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Thread: The Listening Chair

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    WBF Technical Expert tmallin's Avatar
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    The Listening Chair

    I saw that there is another discussion of this topic elsewhere in What's Best. Rather than spoil the fun there, I thought I'd start fresh here and state my thoughts on what factors should go into picking the right listening chair. I have my own notions of how to weight all these factors, but each audiophile and music listener must decide for himself how relatively important each factor is and choose a chair accordingly.

    And this is a serious decision, I think, one not to be taken lightly. I believe that, other than the listening room itself, the acoustical treatment of that room, your choice of speakers, and perhaps equalization, the set up of your equipment is the most important factor in determining what you will hear from your rig. And I further believe that your listening chair is an important part of your equipment, at least as important as the physical and electrical set up of your audio hardware.

    I'll first list the factors I believe are important in choosing a listening chair. Then I'll list a few alternatives and explain the solution I personally have chosen. Note that I am primarily talking audio-only systems, not home theater. To the extent that what I say applies to home theater listening, it applies primarily to the audio part of the presentation, not the video, or the best compromise for the audio/video experience.

    What Makes a Good Listening Chair

    Erect Posture

    Number one with a bullet in my book is the ability of the chair to support you comfortably in a fully erect posture. I'm speaking primarily of the ability of the chair to allow you to sit with your head in a vertical position, but it's really the same thing. You can't sit comfortably for long with your body reclined and your head angled forward to get your head vertical.

    Despite the popularity of audio chairs which are clearly recliners or at least "relaxed" posture chairs, I "just say no" to such chairs. I've been a careful listener for decades. I have never once encountered a system which sounded better from a spatial or tonal perspective with my head tilted back than with my head vertical. The difference in my ability to hear an accurate spatial perspective from any given system varies hugely with head angle. I hear the best a system can do with my head vertical, period. With my head tilted back a bit, I do not perceive recorded space nearly as well. This is true for all aspects of spatial reproduction, but I think front-to-back depth is probably most obviously affected.

    I've tested this countless times. Note that to make the test really fair, you have to move your chair forward a few inches and up a few inches when you lean back to make sure your ears are in the same position. Even with such controls applied, the difference is super obvious to me: vertical is just better.

    Additionally, a reclining chair, at least for me, is TOO relaxing, tending to induce sleepiness far too quickly. An erect posture keeps me alert and awake.

    You will be surprised at how few "comfortable" chairs allow you to sit erectly. The style these days seems to be a very reclined, "relaxed" sitting posture.

    Note that leaning forward often produces a sensation of hearing yet-better spatiality than vertical posture. Applying controls, however, has convinced me that this is an illusion probably caused by increasing the apparent subtended angle between the speakers when one leans forward. Once I correct for this and for the difference in listening height, vertical head position again wins. Not to mention that leaning forward for long periods is not very comfortable.

    While the erect-sitting-is-best conclusion may be peculiar to me, I don't think it is. Test and judge for yourself. You may be surprised if you have not tested this before.

    Proper Sitting Height

    The chair, if not easily adjustable in height, must put your ears at about the right height above the floor to listen to your speakers with best advantage. This factor is more important for near-field listening (such as I enjoy) than if you listen 10 to 12 or more feet back from your speakers. And if you have true line source speakers, it probably is not very important even for near-field listening.

    For near-field listeners like me, this is not a trivial matter. For, in combination with the requirement of an erect sitting posture, this eliminates most chairs from consideration if you are using floor-standing speakers.

    The reason? In my experience, if you want your listening chair to accommodate itself to both stand-mounted and floor mounted speakers, it should be able to comfortably place your ears no more than about 36 inches above the floor. The design axis of many floor-standing speakers of not huge size (e.g., the new Vandersteen Model 7 $45k speakers) is no higher than this above the floor. You may well be surprised, I think, at how few chairs can comfortably get your ears down this low while still allowing you to sit in an erect position. Many comfortable chairs have a minimum listening height of about 40 inches and office chairs are often limited to no lower than 42 inches.

