DIY Acoustic Panels Reveal Depth and Clarity in Orchestral Recordings

You may have guessed by now that I own very few jazz or classical music albums. Anime soundtracks featuring Yoko Kano compositions dominate my catalog, but I’m always wary of the CD’s fidelity (it’s hard to tell if your buying a Taiwanese bootleg or the Japanese original). The original Broadway recording of West Side Story is the one non-anime album I have (recommended by some audio magazine a few years ago as a great recording, so I can trust it to reveal system change benefits).

With my six acoustic panels in place I sat in my sweet spot Saturday morning to listen to the Broadway soundtrack. I was curious if the panels would clarify the soundstage of complicated recordings like an orchestra and a musical theater cast.

First a note on critical listening. It is almost impossible to sit down with my head in the cage of my sweet spot without my daughter beckoning me onto the makeshift dancefloor behind the listening couch. She’ll have us dance to anything: if the music is slow and mysterious we go interpretive, if it has an actual beat we dig a trench running and hopping around in a circle. Every few songs I will sneak back to my listening chair only to have her tug me back to dancing.

Saturday, she actually sat with me for a few songs, just listening. Nothing is more exciting for me than her discovery of stereo magic. Plus she gets to listen to a decent system, not a crappy mid-80s Sony mini-system like I did when I was a kid. She’s an audiophile in training until she realizes carefully listening to music in a dark basement isn’t all that fun and certainly not cool and when she’s seven years old she’ll reject everything I love and go her own way. The turn will break my heart and I’ll hope for the day sometime after college when she can appreciate her fundamental listening skills and grow back into the hobby. The future is scary.

Here’s my impressions of the passages of orchestral show tunes I was able to sit through. (Because I didn’t have time to rip the CD to Apple Lossless, all the listening was done with the original CD in my Pioneer DV-47ai. I listened with the Taddeo Digital Antidote II both in and out of the system and preferred it in, it tamed some harsh horns.)

  • Soundstaging: A greater sense of depth was apparent, spreading well behind the speakers; the string section was placed left of center with solos collapsing to the left speaker, the brass ganged similarly to the right; not much ambient action to the outside of the speakers; solo voices hung in space with the correct size of a human head; chorus lines were clear and took over the full soundstage
  • Timbre: individual instruments’ bodies diffused by rest of orchestra; strings, brass and percussion sounded more acoustic than synthesized (this is a big difference I’ve noted over the years as my listening environment has improved: violins sound like live violins rather than a sampled fax)
  • Frequency Coloration: male voices were not boomy; female voices smooth; no sibilance; trumpet harsh at times like it had a hint of tissue paper between the speaker and listener

Jon Risch’s recipe for DIY acoustic treatments continue to impress with any musical style I amplify into my listening room. Have you built yours yet? What are you waiting for?

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