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|Master of My Domain
From Nathan's standpoint, it looks like that in order to truly become masters of our domains, we need something more than strategically placed Wal-Mart absorption. Fortunately, he had just the thing - his product. In fact, he indicated that he'd brought along all we'd need in a small, unassuming cardboard box. With much anticipation on my part and absolutely no drama on his, he opened the box.
What was in there? You guessed it - pillows. Not just any pillows but nice black pillows. Just as I found myself blissfully daydreaming about how much I could further improve upon my mattress' Sonex-fueled cushiness with these little black beauties, Nathan snapped me back into reality with a brief explication of their deceptive simplicity. He explained that, far from being simply black pillows shaped to fit neatly into corners and the seams where walls meet ceilings and walls meet other walls, "the defining characteristic of all of the Eighth Nerve products is a reflective front surface and an absorptive rear surface."
"So one side is reflective and one side is absorptive under that fabric?", I asked. "Yes." For emphasis, he then held a triangular-shaped corner pillow a few inches in front of his mouth and spoke into it. His voice was swallowed up whole by one side, resuming its normal tone when he flipped it and spoke into the other side. Neat. He continued, "It's critical to the function of the products (this sidedness) since they are designed to not affect any direct sound from the room and act only on sound energy that is distorted. This distorted energy comes from the corners of the room as the sound wave collapses into a corner and then returns altered in phase and frequency. The reflective front surface not only reflects sound arriving from the front but also from the rear, effectively trapping this distorted sound energy."
Eureka! I understood. "So much like a Roach Motel roach trap - corner distortions check in but they don't check out?" Stone-faced silence. Tough crowd. Nathan looked nonplussed at my attempt at a grand unified statement (G.U.S.) regarding modern acoustics and the nature of his proprietary room treatments. Excuse me for living. Moving right along, we set about bending a few tacks to tack these black babies into the appropriate nooks and crannies. Well, it was more that he set about that task and I had myself some bottled water, sat on the couch and critiqued his definition of what centered meant in terms of pillow placement.
Installation. Yo' MTV - Pimp my Room!
The products, as you can surmise from the pictures, are placed in specific places around the room. The four corners are the most important places to treat and if you're really on a tight budget or just have serious aesthetic concerns (i.e. you're married), the corner treatment is the essential one to go for. Next most important to treat are the junctions between the walls and the ceiling - the seams as they are called. These treatments go roughly midway between the walls at either end and straddle the wall/ceiling junction. Lastly, you may place treatments at the wall/wall junctions approximately midway up though the exact height isn't crucial.
There's no easy way to say this. While the fully installed products do exude a certain masculinity especially in the artistic black I opted for, your home -- or at least your listening room -- won't be featured in Better Homes and Gardens once the Eighth Nerve products are in full effect. But you are in for a sonic treat. The Eighth Nerve products work and they work like gangbusters on steroids!
What was better? Damn near everything. There was more there there. There was also more there where it belongs - here in my listening room! Separation was improved, as was tonality. The bass was tighter and more of a piece with respect to the mids. The highs were higher and the lows were lower and better defined. Rolando Villazon's fantastic recital of Massenet and Gounod arias sounded, well fantastic. Such elegance and superb artistry of a kind I thought had all but vanished from the operatic stage with Callas now finally matched with superior sonics. Buy it now opera fans - Rolando is the real deal!
But none of these things was the first or most transformed item I noticed. The first and most major thing I noticed was a certain newfound sense of ease. The music simply seemed to breathe more easily as though someone had given my Audio Physics a good massage with scented oils. As for any concerns I had about acoustic pillows killing the fun-factor (pace, rhythm and timing) of my system, it never happened. The PraT was intact more than before and my toes were tapping as always. When I conveyed my amazement about the maintenance of my beloved PraT, Nathan explained that in fact, when you reduce corner distortions in a room, there is bound to be more foot-tapping fun on offer due to the reduction in phase distortions. Any direct or reflected sonic waves can now be heard relatively free of a set of overlying corner-generated timing anomalies.
Something's happenin' here. What ain't exactly clear.
