Click-bait headlines of the sort you see above have been par for the course in the world of hi-fi for longer than I’ve been into hi-fi. It isn’t hard to understand why. We all want our music to sound as good as reasonably possible, and since so few people understand the fundamentals of sound reproduction (not a criticism, mind you, just a statement of fact), our hobby is susceptible to all manner of snake oil, from green markers applied to the edges of CDs to grounding systems for loudspeakers.
The truth of the matter, though, is that the principles of audio science are pretty well-understood, so when some yahoo comes along trying to sell you this $100 doodad or that $1000 contraption to transform the performance of your stereo system, you should be skeptical. But read the headline again. I didn’t say anything about transforming the performance of your system; I mentioned transforming your perception of its performance.
All of this comes from a discussion Brent and I recently had on the SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast, in which we dug deep into a new AES paper by Jon Allan and Susanna Leijonhufvud titled “Listener Preferences in Streamed Music.” I have a feeling this paper will be fertile ground for discussion for quite some time, as it quietly challenges the way we perform listening tests. I imagine we’ll see Brent dig into the methodological particulars soon over on SoundStage! Solo.
But for me, one of the biggest things that stood out in the paper was a brief discussion about how extra-sonic stimuli (i.e., sensory input that may be visual, olfactory, tactile, or otherwise somatosensory) can skew listening test results. And it stood out to me because I’ve been standing behind this pulpit for years now.
I’ve told this story before, and I know I’ll tell it again (that’s just what old people do), but several years ago my mother-in-law drove down to Alabama to stay with my wife and me for a week. One night we decided to show her a new David Attenborough documentary series we were obsessing over at the time, and at one point I stepped out of my media room to answer the call of nature. When I took my seat again, though, everything just sounded . . . wrong.
I tried to quantify things as best I could. It wasn’t an issue of tonal balance. It wasn’t a problem of distortion or noise. It wasn’t the soundstage or the imaging. It wasn’t anything to do with reflected sound. (Not sure what could have possibly changed to affect the latter in the 45 seconds it took me to powder my nose, but whatever.)
I was utterly flummoxed until I realized that my room was just a weensy bit too bright. Like, visually speaking. So I slyly (or so I thought) opened the Lutron app on my phone and turned the lights down to my preferred viewing levels. Which prompted my mother-in-law to chime in with something to the effect of, “Sorry. I turned up the lights when you went to the bathroom. You keep it too damned dark in here.”
What’s curious, though, is that as soon as the lights were back down at my preferred level, my system sounded “right” again. Nothing quantifiable changed about its performance. What changed was my perception of the sound based on extra-sonic stimuli.
So what’s the takeaway here? Am I saying you should run right out and buy a lighting-control system for your two-channel listening room? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but yeah. I am. And you don’t need a fancy Lutron RA2 Select whole-home lighting-control system like I have; you’d do just as well with a simple Lutron Caséta starter kit with a dimmer switch and control hub that retails for something like $100 (there’s the payoff from the headline you’ve been looking for!) and usually sells for something closer to $85.
Mind you, I’m not claiming that lighting control will make up for bad speaker design or placement, questionable crossover design, bad bass management, subpar room acoustics, or any other factors that might affect the objective, measurable performance of your system. You really should do your best to button down the quantifiable aspects of the sound that reaches your ears before you start fussing too much about what goes on between them.
In other words, nail down the objective first, and then start playing around with the subjective. But keep in mind that even the subjective experience of sound is studied and better understood than you might think. Consider this paper, for example, which sought to measure the differences in emotional valence between test subjects listening to music with their eyes open as opposed to closed.
There’s also the paper “Interactions Between Audio-Visual Factors in a Home Theater System: Definition of Subjective Attributes” by Wieslaw Woszczyk of McGill University, along with Søren Bech and Villy Hansen of Bang & Olufsen A/S, which Brent turned me onto after my experience with my mother-in-law. This one is about home theater, but it does discuss the ways in which our perception is dominated by visual stimuli, as well as the need to balance the magnitudes of auditory and visual stimuli in A/V systems.
Until someone does a controlled, clinical trial specifically focused on the effects of lighting control on listening enjoyment, I have to reiterate that my experience is anecdotal. I cannot tell you the degree to which lighting will affect the perception of sound for the average listener, much less you specifically. I cannot tell you what your preferred lighting levels will be. Hell, I can barely figure that out for myself when other variables change.
Recently, I acquiesced to my wife’s demands and installed brighter LEDs in our media room, which she needs when she’s reading or cleaning or practicing her twisty-cube algorithms. That meant I had to reprogram our Control4 system with new default lighting levels, as well as new lighting levels for activities like movie watching, music listening, etc. My wife tends to use voice commands to dial in the lighting, certainly more than I do, and she keeps falling into the habit of selecting intensity percentages appropriate for our old bulbs and not the new ones.
She gets frustrated with me when I correct her: “No, no, when we’re watching TV, the lights should be at 20%!”
She responds: “You’re just making shit up. How do you know it’s 20% and not, say, 25%?”
My rebuttal: “Because the whole room just sounds wrong with the lights at 25%!”
Am I crazy? Well, yes. Verifiably so. But that’s not the point. What this disagreement of ours demonstrates is that not everyone’s perception of sound quality is as impacted by lighting levels as is mine. But I suspect a lot of this boils down to the fact that my wife admittedly doesn’t care about sound quality much at all, as long as dialogue and vocals are intelligible, bass is sufficient, and distortion isn’t too bad. And I strongly suspect that the more you care about sound quality, the more you’ll be affected by things of this nature. At any rate, if I were testing this, that’s one of the variables I would want to account for.
But maybe tactile sensitivities affect you more than lighting levels. In that case, a good Eames Lounge Chair (or a knockoff of reasonable quality) might be a wise investment for your listening room. It will certainly affect your listening experience far more than will a power cord of the same price (and yes, those exist).
Again, it has nothing to do with the fact that the chair makes you happier. I’m not saying an Eames chair will make you love your sound system more because it gives you positive vibes or whatever. I’m claiming that, based on my experience, the sensation of sitting in a more comfortable chair will literally change the way your brain processes auditory input. Perhaps not in ways we have measured yet, but I’ll wager in ways that can be measured one day if someone decides it’s worth investing in a proper study. And if the studies prove me wrong, I’ll change my stance.
Until such time, we just have to play around in purely anecdotal territory, informed by the findings of neuroscience insofar as they intersect with our hobby. The bottom line is this: we’re so inclined in the audiophile world to spend gobs of money on things that have been proven to have zero meaningful impact on the listening experience. Some of us will happily buy into the notion that 24-bit/192kHz audio sounds better than 24/96 (or, hell, 24/48), without understanding the first thing about the Nyquist theorem or reconstruction filters, but they never stop to consider that the processing of one of our brain’s inputs might be affected by the signal feeding its other inputs.
So, yes, I do genuinely believe your stereo system will sound better—to your brain, not your ears—if you install a $100 lighting control system. Or a $25 dimmer switch from Home Depot, for that matter. Whatever works for dialing the lighting of your listening environment to a level that doesn’t overwhelm your senses but doesn’t leave you in the dark, either. And get a decent seat for your listening room while you’re at it.
. . . Dennis Burger