In a recent article, I discussed audio’s circle of confusion that exists within the audio industry due to the lack of performance standards in the loudspeakers and rooms through which recordings are monitored. As a result, the quality and consistency of recordings remain highly variable. A significant source of variation in the playback chain occurs from acoustical interactions between the loudspeaker and room, which can produce >18 dB variations in the in-room response below 300-500 Hz.
In recent years, audio manufacturers have begun to offer so-called “room correction” products that measure the in-room response of the loudspeakers at different seating locations, and then automatically equalize them to a target curve defined by the manufacturer. The sonic benefits of these room correction products are generally not well known since, to my knowledge, no one has yet published the results of a well-controlled, double-blind listening test on room correction products. To what degree do room correction products improve or possibly degrade the sound quality of the loudspeaker/room compared to the uncorrected version of the loudspeaker/room? Can the sound quality ratings of the different room correction products be explained by acoustical measurements performed at the listening location?
A Listening Experiment on Commercial Room Correction Products
To answer these questions, we conducted some double-blind listening tests on several commercial room correction products . I recently presented the results of those tests at the 127th Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York. A copy of my AES Keynote presentation can be found here.
A total of three different commercial products were compared to two versions of a Harman prototype room correction that will find its way into future Harman consumer and professional audio products. The products included the Anthem Statement D1, the Audyssey Room Equalizer, the Lyngdorf DPA1, and two versions of the Harman prototype product (see slide 7). Included in the test was a hidden anchor: the same loudspeaker and subwoofer without room correction. In this way, we could directly compare how much each room correction improved or degraded the quality of sound reproduction.
Each room correction device was tested in the Harman International Reference Room using a high quality loudspeaker (B&W 802N) and subwoofer (JBL HB5000) (slides 8 and 9). A calibration was performed for each room correction over the six listening seats according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Two different calibrations were performed with the Harman prototype: one based on a multipoint six-seat average, while the second calibration used a six-microphone spatial average focused on the primary listening seat. The different room corrections were level matched for equal loudness at the listening seat.
The Listener's Task
A total of eight trained listeners with normal hearing participated in the tests. Using a multiple comparison method, the listener could switch at will between the six different room corrections, and rate them according to overall preference, spectral balance, as well as give comments (see slide 14). The administration of the test, including the design, switching, collection and storage of listener responses, was computer automated via Harman’s proprietary Listening Test Software. A total of nine trials were completed using three different programs repeated three times. The presentation order of the program and room corrections was randomized.
Results: Significant Preferences For Different Room Corrections
The mean preference ratings and 95% confidence intervals are shown above in Figure 1 (or slide 17). The room correction products are coded from R1 through R6 in descending order of preference. The identities of the products associated with the results are not relevant for the purpose of this article. Three of the five room corrections (RC1-RC3) were strongly preferred over no room correction (RC4). However, one of the room corrections (RC5) was equally rated to the no correction treatment (RC4), and one of the room corrections (RC6) was rated much worse. Overall, the sound quality of R6 was rated "very poor" based on the semantic definitions of the preference scale.
Perceived Spectral Balance of Room Corrections
Listeners rated the perceived spectral balance of each room correction across seven equal logarithmically spaced frequency bands. The mean spectral balance ratings averaged across all listeners and programs are shown in slide 18. The more preferred room corrections were perceived to have a flatter, smoother spectral balance with extended bass. The less preferred room correction products (R5 and R6) were perceived to have too little bass, which made them sound thin and bright.
Listener Comments on Room Corrections
Listeners also gave comments related to the spectral balance of the different room correction products. Slide 19 shows the number of times a particular comment was used to describe each room correction. The bottom row indicates the correlation between preference rating and the frequency of the comment. The most preferred room corrections were described as "neutral" and "full," which corresponded to flatter, smoother and more bass extended spectral balance ratings. The least preferred room corrections (R4-R6) were described as colored, harsh, thin, and muffled, which corresponded to less flat, less smooth, and less bass extended spectral balance ratings. Slide 20 graphically illustrates the same information in slide 19.
Correlation Between Subjective and Objective Measurements
In-room acoustical measurements were made at the six listening seats using a proprietary 12-channel audio measurement system developed by the Harman R&D Group. Slides 23 and 24 show the amplitude response of the different room corrections spatially averaged for the six seats (slide 23), and at the primary listening seat (slide 24). The measurements are plotted from top to bottom in descending order of preference, each vertically offset to more clearly delineate the differences. A few observations can be made:
- The six-seat spatially averaged curves (slide 23) of the room corrections do not explain listeners' room correction preferences as well as the spatially averaged curves taken at the primary seat (slide 24). This makes perfect sense since all of the listening was done in the primary listening seat.
- Looking at slide 24, the most preferred room corrections produced the smoothest, most extended amplitude responses measured at the primary listening seat. The largest measured differences among the different room corrections occur below 100 Hz and around 2 kHz where the loudspeaker had a significant hole in its sound power response. The room corrections that were able to fill in this sound power dip received higher preference and spectral balance ratings.
- A flat in-room target response is clearly not the optimal target curve for room equalization. The preferred room corrections have a target response that has a smooth downward slope with increasing frequency. This tells us that listeners prefer a certain amount of natural room gain. Removing the rom gain, makes the reproduced music sound unnatural, and too thin, according to these listeners. This also makes perfect sense since the recording was likely mixed in room where the room gain was also not removed; therefore, to remove it from the consumers' listening room would destroy spectral balance of the music as intended by the artist.
There are significant differences in the subjective and objective performance of current commercial room correction products as illustrated in these listening test results. When done properly, room correction can lead to significant improvements in the overall quality of sound reproduction. However, not all room correction products are equal, and two of the tested products produced results that were no better, or much worse, than the unequalized loudspeaker. Room correction preferences are strongly correlated to their perceived spectral balance and related attributes (coloration, full/thin, bright/dull). The most preferred room corrections produced the smoothest, most extended in-room responses measured around the primary listening seat.
More tests are underway to better understand and, if necessary, optimize the performance of Harman's room correction algorithms for different acoustical aspects of the room and loudspeaker.
 Sean E. Olive, John Jackson, Allan Devantier, David Hunt, and Sean Hess, “The Subjective and Objective Evaluation of Room Correction Products,” presented at the 127th AES Convention, New York, preprint 7960 (October 2009).