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How I built my dedicated listening room without getting divorced or taking out a second mortgage. Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 December 2007

How I built my dedicated listening room without getting divorced or taking out a second mortgage.
category: Feature Articles
reviewed by: Bryan Southard
forum link: Comment on this review here...

How I built my dedicated listening room without getting divorced or taking out a second mortgage.

Several years back, while contemplating the quickest way to break in my new set of speakers, it dawned on me: "Why not put the speakers in the garage and run them around the clock for the required 200-300-hour break-in period?" My stereo was located in the main living room of my house, along with the TV and every other noise- making machine that we own. Because my wife likes to watch TV, I found myself getting very few relaxed, uninterrupted sessions to listen to my music, potentially postponing the breaking-in of my new speakers indefinitely.

The first problem the situation presented was that my garage was about as orderly as the first dozen rows of an outdoor heavy metal concert. The plan was to clean a spot in the middle of the floor large enough for my speakers, and perhaps a near-field listening position within the room. I picked up an old remnant of carpet to cover the cement floor and protect my components. I was now ready for my new speakers to arrive. After firing up my system, it took only moments to start daydreaming about the possibilities of cleaning up the garage, better described as "my junk storage facility," and turning it into my dedicated listening room. The size of the finished room would be 16 feet wide and 18 feet deep. I decided to add a small set of cabinets with a countertop in the rear of the room.

Since my garage is separate from the house, it could afford me endless amounts of available, uninterrupted listening time. With permission from my wife, my audio room project was born. Secretly I've always suspected that she looked upon this with equal excitement. She would be reclaiming her living room. My music system only reentered my house for the two months it took me to finish my music room project.

Dawn your Hardhat
The basic construction project included the complete rewiring of the room. In addition to lighting and power, I added several dedicated circuit breakers for my components. I insulated the walls and installed 5/8-inch-thick sheet rock on all walls. After much thought and consideration, I decided to build a wall in front of my garage door, leaving the door and opening mechanism intact for future owners, given the unfortunate possibility that they may not be audio enthusiasts and want to have a garage. This way, if I sell the house and they want a garage, the wall easily comes down. I constructed the wall and sealed it, top, bottom and sides. For added security and sound dampening, I cut and attached a sheet of 3/4-inch-thick fiberboard to the two entry doors using lots of sheet rock screws. For the ceiling, I left the rafters open and used acoustical ceiling tiles and insulation. After adding paint and some carpeting, it was time to move in.

When I moved my system back into my room, I was fully expecting to instantly have a near-perfect listening environment. After all, I had a room with good dimensions, void of windows, and wouldn't have inconsistent reflection points. I fired up my system and, to my amazement, it was horrible. My stage had completely collapsed. I experimented initially with every dampening device I could find, hanging sleeping bags and filling bookcases, but to no considerable improvement. I went down to my local retailer and borrowed several tube-trap products manufactured by ASC. I placed them at the first reflection points of both my front and side walls. Wow! To my delight, my system sounded great. My stage was defined and sounded dynamically superb. Over time, I've experimented with additional room treatments, primarily from the makes of both ASC and RPG, and have since purchased several additional treatment pieces for my room.

After sonically treating the room, I had at last upgraded the weakest component in my musical system, my listening room. This also ended the long debate between friends of the most critical component in an audio system. It is clearly your listening environment. I find my audio room to be a great retreat. "At last, a quiet room for listening that is my own."

Recently, after visiting an audio store that had a nice background for listening, I started contemplating possible options to improve the overall ambiance of my room. Originally, we thought that a marble pattern in blue would be nice. I consulted with my artist friend to get any ideas that she might have on the subject. Concepts for a mural ranged from an old winery building to a dock on the edge of a tropical ocean, with band instruments set up. In every mural idea, we tried to leave the musical setting as ambiguous as possible, leaving more to the imagination and thus allowing all types of music to look natural in the setting.

One night, while listening to Muddy Waters, it dawned on me, "How about a blues bar setting?" On a piece of paper, I quickly sketched up a stage, which extended beyond my front wall, onto my side walls for added stage width. I sketched a stage full of guitars and amplifiers and placed them into the depth of the stage. For a background, I sketched a brick setting and added my thoughts on some concert lighting. I decided to add curtains to the mix to help facilitate the illusion. Then one of my favorite ideas dawned on me. "Put LED lights in the amplifiers to make it look like they are on!"

