On the front page of every glossy magazine we’ve all seen that image of a sleek, minimalistic living room, full of reflective, gleaming surfaces and with a very large flat panel TV screen centred on the wall. Whisper-thin sheer curtains flutter in the breeze as sunlight plays upon the white glossy furniture and laminate flooring. This is the look we aspire to achieve in our own homes, isn’t it?
Now imagine that you have gone out for a romantic dinner. You’ve managed to get a table at that chic restaurant that’s the latest in town and where everyone wants to be seen. Imagine your annoyance when instead of murmuring softly to your partner across the table, you are forced to raise your voice to be heard above the surrounding clatter. It’s then that you notice the wooden floors and tables, the lack of curtains at the restaurant windows, the mirrors on the painted walls…
By now you may have got a hint of where I’m heading with all this! The fact is that hard surfaces are bad news for good sound. The restaurant example above illustrates perfectly how sound is bounced around off hard surfaces, creating unappealing volume and resonance. Extrapolate this to our picture of the ‘ideal’ living room so often depicted in glossy magazines and we can see that this minimalistic look, with lots of hard surfaces, will not seem quite so desirable once the surround sound is switched on!
So how can we maximise the sound quality that is achievable from the existing home cinema equipment in our modern living rooms? It doesn’t matter whether we have a soundbar, a full set of Dolby 5.1 speakers, or just the sound produced by the TV set, there is a lot that can be done just by setting up the living room correctly, and with minimal if any expenditure.
Firstly, if you have hard flooring in your living room this is generally bad news for sound! However by placing a large fluffy rug about half-way between the front speakers of your system, and your seating positions, you are providing an ‘absorption mat’ thus giving a cleaner quality to any sound that is projected downwards from your speakers. A subwoofer (bass speaker) should not be placed on a hard floor as it can cause booming which will overwhelm the subtlety of the bass notes, so if you have hard flooring then try positioning it on a piece of carpet.
In your local cinema where surround sound is usually pretty impressive you may have noticed the walls are heavily curtained. If they aren’t they will instead be covered in a specialist non-flat acoustic finish. This would be too expensive for most of us to consider for our living rooms, but by having good quality lined curtains at the windows which you close when using the surround sound, this will considerably reduce echo. Of course most of us wouldn’t want to hang curtains against the walls too, like at the cinema, but for large wall areas placing furniture such as a large bookcase will help diffuse and break up the sound. Alternately, hanging a large tapestry or canvas, particularly on the rear wall can considerably reduce sound reverberation and other distracting, resonating noise. Very attractive upholstered panels can also be made and hung to provide your own decorative touch to what is essentially a damper for sound.
Just by adding some soft furnishing touches in the right places in our own living rooms, we can considerably improve the sound quality from even the most basic of sound systems. The added benefit is that we can still keep a minimalistic ‘clean-look’ to our home space by understanding how different surfaces affect and modify sound waves. A mix of ‘absorption’ surfaces (curtains, rug etc) and ‘diffusion’ surfaces (bookcase, wall unit etc) will make a difference, and the beauty of this solution is that you can move and change the positions of most of these suggestions until you find the right mix for your room. Go ahead and give it a try in your home!