Small Room Audio System Considerations

tmallin

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May 19, 2010
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It has more and more occurred to me that setting up a satisfying home audio system in a small room is subject to some different considerations than when one has a larger room to play with. Let’s consider dedicated audio rooms only. By small I’ll somewhat arbitrarily define such a room as one where the width and length are each 20 feet or less and the ceiling height is less than 10 feet. A “large” audio room would thus include one which is 22’ wide x 28’ long x 12’ high. Obviously if you are working with rooms on the order of a hotel ballroom, that’s a very large room.

My own dedicated audio room, at 13’ x 11’ x 8.5’, is definitely in the “small” category. Now, some folks will just say that if you have such a small room you’ll never be able to get great sound.

Why? One reason is that some people believe that the room’s smallest dimension must be at least 20’ long in order to fully support bass down into the 20s of Hz. But what about car audio--don’t auto interiors fully support deep bass? Of course they do. Small spaces actually support and sound better in the deep bass because deep bass is reproduced in such rooms in the pressure mode--it’s literally pressurizing the small volume of air in the room. The same goes for headphone listening where the volume of air is much smaller yet--that between the drivers and your ears as contained within the cups of the headphones.

And in very large ballrooms and concert halls bass is experienced as a travelling wave which is basically resonance free but supported by the room boundaries. Any resonances of such rooms are well below the audible range and thus really unimportant to what we hear.

Actually, large (as defined) audio rooms are typically the most difficult for bass reproduction since they are most always of such a size that they will be subject to a lot of bass resonances below 200 Hz or so, making for an uneven response over the entire bass range. Bass in such rooms can easily have the familiar and dreaded “resonant” sound, typically with a “thumpy” or “boomy” midbass resonance around 60 - 70 Hz because of the primary bass mode between the floor and ceiling. Such resonances must either be ignored or dealt with through careful construction with planned “favorable” dimensional ratios to spread out the bass resonances more evenly, speaker and listener placement, bass trapping, or electronic equalization, and sometimes all of these methods.

I know for a fact that my small room fully supports bass down to well below 20 Hz. I’ve measured every speaker I’ve had in this room with the OmniMic v2 system. The more bass capable of them (e.g., Harbeth M40.2, Gradient 1.4, AudioKinesis Swarm subwoofers, and now my Dutch & Dutch 8c) put out substantial bass down to as low as 10 Hz, with flat bass right down to 20 Hz. And that bottom octave sounds very satisfyingly room shaking. Even bass-capable vintage speakers like the AR-3a and KLH Model 12 in this room are quite capable of substantial bass output into the low 20s.

No, the problems with small-room audio are not, in my experience, with bass response. The real problems lie elsewhere.

The audio problems with small rooms can be summed up in a single two-word phrase: early reflections. In a small room, even one totally dedicated to home audio reproduction like mine, with careful acoustical room treatment it is impossible to get both the speakers and listener far enough away from the room surfaces to avoid hearing early reflections of the direct sound from room surfaces, furnishings, and the audio equipment itself. By “early” I mean that the reflected sound reaches your ears only a few milliseconds after the direct sound from the drivers.

Now a general rule of thumb is often quoted that as long as the path the reflected sound takes results in a delay of about 10 milliseconds, the reflections will not be bothersome. By bothersome, I mean that the reflections can artificially brighten the sound in the midrange and treble, add apparent distortion, add a glaze, brittleness, grunge, buzz, or other obnoxious coloration. Bothersome can also take the form of severe distortions of the reproduced space, reducing image stability and outright changing apparent instrumental placement on the soundstage, and wreaking general havoc with the soundstage, reducing every aspect of its dimensionality. Reflections, in other words, can create nasty-sounding, treble-heavy tonal balance and a one-dimensional left-right line of vaguely placed sonic images. A slap echo effect can also easily be overlaid on every sound reproduced.

Since one millisecond approximately translates to one foot of distance, the rule of thumb is that if the reflected path is 10 feet longer than the direct path, all should be well. This means that both the speakers and your listening position must be at least five feet from any room surface in order to make the reflective path to your ears 10 feet more than the direct sound. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is difficult to achieve as to any room surfaces a small room. Even if I sit 55 inches from the drivers of my speakers (as I have in my typical near-field set-ups in this room), either the speakers or listening position must be closer than five feet from the wall behind since my length dimension is a mere 13 feet.

