he or she can try to bring the room to a pleasant auditory environment by adding a carpet with a soft pad and some absorbers on the wall at critical points of reflection. The absorbers can be canvas artwork, without glass, and acoustic foam located behind the canvas. Another simple cost-effective solution is to add heavy curtains to the space. These items absorb sound predominantly in the speech frequencies, so if there is room in the budget, the client should add bass traps and diffusers to the room. The diffusers can be purchased as prefabricated items. Alternatively, architectural elements that will fulfill the same purpose can be incorporated, such as a bookcase or columns. A bass trap can be an absorber that fits in a corner, or if you hire an acoustician, airspace can be included behind wall materials to create the same effect, only hidden.
What types of accreditation should you look for an in a professional acoustician?
An acoustician should be a member of the Acoustical Society of America, or equivalent. Typically, an acoustician has an engineering degree, but the path of education can vary.
How much does it cost to have a room treated by a professional?
Our company charges between $1,000 and $2,000 to document the acoustic problems and offer recommendations on how to fix them. A full consultation, where we provide the design, engineering and installation might run upwards of $5,000. If you want to treat the room yourself, it’s possible to do it for less than $1,000 by adding pillows on the couch, placing a rug on the floor, hanging acoustic paneling or pictures on the walls or tacking acoustic tiles to the ceiling (Schnitta’s company sells many of these materials and will help you choose them at no charge).
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.