Most people do know how poor acoustics sound — noisy restaurants reflecting so much sound that you can’t hear the people at the table next to you, or not being able to hear the TV as soon as someone starts cooking in the kitchen. And how many parents get a headache from kids screaming in a hard-surfaced living room? Much of our lives we rely on hearing effectively, yet architectural trends can be at odds with the creation of comfortable acoustic environments.
For readers of Best Buys Audio & AV, room acoustics are crucial in being the arbiter of the sound that any audio system can deliver. Some call the room ‘the most important component of your system’, able to wreck the clarity of sound or to allow you to enjoy the best your system can offer. Again, many people know this, but remarkably few invest to correct even glaring problems.
Why should this be? Is there a perception that acoustic treatment requires huge lumps of pointy foam everywhere so your room ends up looking like an anechoic chamber? As the Artnovian images here show, that simply doesn’t have to be the case.
David Moseley is something of an expert in the field, lecturing in acoustics, and through Wavetrain Cinemas designing home cinema spaces with acoustics that allow extremely low noise floors (which in turn allow systems to achieve spectacular dynamics which need to be experienced to be appreciated). Through Cogworks he brings the Artnovian products shown here to Australia. So we asked him to explain the importance of acoustics, and how they can be improved.
BBAV: Why is acoustic treatment important?
David Moseley: Acoustic treatment can be transformational. Like all architecture, the intent is to create a pleasant environment to inhabit, which is relaxing and where we can listen clearly without fatigue. We experience this world using all our senses — sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We’re all quick to react to a visually ugly space, and nobody would stay in a room that smells bad. Yet most people just put up with poor sounding spaces — the acoustics have to be truly terrible before people will act to correct them.
Not addressing acoustical issues is like going outside on a sunny day without sunglasses. Take the sunglasses off and you squint, you can get a headache or fatigue. It’s the same with sound. Do you want seven screaming kids in that hard surfaced living room? No. But that’s what your surround system will sound like if the room isn’t treated.
BBAV: And does acoustic treatment have to be ugly in décor terms?
DM: Have you seen the Artnovion panels? This company chose its name deliberately. From the outset, they wanted to create ‘art’ — their motto is ‘The Art of Acoustics’. As an acoustician, I do find it frustrating, after lecturing in acoustics for over a decade and struggling to get people to take it seriously, that a major obstacle has long been the aesthetics of the acoustic devices. But now we have designers specifying Artnovion just because they look good! So it’s great, though I do shake my head at the irony.
BBAV: For audio fans, acoustic treatment is usually about the listening room or the home cinema space. But acoustic treatment help elsewhere too?
DM: Well, we can’t switch off our hearing, so every room can benefit from acoustic design. Dining rooms are one of the most common places to strike up a conversation, but also often the most reflective environments. And everyone hates not being able to understand what people are saying at a large table of people. So if creating a great entertaining space is important, then the formal dining room would certainly benefit from acoustic treatment. It’s not just for critical listening spaces, and not just in the home. Artnovion is opening up markets like banks, airports, corporate lobbies... and restaurants and formal dining rooms, as we said.
BBAV: What are the fixes actually doing to the sound?
DM: In fixing acoustics, what we are doing is addressing the reverberation of the room, relative to frequency and time. There’s an Australian Standard  which addresses this with guidelines, so designers do have the correct information, but the standards are rarely applied if the fixes are unattractive or difficult. Until recently working out the solutions hasn’t been easy.
BBAV: Some would suggest you can do room correction with software and DSP these days.
DM: OK, so electronic tuning of the system is a critical step, in my opinion, but it should be the very last step, and it should make only very small corrections. That’s only possible once the room acoustics themselves have been corrected.
Not being able to hear speech on TV, say, or in a restaurant — that has to do with what are called comb filters. Sound coming from a speaker will obviously hit your ear directly, but will also reflect off the floor, ceiling and walls. The additional reflections hit our ears at different times, and that affects speech intelligibility. No DSP system can remedy that.
Another example would be in home cinema systems where people struggle to hear the surround speakers most of the time. The reason is that there’s nothing controlling the reflections and reverb in the room. The sound from the front speakers will typically be louder than the surround channels, and it bounces around the room for so long that you can’t hear the surround channels over the noise.
Again there are standards for this, depending on room volume — a home cinema room should have an RT60 (the reverberation time to reduce sound by 60dB) of 0.2 to 0.3 seconds, an audio room up to 0.5 seconds. That means reverb can only persist for less than half a second.
BBAV: Can you briefly explain the different types of treatment available, and their effects?