I also noticed a thing or two with my system turned off. I noticed my speaking voice - and I mean really noticed it. As I spoke with Nathan about what I was hearing regarding the positive changes he had wrought upon my system, I could hear my speaking voice in a way I rarely have before. It seemed as if I could hear the upper and lower partials tonally and even a slight nasality here or there carried upon the fine underlay of my breath, which too was somehow more apparent to me while speaking. I was suddenly aware of my chest as a resonant cavity and for a while it was plain weird! I also seemed to be able to localize Nathan's voice better in space. My footsteps too became apparent as localized foci of sound, their point of emanation no longer lost to the more general echo of the room. In fact, the noise floor of the room somehow seemed lower, as though someone had turned down the volume on the background noise in the world outside, leaving only the specific sounds I was focusing on. I'm not going to lie. To me this was weird science.
At first I wondered. "Is this right?" I had never heard things sound quite this way in a room before. Then again, I had never really been in a room in someone's home that had been in any way acoustically treated before. I thought to myself, "maybe it's just that these pillows are really absorptive and therefore the room is sonically deader than I realize." So I walked over to a corner and snapped my fingers, moving my hand along the wall over the treated seam as I did so. No change. As I moved my hand and snapped my fingers along one wall and across the black pillow in the seam of the wall and then along the other wall, there was no change in the sonic character of my finger snap. The seam treatment was really acting like more wall where previously there was none. If it were merely an absorptive device, my finger snap would deaden momentarily as I passed over the treatment, then return in volume and tone to normal.
If you go over to a corner in your room right now, start snapping your fingers and pass your hand over the seam at one of your room's corners where wall meets wall. You'll hear a distinct change in the character of the snapping sound owing to the reflections off the seam and off the ceiling corner above. But do this with the Eighth Nerve treatment in place and you will not notice a difference, owing to the outward-facing reflective surface of the treatment. In other words, there is now a seamless wall-to-wall transition and a kind of wall-filler where your ceiling corner used to be. It was not "too much absorption" that was responsible for the better localization and perceived lowering of the noisefloor in my room after all but likely the specific absorption of whatever distortions had been masking my ability to localize and dissect sounds previously. Clever.
It gets better?
Okay, so I was now quite happy but not thrilled. I'm still an audiophile! I want more by definition. The sound was much better to be sure but overall, it still wasn't what I'd call superb. When I sheepishly told Nathan I harbored the nagging suspicion that something was still lacking, he gave me an "of course it is" smile and proceeded to tell me that, while we had addressed some of the room's major acoustic difficulties, this in no way made up for -- and I do think he used the word atrocious here -- the atrocious setup of my speakers.
Even in a now well-treated room, I still had to go through the iterative torture that is proper loudspeaker setup. According to Nathan, my Virgos were in no way optimally placed. In fact, he told me had surmised as much from the moment he walked in, apparently keeping this bit of info to himself until now. Fortunately for me, one of Eighth Nerve's especialities de casa is system setup. I was about to be the recipient of the house special from the head honcho himself.
"What?" I exclaimed semi-insulted. "How is my setup atrocious? I took time and measured like I always do, I tried them over there and I..." "For starters," Nathan began, "those Audio Physics are great speakers and you should try using 'em the way the designer intended them to be used. That goes for any speaker." The near-field Audio Physic setup philosophy is well known to me (and probably to many of you), but I was determined when I bought them that no matter what sonic gains might accrue from following it, I was not going to have these big speakers smack in the middle of the room and nearly in my lap. (I have a life to lead in these rooms, you know?) Turns out Nathan wasn't actually referring to Audio Physic's championed rather extreme near-field setup but to the degree of toe-in and the exactitude of my path lengths which, by eye, he noticed weren't to his own precision standards.
Audio Physic likes you to point their speakers right at your ears, with no or nearly no inside cabinet edge visible. I have found in the past however that speakers I tried to set up in this manner generally sounded too bright and the imaging tended to collapse. This was the first point of setup Nathan recommended I follow however, explaining that since untreated rooms tend to play havoc with high frequencies (peakiness etc.), this can be a real deterrent to listening on-axis. Thus, audiophiles tend to position their speakers with less toe-in, feeling the more diffuse and spread-out sound they achieve in this manner to be more correct and preferable to having holes bored in their eardrums by glaring high frequencies.
