It's a well-known fact that high-end audio reproduction begins not with the quality of your equipment but rather with the quality of your room. While this is common knowledge among audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts alike, few people do little to treat their rooms, instead opting for that trick interconnect or power cable in the hopes of correcting what they can clearly hear is a problem. Some go so far as to change out their equipment, be it their source components, amps or speakers several times a year, because they can't seem to find a "sweet spot" in terms of sonic performance. Others have left their beloved hobby altogether. How many of these people could've been saved? How many budgets could've stayed on target, if we weren't so afraid of room treatments? We may never know.
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Your Audio Room as a Component
Nothing impacts your system's sound, good or bad, more than your room and the placement of your speakers and your primary listening position within it. A well thought out and acoustically sound room can make a $2,000 system sound like a $20,000 one, whereas a poorly laid out room can make a $20,000 dollar system sound like a $20 boom box. It's important you think of your room like a component instead of a box for all your toys to live in.
I recently moved into a new home and like my previous dwelling, knew that I would require a room that could serve double duty as both my wife's and my primary living as well as reference two-channel and home theater space. My previous reference room was less than ideal, forcing me to use room treatments as well as copious amounts of digital and analog EQ in order to reign in the sound to my liking. While I was able to achieve suitable results, the room came together at a considerable cost - the final tally being north of $15,000 before a single piece of equipment was ever purchased.
This time around I didn't have the financial means to drop fifteen large on my room; instead I had a much more realistic budget of $2,000 to play with. So, with that in mind, I made sure that the room itself was going to be conducive to quality sound reproduction long before I began building a system within it. My old room was wider than it was long and thanks to a wall full of windows, it forced me to build my system along the short wall for an almost nearfield-like configuration. That, and it was within two feet of being completely square ... ouch. Square rooms or rooms that share equal dimensions can compound acoustic problems and nodes and should be avoided at all costs. My new room is more ideally suited for proper two-channel playback and home theater enjoyment, being longer than it is wide without either of the two dimensions being multiples or proportionate to one another. The final dimensions of my room are 16-feet wide by 23-feet long with nine-foot ceilings.
Once I had the dimensions of the room, I was able to discern where my primary listening position would be, for it was the area with the flattest response (without treatments), which was approximately 13 feet from my front wall or roughly 60 percent of the way into the room. From there I drew an equilateral triangle (using masking tape) on the floor to determine where my left and right mains would rest to ensure proper stereo imaging. I ended up placing my left and right speakers eight feet apart and eight feet from my primary listening position, which in turn meant they rested approximately two feet out from the front wall and four feet from their respected side walls.
With my speakers and listening position setup in this manner, I had solid stereo imaging with rich, deep bass and a fairly liquid and intelligible midrange; however I knew there was a lot of focus, control and refinement that could be extracted from my setup with the addition of some room treatments.
For more information about basic room acoustics, speaker setup tips and terms check out these pages www.gikacoustics.com/education.html or www.decware.com/newsite/room.html.
Enter GIK Acoustics
After weeks of researching affordable acoustic treatments online, I settled on GIK Acoustics (pronounced G-I-K not "gick"), an Internet-direct company dedicated to making affordable, décor friendly acoustic solutions. I reached out to GIK via their website seeking advice as to which products they recommended. Within 24 hours I received a return e-mail from Bryan Pape, GIK's chief acoustical designer and consultant. Bryan and I setup a phone call a few days later to go over my room, setup and equipment - a service that GIK offers every customer free of charge.
During my hour long conversation with Bryan, he determined, sight unseen, that what my room needed was some of GIK's Tri-Traps for the corners of my front wall as well as two Monster Bass Traps for my back wall, since Tri-Traps were not feasible. Together these products would smooth out my bass response, which prior to their arrival was deep but lacked focus and ultimate detail. Bryan later suggested that I add two GIK 242 Acoustic panels behind my speakers to help with high frequency flutter around the speakers themselves. Bryan recommended that I start with these products first, then add to the setup if need be or as funds allowed - a sales position I've rarely seen from any audio or home theater company, which was as refreshing as it was appreciated.
