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Reviewer: David Abramson
Source: Rega Planet 2000
Integrated amplifier: Unison Research Unico integrated
Speakers: Audio Physic Virgo 2 loudspeakers
Cables: Audience Au24 Interconnects; Ensemble speaker cables; Audience powerChords
Equipment support: Sound Organization
Room size: 17" x 13" x 9"
Review component retail:
$100/4 corners; $200/4 seams

A Room with a View
Would you pay nearly a thousand bucks for a broken CD player? How about another thousand the following month and the month thereafter just for the privilege of continued use? Well, after meeting with Nathan Loyer, one of the co-owners of Nashville-based Eighth Nerve Acoustics, that's precisely what I've become convinced many audiophiles are doing.

Sure, lots of us give lip service to the most important component being the room. We've all heard that before, at one time or another. But other than selecting our apartments or houses with an eye towards acoustics -- or maybe asking our better half if we can please move the couch a foot or two (I'll move it right back, I promise!) -- what do most of us do about it? Next to nothing. Yet when we have the cash reserves to do so, we think little of pouring another 2 or 3K into a better set of speakers or a CD player with more detail or what-have-you.

For a vivid and extreme example for the problem with this kind of thinking, please imagine auditioning Wilson Audio's top-of-the-line speakers in your bathroom (or for that matter, in some of the rooms at CES). Think you'd get a good measure of their capabilities? How about if I now upgrade the CD player for you or modify the tonearm? This is precisely why a lot of the ongoing debates about expensive source/cheap speakers vs. expensive speakers/cheap source strike me as all but moot. Not that there isn't merit in establishing a hierarchy in terms of how to build a system in order to maximize your investment returns. But this is a question best answered when you are not listening to your expensive hierarchy in the sonic equivalent of a men's room.

Brief Psychodrama/Freak-out session...
Recently, I changed my field of employment from surgery to psychiatry and secured a training position in that new field in a new state. In the process, I moved from a nice spacious home to a decidedly un-spacious apartment. Naturally, I tried to rent an apartment with an eye towards acoustics but when the unit I was promised turned out to be taken, I was forced to make due with a pad that's really not optimal sonically. It's small and boxy, with a few oddly positioned openings to other rooms thrown in for good measure. Also, it's an old-timey apartment; one with unfinished hardwood floors of the kind that send young ladies who just graduated from upscale universities into paroxysms of retro or quaint, causing them to reflexively reach for their (daddy's) checkbook.

I'll agree, those floors are indeed New England retro-stylish but with my sparse furnishings, the place was Echo City in Grand Canyon Central. I didn't care about retro or quaint at that point. I just knew my sonic ship was sunk. Lots of unsettling things went through my mind as I first set foot on those hardwoods - how would I listen to music in here? Why did I just spend money upgrading my speakers when an Aiwa or my first Sony boom box might have done the job nicely? And most importantly, who cares about the opinion of a reviewer listening to gear in a crappy echo chamber? A little bit of sulking and a small bit of Yahoo-ing and Googling later and I had what I hoped would be my salvation.

Meeting Nathan
In the movie Road House, Patrick Swayze plays a bouncer and martial arts expert extraordinaire who is wise beyond his years and profession. He's the best at what he does. On first meeting the famous bouncer though, his employers, shocked at his diminutive physical stature, usually exclaim, "I thought you'd be bigger." When I opened the door to greet Nathan Loyer of Eighth Nerve Acoustics (the 8th cranial nerve out of the 12 pairs we all have is the vestibulocochlear, receiving signals to do with hearing and equilibrium), I couldn't help but thinking "I thought he'd be older."

He's been around though. After a successful and high-powered career in the technology sector, Nathan decided (for various reasons including 9/11) to turn his avocation into his vocation. He and a similarly minded partner or two purchased an acoustic treatment company and moved to Nashville. Since then, they have been purveying their wares largely by word-of-mouth. (I found them by googling "acoustic treatments" while coming across an
obscure though quite positive review of their products). They do not advertise yet their products sell briskly in Asia and here in the good ol' US of A. That's saying something.

Nathan feels strongly that their success despite the lack of advertising is due to the fact that once people hear what their system sounds like in a treated room, there simply is no going back. In this vein, Eighth Nerve offers a generous full refund/no-questions-asked return in case you disagree. To date, only one gentleman has taken them up on it. Apparently he muttered something over the phone about his wife not liking "pillows" in the room anywhere but on a couch "where they belong!" Other than that, it seems like a 100% satisfaction rate. There's no accounting for taste!

Not your grandmother's shaggy couch pillows
If you make regular rounds on the Internet audio forums as I do, you're bound to come across a few conversations about room acoustics. Usually people talk about hanging curtains to deaden the sound (yikes - I don't know if I want my music to sound dead), or if they're more advanced, putting diffusers at first-reflection points etc. In Nathan's view, these strategies at best are weak solutions to a complex problem and at worst, acoustically disastrous. The implementation of such partial a-bit-here-and-a-bit-there solutions reveals fundamental misconceptions many audiophiles have about room acoustics and the reasons our systems sound the way they do.

