Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Room Within a Room in Singapore

The second place CEDIA Awards winner this year is a room in a new luxury high-rise condo which was converted into a dedicated listening room and home cinema for an uncompromising audiophile client. The design brief included (1) housing the client’s five very large Meridian 25th anniversary edition DSP8000SE speakers, (2) matching the modern, slick and artsy interiors of the residence, and, (3) serving as a fully soundproofed retreat from Singapore’s hustle and bustle.

Our mission was to design and engineer an environment that could support and enhance a very sophisticated digital audiophile audio system, with full soundfield quality expectations, and instantly switch to movie studio-grade AV performance. The client wanted to spend a lot of time enjoying his passion for music and films, so the interior feel had to be comfortable and clean. This is probably the only room in the world with five of the large special edition Meridian speakers, and the resulting looks, sound and picture are all truly stunning. It is rare to be given the opportunity of creating a world-class dedicated room in a high-rise luxury building for a very exacting client. 

It all started with extensive engineering and planning a year before completion of the condo, with several planset iterations (eight to be exact) until all elements were carefully thought-through. A “room-within-a-room” structure with suspended ceiling, and resilient shock-mounted walls, along with floated floor was constructed by a builder team and supervised by our project managers. The interiors were precisely tailored to the speaker system and maximized the available dimensions of the room. The lighting was carefully selected for neutral colors and proper control of spill onto the screen. The list of minute elements goes on and on. Suffice it to say that every detail was considered in the design and implementation of this state-of-the-art room.

The combination of full sound isolation, low noise ventilation, clean power, ultra-high end audio gear, anamorphic projection, along with meticulous acoustics integrated into a slick décor, were all a challenge to assemble. The hallmark of CEDIA members is to deliver the level of service and planning that internet and box-mover stores can’t do, and this project is a stellar example of that exercise in a part of the world that isn’t yet used to investing in design and planning at such a high level. The client now has a Home Cinema that rivals the best in the world and spends several hours a week enjoying it.

When we heard that our client wanted to showcase his set of 5 gorgeous limited edition burgundy-colored anniversary edition Meridian 8000SE speakers in a dedicated theater in his new condo in Singapore, we knew that the first step was to ensure full-on sound isolation! Not a whisper could be heard in his daughter’s room next-door, or in his neighbors’ daughter’s room below. We brought in a world-renowned theater consultant and acoustician and designed a room with the right proportions, the right wall structures, the right acoustics and the right optics to support an ultra-high end experience.

The building’s wall-to wall window scheme had major flaws: All the supporting metalwork was connected from top to bottom. A light knock on the aluminum framing could be heard three stories up and down. And there were 1” gaps in the termination between the perimeter beams and the window frames, where sound leaked. This is obviously not a good thing at the extreme price per square foot of this high-rise, and much less for the development of a listening and screening room! Then we painted the window framing with visco-elastic damping compound, we sealed all the gaps were sealed with special gasketed brackets, and we installed a secondary window was planted 8” in front of the original window. After all this meticulous work, we verified that no sound leaves the room by running tests at 110 dB SPL inside the room, and verifying residual sound levels in all the adjacent spaces, using standardized ASTM methods.

The sound isolation envelope had to fit within the structural load limitations of the building. The room size is also a bit limited, so we needed to implement systems that didn’t reduce available space too much. We worked the building architect and structural engineering teams to establish the parameters and specifications. Extensive materials optimization eventually led us to the right design that wouldn’t cause a collapse of the residence! The floor system in a 2” deep Kinetics RIM scheme with mass-loaded layers for lowest resonance frequencies. The ceiling is a Kinetics ICC spring-based resilient scheme with multiple damped layers, and a 3Hz resonance frequency. The original concrete walls are amended with resiliently secured metal-stud framed walls in order to stop transmission of sound vibration through the vertical boundaries. The framed walls are finished with visco-elastic damped sheetrock, which offer higher impedance to bass sound waves, and therefore reduces bass standing wave resonances.

Most of the specialty materials had to be shipped over from the USA via boat and air, including a very special STC 55 sound-rated door. This door had to be sized and dressed so as to look like all the other ones in the hallway of this meticulously decorated condo. The homeowner is an art lover and collector, and he worked with a top interior design firm to select all the furnishings and finishes to complement his art collection. The client wanted leather seats, which we have found in the past to pose some problems with high-frequency reflections near the listeners’ ears. To avoid any issues, we micro-perforated the headrests to ensure proper sound absorption of reflected sounds!