And, in fact, I don’t believe the rule of thumb is correct. In my judgment, the reflective path must be twice as long yet, more like 20 milliseconds or 20 feet in order for the reflections to be translated into pleasing reverberation or space around the instruments, rather than annoying tonal colorations and spatial distortions. Obviously this is not going to happen in a small audio room.

But even if you have a large dedicated audio room, you are not free and clear of the problem of reflections. Even if your large room’s reverberation is pleasing, do you want to hear a bit of reverberation around all sounds coming from your speakers even if such reverberation is not present in the recording? Shouldn’t radio announcers speaking from a small, acoustically padded studio sound that way, with no reverb at all around their voices? Shouldn’t closely miked (as in inches or less) voices or instruments be all direct sound and no reverb from the recording studio or your listening room?

My acid test for determining whether my listening room is adding any sort or echo or reverb to recorded sound is the Clap Track on the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-In CD. From your listening position, the Clap Track as heard through your speakers should sound EXACTLY like it does through headphones: a single sharp transient handclap with absolutely no preceding or trailing echo or reverb tail. If you think you have it sounding correct, turn it up, as loud as you ever listen to music, say 95 dB peaks and see if it still sounds the same. That’s the goal--the touchstone. You may be surprised at how difficult this simple test is to pass.

Okay, I will admit that those with large rooms may simply say, “So what? I like the bit of added reverb/space my listening room adds to reproduced music because most music is not recorded in such a way as to assume that the home listening room is not adding any “sweetening” space/reverb to what you hear. Fair enough; if you want to sweeten poor recordings a bit, that’s fine. Just be aware that this is what you are doing. It’s not like you can subtract this “sweetening” for the properly made recordings. You will always be adding that “second venue” effect from your listening room’s acoustics.

But for small room listeners, this isn’t really an option. Small room second venue effects are just plain-and-simple nasty sounding. There is no getting around it. And this is why some argue that small rooms just aren’t suitable for high-quality audio reproduction. They don’t want to eliminate enough of the small room second-venue reflections to unveil the recorded acoustics because the result is only fulfilling for the best recordings. There are so many recordings that are recorded without enough space/ambience that much of what one listens to is likely to sound at least a bit dry and lifeless in a small room acoustically treated to eliminate reflections.

I understand this dilemma, believe me, I do. But I’ve found that I soon get used to hearing the immediacy of overly dry recordings as a virtue, or at least not an impediment. And the virtues of well-made recordings are breathtaking in a small, well-treated room, more so than in a large one.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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That last sentence needs explanation. Small rooms force or at least encourage a number of good listening habits and room treatments which amplify the virtues of well-made recordings. In a small room, since the wall behind the speakers, the side walls, and all the furniture and equipment in the room are necessarily fairly close to the speakers, to get the best sound from your speakers it is best to apply as many of the following techniques as possible to reduce the amount of reflected sound you hear from the listening position:

  • Unless your speakers truly are designed to work best near the wall behind them (as my Dutch & Dutch 8c are), keep your speakers and listening position as far away from the walls as possible, consistent with good stereo imaging and soundstaging. For good stereo imaging and staging, you should maintain a 60-degree subtended angle between the speakers as viewed from your listening position. In my 13’ x 11’ x 8.5’ dedicated audio room, I have found that on the NoAudiophile Speaker Placement Calculator Page the Rule of Thirds (29% Version) and Cardas methods of speaker and listener positioning work very well as first approximations in balancing tonal and spatial aspects of the reproduction. Keep in mind that for purposes of this calculator, the main wall is always the wall behind the speakers.

  • Toe in the left and right speakers so that they are aimed exactly at their respective ears when you sit in the listening position. My technique for doing this is explained at this link. Toeing the speakers in to face your ears will maximize the amount of direct sound you hear from the speakers and minimize the amount of reflected sound you hear from the listening position.

