Let’s talk a minute about rooms and sound.

I’ve mentioned spending a lot of time last week on the studio. While at it, I finally set up some proper monitor speaker pairs. I had a pair of AFCO minispeakers, but they weren’t set up right, and I only had the one pair. Mostly, I was working with headsets.

I’ve now fixed that. The AFCOs sound much better, properly placed. But I also wanted a second pair for higher-fidelity monitoring. To do that, I puled my 1982 Bose units from the living room, where they’ve been part of a home stereo.

Bose 301 Series II; three cones, three directions!

Here’s the thing: in that living room, these speakers have always sounded kind of muddy and terrible. Nobody listens to that stereo since we moved. I imagined something was broken – I’d already rebuilt the amp and it sounded great now on headphones – but I thought I was going to have to rebuild the speakers, too.

However, after hauling them upstairs, I found there wasn’t anything wrong with them at all. They’re fine. In my studio, they sound like the speaker version of my studio reference headphones – nice and clean, with good separation and a nice even low-end. Not the most precise speakers in the world, but that’s why I have headsets. Plus, you want variety in monitors; that’s why you have multiple sets.

This behaviour difference shows how rooms matter. My studio is essentially a sound-dampened squarish box. By contrast, our living room is long and narrow, and has this slanted ceiling that’s one storey up at one side, and two at the peak in the middle on the other side, with skylights, and at one end, there’s a giant dormer, and in the other, kind of a box window.

There are angles everywhere. See?

Our ceiling, lying down, looking up. No, really.

The Bose 301s were built for squareish rooms that might need a lot of sound-scatter. (Bose is kind of famous, or infamous, for this, depending upon your opinions of scatter.) Their individual elements are angled in multiple directions intentionally, to defeat the rectangular-room problem of heavily localised sound loudness, and poor imaging.

If your room is scattering your sound to hell and back already, just by having many weird angles, you end up with far too much scatter. Everything ends up sounding like mud, because everything is going everywhere and you start playing wave cancellation games. There’s no distinction or isolation.

Not that bad

So, studio sorted! But since I still needed something for the living room, I dug a pair of early-1980s Realistic Minimus 7s out of the closet. I know, Radio Shack mini-speakers; my excuse was that nobody used that stereo anyway. I remembered them fondly, but, still, minispeakers.

Turns out these are sought-after classics. I had no idea how much until this weekend – look up the mod kits and the GearSlutz articles and stuff, it’s kind of amazing. So, surprise!

Despite that, in most objective terms, they aren’t nearly “as good as” the Bose in lab conditions. They’re quite precise, but being tiny, don’t have so much in the low end, and can’t handle too much higher levels of output. Response curve is good, but below 100hz…. well, let’s just say bassheads need not apply. And all the drivers face straight out, so there’re sound-concentration problems; they don’t fill a room of any size. It’s very uneven.

one of the 18 million variants

Or, turns out, they don’t fill a normal room. In this room, with a little bass boost, they sound significantly better than the Bose did. There’s better staging, a better sense of place, lots more depth, and the muddiness is gone. They do fill the room, even at pretty low volumes, and the sound is very even – if a bit shy in the low end.

Why? Because the room matters. This room doing all the scattering you could ever want. As a result, the tight focus of these speakers is perfect.

So the moral of the story is simple: Figure out the room first, and then go buy things. You can do a lot more with a lot less if you pay as much attention to to the environment as the equipment, and all the speaker budget in the world won’t fix a mismatched room.

For those curious, a pair of late-70s/early-80s Minimus 7s will run you $35-$70 on eBay, depending upon condition and any mods. Crossover mod kits vary from $15-$30, depending on type.


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.