Once we had determined what products would be needed, the next thing I had to decide was what color to chose. GIK Acoustic products are offered in a wide variety of standard fabric colors, which include Black, Off-White, Bright Red, Bright Blue, Hunter Green and Coffee. GIK Acoustic products can also be ordered in a variety of custom colors from Gulliford of Maine, some of which include Baltic (Navy Blue-ish), Aquamarine, Black, Silver Papier, Deep Burgundy, Bone (Cream) and Lilac. For that added touch of class - or in many cases stealth - GIK Acoustic products can also be made to order with your own art print, for what GIK calls an ArtPanel. Of course going with either the Gulliford of Maine or ArtPanel options adds a bit to the price but from what I've seen, the cost appears well worth it.
Once I settled on a color (Off-White for my room) the order was placed and the panels arrived roughly ten days later. The total cost? $873.96 plus shipping, more than a thousand dollars under budget. Not bad.
Tri-Traps, Monster Bass Panels and 242 Acoustic Panels in Detail
The GIK Acoustic products arrived in short order via five large boxes courtesy of the "throwers" at Fed-Ex. I quickly unpacked the various products and gave them a once over starting with GIK's Tri-Traps.
The Tri-Trap is a free-standing, corner mounted bass trap that absorbs frequencies from 50Hz down to 5,000Hz, helping create a more balanced room overall, while dealing with problem bass nodes that collect in the corners of your room. The Tri-Traps retail for $129 each and are shipped two per box for a total of $258. They measure two feet wide by four feet tall and weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 pounds apiece. They are available in all of the above-mentioned colors and are finished with plastic tops and bottoms to aide in stacking. For my room I purchased four Tri-Traps so that I could stack them one on top of the other in each of my corners along my front wall.
Next up was the Monster Bass Trap, which is a two foot wide by four foot tall and six-inch deep acoustical panel, designed to deal with bass nulls and spikes with a 3.0 absorption coefficient at 80Hz. The Monster Bass Trap retails for $118.99 each and ships one per box and can be had in GIK's standard colors as well as any of the above-mentioned custom finishes, including the ArtPanel. The Monster Bass Traps can also be ordered with hard wood frames and stands for an additional $49.99 each. The optional hardwood finishes include Blonde Maple, Brown Maple and Cherry Maple.
Lastly, I unpacked the 242 Acoustic Panel, which is designed to tame high frequency issues and first order reflections with absorption from 4000Hz down to 250Hz. The 242 panels are two feet wide by four feet tall and have a total thickness of two inches. They retail for $59.99 each and come in boxes of three totaling $179.97. Again, the 242 can be had in six standard finishes as well as a bevy of custom fabrics as well.
The fit and finish of the various GIK Acoustic products on hand for review had a decidedly hand-made quality to them, though don't mistake hand-made for a DIY (although GIK will sell you the raw materials to make your own acoustic panels), for all of the edges were straight, the faces flush and the corners sharp. The standard Off-White fabric had a nice quality look to it and complimented my room's warm color pallette nicely.
Finally, all GIK Acoustic products are independently tested at the Riverbank Acoustical Laboratories and their findings can be readily found on GIK's own website.
Once the GIK Acoustic products passed initial inspection, I went about installing them in my room, beginning with the corners located along my front wall. I stacked two Tri-Traps, one atop another, making for an eight-foot tall tower of bass controlling power. I used small tabs of Velcro on the inside edges to ensure a shake free installation in the event of a Southern California earthquake. Next I mounted the 242 Acoustic Panels behind my left and right speakers using 50 pound, self drilling, drywall anchors form Lowes. The 242 Acoustic Panels come complete with heavy gauge wire that allows them to be hung just like you would a picture, which is precisely what I did. I hung them two feet up from the floor as instructed by Bryan Pape. Lastly, using the same method and anchors, I used for the 242 panels I hung the Monster Bass Traps in the center of my back wall: two feet up from the floor and approximately two inches apart from each other.
The entire installation took less than an hour and was easy enough to complete without any outside assistance, not including the hour-long phone consultation with Bryan of course. As for the rest of my system it consisted of a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers, a Mark Levinson No 533H three-channel amp, Mark Levinson No 326S pre-amp, AppleTV, Sony ES Blu-ray player, Cambridge Audio DAC Magic and Dish Network HD DVR with all cabling coming by way of Transparent and their Reference line of products.
