The Prospects of Recording by Canadian pianist, composer, and broadcaster Glenn Gould makes an interesting read if you the kind of person who debates whether “they” should be “here” or “you” should be “there”.
I often have to do demos of loudspeakers for people. Also, I frequently have to make recommendations on how to do (either for Bang & Olufsen dealers, or for things like press events). One of the problems that I face every time I have to do this is how to arrange the chairs so that everyone gets a reasonable impression of how a loudspeaker sounds. The problem is that this is basically impossible, due to the significant influence things like the loudspeakers’ locations, the listener location, and the room, have on the overall sound.
One aspect of how-a-loudspeaker-sounds is its magnitude response (often called a “frequency response”). A (perhaps too-simple) definition of a magnitude response is “a measure of how loud the output signal is at different frequencies if you put in a signal that is the same level at all frequencies”.
If we wanted to make a measurement of a loudspeaker’s magnitude response in a room at a particular position, we just have to put in a signal that contains all frequencies at the same magnitude (or level), capture that output with a microphone somewhere in the room, and compare how loud the signal is at different frequencies. Of course, in order to do this, we have to take care of some details. We have to make sure that the microphone (and everything else in the measurement part of the signal path) has a flat magnitude response. If it doesn’t, then at least we should know what its response is, so we can subtract it from the measurement to remove its influence on the result.
However, for the purposes of this posting, I’m not really interested in the absolute response of a loudspeaker. I’m more interested in how that response changes as you move in a room. Specifically, I want to show how much the magnitude response can change with very small changes in listening position.
Let’s start by measuring the magnitude response of a loudspeaker in a room at a location. For the purposes of this example, I’ve used a full-range, multi-way loudspeaker without a port. It’s placed roughly 1 m from the side wall and 1 m from the front wall, aimed at a listening position. The listening position is in the centre of the room’s width, and closer to the rear wall than the front wall by about a metre. The details of the location for the microphone (a 1/4″ omnidirectional measurement mic) for this measurement are shown in Figure 1, below.
I did an impulse response measurement (using an MLS signal with 4 averages (to improve SNR) and 4 sequences (to reduce the effect of distortion)) of the loudspeaker, the result of which is shown below in Figure 2. As you can see there, there are many obvious reflections after the initial impulse, and there is some kind of ringing in the room’s response.
The extremely long time before the onset of the impulse is arbitrary. The microphone was not actually 40 m away from the loudspeaker…
As I said above, I’m not interested in the resulting magnitude response of this measurement. I can tell you that it’s messy. There are bumps and dips in the low end caused (primarily) by room modes. The top end is messy due to the reflections. The overall curve is not flat due to the loudspeaker’s response, the microphone’s orientation, and various components in the signal path. However, I don’t care, since I’m not here to measure how the speaker behaves at one location in the room. I’m here to find out how its behaviour changes when you change location. So, let’s move the microphone.
As you can see in Figure 3, below, I started by moving the microphone only 100 mm, directly forwards in the room.
Again, I measured the impulse response, converted that to a magnitude response (reflections and all!), smoothed it with a running 1/3 octave smoothing and subtracted the magnitude response measured at the Reference position (also smoothed to 1/3 octave). The resulting difference is shown in Figure 4, below.
As you can see in Figure 3, moving the listening position only 100 mm results in a magnitude response deviation of about -2 to +4 dB. This is easily within the threshold of audibility for most people…
Now, let’s move the microphone sideways instead, as shown in Figure 5.
Again, a roughly 100 mm movement results in a large change in the magnitude response – although now the most significant changes have happened in the low end, as can be seen in Figure 6.
If we have more than one listener attending the demo, then I prefer to seat them “bus” style – one directly in front of the other – to ensure that everyone is getting a reasonably good phantom centre image. Sitting off-centre results in the time of arrival of signals from the two loudspeakers being mis-matched which will result in phantom images pulling towards the closer (and therefore earlier) loudspeaker.
Let’s say the we have a person roughly a half-metre behind the “good” chair, as shown in Figure 7. How different is the sound in that location?
Now we can see in Figure 8 that, by moving backwards in the room, we get more than ± 10 dB of variation in the magnitude response, with significant deviations happening as high as 1 kHz (depending on how you define “significant”).
Similarly, moving forwards by a half metre from the Reference position (shown in Figure 9) results in a similar amount of change in the magnitude response, shown in Figure 10.
Just for comparison, I’ve re-plotted the 4 magnitude response differences shown above in one plot. This is to show that the changes are not necessarily easily predicable with a simple knowledge of room layout. In other words, it would be almost impossible, without some serious simulation software, to predict these changes just by looking at a floorplan of the room and the chairs.
What’s the moral of the story here? There are many – but I’ll just mention three.
The first is the message that, even a very small change in location (like leaning to one side in your chair – or leaning forwards to rest your elbows on your knees and your chin on your hands) can dramatically change the simple magnitude response of a loudspeaker (we won’t get into the effects on the spatial behaviour of the system).
The second is that, when you’re sitting with a friend, auditioning a pair of loudspeakers, switch chairs now and again. It is extremely unlikely that you’re both hearing the same thing at the same time.
Thirdly, the fact that there are significant differences between magnitude responses at different listening positions (even within a half-metre radius) means that, if you’re doing measurements for a room compensation system using a microphone around the listening position, it’s always smarter to make more than one measurement. In fact, there are some people who argue that, in this case, having only one measurement is worse than having no measurements, since you can easily get distracted by something in the magnitude or the time response that is a problem at only that location and nowhere else.
Finally, it’s worth considering that first point a different way. Let’s say you’re the type of person who likes to tweak a stereo system by upgrading components like wires. And, let’s say that you have incredible powers of “sonic memory” – in other words, you can listen to a system, take a break, listen to it again, and you are able to detect extremely small changes in system performance (like the magnitude response). So, you listen to your system – then you get out of your chair, change the component, sit down again, and start listening to the same tune at the same level. Remember that, unless you are in exactly the same location that you were before (not just “in the same chair”…), it could be that there is a larger difference in the magnitude response of the loudspeaker due your change in position than there is due to the component you just changed… So if you are a tweaker – get someone else to do the dirty work for you so you can sit there, in your chair, with your head in a clamp, waiting to evaluate the “upgrade”…