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Final Chapter
How does one describe the sound of a neutral room? Actually, neutral is pretty difficult to describe. And yes, I do realize that’s my problem as a writer. It’s pretty easy when something’s wrong. Hard shrill highs, boomy bass, sonic congestion? You could write pages about any of those. But what on the sound of nothing? That is the struggle with the ASC room. A good initial test is to listen to the sound of a human voice. As you walk between a treated and untreated room, you’ll notice an enormous difference even with your own voice. I have a finished basement with typical construction of tile floor, suspended ceiling and drywall. Walking from the bathroom to a hallway and then continuing along into an open area whilst talking with eyes closed, it’s very easy to detect the size and—in some cases—the shape of the room. From the bathroom to the large open area, the reflections, pitch and timbre offer clues as to the room size and these cues impart a sonic signature to the room. Something different happens when you walk into the ASC-treated listening room. Talk with your eyes closed and you lose all ability to sense the size of the room. Also, the tonal qualities of my voice changed by taking on a richer deeper quality almost as if the timbre of my voice had been subtly altered. The echo-y hardness completely disappeared, leaving behind a natural-sounding voice that was unforced and completely relaxed.

Low end: While the voice test is interesting, the real effect being studied is that of the treated room on music of course. That's the point of the entire exercise after all. Since a primary raison d’être of the ASC system is to improve the mid and lower bass, I’m going to focus much of this final chapter discussing the low end. Whenever I talk about bass reproduction and definition, I bring out a few of my go-to albums. First is Ray Brown’s Soular Energy [Audiophile Master Records PA-002] which is always deep, rich and revealing. The first change I noticed was the almost spooky visualization of his fingers on the strings and of the vibrating strings themselves.

You could 'see' and feel them. I’ve heard this recording for what seems like a thousand times and these micro events were blurred or nonexistent in an untreated room. The audiophile terms of speed, articulation and resolution are often applied to the midrange and treble because as we plumb the deepest depths, many listening rooms will have literally destroyed most bass detail. I've had fun dynamic low bass before yet didn't really understand that what I was listening to were sounds mutated by room resonances, not real recorded bass. On cut two “Cry Me a River” the piano always stood out with clarity and delicacy yet the bass, while rich and deep, could never compete in resolution or focus. That was then. In the ASC room I now have two distinct sonic images presenting themselves in a marvelous 3D space, each owning one half of the sonic landscape. Prior to my acoustic epiphany (and to use a video analogy), high frequencies sounded as if they were recorded in Hi-def and lows in standard definition. Now there is Blu-ray detail from top to bottom.

Room size and boundaries: In an untreated room the dimensions and geometry of the room constrain the sound. Tube Traps seem to make the boundaries of the room disappear. Before treatment, the bass simply exists in the room; now it naturally blooms, expands and decays far more realistically and organically. I recently had opportunity to listen to live piano and bass (un-amplified) at roughly the same distance I normally sit from my speakers. While I'm not going to tell you that my room can now recreate a live performance, the fundamental musical characteristics are very similar.

When moving up in complexity to an orchestra, let’s not kid ourselves. Even with the most elaborate room treatments, it’s impossible to reproduce the sound of an orchestra in your listening room. The sheer physical energy and air plus the reverberant nature of a symphony hall make the reproduction task extraordinarily difficult. Additionally unless you are sitting front row center, the orchestra sound is closer to mono than stereo and contains some very complex reverberant and spatial cues. I don't think any recording has ever come close to truly capturing the magic of a live performance. With that disclaimer however, given the right recording and full-range speakers with the right room treatment, we've taken a giant step forward.

Although the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia is still undergoing some of its own acoustic teething pains, in the right seat with the right conductor the Philadelphia Orchestra is already capable of some emotionally compelling music. Tenth row center offers a great mix of direct and reverberant sound that with your eyes closed presents a spacious sound of extraordinary height, width and depth.  Add a ten-story open structure and you're hearing a very complex three-dimensional sound that I've never been able to hear in any home system, especially the height perspective. I’ve done the exercise of carefully listening to a live concert and then immediately listening to my home system. Having done this before and after the ASC treatments offers some insight as to how the room itself imposes limitations.

As I’ve said, the ASC program removes the boundary constraints of the walls. While we often talk of the space around an individual instrument, that to me is a micro event. The air and space around the entire orchestra is the macro equivalent. After treatment and with the lights off, there is now a remarkable change. No longer do I perceive the sound as emanating from within a 6.000 cubic foot sealed box. The perceived size of the room has grown dramatically. No I cannot reproduce a concert hall in my basement but the“room is seemingly able now to scale effortlessly with the musical event. Tightly recorded vocals are presented lifelike several feet in front of me with the orchestra presented in a large auditorium. The beauty of this is that now voices are not ten feet tall nor are orchestras playing in a closet. It’s somewhat odd to now talk about the room as if it were a piece of equipment.

