Many years ago, I decided that my ear and brain were the best acoustic treatments sound could get. The thing with acoustic treatments in general is that dealing with one area often merely shifts the problem to another, hence those towering absorbing pillars that tend to sprout up around larger rooms. Sound quality is, to a large extent, a matter of personal taste, and this means that one man’s over-damped acoustic is another man’s flat room. And there’s that word ‘flat’. Place a microphone where your head is usually situated, play some tones, and you can see the room’s response with a spectrum analyser. I had an acoustician friend come to do this in my listening room and show me a picture of the room in real time. There were humps and dips everywhere.
Of course, knowing more precisely what is happening acoustically is only the start, but it does provide the means to attempt a correction. For instance, I was able to watch the effect that various devices had on my room’s response and then, by listening to music, make a judgement as to whether they actually worked and this, I think, is the crux of the whole exercise. It is completely understandable that you want your music to sound at its best. Getting there – acoustically anyway – is a very different story. Let’s face it, the sound and acoustics are never going to be perfect (whatever perfect is). For me, at least, there is little else that is as uncomfortable and atmospherically cloying as an over-damped room. I would say that a relaxed listening space is at least as important as an acoustically balanced one; achieving both can be difficult.
Acoustic consultants will design or treat spaces where music is to be played (or played-back) – be it a concert hall, recording studio control room or even a listening room – with a view to reverberation times and reflections etc. But there is no machine or set of calculations within their armoury that will guarantee that the space will actually sound any good. If there was, then concert halls and recording studio control rooms would sound a lot better than they do. The recording studio trend toward using small speakers of low quality affixed on or near the desk itself (let’s call them ‘near-field monitors’ as it sounds cooler) began as much for the unruly behaviour of mammoth cabinets with massive bass drivers traditionally employed as some sort of reference point. The problem was that these ‘near-field monitors’ provided no reference at all, but rather a cacophony of booming bass with cutting edge sizzle transplanted on top. Articulation? Forget it. Let’s listen through the little ‘uns.
But back to the domestic listening room where the problems are similar but on a different scale. There is no ‘perfect’ acoustic, but there is music. We need it in our lives and we want to make it as accessible and involving as we can, so we often embark on a path of system improvements but seldom take effective steps toward addressing the behaviour of the room. Most of us have to live there as well. Over the years, I have tried everything, from tiny bowls of different metals strategically attached to the walls, to towering micro perforated panels, and plenty in between. All made a difference, but somehow I have managed to live without them, preferring the raw and rather reflective nature of my ‘over-live’ listening room. I like a bright, live sound it seems, and it’s amazing what you can get used to.
I was very surprised when I heard that Stillpoints had ventured into the acoustic arena and thought that their Aperture panels initially looked like they would probably be employed as absorbers for a bit of bass cleansing. However, I was wrong. What came as a huge surprise to me was just how precise our hearing and memories are when it comes to our own listening rooms. In hindsight, it really shouldn’t have been so surprising.
My first exposure to the Apertures came when I unpacked six of them and initially sat them hard against the rear wall on the floor, between and behind the speakers that were standing about a metre out. Close your eyes when you are listening and hopefully the lack of visual distraction will enable you to concentrate and have a better connection with the music. When I did this with the Apertures sitting there I couldn’t believe how the rear wall had almost vanished. The acoustic space between the speakers, where most of the musical action was happening, had taken on a completely different dimension. It seems to me that when we listen we subconsciously map the room’s boundaries, but only become aware of it when something radically changes. With the Apertures lined up in admittedly haphazard fashion the boundary between the wall and the floor vanished. The effect was initially stunning. Not just the change of depth perspectives, but also the increase in instrumental freedom, and the improved focus of the music. Reviewers like to speak of the sound becoming detached from the speakers, and this is indeed a good thing. But here was a whole new way of achieving that. After early listening I began to understand why Stillpoints had explored this area. In many ways it was not that different from what they had been doing for years. Their resonance control products free the music, giving it more air, much more speed, and instrumental eloquence and control, right down to note level. These panels will also help remove the music from the mechanical confines of the system. The Apertures were doing something very similar but within the room’s acoustic: both panels and the Apertures can have equally profound effects.
Each Aperture measures 560mm square and 75mm deep. They can be supplied in a couple of forms. The solid-wood framed versions were the ones I used. The special fabric that covers the working parts is recessed within the frame. According to Stillpoints, identifying exactly the right material took time. The fabric they chose won’t sag, and will resist probing fingers and return to shape. Using dye-sublimation printing they can also be used to imprint anything from a company logo to a highly detailed photograph and still remain sharp, taut, and acoustically transparent. There is another version of the Aperture where the cloth covers the whole of the panel and the internal frame in these is formed from plywood.
Stillpoints are understandably a bit more guarded as to exactly what is contained behind the grille. Essentially, the Apertures incorporate three technologies: an absorber, a diffusor, and a resonator. These treatments are obviously available individually through other acoustic solution products. But this is a relatively small and domestically acceptable design that claims to do a bit of everything. I do know that the absorber is a heavily bonded fibreglass design that traps moving air into crevices to limit its reflection. It is designed to self-attenuate with changing volume levels in the listening room itself, and the aim is to form a kind of acoustic vortex, rather like a sonic Black Hole.
