Is the room the most important component?

Is the room the most important component in your hi-fi?

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.

About Scot Hull 1062 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. This proves to me that my choice of ear speakers/Headphones is the better choice, my room is between my ears😁

  2. Scot, you just don’t get it. And that’s fine.

    I guess that all the money that great studios spend to have great sounding rooms is wasted? And, of course, any money spent on acoustics in opera houses and symphony halls is flushed as well? Is your next opinion going to be that room correction is imaginary?

    Sorry for being snarky, but, honestly, I think you have more to learn on the subject. I know I do.

    The speaker exists in an acoustical space and that space acts as a filter through which you perceive it. Unlike a symphony hall, a listening room has a different purpose and design, but all the rules of acoustics and physics still apply.

    If you work with the room to reduce its negative impact on the sound coming from your speakers, you will be able to hear your speakers. I’m not talking about creating an anechoic chamber. In my room, there is no problem with bass modes (which is astounding). Like any room, though, there are destructive reflections that need to be tamed above 300Hz.

    Just today, I got some cheap sound absorbing blankets and hung them from the drop ceiling in two spots on the front wall. These absorb oblique reflections from the subs and speakers that come from the just inside the width of the speakers. Was adding them revelatory? No, but it did help imaging just a hair as well as tighten up the bass a bit more (only effectual on frequencies below 1kHz due to placement). These cost me less than $60. And this is a real improvement that can be measured as well as heard. It was the final direct reflection to tame in this room on the walls.

    As I stated, my room is very unconventional, but it’s basic design elements will work in any listening room.

    Since you dropped a name, let me. About 15 years ago, I wrote Dr. Siegfried Linkwitz, asked him a few questions about speakers and stated how much I liked the results I’d gotten in my small living room with a LEDE design. He wrote back, answered my questions and stated that he, too, liked LEDE room design, but, unlike me, he preferred the live end on the speaker side and the dead end behind him. Given his preference for dipole speakers and classical music, I could understand it. The stereo image would emanate from the front like an IMAX screen. He also had a much bigger room than mine.

    I don’t use dipoles and want to attenuate the problematic part of the room that is behind, above and to the side of the speakers (can’t do anything with a concrete floor that already has thick, padded carpeting and don’t seem to need to). This has cost me less than $2K and every little bit has helped. Starting with a really good sounding room meant that there were less problems to solve and money to spend. Other than dressing up all of this stuff so that, by hiding it, it’s nice to look at, I’m now done.

    Hey, I just got another set of GIK Acoustics drop ceiling panels delivered as I wrote. Woo hoo! The last small bit of acoustical goodness to be added. Soon, the ceiling will be completed.

    As to Michael Fremer’s place, no, never been. That’s a good thing because I’d most likely be punching him in the head in about 5 minutes. If he managed to create a good sounding listening room, it was stupid luck (emphasis on “stupid”). That imbecile is both a dilettante and a giant a-hole that’s high off the fumes coming from his own ass. Other than that, though, he’s a lovely person.

    All the best.

    • I guess that all the money that great studios spend to have great sounding rooms is wasted? And, of course, any money spent on acoustics in opera houses and symphony halls is flushed as well? Is your next opinion going to be that room correction is imaginary?

      Absolutely wasted if all you’re putting at the front of the hall is Mr. Bean and not Mr. Pavarotti. Pavarotti would have sounded amazing pretty much anywhere, and in those super-tough spaces, even small accommodations would have been revelatory.

      That’s the point. Not that the acoustically treated hall isn’t awesome. Or wouldn’t add tremendously to the overall impact of the performance. But the problem lies with audiophiles assuming that the hall is the performer and not the space where the performers perform.

      And, for the record, Mikey is a friend of mine. You are free to disagree with him or his approach — I do and have — but his contribution to the industry is undeniable. Showing some respect won’t kill you.

  3. I suffered from a really problematic listening space. At a friend’s prompting I invested $150 in Dirac’s room correction software. The results were pretty amazing; low end boom gone, image improved, layering of recordings improved. From my experience I would have to agree the room is the key, and there are solutions out there that can help and which don’t break the bank

  4. Hi, Scot.

    If an audio system was a sandwich, the room is like the bread. The quality of the bread is at least 1/3 of what makes a great sandwich.

    You can have the best meat and ingredients in the world on your Italian hoagie, but if the bread is that WonderBread-style of Italian roll you get at most supermarkets, it’s going to be lame.

    The speakers and the room are an acoustical system. You can’t truly consider them separately. Interfacing these two elements has more to do with the perceived sound than everything else combined. To act like they aren’t is to defy logic and fact.

    I’ve heard great speakers in mediocre rooms. I’ve heard mediocre speakers in great rooms. Obviously, both are suboptimal. I’m not quite sure which one I prefer since both are a let down.

    As to your point about non-standard geometry in listening rooms, sometimes it works fantastically. In my case, my house’s finished basement is an odd U shape. My surround system runs along the bottom of the U. It has a drop ceiling with insulation between the joists above it. It came like this when I moved in.

    From the start, I know I had something special. It has no problem with bass modes what so ever. Setting it up as a LEDE (live end/dead end) room, it’s now the best sounding room I’ve ever heard. I could go into greater detail, but, nah!

    This room shouldn’t sound great, but it does.

    So, by experience, I can state that the loudspeaker/room interface is the most important part of an audio system. To say that it’s at least 75% of the perceived sound may be understating it.

    • Your “Wonder Bread” analogy is very common. Wrong, in my opinion, but common. It’s not the bread — it’s the plate. Maybe the napkin. That is, it can certainly change your interaction with a big, juicy, sloppy sandwich of total awesomeness, but the sandwich’s awesomeness doesn’t really depend on the plate much at all.

      Put this another way — if you put an awesome sounding system in a crappy room, the common wisdom would have it that the awesome system will necessarily sound like crap. And that is, in point of fact, not true. If you’ve never been to Michael Fremer’s old room, for example, you’ll know it’s not a Cathedral of Sound. It’s just a basement, and he almost wilfully violates several of the cardinal rules of system setup. And yet it still sounds great. I’ve mentioned the Vinnie Rossi setups at audio shows — great system, crap room … and still great sound. Same with Jeff Joseph.

      The point — it’s not the room. It never was. It’s what you do in that room.

  5. If you are planning to invest on esoteric hifi equipment the room is definitely a key factor. Moreover, furniture, floor covering, wall decor and ceiling height are important consideration for your audio listening environment.

    • True, but you’re now asking different questions. The question is: is it the most important component. This is claimed all the time. The most important component. And if you talk to certain room treatment salespeople, you’ll hear this even more baldly.

      No one ever said that the room doesn’t matter. Of course it does. I say this quite plainly in the video. Treat the room and the system might sound better. But it might not. And, in many cases, “good setup” might actually be all you need to do to “treat” the room out of the equation entirely.

  6. While I agree that the room is less of a choice than, say, the amplifier, it is true that the same system in a different room would yield bigger differences than a change of amplifier (in the same room). The room does contribute to the overall sound in a major way, and should and does influence the choice of speakers and other components. Ever wonder why those awesome speakers you heard in the showroom sound less than awesome when you get them home?

    • Maybe so. But I would argue that “good setup” — or rather, setup that is appropriate for that room — would probably be more than enough to “treat” the room out of the equation.

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