Rob Wassermann’s Duets [alto analogue AA01] consists of only a bass and vocal. It can't get any simpler. Over the years I've heard the bass of this record deep and forceful but in retrospect it was somewhat homogenous. Now each note no matter how low has a clearly defined attack and decay. Previously the vocal resolution was an order of magnitude greater than the bass with both emanating from a shared sonic space. Now they're distinct and independent, each occupying their own acoustic space unique in attack and decay. Two parts of the same musical event are delineated yet completely integrated.

Listening pre treatment to Anne Bisson’s Blue Mind [Fidelio Music], the rhythmic bass tended to interfere and smear the purity of her voice. The drums on certain notes clearly excited a room resonance turning single notes into shared notes and blurring their impact. Done correctly, this is one of those in-the-room recordings. After treatment there is a very clear focus of the voice, bass and drum holographically laid out. The new room acoustics change this record from really good to off the charts. As you sit front-row center, Anne’s voice now floats in the room a few feet above the speakers with piano and drums behind. The emotion and presence of her voice becomes one of those close-your-eyes and reach-out-and-touch experiences. There’s a compelling immediacy to her voice. By the way, this record is a gem. Get it while still available on vinyl. 

Another interesting effect in the new room is the enveloping sound field. Admittedly I do have a bias to a forward sound. I prefer the music blooming around me to feel immersed as opposed to having it politely presented over yonder. Yet finding the proper balance is difficult. When taken too far you have music resonating almost through your head with a slap-echo-style reverberant hardness that’s clearly not natural. The envelopment in my ASC room is not a ringing sound bouncing between parallel walls but a natural 3-D reverberant field. Santana’s Abraxas [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab] is a fun record to test this phenomenon with. The first track “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” has some of those enveloping sounds that one could question whether they are real or imagined. There is a swirling phasey sound that under the right circumstances seems to spin around and through the listener. This effect is significantly enhanced in a tube-trapped room.

Bass: Since the primary strength of the ASC treatment is the cure of bass anomalies, let’s get back to the low end. Tautness and bass articulation are now off the charts. I don’t mean to be insulting but if you believe you've heard deep bass resolution in an untreated listening room, you are deluded. Treble simplicity means that objects such as curtains and chairs will absorb and diffuse the highs. With bass the launch, impact and decay plus room resonances all become part of the signature. The untreated room itself can and will amplify, eliminate or modify the fundamental structure of bass. In the simplest terms, Tube Trap treatments promote the propagation of real bass instead of the uneven illusion of bass as it occurs in a typical room. For the first time in my audio life, I believe I'm hearing real bass natural, tight and well defined. You could almost say dry but that has a negative connotation. Let’s say drier in comparison to the typical fat muddy bass.

Audiophiles get accustomed to clean resolution in the upper registers. As we descend we sometimes tend to get caught up in quantity over quality of bass. Of course we all say that we want it tight and defined but to be honest, I think that in many cases quantity trumps quality when it comes to the lowest octaves. In a tube-trapped room you actually have both depth and articulation. What you don't have is one-note boominess. Previously Soular Energy produced some wall-rattling notes which, while quite exciting, were also quite wrong. Today the bass lines are utterly real.

A serious dynamic bass challenge is Donald Fagan's Morph the Cat [Reprise Records], especially the subterranean notes at the beginning of “Morph”. The deepest notes were always there but somewhat attenuated and altered not by the speakers or equipment but the room’s geometry. Playing it today delivers true goose-bump moments as the initial notes flood the room viscerally smacking you in the face with extraordinary purity. It’s not just the initial transient. The room is bathed in the natural decay and reverb very beautifully and naturally. In fact the entire nature of bass has transformed from a soft fuzzy mass to something almost solid and tangible. 

Mid bass: The effect on the mid bass was nearly as profound. With most music, there is fundamentally more information and detail as you climb up the frequency spectrum. As spectacular as low bass can be, far more music occurs between 50Hz to 200Hz. One could argue that the havoc of an untreated room for this band masks even more detail that at the very bottom. It's similar to the difference between a silhouette and high-resolution photograph. Both can define an object but which would you rather have? The Tube Traps do not seem to change the quantity of mid bass and they don’t make the sound warmer or cooler. Reviewing my stream-of-consciousness listening notes, clarity kept popping up. By removing the congestion from the mid bass, the entire musical event opened up.