The room proportions and materials were optimized for standing wave patterns with best distribution over the frequency range of 20 Hz to 150 Hz. A wall, floor and ceiling construction system was designed for an overall STC of 70 or better. The speaker and seating locations were optimized for best frequency response and soundstage. Two of the DSP8000 speakers were dedicated to the Back channels of 7.1 channel audio. A set of two on-wall Meridian Side speakers were added in, and a motorized Screen Excellence acoustically transparent screen was selected for its optimal picture and sound qualities. 

The DreamVision projector was concealed in a soffit at the back of the room that also served a ventilation plenum scheme. The picture shoots through an optically pure port glass so that noise and heat are all well controlled in the soffit. 

A full complement of MSR Dimension4 Sonata Symphony acoustical tuning modules including deep absorbers, tuned bass traps and solid wood deep 2D and 3D diffusers, bass traps, etc. were engineered into the room for the proper target reflection decay time of 0.28 sec, and concealed behind a deep stretched fabric wall decorative scheme. The fabric colors are all dark and neutral in the areas of the room close to the screen, so as to ensure best picture quality and contrast ratios. Brighter colors were used in other areas so that the room doesn’t feel to obscure for the client’s guests. The bright areas are also out of primary field of view during “screening” mode, so as to avoid any perceived color errors. All the lighting in the room is chosen for proximity to D65 color range. 

A set of tight-beam LEDS are over the seats to illuminate them with adjustable low level in case the client wants to preserve some visibility of drinks, remote controls, etc. A custom Eclipse acoustical diffusion drape controls the main speaker back-waves without over-damping the room, while ensuring total blackout from the bright tropical sun.

Speaking of tropics, an NC15 ventilation system able to cool down the room without adding any noise had to be engineered and retrofitted into very tight quarters. We installed an isolation transformer system for the power supply to the room so as to protect the sensitive digital electronics and ensure reliability.

The AV equipment is split into two racks. The Meridian gear that needs to be near the digital speakers and to the user is all mounted in a Sistrum-brand rack to the side of the seating area, while all the other components are neatly tucked away in a rack in the main equipment room of the residence. A Savant automation system integrates all the functions for ease of use. A Sooloos music server holds the client’s extensive music collection, and the occasional CD can be played through the local Meridian unit.

The ventilation system design and construction was a real chore, as it had to be squeezed into the limited soffit space between the top of the entry door and the concrete structure, and snake its way cleanly around the projector hush box and the room while ensuring the NC15 background noise specification required for this grade of audio performance, and cooling down the steamy Singapore ambient conditions.

Since the room is tightly sound-isolated from the residence an alarm annunciator was installed in the room, and was tied into the building fire and safety systems. From the photos submitted, the room does look small because of the combination of sound isolation and a deep stretched fabric dress. In fact the acoustical boundaries are 18” wider and 24” longer than the photos show. Also, the sheer size of the 5 Meridian DSP8000 speakers further tricks the eye when it comes to available space. However the actual audible character of the room appear much larger because of the space behind the fabric, and strategic use of high-quality sound scattering and diffusion modules on the walls and ceiling. Also, through the careful use of color work and lighting, the actual sense of space and comfort is again more ample than the photos would reveal.

We had to place the Back speakers further apart than ideal due to their size and space limitations. While a distance of about 4 feet would have been more ideal, the existing corner placement resulted in good overall soundfield results, once the bass build-up was equalized out of the speakers. Also, while we firmly believe in completely concealing all audio and video equipment in the room, the client wanted to showcase his beautiful red Meridan DSP8000 Special edition speakers. These are clearly a statement piece and we organized the décor, colors and lighting to properly show these amazing pieces of audio sculpture. 

The Meridian system includes an automated calibration system, but it was found not to perform adequately in this particular situation. There were several errors in bass response, and in the time-of arrival, based on the manual measurements and listening test. Bass management was set so that the five Meridian 8000 speakers handled the low frequencies in concert, to reduce standing wave effects. The room was then carefully measured using both impulse response and FFT analysis with spatial averaging. With the right setup you can override the set of biquad filters called up by the scheme, edit their frequency, gain and bandwidth, and painstakingly get to proper measured and results.

