Writer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi La Scala MkII, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Esoteric C-03, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; S.A.Lab Blackbird SE; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Gato Audio DIA-250; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; AURALiC Merak [on loan]
Loudspeakers: Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Sounddeco Sigma 2; soundkaos Wave 40; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Arkana Research XLR/RCA and speaker cables [on loan]; Sablon Audio Petit Corona power cords [on loan], Black Cat Cable Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, 5m cords to amp/s + sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring

A new sound room. Will it make your hardware sing like the fat lady? Will it take the same interminable patience to get there? Will it mean serious revoicing or worse, new speakers? The gamut is broad, of anxieties and possibilities facing the ambitious audiophile who just moved house. With our recent relocation to Ireland's west coast being our 10th home in the 4th country since 6moons went live, I had some experience prejudging a space still occupied by its former tenants filled with all of their furniture and d├ęcor. You listen to your own voice and foot fall whilst walking about. You clap your hands checking for slap echo. You contemplate dimensions and possible layouts. But to actually move in, set up and flick the switch (not to Better Call Saul's nuclear option but to your system for the very first time) is still a nervy moment. Where is Saul to de-escalate things when preconceptions abound, about hard surfaces, windows, gabled ceilings and large spaces? Those ingredients all predict bloomy reverberant acoustics and concomitant time smear. Such behaviour would run counter to the often overstuffed, quite damped hence drier living rooms which double as the sound rooms most audiophiles use. I invariably get knowing emails condemning a new space purely on optics; or at least questioning my choice in no uncertain ways. As one of the fewer reviewers whose entire livelihood hinges on writing about hifi, a listening space is an obvious part of my tool box. Using dull tools isn't merely unprofessional. It's a major kink when you love your work. Granted, one mustn't make the world's best sound; which would be what, exactly? One does however have to make sound that is representative, intelligent and enjoyable. Representative means on par with good show demos (and yes, there are many bad show demoes too). Intelligent means being informative about or translucent to hardware changes to be an effective reviewing tool. Enjoyable is a soft term. It means different things to different people. Here we merely say that having turned a hobby into a job means that if enjoyment went south, the rationale for doing the job would as well. Having a useful sound room is key.

After a few very instructive hours of playing footsies with speakers and chair placement alike, I can already report the following about this very large new 5.5 x 15 metres space. Whether I close or not the heavy 100% light-proof double curtains on the inner front-wall French doors makes no difference I can hear. Closing the outer curtains to only leave the inner glass panels exposed benefits the upper bass; some. Far more critical—and I mean make or break—is the listening chair's position on the room's long axis. This in fact is even more important than exactly how far the speakers sit from the front wall though that too makes a difference. Yet the chair's location is priority #1. It must avoid occupying a longitudinal standing-wave peak in the lower midrange/upper bass. Having actual metres of options to move this chair front and back, it didn't take long to identify a front-wall distance that gave me the most even response. Once that was locked in, I could experiment with the speakers' distance from the same wall; then the most efficacious toe-in.

Most audiophiles sweat speaker positioning down to the millimetre but neglect to experiment with the listening chair's position in the same fastidious fashion. That's often more critical and must be considered in tandem with the speakers. To counter build-up of bass energies in the frontal corners, I doubled up on Franck Tchang acoustic resonators. That was far more effective than closing those outer curtains. Obviously a big space has longer boundary pathways. Those lengthen the time which reflections must travel before they return to your ears. High ceilings merely add to that. It's familiar to anyone attending a symphony in the farther rows.

Persnickety precision and separation diminish, scale and a blended ambient-rich atmosphere increase. In a big listening room, that effect can be toned down by bringing the speakers far out from the walls, with toe-in straight at the seat which itself sits close to emulate a nearfield perspective. Even so, the advantages of a big space remain. Musical scale and gravitas are mature like a fine spirit, dynamic expression blooms because the room doesn't overload. The low frequencies develop in far more unbridled fashion whilst the same expansive air volume attenuates the fine uppermost frequencies which exhaust quicker on their longer travels.

