How to Get Cinema Sound Quality in Your Living Room

On the first page of each glossy magazine we saw the image of an elegant and minimalist living room, full of reflective and shiny surfaces and with a very large flat screen TV centered on the wall. Sheer, subtle curtains flinch in the breeze while sunlight plays on the glossy white furniture and laminate flooring. This is the aspect we aspire to achieve in our homes, isn’t it?

Now imagine that you went out for a romantic dinner. You managed to find a table in that chic restaurant which is the last one in town and where everyone wants to be seen. Imagine your annoyance when instead of softly murmuring to your partner across the table, you are forced to raise your voice to be heard above the surrounding noise. That’s when you notice the wooden floors and tables, the lack of curtains on the restaurant windows, the mirrors on the painted walls …

By now you may have a clue where I’m going with all this! The fact is that hard surfaces are bad news for good sound. The restaurant example above perfectly shows how sound is bounced off hard surfaces, creating unpleasant volume and resonance. Extrapolate it to our image of the “ideal” living room so often depicted in glossy magazines and we can see that this minimalist aspect, with many hard surfaces, will not seem so desirable once the surround sound is turned on!

So how can we maximize the sound quality obtainable from existing home cinema equipment in our modern living rooms? It doesn’t matter if we have a soundbar, a full set of Dolby 5.1 speakers or just the sound produced by the TV, there are many things that can be done simply by setting the living room correctly and with the minimum if any expense.

First, if you have hard floors in your living room, this is generally bad news for sound! However, by placing a large, soft carpet midway between the system’s front speakers and the seat positions, an “absorption mat” is provided that offers cleaner quality to any sound projected down from the speakers. A subwoofer (bass speaker) should not be placed on a hard floor as it can cause a boom that will overload the subtlety of the bass notes, so if you have a hard floor, try placing it on a carpet.

In your local cinema, where surround sound is usually quite impressive, you may have noticed that the walls are heavily shielded. Otherwise, they will instead be covered with a specialized non-flat acoustic finish. This would be too expensive for most of us to consider for our living rooms, but having good quality lined curtains on the windows that close when using surround sound, this will significantly reduce the echo. Of course most of us would not want to hang curtains against the walls as well, like in the cinema, but for large areas of the walls placing furniture like a large bookcase will help to spread and break the sound. Alternatively, hanging a large tapestry or canvas, particularly on the back wall, can significantly reduce sound reverberation and other distracting and resonant noises. The very attractive padded panels can also be made and hung to provide your decorative touch to what is essentially a sound absorber.

Just by adding a few touches of soft furniture in the right places in our living rooms, we can considerably improve sound quality even from the simplest of sound systems. The added bonus is that we can still maintain a minimalist ‘clean look’ in our home space by understanding how different surfaces influence and modify sound waves. A mix of “absorption” surfaces (curtains, rugs, etc.) and “diffusion” surfaces (bookcase, wall cabinet, etc.) will make the difference, and the beauty of this solution is that you can move and change the positions of most of these tips until you find the right mix for your room. Go ahead and try it at your house!


by Ian Shephard

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