  • Using room treatment, create a live-end/dead-end configuration in your listening room. Use absorbing material (e.g., acoustical foam or fiberglass batts) at the speaker end of the room and diffusing material (I highly recommend the P.I. Audio Group AQD-1 Sound Diffuser panels) at the listening end of the room. Make sure to cover with this room treatment all the areas on room surfaces (including floor and ceiling, if practical) where reflections from any part of either speaker can be seen from the listening position. A small flat mirror is helpful in determining these reflection areas. Using such room treatment in this LEDE configuration will minimize the amount of reflected sound you hear from the listening position while keeping the room from sounding artificially “dead” or “closed in” when sitting in the listening position.

  • Listen to your system in the near field. In a small room, this usually means sitting no more than about five feet from the front baffles of your speakers. If you use the Rule of Thirds (29% Version) or Cardas positioning mentioned above, in many small rooms you will automatically be in the near field. Listening in the near field again increases the ratio of direct sound to reflected sound you will hear from the listening seat. You will need to use speakers which sound their best from the near field, ones with great inter-driver coherence, ones where you cannot "hear out" the individual drivers from close up. Among the best I've heard in this respect are those from Harbeth, Gradient, and Dutch & Dutch.

  • Keep your equipment small, low, and placed so that the equipment is not in one of the reflection zones of your room. In other words, don’t put your equipment against the wall where you see a reflection of any part of either of your speakers in a mirror placed against the wall. The reason I use a low rack centered between the speakers is to keep the reflections from the tweeters from bouncing off shelves and equipment faceplates or other parts of hard, reflective metal chasses of the electronics. You can put your rack and electronics to the side or behind you if you like, but keep in mind that this will create long cable runs to the speakers, adding expense, and potentially adding clutter and reducing sound quality.

  • Use speakers with a rather controlled horizontal dispersion. I know that the Harmon research tends to show preference for wide dispersion, but in a small room where minimizing reflections off the sidewalls is of paramount importance, I’ve learned from long experience that what works best is more controlled dispersion. You can try speakers with very narrow, laser-like high-frequency dispersion such as the Janszen Valentina or Sanders 10C speakers flat-panel electrostatic speakers I once owned. But, to my ears, you can have too much of that narrow-dispersion good thing, even in a small room. I grew uncomfortable with the sound being so “dead” or “muffled” even a few inches away from the sweet spot. I’ve found that the various Gradient models as well as my Dutch & Dutch 8c have ideal dispersion characteristics for small rooms. They don’t sound dull from outside the room or when you enter the room, sound incredibly focused from the sweet spot, and don’t require herculean efforts in terms of room treatment to banish mid- and high-frequency reflections off the walls. Wide-baffle BBC-type speakers (such as the Harbeth M40.2 I recently had in my room) are also okay, as long as you take particular care to squelch the reflections from the side walls. BBC-research-derived speakers tend to have a peak in their off-axis response in the 2 - 3 kHz range and you definitely do not want to hear that peaky reflected sound coming back at you; use plenty of thick sound absorbing material on your side walls. Forget about speakers with a very wide (Ohm) or omnidirectional (Morrison, MBL) dispersion pattern. Their reflections are too strong to adequately control in a small room. With dipole radiators like Magnepans, Sound Labs, or even Quads, the entire wall area behind and to the sides of the speakers must be padded with thick sound absorbing material. While dipoles theoretically put out little sound to the sides, the theory goes out the window the second you toe the speakers in to face the listening position because then the side walls become reflective surfaces for the dipole’s rear radiation.

  • DO NOT put a flat screen TV between your speakers anywhere near eye/ear level. If the flat screen is of normal fairly large size, at least part of the screen will be in the reflection area of both speakers. If you must have an A/V system, put the screen down on the floor or up high adjacent to the ceiling. Other items to avoid putting between the speakers are fireplaces and large tall furniture of any kind (e.g., china cabinets).
 
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tmallin

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May 19, 2010
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  • Set up your system in your room so that the left and right channel “see” as symmetrical an environment as possible. A rectangular room with an entry door centered on the wall behind your listening position or to the left or right behind you would be ideal. L-shaped rooms are usually sonically problematic from the standpoint of achieving good left/right balance and uniform bass frequency response from the two speakers. Of course, there will need to be at least one window. Keep that window to the side of the speakers or or listening area or, more ideally, behind you. Never listen seriously with the glass of the window exposed, whether or not it is in a reflective area of the room. Exposed glass is a sonic no-no anywhere in the room. This includes glass on tables, equipment racks, or over wall-hanging pictures. Cover glass with heavy draperies when listening. Alternatively, I’ve found closed wooden blinds covering the window glass to also work well if the window is located in the listening end, the live end, of your room.

