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Robert Learner Reviews: Cathedral Sound Panels

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by Robert Learner on May 18 '07

 Images Acoustic-Panels--010

I don’t doubt that cables sound different, but unlike speakers, for example, I’ve heard little correlation between performance and price. More to the point, I think they are a generally poor value proposition -- very often large cash outlays for differences (better or worse) that you have to spend a day listening for.

In contrast, strategic acoustic room treatment can be immediately heard, and yields almost unquestionable improvement. Things like bass traps in corners, absorbative panels behind the speakers and on the side walls at the point of first reflection can clean up the sound in a relatively dramatic way. I’ve made effective, good-looking absorbative panels for less than thirty bucks a pop; prefinished panels with an array of color choices are available for under a hundred dollars. Although, this being a territory mined by high-end audio, you can easily spend much more.

More to the point -- before you tweak with cables, brass spikes, wood blocks, carbon fiber cones, brass footers, 99.9999% pure rubber alloy cable risers, double-helical wound inverse-square pole-aligned (North and South) power cords, critically-tuned, Akashi-Kaikyo-inspired algorythmically correct suspension racks, and finally, cryogenically-frozen then double-baked Heimholtz-modeled acoustaresonators; it might be worth addressing the room the stuff sits in. It seemed important to the guys who designed Carnegie Hall anyway...

Undercover

An anecdote: an old family friend who’s in the HVAC business was over to consult on our heating and cooling needs for our pending renovation. In the spirit of friendly reciprocity, I’m helping him out with the design and construction of his new home theater. He’s warned me several times that sound is not a huge priority for him; he’s not a critical listener.

As we made our way to my home theater/two-channel system in the basement, he made the unprompted comment that our voices had cleared up dramatically as we moved to the front half of the room where most of my absorbative materials are. This non-critical listener immediately got it and was sold. I could swap out competently designed cables all day though, and he’d be unmoved. This is not so much an anti-cable argument as a pro ‘note the dramatic effects of room treatment’ diatribe. Total cost of this room treatment, by the way, is under three hundred bucks.

The catch is that not everyone wants, or is allowed by cohabitators, to have large panels haning on the walls and traps in the corners. Most people don’t want a room to look like a recording studio. Cleaning up bass is especially problematic from a decor standpoint -- this requires size and thickness for those long wavelenghs.

Finally to the point: the Cathedral Sound dampening panels. They’re designed to clean up the bass (200hz and below), something you can’t at least finesse with rugs, wall hangings and the like which can help with high frequencies. About the size of a large laptop computer but perhaps twice as thick, they’re relatively easy to hide in room corners where they’re intended to be placed. Cathedral publishes graphs that show how decay times at low frequencies are greatly reduced with the panels. The graphs also demonstrate some bass level attentuation as well, not necessarily a good thing unless they refer to what’s going on in the corners of the room -- some more explanation of the measurements would help. I’ve read some debate on these results and the graphs themselves, but the measurements were done by Rives Audio of acoustic room design/correction fame, and as far as I know, they have no financial interest in Cathedral. Check them out here.

The panels are not absorbative per se -- they work by dissipating the sound pressure that builds up in corners of the room, and they do so by employing the Venturi effect. In the Cathedral application, this is a series of lined-up perforated sheets. By dint of being forced through small holes, acoustic pressure is accelerated and depressurized. I’m familiar with the concept: my old model rockets employed perforated baffles to disperse pressure and prevent premature deployment of the parachute. My painstakingly hand-built rockets landed safely, FYI.

So much for rocketry and on to methodology. Testing consisted of listening to a song without the panels, quickly hanging two in the upper corners behind my ATC active 20-2s and listening again, then adding two more in the corners on the opposite wall of the speakers and listening again. Rinse, lather, repeat with thirty or so songs and multiple replays -- it was an audiophile form of interval training.

Definitively to the point: they work. The panels seem to suck some of the reverb out of the room, yielding crisper and more defined bass. There’s less sludge and muddle down low. It’s an easily, immediately discernable difference and improvement that magnifies a bit when you move from two to four panels. My only caveat with their performance is a subtle thickening of voices noted on several tracks. I can’t explain why something that only affects frequencies below 200hz would do this. In fact, engaging the room correction feature on my Meridian controller that operates in the same frequency range has the subjective effect of cleaning up the middle frequencies in my main system.

Caveat noted, the Cathedral panels are absolutely worth checking out. There’s a glaringn need for discreet acoustic room treatment, and with a 30 day money back guarantee, there’s little risk in trying them. At a 90 bucks a pop, I’d absolutely go here before making a move on cables, power cords, cones, and the like.

Cathedral Sound Room Dampening Panels $179.95/pr.
11”Wx16”Hx2”D, available in black or off-white, includes mounting hooks

http://www.ultrasystem.com/

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