One annoying challenge is that spectral tailoring scheme only operates from 20Hz to 300Hz, and only in cut mode. That’s because Meridian conceived it as a device for only attenuating standing wave resonance peaks, based on an analysis of decay time of peaked signals. That was nice, but it ignores the fact that there are dozens of other elements in a room that affect the amplitude and time response of a speaker ( in my humble opinion). A strategic game of chess had to be played between the limited EQ range, the availability of bass and treble controls, and some degree of placement equalization of the speakers. Each iteration also took a “Save-and-Reboot” process of the decoder, making any cause-effect confirmation very tedious (are you laughing, or screaming yet?! Be patient Grasshopper; all good things take time, and who needs sleep anyway?) Extensive tests were used for fine-tuning of the room and speaker voicing.

Exceptional picture quality with 2.37:1 anamorphic projection, and fully integrated automation for access to the extensive collection of jazz, classical, and rock music complement the stellar audio package. The Dreamvision projector was carefully tuned to Rec709 standards, with gray scale at precisely 0.313. / 0.329 (D65). Video standards were SMPTE, ISF and CEDIA best practices. The gray scale was compared against a reference broadcast B&W monitor (Sony PVM96), and we made sure that our eyeballs actually liked the results by watching several known test patterns and movie clips. Black and white levels were carefully set for the balance of maximum dynamic range while avoiding clipping in either direction. Color settings were of course set to all the color bars standards (blue-filter method), and also by careful and extensive viewing tests. The resulting picture quality is stunning and makes the homeowner very happy to have invested in all the work.

The final touch was to perform a thorough and painstaking commissioning and calibration of the audio and video. No automated “push-the-button-and-pray” was allowed for this meticulous project. Multi-microphone analysis using FFT and Impulse response showed us what the room was doing to the speakers, and with override of the Meridian setup software we neutralized standing waves and boundary conditions. The stereo soundstage now extended at least two feet beyond the left and right speakers, and the multichannel music and film experience transcended the walls of the converted bedroom of this high-rise luxury private cinema!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Modern Luxe Home Cinema in Nantucket

The first-place winner at the CEDIA Home Technology Professional Awards this year was a basement-level, ultra-high-end home cinema in a new house in Nantucket, Massachusetts. This project took two years of development as part of the overall construction of a gorgeous villa nestled among pine forest. The client is a detail-oriented audiophile and videophile who owns an aerospace engineering company, and demands nothing but the best. He had owned several systems before, and was familiar with the products and brands of our industry. He wanted absolute perfection in picture and sound reproduction, and after intently studying all the options, was willing to take the time it took for thorough engineering and project management; a rare privilege!

The interior architecture and design of the theater was to be “clean, slick, and modern”, and we completed the design work and lighting design in-house. After several months of deliberations and listening tests of various sound systems, we set to work on the design and development of the project, following an exact set of agreed-upon specifications and rules. Quite a rare process for this industry that really needs more of this type of exacting work flow. We learned a lot from the rigor of the aerospace world, and had great fun along the way!

The engineering, design, and integration effort for this project was outstanding, as was the meticulous wiring of the racks, and the programming of the fully automated house and cinema. Also, the fact that absolutely everything had to be brought in by ferry to this idyllic island location added challenge and complexities to this world-class project. We even commissioned a full electrical ground analysis since the soils in Nantucket are all sandy, causing us to fear high ground impedance. Proper grounding practices ensured low noise and low hum. And finally, state-of-the-art PMI 2.0 projection system with fully configurable aspect ratios and viewing angle selections, all property automated are still rare in this industry, but are essential for rooms with large screens.

The original architectural plans called for a flat floor for a two-row cinema. Of course that wouldn’t have worked for sightlines with a huge screen, so we re-configured the room entrance area, adding an elevated transition deck outside the room, to a re-positioned doorway in the middle of the back wall.

The room is fully sound-isolated and even at 115 dB you do not hear nothing anything anywhere else in the residence. We didn’t need to build heavy concrete walls/foundations to achieve these results – we developed innovative lighter weight materials and solutions expressly for this kind of application. The combination of properly engineered decoupled structures with resonance frequencies below 5Hz, along adequate visco-elastic damping ensure that the sound track sounds stay inside the theater.

An NC15 ventilation system able to condition the room without adding any noise was engineered and fitted into tight passages of the hallway and soffits. We installed a huge Torus isolation transformer system for the power supply to the room to protect the sensitive digital electronics and ensure reliability – this not only ensures very little variation in voltage but reduces noise, and lowers both signal and ground impedance to very low numbers.