The upshot is a very big very vibrant sound that's anchored in fully developed infrasonics. It's not the bright pin-point checkerboard ideal of what routinely goes by extreme resolution aka razor-sharp separation. In that sense this is about more symphonic drama and largesse of scale, less a very intimate chamber music perspective in the first row. As many know from personal experience, concert halls can range from sounding terrific to being downright objectionable. Just so, the latter also were designed by so-called acoustic experts who used arcane formulae, dimensional ratios and a presumably ideal mix of reflective and absorptive surfaces and materials. It reminds us that there's more to a properly working listening room than conformity with spread sheets by acoustical engineers. I'd add that whilst a strategically placed nearfield setup can clearly tone down lateral room effects if desired, the consequences of a high ceiling particularly of the gabled sort involve their own longer reflective pathways which only actual construction surgery or massive amounts of absorptive materials will deal with. If your idea of the absolute sound is a very dry very damped response, such ceilings shouldn't be on your shopping list. If, however, you favour more of a concert-hall vibe, such a ceiling can inject a dose thereof without any other work on your part. That's back to there existing a number of different sonic flavours or view points. They are equally valid if different. As such, one may be more conducive perhaps to certain musical styles than another. Would it surprise you to learn that symphonic music sounds quite spectacular in this space? There's a truism about big speakers making bigger sound. To this we might add that big rooms too support a bigger sound with bigger bass and more expansive dynamics. I'll amend this feature as time goes by and I learn more about my sizeable new toy.

With two months passed, I'd worked my way through most resident boxes and penned various reviews including speakers by Apertura, Casta, Gryphon and RDAcoustics. An easy conclusion? In these livelier acoustics, non-ported speakers worked best. Unless one has actual comparators on hand—or effectively stuffs one's port holes—it's nearly impossible to distinguish between room modes and self-inflicted port effects. With comparators, I concluded that my favourite personal speaker in this room was the Albedo Audio Aptica. Preceded by the Fore Audio DAISy1 tube DAC and Vinnie Rossi's Lio configured as purist AVC preamp feeding the Pass Labs XA30.8, it ticked off all my boxes. To gild the lily just because I could, I added the EnigmAcoustics Sopranino super tweeters on their optional custom stands to reduce height to that of the Aptica ceramic treble cones. With longer distances to walls and ceiling, the high treble didn't mind a bit of reinforcement.

Though it reads implausible considering the small mid/woofer, addition of Zu's Submission sub was questionable. Yes it added some 1st-octave assist if I was very careful on the gas but the 40-60Hz region still got a bit too heavy. On balance, I preferred the speakers pure. I clearly was the beneficiary of generous LF support from the room itself. More reverberant acoustics also preferred faster drier transducers and restraint with any upstream injection of density. That's how the transformer-attenuator passive preamp could edge out the tubed Nagra Jazz and also give drier more articulate bass.

In some ways the most important insight gained was also the most fleeting. A few days into it, one can no longer resurrect a tacit untainted first impression of what the room really sounds like. The computational power of our brain's constant interpolation activity is so great that it overwrites/deletes what came before. It has to. We'd otherwise suffer complete and utter overload. What was new and potentially jarring quickly becomes the new normal. We've adjusted. It doesn't mean that one is less critical. It simply acknowledges that true objectivity is impossible. No matter how much we might desire it, we can never return to the tabula rasa of first encountering a new acoustic and hearing it fresh. With this our 10th listening room since site launch, I'm confident that anyone believing otherwise kids themselves and grossly underestimates the fluency and adaptability of our perception. It's like walking into a childhood photo attempting to revive the scene with its limited visual cues. At best we'd do it with an adult's perspective that distorts memory. We can never again experience whatever that photo froze in time as we did back then: as an infant or teenager...