All in all, the Aperture is a reasonably compact device that shouldn’t be too difficult to accommodate in most rooms, and achieving this is where the interesting part begins. Each panel can be fixed to the wall with the lightweight metal attachment provided and hung like a picture; or they can be left freestanding at floor level or sitting on a convenient support anywhere in the room. The third way incorporates a mounting method I have yet to see, which is supplied by a US-based company called Sound Anchors. This is an adapted speaker stand supplemented with a fitting capable of accepting between one and six Aperture panels for either a semi-permanent or mobile approach to room acoustics. These stands are available through Sound Anchors themselves and not Stillpoints, although Sound Anchors are now manufacturing speaker stands that actually incorporate Stillpoints Ultra devices so the collaboration between the companies has been fairly established.
My listening room is different to yours, so it’s impossible to make hard and fast rules as to where you should place the Apertures. But I can suggest that if you sit with your back close to a wall then that wall will be a very wise place to start. Additionally, the wall behind the speakers is a prime candidate for treatment, as is the area between the speakers on the rear wall, though some experimentation with height is recommended. You will certainly have an intuitive feeling where the best place will be, but I would strongly advise that you have a bit of fun and move them around. I guarantee you will be surprised. Side walls and just about anywhere that first reflections might be a problem are prime positions for the Apertures. They can open the acoustics of narrow rooms enormously by reducing the effects of reflections when mounted, probably at driver height, along the walls. Longer rooms might ideally need two per side, and really large spaces could require even more treatment. This is obviously where a free mounting system like the Sound Anchors stands could come in handy.
I listen across a through-lounge so the room is in many ways unbalanced. To my left is another room and to my right is a large bay window. I found that placing a single Aperture at head height to my left effectively attenuated the large, open acoustic space so much that it became actually audibly confining, and although it balanced the room and made it more acoustically symmetrical, I didn’t like it at all. Again, it is a question of making an audio map of your own space. I discovered, or should I say reconfirmed, that I really don’t like a lot of damping in my room and I don’t want anything in there that ‘closes’ the space too much. What is great about the Apertures is that you can use them strategically both to focus the music and to bring its whole field of sound closer without negative effects on tonal balance.
The film music from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) really shows what the Aperture can bring to the musical experience. Bowed instruments can be so very expressive in the hands of a sensitive master, and the central theme of the movie is quite lovely through just about any system, anywhere. But with five Apertures in the room, two on the rear wall, one behind each speaker, and one in the middle the acoustic space, opened up the sound in all dimensions. The Apertures have an uncanny ability to ‘quieten’ a space and remove boundary effects without excessive damping or any noticeable attenuation of high frequencies. This gives full rein to the dynamics, large and small, and especially to the gorgeous textures of the instruments. With the panels in place, the main theme was achingly beautiful, and the phrasing exquisite. The almost languid bowing brought a velvet texture brimming with tightly gathered harmonics that elevated the performance immensely. Another bowed instrument – I don’t know its name, but presumably of classical Chinese origin – had an open-throated character unsettlingly like a human voice. Pure, plaintive, and unbelievably sweet, this instrument’s unusual tonal envelope and note ‘shape’ soared into the room, free of the confines of the system. It reached out and touched all who were listening. Remove the Apertures and it is still good, but calming those areas of the room usually excited by the energy of the instrument bought it closer and left it so much more vivid that it was thrilling. All who were present agreed. It wasn’t just the change in perspectives or the spooky expansion in width and depth, though these are welcome additions; it was the increase in instrumental freedom, the clarity of supporting instruments, and of course, the remarkable opening of acoustic space beyond the room boundaries that was so beguiling.
With the Apertures it’s getting this balance right that is the trick. Unlike other panels that seem to take some of the music with them, the Apertures don’t. Tord Gustavsen and his trio are cool, slightly aloof musicians playing on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. ‘Being There’ is my favourite title and it is ECM to the core. Dark, sonorous backgrounds and an eerie quietness to the recordings bring a sombre and rather serious tone to Manfred’s recording sound. I have always found the piano to be rather dark, but the Apertures were effective here. They increased the recording space and left a glow to the piano and actually improved the attack and shape of each note.
Melody Gardot’s albums, and in particular The Absence, continues to hold an elusive fascination for me, but I have to pick the times I listen to it very carefully. Late night, in the still air is when I usually reach for it. For me it can offer a seriously immersive listening experience, and if I enjoyed the intimacy and nakedness of her emotional baggage before, then the addition of the Apertures only intensified this. When an artist feels as if she is singing to you and telling you her story, it’s certainly special. But to hear the relationship between her and the musicians change so radically so it seems as if she moves closer to you and further into the room is astonishing. I have seldom heard a listening space so wonderfully ripe with an atmosphere positively dripping with presence.
There is nothing new in the world of acoustics from the point of view of the way that sound behaves. Most of it has been known for decades, but now there are new materials and inspired thinking about how to make use of such knowledge. The Apertures demonstrate this. They work excellently, but do require some experimentation to get the desired effects. Ultimately, the Apertures are the acoustic treatment for those who aren’t particularly looking for any. Yes, they can certainly help with the usual listening room anomalies, but they can go much further than that. As I mentioned before, placement is everything, but their potential can be huge. They will treat standing waves, and they can tidy up troublesome corners; but after several months’ use I see them as an invaluable tool that focuses the music, and reduces boundary effects. The Apertures are also the perfect accompaniment to a Stillpoints-equipped system: together they work brilliantly.
If you can borrow a few from your dealer have an open mind and the taste for experimentation; I would absolutely recommend that you give them a try.
- Type: Acoustic Panels
- Fixings: Picture rail-type fittings supplied. Sound Anchor stands available
- Finishes: Walnut, Dark Cherry, Maple. Available with or without visible wooden frame. Different grille colours also available
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 560x560x75mm
- Weight: varies according to covering
- Price: £600 per panel.
Manufactured by: Stillpoints
Distributed by: Kog Audio
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7722 0650
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