Convinced I was doomed to an unusually hot and unalterable sonic hell for the duration of my six-month lease, I was naturally very eager to hear Nathan's thoughts on what could be done about my plight. However -- in true unselfish 6moons fashion -- I mustered the strength and dignity to first ask a general question or two. For starters and in his opinion, what would an ideal room look like?

"One without corners. While this sounds terribly unrealistic, it doesn't have to be. We work with clients on a consulting basis to build rooms that essentially are corner-less. Ideally, a corner-less room would be built inside a much larger space. With some compromises, we can however build one within the confines of a normal room and it will act similarly. On the speculative side of things, a spherical room may be the ultimate listening environment but the constant parabolic shape may introduce unknown effects and of course the room would have to be large enough to push its modal frequency well below 20Hz. If anyone decides to build one, let me know."

"Interesting. So it's the corners, eh?" I continued. I'd heard about corners being an acoustically bad idea before but I thought they were merely a bit-player in the symphony of parallel room surfaces and sub-optimal geometries contributing to sonic degradation. "Corners produce distorted sound energy," Nathan explained, "and they are primarily responsible [my emphasis] for the sonic character of the room." Hmm. "So is that what you primarily aim to address - corner distortion?"

He continued: "Yes. By reducing this return wave from the corners, we are able to remove much of this sonic character. This does not only apply to reproduced music. All sounds in the room will be clearer and more distinct. Say you have two connected empty rooms without carpets, the second of which is treated. Walk through the first room. You will hear your footsteps all around, echoing throughout the room. You'll also have a sense of the size of the room because we're accustomed to echo in our everyday lives. Once you step through the doorway into the second room, the sound of your footsteps will snap to your feet. The parts of your voice that you ordinarily don't notice -- the hiss of your nasal cavity, the depth of your chest resonating with your vocal cords -- all these become suddenly very clear and surprisingly apparent. By fixing this corner distortion, you effectively remove the character of the room and are in a space free of echo, reverberation and its sense of defined size. You hear the original source of the sound."

What he seemed to be saying was not to waste money on a big pair of corner horns. You and I already have plenty of them - our room's corners! Each acts like an unwanted horn that introduces distortions to the direct sound energy by amplifying certain frequencies and attenuating others, all at various time intervals after receipt of the initial sound waves. Not good. Now that I understood the importance of corners in generating distortion, I wanted to know a bit about some of the other acoustic principles I had filed away in my cortex from countless Stereophile articles and forum postings over the years. What about non-parallel surfaces and diffusion and such?

Nathan explained. "Most people would have you believe that bad acoustics are a result of parallel wall surfaces and reflective walls but that's just not true. Non-parallel walls do not reduce echo. They simply serve to better distribute the geometry-based room modes for the lower frequencies of the sonic spectrum. Studios and other advanced rooms (and some speakers!) that don't have many parallel walls enjoy a reduction in echo because the multiple non-parallel walls result in corners that are more obtuse, thereby reducing the negative effect of corner distortion. Reflective surfaces are a given and necessary to the enjoyment of music. A true anechoic chamber is not enjoyable to listen in and no studio mixes their recordings in such an environment. Reflective surfaces by themselves do not guarantee echo or reverberation; again, the corners of a room cause most of these artifacts. Even if there was a perfect material that absorbed all frequencies evenly and we covered our walls, ceilings and floors with it, there would still be echo hiding in the reduced-energy return wave. The end result would be almost identical to an untreated room of larger size."

Good news! I really didn't fancy the look of my haphazardly placed Sonex panels, which have been competing for wall space with my imitation Japanese brush paintings over the years in the various places I've resided in. Being a long-time bachelor, sundry girlfriends always kept asking me if I enjoyed living in "a padded cell." Not quite the frame of mind you want put a potential sweetie in when you're going for a night of romance. So (mercifully), down came the Sonex once and for all.

Generalities answered, I turned the conversation back to the product at hand. The market is not flooded with acoustic products tailored for the home listener per se but if you include resonators and diffusers and traps, there is certainly a fair range of options. Many of these devices are downright frighteningly expensive. Room acoustics being so universally agreed upon as at the very least important, this suggests either that most of us need to be shifting the bulk of our expenditure toward such treatments, looking for less expensive treatments or alternatively, buy real estate, wait for it to appreciate, become fabulously well-off and then buy both a great system and great treatments or build a room from scratch.

Along these lines other than a great write-up or two, one of the main things Eighth Nerve has going for them is their pricing. Their stuff is super reasonable - just a few hundred bucks to treat nearly your whole room no matter its size! That's less than a single pair of good quality interconnects. A lot less. But in the interest of keeping things cheap, why spend money on the Eighth Nerve stuff at all? Why not just put grandma's shag pillows in your room's corners or stuff some Sonex up there? Wouldn't that amount to the same thing without the fancy packaging? Frugal audiophiles want to know! I wanted to know!

Nathan: "The trouble with doing that is that any type of direct absorption is fundamentally flawed. No absorptive material to date is linear in its attenuation of all frequencies. This results in an over-attenuation of the high frequencies. Because of this, there is a perceived reduction of echo and reverberation, but in actuality, the high frequency absorption is simply turning down the volume on these unwanted sonic phenomena. They are still present and just as destructive to the overall sonic picture in relation to the resultant over-damped high frequency response."

Drat. Foiled by physics again. The very same thing happened to me all through college, too.