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I won't divulge who the other three were. GIK is the company that stood out in advice, responsiveness and price, with solutions 20% to 30% cheaper than anything I'd been offered elsewhere. I went with their most basic off-white options that actually matched the room fairly well but GIK also offers full customization services if you want wood frames, designer fabric and your own pictures or paintings printed on the fabric – more WAF is hard to find (when it comes to acoustic treatments anyway - they remain bulky panels after all).

The whole package composed of corner bass traps for the front of the room, six midrange panels for the front and side reflection points and two bass panels for the back added up to about $1400, a far cry from some of the other proposals. Additional diffusors for the side and front walls tipped the scale beyond my budget but those will easily be added at a later date. Now cheap is good as long as it works. I obviously can't tell you if these work any better than other panels would have but I sure can tell you whether the GIKs made a difference. Big time!

To try and understand what each addition brought to the table, I introduced the bass traps and panels in phases, playing different pieces at varying levels to see whether I could detect changes. The measurement crowd will scream that my ears are deceitful and I should not trust them but for the rest of us, here's what I heard. First came the corner bass traps. Their benefit was significant, immediate, obvious and by far the largest of any subsequent treatments. The best way to describe their effect is a cleaning up the sound. It's difficult to admit how much midrange pollution an untreated room suffers until one hears it removed. The effect was most obvious in the lower midrange and upper bass.

Those areas gained in contrast, detail and overall clarity as if a gentle blur had been removed. One of the side effects was that the deepest bass seemed initially to have lost weight and presence but really, the deepest bass just got leaner, more tuneful, faster and devoid of excess weight. It took me a few hours to get used to this new presentation in the lower octaves but if I remove the bass traps today, I get the impression that a sudden weight falls over on the music and somebody put both feet on the brakes.

Subtler improvements could be heard throughout the midrange even into the upper midrange. I am not quite sure why since the bass traps have little effect above a few hundred Hertz yet the gain in vocal resolution and intelligibility extended from baritone to soprano voices. If your better half only allows you one treatment, this is the one to get. It won't solve all your room issues but the improvement is significant.

My untreated room also suffered a bright and dry midrange that could turn unpleasant when the levels were pushed a little too high. Here the midrange panels on the first and second reflection points came into their own.

Their effect initially suggested that the upper midrange had lost sparkle and life but just like the bass traps, this was a matter of getting used to a new, cleaner and more realistic balance. A few hours later—the time it took to get a less colored sound—this feeling of lack of air was replaced by another jump in vocal resolution as well as a far broader soundstage. The side panels really anchored the imaging laterally and helped image stability regardless of volume. It is very interesting to observe just how much 'compensation' one's brain performs in an untreated room and how confused we can be when those unwanted reflections are removed – confused at least temporarily since the improvement becomes obvious very quickly. This is one of those cases where the sound is not only different but clearly tremendously better.

The next two panels to enter the room went on the front wall behind the speakers, initially not seeming to add much. It was only a few days later when I tried a disc with a very deep soundstage that I realized those panels enabled that depth to come through far more clearly. Each time I moved them out, the soundscape flattened. When I brought them back, the stage deepened again if the recording allowed. Similarly the bass panels in the back did not seem to add much initially until I started pushing the playback volume up and up and up and could not reach room lock before my ears gave out first. In an untreated room, there is a point where the room overloads and locks up. At that point any increase in volume does not result in any more loudness but mud. With the room fully treated I could not reach that point before I gave up. Removing panels lowered the point again so the bass panels on the back wall actually played a significant role in pushing this beyond my reach.

Why would anyone want to reach a point where it is possible to listen at painful levels? This is very similar to the concept of amplifier headroom. The more my room became capable to stomach high playback levels without getting defensive, the more dynamic it became at regular levels. The effect was akin to removing a rev limiter on musical dynamics. Nothing revealed this better than piano music. The instrument is capable of a dynamic range far beyond what any system or untreated room can track without blurring. Granted, I won't pretend that the Zu Essence in this treated room will do full justice to a concert Steinway. But they do a better job of it now than any other system I have owned in the past, even some which supposedly were endowed with far grander dynamic chops. The real limitation to hearing true dynamics as I have found out lately is the room, not the rest of the system (I assume that at some point the equipment will throw up limits too but I am not there yet).

Is my room as good as it can be yet? Probably not. The main issue is that flat surfaces continue to abound. The walls will need to be addressed with diffusors in the future. I'd expect imaging and image specificity to improve even further when I start on those but right now I'll say mission accomplished considering the very restricted budget I had at my disposal. Audio racks are already on order from Franck Tchang's US-based woodworking brother.

One question I often get on the forum I participate in is whether using conventional acoustic treatments now invalidates my earlier findings on Franck Tchang's sugar cubes and resonators. It's a reasonable question and one that requires an answer articulated around a few points. The first one is that I am no Franck. The cubes and resonators are quite potent but require somebody who knows what he is doing to get their full effect. I can hear them clearly enough but I sometimes struggle turning those into improvements. I'll write this off to my own limitations that I was able to bring the room to about 50% of its potential using Franck's solutions while the panels and bass traps got me probably closer to 90%. Conventional treatments are pretty close to fool proof. The only risk is overdamping a room to kill the harmonics. Then removing a panel or two fixes this easily and predictably (removing or moving a cube can have positive or disastrous effects which I still have a hard time predicting).

The second point is that you'll never get conventional treatments to integrate in a living room as well as Franck's. No matter whether you go with panels decorated with your own art, they are still large, bulky and overwhelming. I can't see them fitting easily into a non-dedicated room - with the exception maybe of the midrange panels that can be more easily disguised as mural art (some of Marc Philip's creations will more easily pass for modern art).

Finally, now that most of the major issues are tamed, I can actually experiment again with the cubes and resonators to fine-tune the room. The resonators have actually found their place back on the walls, providing additional improvements in stage width and bass control. I have just started playing with the cubes, hiding some behind the panels and in various corners to see if I can hear differences. So far not much but I am not giving up. I am sure that some of the tonal benefits I heard in the past should be attainable again. But that's a secret code I have yet to break.

Five thousand dollars is no small change but in a world of $10,000 power cords, it's not out of reach to most audiophiles. What I have learned from this adventure is what all experienced hifi amateurs know (or should know) well: spending a few thousand dollars on your room will yield far greater benefits than the same amount on yet another CD player upgrade. We keep reading it everywhere yet most audiophiles procrastinate on attending to their power delivery and acoustics which should be first priorities well ahead of amassing exotic gear that does not unleash 10% of its potential in poorly adapted environments. It's easy for me to talk of course. I have a dedicated room now. But even in a multi-purpose room, an upgraded mains spur and minimal treatment are achievable (though the latter may require your best negotiation skills and cost you more in jewelry than panels). Don't pass on the opportunity to hear the one half of your system you already paid for and never had a chance to appreciate fully - the half currently obscured by your room.