Highs: The effects on the highs are easy to describe given the unlimited flexibility of the traps. Rotating them will dial in any degree of treble reflection or absorption. You can adjust to personal taste. Choose a more lively presentation with a detailed soundstage or a more diffuse but spacious sound or anything in between. The hard ringing we have all heard at one time or another is completely gone. I have to be honest that when you have unlimited adjustments, you can become too anal and end up with doubt and frustration. What if it could be better still? You can spend your whole life twisting and moving tube traps and lose the enjoyment of music. Or lock it in, call it a day and enjoy. I split the difference and spent a few months adjusting, then stopped. I don’t regret that decision.

I’ve been asked whether the Traps improve the sound of poor recordings leading to other questions regarding the tuneablility of the traps and a perception of them as ad hoc tone controls. First, the adjustability of the traps will not cure a poor recording. However when you examine the characteristics of typical bad recordings you often find hardness, stridency, lack of soundstage, thickness and congestion. Untreated rooms tend to exhibit many of these same symptoms. In essence a poor room emphasizes typical recording flaws. Conversely, the neutrality of the treated room mitigates those flaws. Do poor recordings sound better then? Absolutely - but not in the same way a lush romantic tube amp adds warmth or smoothness. Removing additive hardness allows a poor recording to sound more listenable but doesn’t make a bad recording good.

This leads to the question of the Tube Traps as tunable tone controls. While moving and turning the traps does affect the sound, it’s nothing like traditional tone controls where specific frequency bands are boosted or cut. Actually, the untreated room is more of an artificial tone control as it does boost some frequencies while attenuating others. Removing these arbitrary phenomena, the Tube Traps are really anti tone controls. A properly treated room will always have a more neutral and smoother frequency response to interfere less and sound better.

There are many qualities we traditionally ascribe to the equipment which I now believe belong to the room. For example, when talking about the sound being fast or sluggish, you're talking more about the room.  The ASC MATT test is a series of transients followed by moments of silence designed to measure the room’s articulation and resolution. Unfortunately the walls of the typical listening room become active and just like your speakers, store energy and vibrate to create a delayed reflection that gets mixed in with the fast original sounds for a thick slow sonic mush.

Compared to a treated room, musical speed and pace in an untreated room appear far slower. The instant transient of a snare drum combines with a fuzzy overhang to slow down the event. Fat bloated bass merely adds to that perception of significantly altering pace and timing. Incrementally increasing the acoustic treatments proportionally increases the apparent speed of the music. It’s initially counter intuitive that by placing massive absorption devices in a room, the apparent PRaT of the music increases dramatically but it does.

Nothing tests transient response like Take Five. I've heard this recording every way imaginable – harsh, overly reverberant, dull, muted and everything in between. Take Five in the treated room is a revelation. The launch of the initial transient is spectacularly fast, clean and sharp. The cymbals flow cleanly and independently of the drums each with natural decay, no time and phase smearing and completely devoid of deleterious room-mode effects.

In my previous room one or two of the drum thwacks were emphasized while others were suppressed which in retrospect was unnatural. Now the sound is alive, fast, quick and clean. Listening to music with lightning transients, natural decay and reverb is for lack of a better word startling. Interestingly as we talk of walls disappearing, people often claim to hear this effect in untreated rooms but I assure you that’s not the same. Yes you can hear sound coming at you from all directions but the untreated room delivers a more restricted and congested soundstage, reduced imaging and a harder tone. The timbre of one instrument becomes less distinguishable from the next. Progressive treatments provide an increased openness, clarifying the subtlety within the music, smoothing the frequency response and making the disappearing wall phenomena jump to another level.

Timbre, color and texture are intertwined. Together they define the purity of one instrument or voice playing the same note at the same pitch and loudness. These elements help us delineate the music and its instruments. The traps open up the room wit clearer musical definition. One now sees each instrument as characterized by its subtle textures and the effect is not subtle.

Blackness: The full ASC treatment including the ISO Damp wall system essentially produces a sound-proof room. We’ve become so accustomed to low-level background noise that the quiet of the ASC room is at first somewhat disconcerting. I know that it reads a little weird but the silence of the ASC room ‘sounds’ different than the silence in a normal room. The silence of a standard room still contains a hardness and residual noise which the ASC room doesn’t. You can sense it and you can feel it.

First, transmitted vibrations from floors, walls and windows don’t exist in the treated room. Typical vibrations we take for granted to relegate to our subconscious are now fully damped. The closest example would be sitting in your house in the middle of the night with snow on the ground, no wind and the power to the house cut. Listen to that silence and you will get some idea of the ASC room. It’s almost a cliché to talk about the music emerging from blackness but I guarantee you that until you've heard a properly treated room, you can't imagine the improvement. The background noises we accept as normal have a significant negative impact on low-level resolution and microdynamics. Did you ever turn up the volume either consciously or subconsciously to increase detail but then found that you also increased hardness and stridency? You then back down on the juice never finding the sweet spot. Detail, precision and subtlety – you now have a whole new window into the music revealing previously obscured low-level information.

