The near field listening chair

stereo-lays-an-eggI often read around various audio forums in order to try to understand the world of audiophilia. One common theme seems to be:

  • Measurements at the listening position are important, and can be interpreted directly as good and bad. Good = flat (or, by rule of thumb, a slightly downward-tilted frequency response); bad = non-flat frequency response.
  • There is no limit to what can be justified in order to get ‘good’ measurements at the listening position. Floor-to-ceiling speaker arrays; huge panel speakers; multiple subwoofers; diffusers; absorbers; traps; DSP-based ‘room correction’.
  • It is acceptable for the system to sound poor everywhere in the room except for a single seat.
  • The size of the speakers may be such that they loom over the listener disconcertingly, but this is considered acceptable.

What is really happening is that audiophiles are trying to get the recorded signal beamed directly, and anechoically, to their ears while sitting in a room. This is the logic of seeking ‘perfect’ measurements at the listening position and what gives rise to speakers that dominate the room.

It occurs to me that the whole thing could be scaled down to a fraction of the size, and could give even better measurements, largely removing the influence of the room (which is what the logic of ‘perfect’ measurements is seeking).

Ultimately, the audiophile could sit in an armchair close to some pretty small speakers – that could even be mounted on the chair. By only being a couple of feet away from the listener, they can be relatively low powered, yet with more-than-adequate bass. Room reflections become far lower in proportion compared to the signal than with ordinary speakers, giving that ‘anechoic’ sound that audiophiles are (whether they know it or not) pursuing. The restriction to a single listening seat is no disadvantage as we have seen. Ambient volume becomes much lower, so this would be ideal for listening late at night without disturbing the neighbours.

Such chairs already have a precedent as in the image above (! time for a revival?). And some people already do prefer near field listening – those who sit at a desk with reasonable quality speakers either side of their PC monitor are experiencing something similar.

However, I don’t think the audiophiles with room-dominating speakers really are seeking “that anechoic sound”. It is only the the idea that “speakers and room are a system” with the assumption that the two should sum to the recorded signal, that is giving rise to huge, room-dominating systems and a single listening seat. The unfortunate audiophiles are constantly getting closer and closer to ‘perfection’ while their systems sound worse and worse. People back in the 1970s had a far better listening experience.

I think Siegfried Linkwitz is one of very few people who understand this:

A listening room is the modern equivalent to forest and savanna. We still use the now hardwired portions of the hearing process but adapt them to the new situation. We still can ignore the static background, in this case the room and the fixed loudspeakers, and automatically focus our attention on the direct sound, even when it creates an illusion….

Two-channel playback in a normal living space can provide an experience that is fully satisfying as loudspeakers and room disappear and the illusion of being transported to a different place and moment in time takes over.