Real World Sound Experiences, By Norman Varney
While working at the Owens Corning Science & Technology Center, I observed the emotional impact and amazing physical responses people have to room acoustics. Allow me to share some of these experiences.
In what is called the Air Lab, which is an extremely large room where heating, ventilation and air conditioning tests are conducted, we constructed two identical home theaters. These rooms were about 20'10" x 16'1" x 8'8" and had very good room mode distribution attributes. They were also constructed using materials and methods conducive to good noise isolation. The rooms were designed and built to be lab environments to test new acoustic products and applications. They were identically furnished to represent what a typical residential home theater would be, i.e., sheetrock, paint, wood cabinets with books, burber carpet, leather sofas, etc. We then installed the same decent home theater A/V system in both rooms, decent meaning these were good components, but not the state-of-the-art electronics that would normally be used by the clientele Owens Corning was targeting for their acoustic products. Each component was optimally positioned and calibrated, using various acoustic modeling programs and test equipment, including precision laser alignments and calibrated Type 1 acoustic analysis equipment.
The two environments were called the A/B rooms. The B room was 'Before' treatment, the A room was 'After' treatment. The two rooms were identical in every way except that the A room included the Owens Corning Acoustic Room System on the interior walls and part of the ceiling.
The rooms were test labs, but they were also used to show and demonstrate to VIPs the ongoing research being conducted. Being an audiophile myself, it's not surprising that I have a completely different experience in each room, but it was intriguing to notice that people with little to no experience, or appreciation for good fidelity, were showing different physical reactions between the two rooms. These people did not know or understand what was happening to them. For the most part it was subconscious, yet remarkable.
In the B room, they were always aware that they were in a room, either consciously or subconsciously, because they could hear the room's influence. Every room has a signature sound. It is so pronounced that you can audibly identify from what room your family member is talking over the limited fidelity of a telephone. Should you try to experience a movie in it, you would notice that it sounds like the room. Without control of the acoustics, every room sounds very different, so you can never experience the articulation, resolution, dynamics, tonality and 3-dimensional soundstage that allow you to become immersed in the movie.
The A room allowed these people to become involved in the movie at a level they had never experienced before. It was shocking to some, even emotional. It was obvious to all that controlled acoustics makes a huge improvement on the movie experience. It becomes enveloping.
The Science and Technology Center employed about 400 people when I was working there. It has its own medical staff and facilities and gives physicals to all at least once a year, including hearing tests in an isolation chamber. I decided to invite the head of the medical department down, give her the A/B room demonstration and ask if she could help me conduct a study. She was so impressed with the comparison that she set up appointments for her staff to experience it. We eventually formatted our test procedures and emailed those who met my hearing criteria. We received a good mix of almost two dozen volunteers. I won't go into detail, but we ran biofeedback tests on the volunteers. Nurses strapped on devices, took heart rate, blood pressure, etc. before and after each movie clip of "Das Boot", in each room. With the exception of one individual, who seemed to be calm and neutral in both rooms, all subjects had an increase of heart rate and blood pressure in the A room. In fact we could even tell what parts of the movie effected different individuals the most. For example: some were most effected by the feeling of claustrophobia as the submarine dove to untested depths; some were scared when the hull's rivets began to burst; one when the guy's arm was gouged and bleeding by a flying rivet; and others when the seawater began rushing in. The volunteers were also asked to answer a questionnaire after each experience.
The conclusion was clear. Controlled acoustics has a positive impact, both consciously and subconsciously, on the level of involvement experienced by the observer.
I had a similar experience there when I brought in about a dozen teenage boys to talk about acoustics. Owens Corning had built an early version of a turnkey home theater. This was to be an all-encompassing home theater package, including furnishings and decor by a well-known designer, installed and calibrated onsite. This room was beautiful to see and the electronic equipment was many times more expensive than what we had in the A/B rooms, but the level of acoustic control was not as high. When these boys walked into the room, they were impressed. They oohed and aahed as they looked around. I turned the lights off and played several movie clips for them and noticed how they were talking and goofing around. Then one of the boys who had experienced the A room before said "Hey let's go to the A room!" We settled into the A room, and as I played a clip, I noticed the boys were suddenly still. I played clip after clip and these teenagers were totally focused and involved in the movie. I wished I had video taped the event; the contrast was so dramatic. They didn't realize it, but the acoustics had controlled them. It was also evident that the acoustics played a more vital role than the electronic equipment in conveying the artists' intent.
I find it fun to test theories subjectively, and interesting to collect scientific data from test instruments. However, I find it most satisfying when I can see how a person's autonomic nervous system reacts according to how a room is treated for sound quality. There are still many things that we can only evaluate with our ears and emotions, and we have difficulty communicating our conclusions with words. But, when the acoustics are great , tears in the eyes, hairs standing on end and chills down the spine are common occurrences. This kind of emotional connection is what the artist strives so hard to attain, but then becomes obscured or lost due to poor set-up and the many forms of distortions and distractions typical of high-end home theaters. With proper attention given to acoustics, floor plan and calibration, I can tell you first hand that you can achieve a movie experience on a level you never knew existed.
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