A place in the country: everyone’s ideal.Bryan Ferry, “Mother of Pearl”
Even at full strength, my family didn’t need 3000-plus square feet of living space, let alone four acres of outdoor frolicking space, much of it wooded. But in 2003 that’s precisely what we bought, partly because our deal fell through on another, very different house, partly because living next to a dairy farm was an appealing novelty, and partly because the hill on which the house is poised seemed defensible. On our very first morning in our new homea Saturday in early Junewe awoke to gunfire and puffs of smoke coming from the field below our hill. The hubbub turned out to be a reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle, which instilled in me the confidence that I could protect my home and family from any and all invaders, as long as they’re extras from the local opera house done up in red body paint and loincloths and armed with plastic tomahawks.
Now, with my daughter off to college, such excess space is untenable, and I have less enthusiasm than ever for mowing vast expanses of lawn, plowing long driveways, splitting firewood, sanitizing well water, and chasing deer and woodchucks away from our strawberry plants. It’s time to move to a smaller and at least slightly less rural house.
And you know what that means: I find myself looking at houses through the eyes not of a homeowner or realtor or decorator, but of an audiophile.
Thinning the herd
There have already been a few moments when I’ve wished that houses we’ve looked at didn’t have to meet audiophile requirements: gorgeous rooms whose square shape would create oppressive resonant modes; or whose big, beautiful windows would make the sound hard and pingy and compromise stereo imaging; or whose ancient, wide-plank floors would be too unstable for my turntables. And in none of the houses that I can afford have I seen large enough living rooms to accommodate my collection of over 2800 LPs and 400 or so 78s (both numbers greatly reduced in recent months, I’ll have you know).
Indeed, living rooms: With all due respect to readers, friends, and colleagues who feel otherwise, I believe it’s the job of a home audio system to suit my home, not the other way around. My ideal is a music system that family and guests alike can enjoy with casual ease, while also enjoying the other comforts my home has to offerrefreshments, artwork, comfortable furniture, sunlightwithout having to make a trip to the basement or an outbuilding. I don’t want a “man cave” or a “little rocket ship”the latter being how a friend’s wife described my hi-fi room of 22 years ago, with all the eye-rolling disdain she could muster for “men and their toys.” I want great music and a nice hometogether.
The answer, as always in such binds, is compromise. Reflections of sound from windowpanes can be tamed by curtains, plush furniture, and/or rugs laid on the floor or hung on walls. With modular cabinets, bought or built, a record collection can be shared among multiple adjacent rooms. As it looks now, I’ll probably wind up doing at least some of the above. But there’s one thing on which I and, probably, most of you can’t compromise: a rectangular room is a must.
Stereophile‘s founder, J. Gordon Holt, who is never further from us than the special red phone on John Atkinson’s desk, explained this requirement in his article “In Search of the Audio Abode,” published in Stereophile‘s April 1990 issue. As Gordon pointed out, most rooms exhibit three characteristic standing waves, resulting in single-tone resonant peaks near the room boundaries and resonant nulls in between. The frequencies of these standing waves are associated with the room’s three fundamental dimensions: length, width, height. If all three dimensions are the sameie, if the room is a cubethen all three standing waves will occur at the same frequency, and the room will sound muddy and boomy and altogether awful. A room stands the best chance of sounding clean and good when its three dimensions differ from each other so that the standing-wave frequency of each dimension is a third of an octave from the standing-wave frequencies of the other two dimensions.
To realize such an ideal, a room’s second-largest dimension must be 1.25 times its smallest dimensiontypically, these dimensions are, respectively, the room’s width and heightand its largest dimension must be 1.6 times its smallest dimension. As Gordon observed, in a modern house with 8′ ceilings, such a room would measure 12.8′ long by 10′ wide by 8′ highit would sound clean, but it wouldn’t support frequencies below about 43Hz.
Fortunately, both of the houses I’m now considering were built before 1940, and have 9′ ceilings. No less nice is that the smaller house has a living room that measures about 15′ long by just over 11′ wide: not a huge room, but one that might sound pleasantly clean throughout the lower octaves. Another factor in my favor: Both houses are made of brick, which is superior to wood in resisting the leakage of low-frequency content to the great outdoors.
All that said, a realistic attitude must prevail. As friend and fellow audio writer Steve Guttenberg once observed (I’m paraphrasing), in a room that would be overwhelmed by the sound of a real piano, why assume that a well-reproduced recording of a piano would sound any better?
Before moving, the audiophile must also take into account differences in the quality of the 120V AC from one house or apartment to the next. That topic was overlooked in Gordon’s otherwise comprehensive article, and I’ve had the luxury of overlooking it as well: In the 14 years I’ve lived here, I’ve enjoyed the cleanest, steadiest AC power of my life. Excepting the sorts of comparatively humble sound enhancements I’ve heard from certain high-end power cords and outlet strips, I’ve never heard an AC power accessory that improved the sound of my system in this house.
That’s not to say I’m an AC-filtration skeptic: Virtually every audio-frequency amplifier works by first rectifying the household AC, then modulating it with a low-voltage AC signal, the latter an analog of an electrically made recording. Quite simply, when you listen to your hi-fi, you are listening to your household currentit’s just been shaped into something else. As I contemplate moving, I can’t help thinking that there’s a good chance my next house will have poorer-quality AC than this one, and that I may have to try a few different power conditioners. I don’t look forward to the experience: Perhaps more than all others, that segment of the high-end audio market is made dreary by manufacturers who seem to apply their greatest efforts to the development of acronyms and initialisms intended to give their inventions a whiff of authority and scientific acceptanceinventions that, in a year or two, will surely be replaced by newer inventions and acronyms and initialisms. And that’s not to mention the faceplate-thickness battles now being fought among some makers of power conditionersbattles as pointless and silly and money-wasting as they are in the amplifier market. It’s bad enough buying a toaster or cell phone that I know will wind up in a landfill within 10 years of the purchase date; I don’t want to do the same with a four-figure hi-fi accessory.
Thanks, courteous wall
I’ll set aside such cheerless thoughts and return to worrying about packing and moving my LPs. The last time I moved, I bought a slew of fresh corrugated cartons with inner dimensions of 12″ by 12″ by 12″cartons in which my collection then languished for months, while my built-in record shelves were being made and installed. Those boxes are long gonesome given away, some carted off to the recycling stationbut recently, at Uline.com, I found some good new ones for just $18.50 plus shipping for a flat-packed bundle of 25. Uline shipped them the day they received my order, and they arrived two days later. Can’t ask for much better than that.
My record collection has grown since 2003, and after the recent culling it’s still somewhat larger than it was when I moved into this house. In those 14 years, I’ve dealt with the spillover by buying some sturdy, lidded cardboard cartons specifically designed for storing LPs. In his article “Vinyl Apocalypse,” in the August 2017 Stereophile, music editor Robert Baird praised the ones offered by Bagsunlimited.com, and they do look fine. I’ve had very good results with the Ultimate LP Storage Boxes from Sleeve City (www.sleevecityusa.com), which cost just $8.99 apiece. (They’re useful for cartage, too, but not for shipping via UPS et al; their removable lids would need to be taped down, which sort of ruins the whole thing.) In any event, for moving LPs that will eventually find their way onto proper shelves, there’s no sense in spending $8.99 a pop when Uline’s perfectly good cartons, rated for 200 lbs, cost just 74õ each.