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What It Really Means To Equalize The Room

To fully take advantage of the benefits of equalization, we must fully comprehend how to identify the mechanisms that “unequalize” the system.

“I’m going to equalize the room.” We’ve all heard that statement so many times that we scarcely think about what it literally means. We know that in practical terms it means adjusting an equalizer to suit your taste. It may be done with the latest high-technology analysis equipment, voodoo magic or simply tweaking away “until it sounds right.”

In any case, are we really “equalizing the room”? What exactly are we doing? There are lots of disagreements on this topic but all agree on one thing: You cannot change the architecture of the room with an equalizer.

You can, however, equalize the response of the speaker system. Where the room fits into all this is a matter of debate; It is much more than semantics and has very real practical consequences on our approach to sound system alignment.

What do equalizers “equalize” anyway?

Let’s assume that we have a loudspeaker system with a flat (or otherwise desirable) free field frequency response. That is to say, it requires no further equalization. There are three categories of interaction that will cause the frequency response to change, to become, for lack of a better word, “unequalized.”

The first of these interactions are between speakers. When a second speaker is added the combination results in a modified frequency response at virtually all locations. This is true of all speaker models and all array configurations, regardless of any claims to the contrary.

The summation of the two responses varies the frequency response at each position, depending upon the relative time arrival and level between the two speakers. As additional speakers are added the variations in response increase proportionally.

The second category is the interaction of the speaker(s) with the room. These are generally termed coupling, reflections or echoes. The mechanism is similar to the speaker interaction above. The response varies from position to position, depending upon the relative time arrival and level between the direct and reflected sound.

Both of the above effects are the result of a summation in the acoustical space of multiple sources, either speaker and speaker, or speaker and reflection. Therefore the solutions for these interactions are very closely related.

The third interaction is caused by the effects of dynamic conditions of temperature, humidity and changing absorption coefficient. However, the effects of these interactions are small by comparison with the other two, so we will not touch on them further here.

Are any of these problems solvable with an equalizer? The answer is a qualified “Yes.” The magnitude of the above problems can be reduced by equalization, and substantial progress can be made toward restoring the original desirable frequency response.

If equalizers were totally ineffective, then why have we been loading these things into our racks for the last 35 years? However, in a practical sense the equalizer can only provide complete success in equalizing the response when applied in conjunction with other techniques such as architectural modification, precise speaker positioning, delay and level setting.

To what extent is the speaker/room interaction equalizable? This has been a matter of debate for more than 15 years. In particular the advocates of various acoustical measurement systems have come down hard on these issues.

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What we are doing is equalizing, among other things, the effects of the room on the speaker system. Why is this controversial? It stems from the historical relationship of equalizers and analyzers. Let’s turn on the way-back machine and take a look.

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