    Even for stand-mounted speakers, this can be an important factor. While you can change the vertical listening axis by changing the stand height, some speakers sound best on a stand of a particular height, thus constraining your choice of chair height.

    Some believe you can fudge this relationship between the design axis of the speaker and your ear height by just playing with the tilt of the speakers. Yes, tilting the speakers back or forward can aim the drivers more directly at your ears and change the apparent balance of the speakers by getting your ears more on the vertical axis of the upper-range drivers. However, tilting the speakers will NOT move the apparent placement of images or the sound stage. Thus, unless you like a balcony perspective, listening with your ears significantly above the tweeter will result in your looking down on images and the soundstage, even if you angle the speaker backward so that the tweeter aims up toward your ears. No, the best solution is to have the speaker vertical and your head vertical with your ears on the speaker's vertical design axis.

    Of course, the inch-figures I've mentioned will vary depending on your height and the relative length of your legs and trunk. I'm giving the figures for me, personally. I'm about 5' 9" tall and my legs may be a bit shorter than average for my height.

    Nothing Behind Your Head

    Many chairs used by audiophiles seem to have very high backs and/or actual headrests, some of which are very wide. In my experience, I hear the spatial aspects of two- and multi-channel programs better when no part of the listening chair is close to my head. Having a head rest behind your head is akin to listening with your head very near the wall behind you in terms of reflections. Such an arrangement produces very early reflections off the surface behind your ears, scrambling at least a bit or more the imaging and staging capabilities of your system.

    It is not for nothing that the most accurate bianaural recordings are made with the microphones implanted in a full head and shoulders called the Aachen Head. The relation of one's ears to the head and shoulders is crucial to spatial perception. Introducing additional surfaces close to the ears lessens the natural perception of space.

    Thus, the listening chair should have a fairly low back and definitely NO headrest. Some listeners, such as REG, claim that a stool having no back at all is superior for listening to even a low-backed chair. I agree that this is so. I also agree that listening without a chair back keeps me more alert. However, for comfortable listening for more than a few minutes, I need some back support. Listeners will individually have to determine whether the benefits of no-chair-back-at-all listening are within their comfort zone.

    Adjustable Height

    Again, this factor is more important for near-field listening (such as I enjoy) than if you listen 10 to 12 or more feet back from your speakers. And if you have true line source speakers, it probably is not very important even for near-field listening.

    However, when listening in the near field to three-way speakers with the tweeter on top, midrange below it, and woofer below that, like my Harbeth M40.1s, the ability to get your ears on just the right vertical axis is quite important to hearing both the best spatial presentation and the best tonal presentation. I've found that vertical positioning is critical within 1/4" or so with such an arrangement. At the sweetest spot, the transitions among drivers disappear, the speakers themselves disappear more into the stage, tonal balance is most correct, the images come from straight in front of me, and the sonic stage is at its best.

    The best way to adjust the chair listening height is to use a chair with a pneumatically adjustable seat height. Other ways are possible, such as removing the seat cushion, placing boards under the cushion, putting some sort of pucks under the chair legs, etc. But pneumatic lift makes all the other methods seem crude both in terms of the ease of adjustment and the accuracy of adjustment.

    Stability of Listening Height

    A chair with an unpadded wooden or metal seat will be the most stable in terms of listening height, but it may prove uncomfortable for more than a few minutes. A very soft overstuffed down-filled seat may be the most comfortable, but may only be able to place your ears in the same vertical position plus or minus a couple of inches from one time to the next or from the beginning of a listening session to the end. This factor, like adjustability of listening height, is more important for those who listen to non-line sources in the near field than for others.

    Stability of Position on the Floor

    The sweet spot is just that, a spot, not a general area. Besides being able to provide a consistent listening height, a listening chair should be able to stay in the same spot on the floor through repeated use, getting into and out of the chair. If it tends to wander across the floor in response to such use, your ears will not remain in the sweet spot. Often, however, a chair with wandering tendencies because of glides, casters, or other low-friction floor-contact surfaces can be cured by tweaking the chair or just making sure the floor covering it sits on does not itself wander and deforms enough under the weight of the chair to "anchor" the chair in place.