But this toe-out also gives you less of the direct, pure sound from your speakers, the one you presumably paid all that money for and the one many designers intended you to have. Some speakers like the superb Totems and the excellent Reference 3As are designed to work best in a straight-ahead configuration and are thus exempt from this specific case. But in the case of many other speakers, the Eighth Nerve products will allow you to run a more severe toe-in without any harshness in the highs and far better image spread - definitely a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too proposition. In the treated room, my Virgos definitely sounded much better when toed-in to Audio Physic's approved on-axis position whereas pre-treatment, for whatever reason, I could not make them work well in that manner.
For his next trick, Nathan told me they should probably be moved to the so-called long wall (i.e. firing down the shorter distance of the rectangular room). Trouble is, I had tried this tried-and-true positioning as soon as I got into my new digs and like the severe toe-in, it too had failed miserably - midrange suck-out/thin bass etc. I protested. He insisted. He was right, again. Pre-treatment, I simply could not make them work in this supposedly preferable position of a rectangular room. But post-treatment? Va va voom!! Marvelous sonics.
A week went by. I listened and liked the improvements I heard but ... Nathan was back the next weekend. I was pumped because now he was going to implement the procedure. Nathan has a special way he likes to set up loudspeakers which he learned from Jim Smith at Avantgarde-USA. He believes that unless a pair of speakers is set up to within a very tight degree of symmetry with respect to one another and the listener, you will not hear all of their potential nor will you hear all of what's on your recordings. We're likely all aware that close tolerances pay dividends when it comes to speaker setup but maybe many of us (myself included) weren't aware of just how close those tolerances truly need to be in order to experience the optimal sound.
How about plus or minus one thin millimeter? While this degree of setup accuracy is not absolutely essential in order to enjoy your music, my recent experience with Nathan has proven it was pretty essential for maximizing my own return on investment. While Nathan set about the task of setting up my system with pin-point precision -- the whole procedure despite its daunting only took about 20 or 30 minutes -- I set about asking him what exactly he was doing and why. What follows is his explanation:
"Setup is one of the most surprising areas to me. Audiophiles spend an incredible amount of time researching equipment, assembling it, burning it in and then making changes all without ever properly setting things up in the first place. Proper setup is crucial if you want to have any idea what your system is capable of. Even if you can't place your speakers or listening position in the ideal place in your room due to other constraints, aligning your speakers to your listening position is a free upgrade that will improve your system more than any cable or tweak will ever do regardless of price. If your speakers are even the slightest bit out of alignment, the waves for given frequencies will overlap and the phase will be affected. As almost all soundstage information is encoded in phase relationships, this is where you will notice the most improvement but impact and dynamics will improve dramatically as well as will virtually all other sonic attributes. Imagine if one of your speaker cables had just a slight delay from the other. You would get a smeared effect. None of the signals would line up properly. This is exactly what happens when you don't take the time to make sure that your speakers' path lengths are aligned as accurately as possible."
"The alignment process is simple if a little lengthy," Nathan continued. "If your listening position is fixed, start there. Place a nail in the floor directly in front of your listening position and try to make sure it is in line with where your head will be. Then measure the distance from this nail to the nearest sidewall. Now place a nail a few feet in front of your speakers at the exact same distance from the same side wall as the nail in front of your listening position. This is your center axis. Then choose points on your speaker corners to measure to. Mirror these points on the other speaker. It may help to apply a little piece of tape or a temporary sticker to these points so that you can be as accurate as possible. A centimeter of improved accuracy will produce a dramatic improvement. I usually use +/- 1mm for my own setups.
Once you have your marks, choose one speaker as your reference and then make the second speaker match its measurements. First, measure from the rear nail to the front inner mark and adjust the second speaker as necessary, ensuring that both speakers are the same distance from the listening position. When those distances are nearly equal, move to the front nail, measure to the inner front mark and make the same adjustments, ensuring that your speakers are the same distance from the center axis. Then measure from the front nail to the inner rear mark and adjust the second speaker until the toe-in is identical for both speakers. As you make slight speaker movements, you'll probably affect the other measurements so you will have to repeat this process a few times until all your measurements are exact. I can't stress enough how important accuracy is; a mere millimeter or two of inaccuracy can be the difference between a wide soundstage and one that wraps completely around you. When you are done, sit down and listen. Then collect your chin from the floor and wipe up the drool."