  • If your small room has one wall which is considerably longer than the other (e.g., 19’ x 12’) try setting your system up to fire down the short dimension of the room. This will allow you to keep the speakers many feet away from the side walls which, in my experience, produce the most bothersome reflections. While this may put the listening position less than five feet from the wall behind you, this arrangement is worth trying because of the ability to get the speakers so much further from the side walls while still maintaining the proper 60-degree subtended angle between the speakers. This sort or arrangement is particularly helpful with BBC-derived speakers, such as the Harbeth M40 series.

  • Listen to your system with your ears at the vertical design axis for your speakers. Use the smallest, lowest chair which is comfortable for you, making sure that your chair allows for erect sitting. See my discussion of proper listening chairs at this link. Then get the design axis of your speakers to ear level. The design axis is usually no higher than the tweeter and is often stated to be on the tweeter axis, but check the manufacturer’s information for your speaker. For instance, the design axis for my Dutch & Dutch 8c speakers is exactly midway between the center of the tweeter and the center of the mid/woofer, 26.5 cm above the bottom of the cabinet. This will enhance your perception of all aspects of the spatial presentation of your system, including the feeling of immersion in the soundfield. The proper listening height with respect to your speakers will allow the soundstage to appear directly in front of you, not down or up, and this enhances the feeling of immersion in the sound.

Now, aren’t these techniques also applicable to large rooms? Yes, surely. But with a large room, the tendency of audiophiles is to ignore at least some of these, such as near-field listening and having at least a 60-degree angle between the speakers, and be more lax about the others.

Here’s an example of how this can work. Those with large audio rooms may well favor large speakers since such speakers may more easily produce high SPLs in the larger space. Many of such large speakers have a lot of drivers in a vertical line. In order to maximize the inter-driver coherence of such speakers, the audiophile may need to sit at least 10, 12, or more feet back from the speakers, negating the near-field listening paradigm. And, once you are that far back, even in a large room, the audiophile may slight the 60-degree separation in order to keep the speakers far enough away from the sidewalls to avoid obnoxious reflections from the perhaps wide dispersion of the speakers which the owner or designer believes is necessary to “fill” the room with sound.

In addition, the sonic signature of a large room will require treating many more square feet of room surface with sound absorbing and sound dispersion treatment to truly erase the second venue effect from what you hear from the listening position. This is because, as the room gets larger, more square feet of the room’s surfaces are within any given angle of the direct reflection areas of parts of the speakers as viewed from the listening position. What most owners of large sound rooms end up with is an inadequately treated listening room, one where its second venue signature, while not obnoxious, is omnipresent, constantly adding its “sweetening” reverberation characteristics to all the sound you hear from your stereo.

So, yes, small audio rooms definitely have their problems. But once you recognize those problems and decide to work with, rather than against your room to address those problems, the results can be extremely satisfying, particularly with excellent recordings.
 

sbnx

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Agree with everything you said except the part about bass issues. Small rooms absolutely can handle bass down to 20Hz. Below the fundamental room mode there are no modes so the bass response is smooth. In a room your size the fundamental is somewhere around 50Hz. The issue becomes how to deal with the 50Hz monster. The solution has to involve DSP in some way as it is nearly impossible to get enough absorption in a room that size to handle the problems below 80Hz. You have a very elegant solution in that your speakers have DSP built into the bass below 100Hz. Then the panels can deal with the stuff above 100Hz.

I set up a system for a person in a room about your size. It is in the post "A case study in small room acoustics". I used all of the same principles you are using. It is very nice that the science works out.
 

tmallin

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May 19, 2010
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Oddly enough, my room does not have a monster 50 Hz resonance with any speakers. With many speakers, there tends to be a sharp dip there actually at the listening position. This is the only "null" I ever have in my room in the bass range with any speakers.
 
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Addicted to hifi

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i have to admit I once had a small room with Proac d100 speakers and they sounded very good.the room size was 3.6m by 4.5. my current room is 5m by 8m but it just didn’t work with these speakers no matter where I put them.
 