I've reviewed products that have made me downright giddy, ones that have elicited an uncontrollable urge to grin from ear to ear with excitement. However I've never reviewed a product that has made me want to go back through the hundreds of reviews I've done in the past and label them BG (before GIK) and AG (after GIK), for the effect the Tri-Traps, Monster Bass Traps and 242 Acoustic panels had on my system's sound was that profound. Words I often use to describe a product's sound, be it a source component or loudspeaker, were given new meaning with the GIK Acoustic products in my room. Products that I've used for months and even years in some cases, were rendered anew courtesy of the GIK Acoustic treatments, for they transformed the sound of my system from "wow" to "you've got to be kidding." That last quote came from my wife, who thinks every product that comes through the door sounds the same...until now.
I often use the track "Seville" from the Mission Impossible: II soundtrack (Hollywood Records) in my demos, for it's a great test of a system's bass performance in terms of depth, dynamics, speed and detail, not to mention balance for the thunderous footsteps of the Flamenco dancers live in stark contrast to the dueling Flamenco guitars. With the GIK Acoustic products installed, "Seville" took on a renewed focus and vigor I didn't know it had. The rampant dance steps went from sounding like a small-scale stampede to the deliberate movements of a handful of skilled dancers. The bombastic heel to toe steps now had purpose and emotion that told a sensual story versus coming across like a thunderstorm set against some plucky Spanish guitars. The Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond Series' bass possessed supreme focus and attack and reached depths I previously didn't think were possible. Now I know that the information I heard had been present the whole time, but it was as if someone had taken an industrial sized cue-tip to my skull and cleared out the "gunk" you normally hear from an untreated room. Dynamics were off the charts, aided by a new sense of silence no doubt created by the GIK Acoustic panels' ability to absorb the excess, fluttering sound waves that often get mistaken for "air" and "decay." The dueling guitars were precisely placed within the soundstage and held firmly in check with their own atmosphere and space surrounding. While fast, each note and strum of the guitar was rendered with the utmost care and attention to detail versus sounding more or less like a summation of their collected efforts. I must have listened to "Seville" half a dozen times in a row before moving on, for the effect the GIK products had on my overall enjoyment of the song was incredible.
To see how the GIK Acoustic panels would impact vocals I cued up "If It Kills Me (Live at the Nokia Theater)" from Jason Mraz's album We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things (Atlantic). The opening of the song features Mraz "tuning" for a recording session that ends in the words "still rolling?" The simple phrase uttered by Mraz was rendered so realistically that my wife came out of the bedroom and asked me "rolling what?" After a brief laugh session I got back to the review at hand. While small and intimate in nature, Mraz's performance of "If It Kills Me" was larger than life in the sense that it went from sounding like a live recording to sounding simply live. Since my room was unable to impart much, if any, of its own character upon the music, the recorded space and its ambience was allowed to shine, transporting me to the Nokia Theater versus bringing Mraz into my living room. Mraz's vocals were palpable in the truest sense of the word with more inflection, phrasing, breathing and emotion able to be heard and felt than ever before. There's a scene in the Iron Man movies whereby Tony Stark's computer sidekick Jarvis scans various mechanical creations allowing Tony to "virtually" pull them apart at will whilst still retaining their relationship to their surrounding elements. A weird analogy I know, but one that is fitting, for this is what the GIK Acoustic products (or any properly acoustically treated room) allow you to hear: each and every element is rendered faithfully, as if it was a solo performance, yet is allowed to come together in perfect harmony with the surrounding musical elements, free from aberration.
A treated room isn't just for two-channel listening, for just because you add three or five more speakers and some digital room correction doesn't mean you can get away with not acoustically treating your room. I went ahead and connected an Onkyo receiver I had in for review in order to test the GIK Acoustics' home theater performance. I cued up Black Hawk Down on Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures) and for the first time in years turned OFF the AV receiver's digital room correction, a feature I've relied on in the past to correct poor room acoustics.
