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The Reason For “Bad Sound” May Not Be The Sound System

Three factors of roughly equal importance play the key role in good sound - and two out of three isn't good enough.

Many things around us are getting better. Computers are faster, televisions have more resolution, and dishwashers are quieter and more powerful than ever.

But with all of our digital wiz-bang processors, technology has been unable to eradicate “bad sound.” Why is this so? This short piece is an attempt to shed some light on three possible causes, two of which have been completely unaffected by the technological revolution.

The goal of most sound reinforcement systems is to deliver high quality sound reproduction to the listener. While we would like to think that a high quality sound system guarantees this, it does not.

The quality of the reproduced sound will only be as good as the weakest link in the reproduction chain. Let’s examine some of the major “links” individually.

The Room

The room is a major factor in the reproduction chain. Most large spaces are hostile environments for sound systems, unless they have received special attention from a professional and a considerable financial investment from their owner. Good acoustics doesn’t just “happen.” It is the by-product of careful planning.

A quality sound system may radiate an exceptionally high-fidelity sound field into the room. Unfortunately, most of the radiated energy will create acoustic events that detract from the listening experience. While small rooms have their share of acoustic problems, these problems pale next to the late reflections, reverberation, and energy build-ups encountered in large spaces.

If your sound system doesn’t sound good, ask yourself the question “What have I done to provide a good acoustic environment?” If the answer is “nothing,” then you got what you paid for.

The Sound System

Of course, a good sound system is a vital link in the reproduction chain. But this doesn’t just mean expensive equipment. It means that equipment that is suitable for the environment has been selected and implemented by someone who understands the compromises involved in large room reinforcement systems. Money can be wasted on “features” that offer no real benefit for the large room environment.

The vast majority of auditoriums that I have visited are not suitable for multi-channel formats such as stereo, surround sound, etc. since each channel must be delivered to all listener seats. Loudspeaker placements that are optimal for stereo reproduction are horrible choices for single-channel systems.

Even with monaural systems, “first choice” loudspeaker placements often create problems with sight lines and aesthetics, and are therefore ruled out by venue owners. Multiple loudspeakers must overlap somewhere, and there will be sound problems in these areas.

A properly designed system will often sound bad in the aisles – the very place where casual onlookers will stand to evaluate it. We all have good sound at home, but the rules change as the listening space grows. Intuition that is not filtered through the proper large-room principles leads to errors.

Sound system designers are often forced to compromise away the performance of the system to make it fit aesthetic concerns, budget limitations, and fashion trends within the industry.

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