Testy Troll

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tmallin,
Excellent write up!
I have a 13'x13'x8' room. Bad ratio dimensions for sure.
I own Hales Signature Two Speakers which LOVE a dead room.
My floor is concrete with a thick pad and rug over it.
I use three subwoofers.
Like you, I utilize near field listening with my speakers and chair well away from the walls.
My walls and ceiling are covered with absorbing/diffusing materials.
The room is truly deceased.
I get GREAT Bass!
 

Hi-FiGuy

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Thank you very much this is very helpful, slowly already headed that direction. Like the recommended diffusers also.
 

Cellcbern

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Agree with everything you said except the part about bass issues. Small rooms absolutely can handle bass down to 20Hz. Below the fundamental room mode there are no modes so the bass response is smooth. In a room your size the fundamental is somewhere around 50Hz. The issue becomes how to deal with the 50Hz monster. The solution has to involve DSP in some way as it is nearly impossible to get enough absorption in a room that size to handle the problems below 80Hz. You have a very elegant solution in that your speakers have DSP built into the bass below 100Hz. Then the panels can deal with the stuff above 100Hz.

I set up a system for a person in a room about your size. It is in the post "A case study in small room acoustics". I used all of the same principles you are using. It is very nice that the science works out.
See my thread-"Trying the ZR Acoustics Panels".
 

Cellcbern

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It has more and more occurred to me that setting up a satisfying home audio system in a small room is subject to some different considerations than when one has a larger room to play with. Let’s consider dedicated audio rooms only. By small I’ll somewhat arbitrarily define such a room as one where the width and length are each 20 feet or less and the ceiling height is less than 10 feet. A “large” audio room would thus include one which is 22’ wide x 28’ long x 12’ high. Obviously if you are working with rooms on the order of a hotel ballroom, that’s a very large room.

My own dedicated audio room, at 13’ x 11’ x 8.5’, is definitely in the “small” category. Now, some folks will just say that if you have such a small room you’ll never be able to get great sound.

Why? One reason is that some people believe that the room’s smallest dimension must be at least 20’ long in order to fully support bass down into the 20s of Hz. But what about car audio--don’t auto interiors fully support deep bass? Of course they do. Small spaces actually support and sound better in the deep bass because deep bass is reproduced in such rooms in the pressure mode--it’s literally pressurizing the small volume of air in the room. The same goes for headphone listening where the volume of air is much smaller yet--that between the drivers and your ears as contained within the cups of the headphones.

And in very large ballrooms and concert halls bass is experienced as a travelling wave which is basically resonance free but supported by the room boundaries. Any resonances of such rooms are well below the audible range and thus really unimportant to what we hear.

Actually, large (as defined) audio rooms are typically the most difficult for bass reproduction since they are most always of such a size that they will be subject to a lot of bass resonances below 200 Hz or so, making for an uneven response over the entire bass range. Bass in such rooms can easily have the familiar and dreaded “resonant” sound, typically with a “thumpy” or “boomy” midbass resonance around 60 - 70 Hz because of the primary bass mode between the floor and ceiling. Such resonances must either be ignored or dealt with through careful construction with planned “favorable” dimensional ratios to spread out the bass resonances more evenly, speaker and listener placement, bass trapping, or electronic equalization, and sometimes all of these methods.

I know for a fact that my small room fully supports bass down to well below 20 Hz. I’ve measured every speaker I’ve had in this room with the OmniMic v2 system. The more bass capable of them (e.g., Harbeth M40.2, Gradient 1.4, AudioKinesis Swarm subwoofers, and now my Dutch & Dutch 8c) put out substantial bass down to as low as 10 Hz, with flat bass right down to 20 Hz. And that bottom octave sounds very satisfyingly room shaking. Even bass-capable vintage speakers like the AR-3a and KLH Model 12 in this room are quite capable of substantial bass output into the low 20s.

No, the problems with small-room audio are not, in my experience, with bass response. The real problems lie elsewhere.

The audio problems with small rooms can be summed up in a single two-word phrase: early reflections. In a small room, even one totally dedicated to home audio reproduction like mine, with careful acoustical room treatment it is impossible to get both the speakers and listener far enough away from the room surfaces to avoid hearing early reflections of the direct sound from room surfaces, furnishings, and the audio equipment itself. By “early” I mean that the reflected sound reaches your ears only a few milliseconds after the direct sound from the drivers.