The projector was located outside the room, hidden in a soffit above the entrance atrium, and it now shoots through an optical port glass in the back wall. The projector is suspended from vibration isolation springs and mass-loaded with a heavy metal plate, all tuned for a 3Hz resonance. We had to do all this just because the projector was set to be installed directly below the laundry room, and we needed to prevent any vibration effects of the washer spin cycles upon the floor ceiling structures – the last thing you need is your image vibrating during each spin cycle! Ventilation for the projector is timed to continue the cooling cycle well after the power-down command.

PMI engineered and designed a room with the right proportions, the right wall structures, the right internal sound reflection patterns, acoustics and the right optics to support the requisite ultra-high end experience. The room proportions and materials were optimized for standing wave patterns with best distribution over the frequency range of 20 Hz to 150 Hz. A wall and ceiling construction system was designed for an overall STC of 65 or better. The speaker and seating locations were optimized for best frequency response and soundstage.

A carefully engineered combination of Wisdom Audio front speakers, Triad bipole surround speakers, and ProAudio Technologies subwoofers produce clean and dynamic sound pressures. The audio package includes a Crestron Procise PSP-HD surround decoder, Ashly NE24.24 digital audio processor, and a full complement of LabGruppen studio-grade amplifiers.

The entire house is driven though Crestron for lighting, climate, security, and of course AV control. So it was only natural to also automate and outfit the cinema with Creston gear. All switching is conducted through substantial Crestron DM matrix units for flexibility of program sources.

A large Screen-Research woven acoustically-transparent screen was selected for its optimal picture and sound qualities, with PMI 2.0 4-way masking variable aspect ratio, and viewing angle adjustments. The Clearpix2 surface offers an acoustical transparency that is less than 1 dB attenuation across the entire range from 20 Hz to 10 kHz, and is barely 2 dB down at 16 kHz, so it behaves like a speaker grille cloth.

The video performance is also excellent, fully resolving the interpixel area of a DLP 1080x1920 projector, which corresponds to a resolution that is 10 times higher than what HD video requires. The Digital Projection Titan projector includes multiple lens zoom and focus pre-sets programmed for several aspect ratios including 2.35, 1.78, 1.33, in both high-definition and standard-definition viewing angles. All of this is automated through a Creston intelligent remote control system to help the client pick the best picture option for each movie with ease of use.

A full complement of MSR Dimension4 Sonata acoustical tuning modules including thick and deep absorbers, 2D and 3D diffusers, and bass traps, etc was engineered for the proper target reflection decay time of 0.3 seconds, and concealed behind a deep stretched fabric wall decorative scheme. We chose all dark and neutral fabric colors to ensure best picture quality and contrast ratios. The lighting in the room is chosen for proximity to D65 color range. A set of tight-beam LEDS are over the seats to illuminate them with adjustable low level in case the client wants to preserve some visibility of drinks, remote controls, etc.

The lighting scheme included the obligatory sconces and step lights, along with a set of tight-beam lights over the seating to illuminate them at low level without any spill onto the screen. The sconces were selected for both style fit and absence of rattles in conditions of loud bass sound pressure levels. Although this was designed as a dedicated 9.4 theater with multichannel sound, the 2-channel stereo performance of the aesthetically integrated speakers is absolutely stunning, and the four subwoofers crank up to 118 dB of clean bass with barely any variation from seat to seat. Imaging is deep and clear, and the sound stage clearly extends well beyond the Left and Right speakers.

Since the room is sound-isolated, an audible alarm annunciator was installed in case of emergencies. The automation system relays emergency conditions to the room as detected through the whole house Crestron system. The ventilation system is integrated through ducting, soffits, and plenums to keep the noise down to NC15. The supply is two long rattle-proofed vertical diffusers flanking the screen, and the return is a plenum silencer scheme built under the seating platform.

The final touch was to perform a thorough commissioning and calibration of the audio and video. No automated process could be allowed for this meticulous project! We implemented speaker control externally using the Ashly 8x16 digital audio processor. Settings in the surround decoder are all zeroed out; all delay and level settings are instead implemented in the Ashly EQ. This way, a change of decoder later is just an easy drop-in replacement, after enabling bass management. Any future replacement of the Ashly EQ would simply require a reload the configuration and settings program. We verified impedance and rub/buzz and distortion of the speakers. We initially found a few issues, and these were corrected after a factory replacement. The Ashly processing unit also ran the Wisdom Audio bi-amplified speaker crossovers and full room correction equalizations.

The final result is truly a marvel of premier picture and sound quality. The client’s comment after watching Flight of the Phoenix on opening night was “I loved it; I had to hold my breath through most of the movie!” Note that the client is a fully licensed IFR private jet airplane pilot, so the choice of movie was ironic!