    Chair Coverings

    It could be argued that if your body covers most of the listening chair when you sit in it, the nature of the surface of the chair should not matter. However, you are forgetting the back and sides of the chair. Also, if you take measurements and rely on those measurements for equalization of your system, you likely take the measurements when you are not sitting in your listening chair.

    The relative reflectivity and absorption of seating compared to the human body has long been an important factor in concert hall design. A goal of modern concert hall design is to make each seat seating have about the same degree of absorption as an average human being sitting in that seat. Doing this ensures that the hall acoustics do not drastically vary depending on how full the house is.

    The same factors apply in the small-room acoustics of your listening room, perhaps even to a greater degree. It is clear that a chair with fabric covering and some stuffing will more closely model a human than an uncovered wooden or metal chair. Also, while leather may feel sumptuous, it is quite a bit more reflective at high frequencies than is one's clothed body. Soft fabric covering is best for listening chairs.

    Arm Rests

    Whether you need them for comfortable listening or not is something for you to judge. But if you want them, I'd suggest making them fairly small so as not to add unduly to the chair's mass and size.

    Chair versus Sofa

    In its favor, a large sofa can be part of your room treatment in the sense that a large piece of absorptive furniture can help with reflection and can help break up bass resonances.

    However, on balance I think a listening chair is theoretically superior to the audio couch. Sound should be free to move around and past you body for best effect, I think. A large sofa interferes with this. It also creates a lot of furniture surface too close to your ears, encouraging space-smearing early reflections. If you like armrests, only the corner position of a couch will supply any, and then only for one arm. Even if you mount the couch so that one or the other corner is centered in the sweet spot between the speakers, the non-centered positioning of the couch with respect to the speaker array skews the left-right symmetry of your listening room, adversely affecting imaging.

    Style

    For my dedicated audio room, the style of my listening chair doesn't really matter. Sound is king in this room and I care only a whit or two about how a chair looks. I recognize that others may differ greatly on this point and if your audio system occupies space shared with significant others, the style of your listening chair may be important indeed.

    Listening Chair Alternatives

    Stool

    If you are young and fit and/or have no back problems which inhibit you from sitting erect vertically for long periods with no back support whatever, an adjustable-height backless stool comes close to the ideal. It will keep you alert and in the right vertical position with no nearby surfaces impairing your hearing ability.

    An adjustable piano stool or small piano bench (e.g., the adjustable bench which came with my wife's Yamaha Clavinova) could work. Even more ideal are some stools sold by medical supply houses for use by doctors. Low-backed versions are also available. See, just for example:

    http://www.chairsandchairs.com/medical.html

    While the casters frequently used with such stools can cause a wandering problem, casters can be easily immobilized with tape, the casters can be removed, or the casters can be replaced with glides. For example, see here.

    Another possibility of a seat with no back is the Scandinavian kneeling chair which was once very popular and is still available from some sources.

    Pneumatic Office Chairs

    Such chairs offer an easily adjustable vertical height over a range of six to seven inches. Low-backed versions are readily available and the backs can usually be locked to hold the user in a vertical position. Many models have adjustments which can customize the position of the seat and any armrests for the individual user, and a few have enough adjustments to fully support a listener in a vertical position in a stress-free and long-term comfortable way. Keep in mind, however, that the minimum vertical ear height is usually about 42 inches above the floor, which will be too high for many floor-standing speakers.

    Small-Scale Comfortable-But-Erect-Sitting Chairs

    If you look around enough, you can find some softly upholstered chairs which can comfortably get your ears 36 to 38 inches above the floor while in an erect sitting position. I own a couple of chairs, one Drexel, the other a Heritage, which allow this. They are few and far between, since most such furniture results in ear height of 40 to 44 inches. There is no way to know ahead of time whether a chair will get your ears at the right height other than to sit in the chair in the store and measure your ear height--a maneuver sure to draw the salesperson to your side. Don't worry, just tell the staff what you are looking for and the sales staff will try to point out chairs which might work.