And that's just what I did. There was definitely a lot of drool. We needed a super-absorbent Egyptian cotton towel. On one of the sampler CDs Nathan brought, things were now happening behind me in space and all manner of imaging weirdness was given full reign, owing to my new-found near-perfect room phase. Tonally, things were simply excellent. Pavarotti was Pavarotti and Bryn Terfel was Bryn Terfel - no identity confusion here. The only limitations I could now hear were those I know to be endemic to what is likely the weak point of my current system, my Rega Planet 2000 CD player. It's not a champ at the frequency extremes nor is it legendary in terms of detail retrieval though it's fun to listen to and a superb sonic value. But it's definitely no top-flight Naim or Audio Note front end. The same shortcomings that are apparent when I listen to this player over my Sennheiser 600s via my Creek headphone amp were now apparent through my audio system. I'll throw money at that problem at some point in the future but for now, I'm having too much fun listening to music again. And this part of the room treatment is a freebie! I'm the Sam Tellig of 6moons. Now if only I had a Russian wife, could learn 3 or 4 French phrases and had a Swedish friend or two...
What's that? Still not satisfied? You've got deeper pockets than I do (not hard to do). You asked for it. I give you the new line. The products I've been talking about thus far are from Eighth Nerve's Response line, the products for those of us on a budget. But if you jumped into your Porsche or Beemer immediately after reading our editor's rave about the Zanden DAC, went down to your local Circuit City and bought one, then have I got the treatments for you! I'm not sure if the line is to be called anything other than Premium but it will apparently utilize proprietary patent-pending technology and be able to take ordinary rooms and apartments to even loftier sonic heights. It will also be considerably more expensive.
To hear Nathan tell it, "the new line is a premium product. It is designed to be attractive and inconspicuous as well as effective. It outperforms all other products. These products trap and eliminate more corner distortion than the Response products. They are built into a frame, which in addition to improving their performance also greatly improves the aesthetics. They're adaptable as well, allowing a slight tailoring of the resultant frequency response with their adjustable mounts. The performance increase they bring due to their innovative design and application has prompted us to file for protection from duplication. All of the products in this line are patent-pending."
Mother: "Who was that masked man?" Daughter: "No one, mama - just a harbinger of the possible."
Before Nathan mounted his own silver Beemer and rode off into the sunset, I had a thing or two more on my mind. Most pressingly, what with all the sonic wonderment he had shown me possible for not too much money, how did he account for the fact that most audiophiles spend obscene sums on equipment but fail to take the time to set that equipment up properly or to do something -- anything -- about their room's acoustics?
"Well," he began, "most audiophiles agree that room treatment is important but almost none of them have it. I don't think that it's due to lack of time or laziness. Most audiophiles are passionate about their hobby and spend a huge amount of time and effort improving their systems. It could be a factor of appearance in that the other members of their household don't share the same passion as they do and are opposed to the look of typical acoustic treatments. We spent a great deal of time designing the aesthetic of our new products for exactly that reason and to assuage that very real concern. But I think the biggest reason is that audiophiles don't really know the level of improvement that's possible. In almost every case no matter the price difference, a modestly priced system in a treated room will blow away a system in an untreated room. Any dealer can go to his client's house and install the Response products in less than 10 minutes and I guarantee that they won't be leaving with them. In over three years, not one person has returned these products after installing and listening to them. That speaks for itself."
It certainly does, my friend - it certainly does. In a cloud of low-emissions exhaust, he was gone. So what's your excuse now? Big improvements are indeed possible with Eighth Nerve room treatment products. And for not a lot of money. I've also heard this for myself and detailed for you the immense sonic value of meticulous -- not merely pretty good -- setup. I figure I have done my part in helping to eradicate what Nathan reckons is our audio community's biggest excuse: ignorance of the possible. I can now sleep the sleep of the just upon my Sonex-paneled mattress.
By the way, I bought the Eighth Nerve Response acoustic room treatment products. (Check's in the mail, Nathan). And it's no secret that I think you should, too.
Eighth Nerve website