Every element of the sound is affected by the Tube Traps, not just micro detail. The loudness example again becomes a conflicting goal. Your brain seeks out definition and clarity by increasing the volume. Room modes destroy bass definition while untamed echoes and reflections attack your ears in the treble. Your brain says “Aaargh! Turn it down!” Typically untreated rooms do not scale linearly. Rooms often have unique signatures at low volume while reacting quite differently at high volumes when you are not only stimulating room modes but vibrating the walls, ceiling and floors. The trapped room on the other hand scales wonderfully. With enough power and the right speakers, the fundamental self sound of the room remains relatively consistent from pianissimo to fortissimo.

Bias: Although this article in chapters was not a product review of the ASC Tube Traps, the discussion hopefully gave a pretty good insight into acoustic room treatments in general and ASC Tube Traps specifically. There will always be critics who insist that since I’ve invested my own time and money, my unreserved ASC praises are no more than self-serving affirmation of my original decision. Let’s be honest, if the room did not sound significantly better I would have made a stupid investment. No one wants to tell the world that they’ve made a massive mistake. Therefore there must be strong bias to like the room treatments. The best I can offer in response is that virtually all of my listening observations were vetted and confirmed by a variety of knowledgeable audiophiles, each with such strengths of opinions that if the room was flawed, they would have had no problems stating so.

Summary: With the subjective nature of our hobby, there’s always controversy. On the forums the subject of acoustic treatments comes up regularly. Some listeners question the necessity of any acoustic treatments, stating that they have heard excellent sound in untreated rooms. Without stoking the fire, I contend that their conclusion is wrong. From my short journey into room building, I believe that it’s difficult to get past the physics. While furnishings can tame some of the highs and an open floor plan can release bass energy, your system is not performing up to its full potential. Yes, I too have heard untreated rooms sound good, even very good. The real question is how good might they sounded?  Until acoustic treatment naysayers listen to a bare room and that same room fully treated, I’m afraid their opinion is tainted by imagination.

The beauty of the ASC system is that you can start off small and grow. The building block nature of this system is rare in our hobby where typically every upgrade is offset by selling another piece at a loss. Imagine you could start with a basic amplifier, then continually add to it until you ended up with the world's greatest amp. That's exactly the beauty of the ASC system. Let's be realistic, not many people will own a Walker turntable or Wilson Audio X-2s. But Tube Traps and other ASC treatments start in the hundreds of dollars range and they don’t become obsolete, devalue or wear out.

The final result is outstanding and startling. It’s one of those products you cannot go wrong with. In the ultra high-end I’ve discovered pieces of equipment that are so superior as to redefine their class. I’ll now add ASC to this elite group. Well, that now is the end of my journey and I thank you for joining me. I would like to wrap this chapter with a final postscript from my wife and music partner of 30 years.

Audiophilia, the joy of the journey: As Mike’s wife and listening partner, I’ve had the privilege of joining him in the quest for audio nirvana. Please give me a chance now. I understand that this is a predominately male hobby and I can already hear your groans and comments and I haven’t even begun to present my point. There. Now that you have gotten it out of your system, please just follow this for a gentle moment. Some of you may think that if you only had the funding for your ultimate room, all in life would be perfect. But it is at this juncture that I would like to remind you – the joy is in the journey.

True, we are delighted with our new room. Listening is a guaranteed pleasure. Yet I reminisce back to the beginning of it all. Back to before a dedicated room of any sort. Back to when visitors to our home were immediately greeted in the living room by the dominance of audio equipment and cabling tucked around the perimeters. Back to when the least little purchase was debated and carefully planned for; and back to the heartbreak of the piece you wanted so desperately yet knew you just could not afford.

The thrill has been the journey as well as the listening experiences along the way. Each change in our setup led to the anticipation of a listening night and its reveal. Would the desired result be achieved? If not, the challenge would continue and with each success, the sheer enjoyment in the delight of it all.

No, I do not understand the electronics. I do not speak your lingo. But do not for a moment think I do not understand the emotion, the pure joy and excitement of a great listening session. Sometimes the listening was just fine, sometimes the listening was really good; but oh those times when it was off-the-wall fantastically memorable! There is something to be said for the excitement of the anticipation, for those times when you weren’t really sure how good it would or would not be and then it was awesome!  Each new advance in our system brought a satisfaction and then the next goal. There were nights of switching back and forth between various pieces of equipment or cables and discussing the merits of each to decide which to adopt. There were nights of simple relaxation and enjoyment. Through it all, there has been the joy (and sometimes frustration) of the quest.

Wherever you are in your personal journey, however far that may be, savor each step of the way. Because the real truth of it all is that with audiophilia, the joy is in the journey.                                                                        
Overture Audio website
Acoustic Sciences Corporation website
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