    My Gradient 1.3 speakers and the newer 1.5s I used to own are very short floor-standers. Both sound best with my ears down around 35 inches off the floor. The only way I could semi-comfortably achieve a vertical sitting position at that height was to remove the seat cushion from one of these chairs.

    My Current Solution: The Steelcase Leap Chair

    For listening to my large Harbeth M40.1 speakers on fairly tall stands, the pneumatic office chair is my favorite solution since I need back support. With the back locked, seating posture is really erect, extremely comfortable and supportive of my lower back, and the back of the chair is low enough not to interfere too much with sound from behind my ears. Would that it would adjust for lower seating positions--42" ear height is about as low as it will go. That's fine for Harbeth M40.1s on high stands, but not for most of the floor-standing speakers I've had.

    This chair will adjust high enough to get my ears about 49.25" above the floor, which is just right for my Harbeths on 24" stands, as it turns out.

    A few years back the Wall Street Journal ran a comparison of various pneumatic-lift office chairs and the Leap came out on top of the heap. After sitting in a sample and comparing it with others available at the time, I ordered a fabric-covered fully featured version of the Leap chair. The "fully featured" part just meant it had a few more adjustments, including variable lumbar support, than the other model. It is quite comfortable for me and it has so many adjustments that I expect that it could be made comfortable regardless of your body shape and size and seating preferences. My company recently purchased all new desk chairs for our professional staff and the Leap was one of the two chairs most preferred by our 35 staffers for work at their desks. We compared some ten different chairs from different manufacturers.

    One problem with using this type of chair for listening is that they are designed to roll easily on carpeting. In contrast, you want your listening chair to stay put. There are available on line chair glides which go in place of the casters for such office chairs (e.g., http://www.championseating.com/ergo020.html). I doubt whether these would work with this particular chair, however, since the Leap has larger-than-normal 3-inch casters with the center supporting column of the chair going to within 1/2 inch of the floor with the 3-inch casters mounted. I doubt whether the available glides would allow the center pole of the chair to clear the floor.

    My "elegant" solution was to immobilize the casters with some black duct tape. If the chair tends to move due to swiveling of the casters (which mine hasn't), it is also possible to immobilize the casters in that mode of freedom with duct tape.

    Once I got the chair into my desired position with respect to the room walls, the fact that the center pole comes so close to the floor allowed me to mark its exact position by placing an old 1/2" Mod Squad Tip Toe under the center pole. The point of the Tip Toe fits nicely into a little dimple in the bottom center of the chair's center pole with less than 1/32" of freedom. Then I taped the Tip Toe into position on the carpet. If the chair moves, I'll know it and will be able to accurately and easily reposition it.

    With near field listening, I have found that there is a very small vertical window where everything about the staging/imaging and tonality of the presentation "pops" or "snaps" into place. When I found this window after playing with the
    pneumatic adjustment, I knew it within seconds. I have also measured the amount of exposed adjustment pole between the bottom of the chair's seat and the top of the chair's base. I have also measured the distance between the bottom of the speakers on their stands and the floor. With those two measurements, I will easily be able to readjust the chair height with respect to any new speaker stand height, or to correct for any inadvertent triggering of the chair's height adjustment.

    This Steelcase fully featured Leap Chair is the most comfortable sitting chair I've ever sat in at home, office, or anywhere. It took me roughly 20 minutes to put together, and another 10 minutes to make all the adjustments other than chair height from the on-line video instructions. The chair height depended on listening and I futzed with that for awhile, but it was easy to set once I decided where things sounded best.

    The armrests are almost infinitely adjustable and very comfortable. The chair swivels, but I don't find that problematic since stereo imaging pulls your head and body into the right forward-facing position automatically. The swivel actually helps getting in and out of the chair while avoiding the 6-inches of Sonex padding on the floor near the front of the chair.

    The Leap is not cheap. It starts at about $800 in cloth in the U. S. It is probably yet more in other countries. And its plastic rear is probably not very aesthetically appealing from to most. However, it is available in a number of colors of fabric or leather and with or without arms, chrome accents, or (gag!) a headrest.