DM: Most acoustic solutions focus mainly on absorption, which is an important tool, but not the only tool. If we take that earlier analogy of being outside in the sun, what we see is actually reflected light, so too much absorption would make everything black — all the colour would disappear, everything would look flat. And that’s what it’s like over-treating a room with absorption only — the sound loses its colour and life, because all the sound reflections are being absorbed. It’s also unnatural and disconcerting, because humans define spaces by reverb. Even blindfolded you can discern a space and its size by reverb, and if you take away reverb you remove our ability to define that space. I strongly advise not doing it.
So in practical terms, if you place absorption on the side walls in front of the speaker — the first reflection points — the sound will tighten up, and voices will get clearer. But the soundstage will also collapse. Put a diffuser there instead and the soundstage and life in the sound returns.
BBAV: So use diffusion rather than absorption at the first reflection point.
DM: Well, all rooms should use a combination of absorption, reflection, diffusion and bass treatments. It’s placing them in the correct positions with advice of an authentic expert that will deliver best results. But yes, the sound from first reflection points is only an issue if it’s within 20dB of the original sound. So I don’t need to absorb these reflections. Instead if I partly absorb, or even better scatter the sound with a diffuser and therefore send the energy in various directions, the reflection is no longer heard as a problem. And the reflections still exist, so perception of space is still there. This is particularly important for stereo, where two speakers are creating the image of the band playing and we want a large soundstage.
One of the things that sets Artnovion apart is their amazing range of great-looking diffusers, something that is missing from most brands.
BBAV: For music and movie rooms, how should someone approach treatment?
DM: Artnovion have released an amazing app called Impulso, developed in conjunction with Salford University in the UK, which allows you to use your smartphone or tablet to take reverb measurements in a space. Then you can look up panel options and add them to your room until your measurement moves inside the boundaries of the standards. The changes in reverb time against frequency changes are immediately obvious. Throw a rug into the room and you can measure the change instantly. You can add an actual calibrated mic to the set-up for around $100 and that will give the average person an easy-to-use solution which is incredibly sophisticated to quickly get the right mix of product. Add a little bit of knowledge from your dealer and anyone can dramatically improve sound quality. An expert will take it that step further and tune the room, but just having the right mix of panels in the right areas will certainly get you to 80% of what is possible.
BBAV: And common errors?
DM: As described above, overtreating the room with absorption. The second is probably buying bass traps that should never be called a bass trap. We could do a whole other interview on bass treatment — most so-called bass traps simply don’t work very well, so to get around this, I see rooms with every corner covered in bass traps, which are also general absorbers, so we’re back to the first problem. All frequencies need to be considered in the room design and if you are chasing the absolute best result, then engage an expert in the field.
BBAV: So you’ve given some indication already why Cogworks has taken on Artnovion in preference to other types — what do they do well, or better?
DM: There are very few acoustic brands run by acoustic engineers. An acoustician understands the need for correctly designed diffusers and bass traps. We have been at the forefront of acoustic design in Australia for a long time. Until now, the products we relied on were industrial in their design. Artnovion is the first brand to deliver a comprehensive range of authentic performance products to meet our design needs and yet also look amazing. The choice wasn’t hard to make.
ABOVE: Artnovian Siena — “completely engineered...” RIGHT: Artnovian Lugano, a Schroder-type diffuser which has been used in the Vienna Opera House, here seen in front of the mixing desk.
BBAV: Stand-out Artnovion products for you?
DM: Well it’s the breadth of the range and their approach in combining acoustics and art that is such a strength — though one stand-out feature is the Artnovion fixing systems. A lot of competitive panel systems are glued to walls and ceilings, so changing things is no simple exercise — removing panels canrequire patching the wall afterwards, if a panel gets damaged or degrades over time. With the Fixart systems, this is an easy process, and indeed a lot of the Artnovion panels have the ability to change the way they look by re-arranging them on the wall. It’s also great for alignment of panels, which can be critical acoustically as well as aesthetically, and others overlook this. Aside from their amazing acoustic panels, I would say the fixing systems are the best thing about Artnovion.
As for specific products — two panels come to mind. Siena… which is an absorber-diffuser that deploys MLS [Multiple Length Sequence] with the slotted look. The slot widths and the well depth to the absorber have been completely engineered. The other is the highly regarded ‘Lugano’ diffuser — a Schroder-type diffuser, again with different well depths and cavity sizes that diffuse very effectively. Lugano has been used in the Vienna Opera House, but is equally at home at home, as a high performance solution for hi-fi and home cinema rooms.
Telephone: 1300 168 729