Now a general rule of thumb is often quoted that as long as the path the reflected sound takes results in a delay of about 10 milliseconds, the reflections will not be bothersome. By bothersome, I mean that the reflections can artificially brighten the sound in the midrange and treble, add apparent distortion, add a glaze, brittleness, grunge, buzz, or other obnoxious coloration. Bothersome can also take the form of severe distortions of the reproduced space, reducing image stability and outright changing apparent instrumental placement on the soundstage, and wreaking general havoc with the soundstage, reducing every aspect of its dimensionality. Reflections, in other words, can create nasty-sounding, treble-heavy tonal balance and a one-dimensional left-right line of vaguely placed sonic images. A slap echo effect can also easily be overlaid on every sound reproduced.

Since one millisecond approximately translates to one foot of distance, the rule of thumb is that if the reflected path is 10 feet longer than the direct path, all should be well. This means that both the speakers and your listening position must be at least five feet from any room surface in order to make the reflective path to your ears 10 feet more than the direct sound. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is difficult to achieve as to any room surfaces a small room. Even if I sit 55 inches from the drivers of my speakers (as I have in my typical near-field set-ups in this room), either the speakers or listening position must be closer than five feet from the wall behind since my length dimension is a mere 13 feet.

And, in fact, I don’t believe the rule of thumb is correct. In my judgment, the reflective path must be twice as long yet, more like 20 milliseconds or 20 feet in order for the reflections to be translated into pleasing reverberation or space around the instruments, rather than annoying tonal colorations and spatial distortions. Obviously this is not going to happen in a small audio room.

But even if you have a large dedicated audio room, you are not free and clear of the problem of reflections. Even if your large room’s reverberation is pleasing, do you want to hear a bit of reverberation around all sounds coming from your speakers even if such reverberation is not present in the recording? Shouldn’t radio announcers speaking from a small, acoustically padded studio sound that way, with no reverb at all around their voices? Shouldn’t closely miked (as in inches or less) voices or instruments be all direct sound and no reverb from the recording studio or your listening room?

My acid test for determining whether my listening room is adding any sort or echo or reverb to recorded sound is the Clap Track on the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-In CD. From your listening position, the Clap Track as heard through your speakers should sound EXACTLY like it does through headphones: a single sharp transient handclap with absolutely no preceding or trailing echo or reverb tail. If you think you have it sounding correct, turn it up, as loud as you ever listen to music, say 95 dB peaks and see if it still sounds the same. That’s the goal--the touchstone. You may be surprised at how difficult this simple test is to pass.

Okay, I will admit that those with large rooms may simply say, “So what? I like the bit of added reverb/space my listening room adds to reproduced music because most music is not recorded in such a way as to assume that the home listening room is not adding any “sweetening” space/reverb to what you hear. Fair enough; if you want to sweeten poor recordings a bit, that’s fine. Just be aware that this is what you are doing. It’s not like you can subtract this “sweetening” for the properly made recordings. You will always be adding that “second venue” effect from your listening room’s acoustics.

But for small room listeners, this isn’t really an option. Small room second venue effects are just plain-and-simple nasty sounding. There is no getting around it. And this is why some argue that small rooms just aren’t suitable for high-quality audio reproduction. They don’t want to eliminate enough of the small room second-venue reflections to unveil the recorded acoustics because the result is only fulfilling for the best recordings. There are so many recordings that are recorded without enough space/ambience that much of what one listens to is likely to sound at least a bit dry and lifeless in a small room acoustically treated to eliminate reflections.

I understand this dilemma, believe me, I do. But I’ve found that I soon get used to hearing the immediacy of overly dry recordings as a virtue, or at least not an impediment. And the virtues of well-made recordings are breathtaking in a small, well-treated room, more so than in a large one.
This dilemma is resolved with the DHDI ZR Acoustics panels which eliminate reflections without deadening the room. See my thread - "Trying the ZR Acoustics Panels". Here's a link to a pro mastering studio application of the reflection killing ZR panels: https://deltahdesign.com/portfolio/united-recording-studios/

These are the same panels I deployed in my listening room.
 
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