    See, for example:

    http://www.officedesigns.com/product-exec/product_id/551/pn/Customize_Your_Leap_Chair

    Caution: I know for a fact that the Leap chair design has been altered since it was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and I purchased mine. I have the more recent version of the Steelcase Leap chair as my office desk chair. While still a very competitive model, there is less "cush" to both the seat and, especially, the arms. These changes mean it is no longer clearly tops in comfort in terms of this type of pneumatic office chair.

    Now fully competitive in terms of comfort for erect posture is the Knoll Life Chair for about the same price. This was the other favorite chair of my company staff and we have a number of these around our office as well. It looks vaguely like the Henry Miller Aeron chair (the Aeron is very uncomfortable, in my opinion, however) and, since it has a semi-transparent mesh back is probably more decor-friendly than the heavier-looking Steelcase Leap. It may also be acoustically superior in terms of having a less acoustically reflective back side. See, for example:

    http://www.officedesigns.com/product-exec/product_id/200/pn/Knoll+Life+Chair?hs340=topnav_knoll_life_chair
    Last edited by tmallin; 09-07-2010 at 07:17 AM.

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    WBF Technical Expert/Member Sponsor
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    I still have my old director's chair and prefer it, but it has been moved aside to put a big honkin' couch in the sweet spot so we (all four of us in the family) can watch movies. The couch is comfy and allows the four of us to sit and watch, but the high back is enough to drive me nuts.

    It's a short drive. - Don
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    "After silence, that which best expresses the inexpressible, is music" - Aldous Huxley

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    WBF Technical Expert tmallin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DonH50 View Post
    I still have my old director's chair and prefer it, but it has been moved aside to put a big honkin' couch in the sweet spot so we (all four of us in the family) can watch movies. The couch is comfy and allows the four of us to sit and watch, but the high back is enough to drive me nuts.
    Once upon a time, I, too, used a director's chair in my audio room. Such chairs are cheap and acoustically barely there, which are good points.

    Most such chairs, however, are not very stable in terms of vertical listening height, since the canvas seat tends to stretch a bit as you sit in it, moving you lower. Also, such chairs tend to put my ears quite high, about 44 inches off the floor. These qualities mean that a director's chair may be fine for speakers on high stands or if you sit back 10 -12 feet for more from the speakers. But for my current near-field set up, I need something vertically adjustable and much more vertically stable.

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    Oops, should have noted I use Magnepans, and in a well-treated room, so a slight change in vertical height is immaterial. Which is good, as chair aside I am shrinking in my old age... Mine has the seat at about the same height as most any other chair in my house, but I am sure it varies.

    I like the office-chair idea for comfort and adjustability. And, the five-legged chairs have horizontal stability, too, which is sometimes important for the klutz within us. - Don
    Don Herman
    "After silence, that which best expresses the inexpressible, is music" - Aldous Huxley

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    WBF Founding Member/Member Sponsor FrantzM's Avatar
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    Hi

    I used an Herman-Miller Aeron in my last system.. The same model I had in my office .. I agree with Tom. I am looking forwqard to use the same in my next system ...
    Frantz
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    Addicted to Best! Ethan Winer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tmallin View Post
    In my experience, I hear the spatial aspects of two- and multi-channel programs better when no part of the listening chair is close to my head. Having a head rest behind your head is akin to listening with your head very near the wall behind you in terms of reflections. Such an arrangement produces very early reflections off the surface behind your ears, scrambling at least a bit or more the imaging and staging capabilities of your system.
    Absolutely! If your favorite chair or couch has a back that's higher than your head, you can reduce much of the negative effects of those early reflections by placing a thick folded-over bath towel or similar over the top of the seat back. The thicker the absorber, the lower in frequency it works to. The absorbers I have on my couch are an inch thick. The graph in this article show the response with and without an absorber behind your head:

    Early Reflections

    --Ethan
    I believe in Truth, Justice, and the Scientific Method
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