It's hard to put into words just how wrong a film can sound when only digitally processed in a poorly treated or untreated room. With the receiver's Audyssey EQ set to "off" and the GIK Acoustic panels installed, the receiver, not to mention the film, took on added weight, dimension, natural separation and spaciousness. With regards to space, so much of what we've been told to believe about how adding extra speakers adds to the illusion of being amidst the action; all those speakers don't amount to an enveloping experience if they're creating a blanket of noise, one that can even muddy up the action or dialog that is happening front and center. With the GIK Acoustic panels in my room, the walls were nothing more than a visual reminder of the physical space in which I was watching the film, for the soundfield was vast both front to back and side to side, with a startling amount of information being revealed between the left and right mains than what I previously thought was there.
Dialog was crystal clear with the same "live" presence I found with vocal performances in the two-channel realm. There was a greater sense of space between the performers as well; for instance in one of the film's more somber scenes during prayer, several of the soldiers have a conversation but none of them are remotely close to one another, with exception of Josh Hartnett's character who roams their sanctuary freely. During this brief respite in the action, the distances between the characters and their respective dialog was more naturally conveyed than ever before. The effect was all the more impressive as Hartnett's character traveled smoothly back and forth and laterally across the screen between the other characters' dialog without any trace of spatial flattening or smearing.
When the action kicked into high gear it was a total assault on the senses but one that was tolerable at even higher volumes without fatigue than with digital room correction alone. The sound was still gut-wrenching and at times harsh but it was appropriate. Gunshots had far more body and resonance while explosions hit with more impact and force. As bowled over as I was by the film's newfound sonic focus, what amazed me most was that the receiver I was using was a $500 budget piece - yet it sounded like something far costlier. A glowing observation for Onkyo no doubt, but more importantly it proved my earlier point that a properly treated room can make even modest gear sound decidedly high-end.
To see how the Audyssey EQ would respond in a treated room versus one without acoustic treatments, I did a series of tests. When used in conjunction with the GIK panels, the Audyssey didn't alter the sound too dramatically, instead it seemed to give it just that last ounce of focus and coherence. However, when I removed all of the GIK Acoustic products and re-calibrated the Onkyo's Audyssey EQ for my room minus room treatments, the resulting sound was anemic and vague with muddy bass and an over accentuated midrange and high frequency performance. The whole presentation simply lacked focus and purpose; it was as if all of the speakers were vying for attention versus working together. If I didn't listen to the film with the room treatments first, I might have viewed certain aspects of the Audyssey's digital room correction and EQ as an improvement but having listened to the film with it off and with the GIK treatments in place, I found it to be harsh, un-involving and vague in comparison.
Comparisons and Competition
GIK Acoustics is far from being the only room acoustic manufacturer, nor are they the only one selling via the Internet. RealTraps is another Internet direct brand offering high performance acoustical treatments at low prices, though I'm not a fan of RealTrap's fit and finish, employing what looks like bits of scaffolding to create sharp, crisp edges. Regardless of my personal tastes, RealTraps does offer affordable solutions and appear to be GIK Acoustic's primary competitor: www.realtraps.com.
Another company to consider is Auralex Acoustics, who make an even wider variety of products than both GIK Acoustics and RealTraps combined www.auralex.com, though a number of their products seem to be variations of foam wedges, which I personally don't care for and don't find very useful. Auralex does make acoustic panels and bass traps; however they're more expensive and can only be purchased via authorized dealers.
Lastly, there is ASC or Acoustic Sciences Corporation, www.asc-home-theater.com arguably the granddaddy of home and studio acoustics. Starting with the TubeTrap, cylinder shaped bass trap/treble range diffuser, ASC has developed many top notch audio acoustic products. Their finish quality is equally impressive and they are the most expensive of the manufactures mentioned so far. Their main product line is factory direct except for a few select dealers. However, ASC has recently released their new SmartTrap line of products, competitively priced and available through any dealer
Of course I would be remiss not to mention that a lot of what goes into any of the above mentioned acoustical treatments can be found and/or purchased at your local hardware store for a uber cheap DIY solution. All you need is a bit of elbow grease, a free weekend and Google.
On the ultimate level and used more in studio applications is RPG. Their modex plates (for bass absorption) and BAD panels (for defraction) are used by HomeTheaterReview.com's publisher in his reference theater room as well as by Transparent Audio in their amazing room in Maine. RPG is also dominant in the professional and recording studio space.
Read The Conclusion and The Downside on Page 2