One of my favorite hi-fi arguments involves stack-ranking your spend. That is, how should we spend our hard-earned money when assembling a high-end stereo system? What is the most important component? Is it the speaker? Is it the amplifier? Is it the turntable phono cable? In any of these debates, there will invariably be someone who says something like “the most important component in any audio system is THE ROOM.” Once this version of Goodwin’s Law plays out, there will be a lot of nodding and wise stroking of facial hair.
But what if it’s not true?
There is some sense to the notion, to be fair. We tend to build hi-fi systems in this particular “possible universe” and not others, so yes, chances are quite good that there will be a room involved. And yes, it’s true — rooms can dramatically impact the sound quality of any system. Room nodes, cancelations, reflections — all that (and a whole lot more) can contribute to a truly epic, or horrific, experience. For those keeping track, this is one of ten thousand reasons why it pays to make friends with your local area audio dealer.
But with that said, it’s pretty easy to overstate this. Common wisdom says that huge loudspeakers should never be crammed into small spaces. That low ceilings, or a narrow front-wall, or irregular side walls can “kill” the sound. That you need to “fit” your system to your space and never the other way around. That a goldilocks sprinkling of room treatments is the key “acceptable” sound.
This is all very sensible advice. It’s also a bit misleading, as anyone who has ever seen the listening room of a high-end audio reviewer will readily tell you.
Or anyone who has visited a high-end audio show.
Jeff Joseph, of Joseph Audio — for one notable example — is famous for his incredible-sounding loudspeakers AND for his off-center speaker setups. Going from room to room at an audio show, you’ll see room after room of very traditional, mathematically-plotted speaker setups — and then you’ll come to a Joseph Audio room and start scratching your head, and perhaps begin wondering if someone took their medication that morning. You then sit, your bemusement gives way to wonder, and you stop thinking about math, and “the most important component”, and start grooving to some world-class sound.
Would that system sound better in a better room? Maybe — okay, probably. But that doesn’t mean that it cannot sound amazing in your room, shitty though that room may be. Take a Vinnie Rossi demo, with some great big loudspeakers from Harbeth, the 40.2 Anniversary Edition. Big speakers, big sound, great-big-bass. And in Vinnie’s far-from-ideal-world hotel-room setup, those speakers sounded incredible. Yes, most of that has to do with Vinnie’s amazing electronics. But a lot has to do with the fact that the speakers have been pulled from the walls and are less than 5′ from your ears — best headphones EVER.
The point? Don’t give up because your room is suboptimal — almost all of them are — and chances are very high that you can and will still get amazing sound.
So, is the room the most important component? Nope. But you’re free to argue with me.