The Five Elements of a Great Sounding System

December 11th, 2009

Have you ever gone to a movie theater or a friend’s home theater and thought: “Boy, this sure sounds good!”? Have you wondered what it is that makes the difference between a good system and a mediocre system? Or between a good system and a great one? I would like to share with you the 5 elements essential to a great sounding system as defined by Gerry Lemay of the Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA).

You may be surprised to realize that these five elements transcend physical specifics (such as equipment and room characteristics). This is what makes this analysis so powerful. It doesn’t matter what equipment you have or what room it is, these five elements remain the key to making your system sound great. Of course, the components used and the environment will have huge effects on all 5 of these elements.

(The contents of this post are taken from HAA materials – credit to Gerry Lemay)

#1: Clarity

When looking at acoustic quality, Clarity is the most important element. Clarity cannot be accomplished unless you have achieved all of the other four goals. Clarity includes the ability to: understand dialogue in movies, understand musical lyrics, hear quiet details in a soundtrack or in music, and have sounds be realistic. Just about every characteristic of your sound system and room can and will affect clarity.

Having excellent clarity is the pinnacle of great sound in a system.

#2: Focus

Sit down in the “hot seat” of your home theater and play your favorite music. Now close your eyes and imagine where each instrument is located in the sound you are hearing. Every recording is designed to place instruments and sounds in a precise (or sometimes an intentionally non-precise) location. Focus is the ability of your system to accurately communicate those locations to your ears and brain.

Proper focus includes three aspects: the position of the sound in the soundfield (left to right and front to back), the “size” of the sound (does it sound “bigger/more pronounced” or “smaller/less pronounced” than it should), and the stability of that image (does the sound wander around as the instrument plays different notes, for example). Finally, focus allows you to distinguish between different sounds in the recording, assuming the recording was done in a way that the sounds are actually distinguishable!

#3: Envelopment

Envelopment refers to how well your system can “surround” you with the sound. You may be surprised, but a well designed and calibrated system with only two speakers is still well capable of surrounding you with sound. A well done 5.1 or 7.1 system will do it even better.

Proper envelopment means a 360-degree soundfield with no holes or hotspots, accurate placement of sounds within that soundfield, and the ability to accurately reproduce the sound of the room where the recording was made.

#4: Dynamic Range

The difference between the softest sound and loudest sound a system can reproduce is it’s dynamic range. Most people focus on bumping up the loud side of things (with bigger amps, etc.). The reality is that the dynamic range of many home theaters is limited by the quietest sounds. The softest sounds can be buried under excessive ambient noise – whether it’s fan noise, A/C noise, DVR hard drives, the kitchen refrigerator in the next room, or cars driving by outside the window.

The goal for dynamic range is to easily and effortlessly reproduce loud sounds while still ensuring that quiet sounds can be easily heard.

#5: Response

A system’s response is a measurement of how equally every frequency is played by the system. The goal is a smooth response from the very low end (bass) all the way up to the highest (treble) frequencies. Examples of uneven response include:

  • Boomy bass: certain bass notes knocking you out of your chair while others even a few notes higher or lower can barely be heard
  • Not enough bass overall
  • Instruments sounding “wrong”
  • Things sounding just generally unrealistic
  • A system that is tiring to listen to, causing “listener fatigue” after only a short time.

A properly tuned system will sound smooth across all frequencies, will not cause fatigue even at higher volumes, and will result in instruments and other acoustic elements sounding natural and realistic.

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As for how to adjust or improve any of these elements for your system, the techniques are varied and sometimes complicated. The whole purpose of the HAA certifications is to learn the techniques of improving these five elements for home theaters.

I would love to assist you in improving the sound of your home theater or home audio system. I have the “HAA Level II Guru” certification and can walk you through what it would take to make your system sound great. Drop me a line and we can schedule an appointment!