Weeks later, I started the project with my artist friend, which would help me to create this illusion. We started by sketching the images on the wall. We then painted the stage itself, and sprayed the bricked portion with a textured, grout-colored paint. I created a bricking tool, made with several little sponge pieces, to paint multiple bricks at the same time. The brick portion, although somewhat tedious, took only a couple of hours to paint.

For the next several weeks, I watched my room transform as my partner and I painted a couple of hours at a time, several days a week.

I decided to use the X10 remote control lighting system to control the lighting tracks. This system allows you to independently turn lights on and off as well as dim them, without the need to run independent lighting circuits, and facilitates a huge variety of other options.

I used several three-light tracks to illuminate everything from the main floor of my room and stereo components (I love gazing at my gear) to multi-colored lighting, focused onto the wall itself. To get the most realistic-looking colored lighting at a reasonable cost, I cut open the tops and bottoms of tall aluminum beer cans, then placed the cans over the lights, giving the them a more focused and concentrated beam. I placed colored glass pieces over the front of the cans to get a convincing lighting scheme. One concern of mine was the possibility of some hum from the halogen lights when they are dimmed. To my surprise, there was no significant buzz at all, although I am careful not to dim my lights when I am doing my most critical listening. This is something that you might want to consider when choosing lighting for a room. Because my lighting is hidden from view by my stage curtains, I did not take the time to paint the beer cans black, which would have given them a much more finished look. Perhaps someday I will take the time to do so.

Each step I made on the construction of my room felt nice, but I was never quite as excited as when I fired up the LED lights that were placed in the amplifiers, giving them the look of powered-up guitar amps. Running wires down the wall was painstaking work, but well worth the trouble. We sewed curtains from some very inexpensive black material to help bring depth to the stage. The curtains also covered up the lighting tracks, further emphasizing the concert venue illusion.

The next step was to add my green helium-neon laser to the mix, which I have had for years. Maybe not the effect for all occasions, but just the ticket for Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon or Yes' Close To The Edge. With the use of mirrors and splitters, I managed to reproduce a very trippy laser scene.

To test the system, I rolled back the clocks with Yes' "Long Distance Runaround," from Fragile (Atlantic Records). Short of a few layers of smoke and the sweaty drunk dude next to me, I felt as if I was at a rock and roll show of the past.

Tallying up my receipts
As with any project, the final costs are likely to slightly overrun your initial estimates. In this case, the only estimate that I overran was my anticipated enthusiasm and excitement as the room evolved. In most cases, there is a formula (Excitement x Enthusiasm = $). I will attempt to outline some of the more notable expenses of the project.

Dump Fees $ 75
Sheet Rock/Tape/Texture $195
Insulation $180
Wiring, Circuit Breakers, and Outlets $120
Paint $ 30
Carpet $160
Lighting $180
X10 Lighting Controller $ 65
Air Conditioning $350
Acoustical Ceiling Tiles $135
Total $1,490

As with every project, there are some additional smaller items that can add up. I would estimate an extra 20% for miscellaneous items. The cost of the mural depends on a lot of issues. Drop me an e-mail and I will be happy to forward you additional information.

As I reflect upon my labor
I am rewarded for all the hard work every time I walk into my room. I find the experience to be a musical outing, rather than a night in listening to music. The reaction of people who see the room for the first time is often amazement. Much thanks goes out to Leeanna, the artist who made this all possible.

As I look back, there are just a couple of things that I might have done differently. One change would be a more solid build-up of the front wall behind the speakers. The wall is very solid to the touch but has some low-frequency resonance, which will absorb and soften the lower octaves in your music. In retrospect, perhaps a layer of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) under the layer of sheet rock might have helped this problem. In addition, if I were to do the job again, I would run additional dedicated circuits for my components, primarily a very large gauge run for my amplifier, to help supply very high current demands.

The next major improvement to the room will be air conditioning. Even in the cooler months, the room can get very hot with the equipment running. I plan to add a wall unit in the range of 12,000 BTU, which should cool the room agreeably, and allow me to turn it off when listening to music. Often when relaxing to some music, I daydream about additional effects that could be added to my room. Perhaps I will make that a winter project. I'll keep you informed.

Final Thoughts
Although there was a lot of initial work that went into the room's build-up, the transformation from its humble beginnings into my own private House of Blues was a labor of love, something that repays me for all of the hard work every time I get the urge to hear a few songs. In fact, there is a show about to start right now.... Enjoy your music!

forum link: Comment on this review here...

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