Review: Jim Smith RoomPlay voicing Tweak

Category: Accessories

I attend about five concerts a year at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As my interest in classical music has grown, I have used these performances from the listening perspective of the eighth row, center, as a reference for how reproduced music should sound in my home. Over the last ten years I have assembled a good collection of audio gear and have strived to make that system approach what I hear at the BSO. Toward that end, I bought a copy of Jim Smith’s book, Get Better Sound.

The book is well written and easy to understand. I was particularly interested in the speaker placement and room interaction sections as I had recently purchased a new pair of speakers. By following the advice in the book, I was able to improve my system to the point where I was quite pleased but not truly satisfied. Compared to what I heard at the BSO, my system still lacked dynamics and that palpable presence of a live performance.

Jim suggests in his book that careful placement and proper integration of sub woofers can often provide dramatic improvements to a system. With this in mind, I bought a pair of high quality sub woofers and hired Jim to voice my system and to integrate my subs with my main speakers. After some communication about system details and scheduling, Jim agreed to “voice my system to my room”.

Jim arrived the night before the RoomPlay session and connected his laptop and DAC to my system. He listen to some music in order to get a general sense of how my system sounded and what we could do the following day to improve its performance. The following morning we set up Jim’s test equipment. Jim began by running test tones and measuring the room. He wants to first establish the correct seating location based on the smoothest and best bass. We then moved the speakers back and forth listening for the most balanced overall frequency response. This distance relationship between the listener and the speakers, relative to the dimensions of the room, minimizes frequency peaks and nulls and establishes the smoothest frequency curve. The next step involved establishing the proper distance between the speakers. Here Jim listened for a sense of weight and body to the voices and instruments and for appropriate inner detail and center-fill. Finally, we tried different degrees of toe-in and tilt, listening for tonal balance. All of these extremely precise adjustments required the use of laser levels and measuring devices. It was an exacting and very deliberate process.

Once the main speakers were correctly positioned, we worked on integrating the two sub woofers. We tried many different locations and orientations as well as phase angles, cut off frequencies and slopes. After a few hours and much effort, we agreed that in my system and in my room, the subs, though extending the frequency range of the system, detracted slightly from the overall sense of tonal balance and clarity. We decided the trade-offs were not worth it, so the subs were removed from the room.

It has been about six weeks since Jim’s visit. I have had some time now to reflect on the visit and the results of his work. I had read his book and worked diligently to improve my system to the point where I was not sure what further improvements Jim could bring. Nevertheless, my anticipation of and expectations for his visit were high. If he could improve the sonics even slightly, I would be happy. I can now say that I was not properly prepared for the degree of improvement Jim made to my system. Jim speaks about Tone, Presence and Dynamics. He tells his clients that he will make the musicians perform for them in their rooms. His goal is to have the client thinking about a listening session long after it is over, in a similar way that he continues to think about a great live performance days after it is heard. Jim achieved all of this and more. I simply did not realize to how high a degree my system could perform.

Jim is a very personable fellow, full of knowledge and experience. Though I learned a great deal watching him work, I also really enjoyed being in his company. The improvements he made to my system are dramatic and I consider his fee to be a bargain relative to the overall investment I have in my system. His RoomPlay service is the single best purchase I have made in this hobby. I listen more intently, enjoy the experience more completely and have a much deeper appreciation for my music. I would have thought that results from his efforts were some kind of lucky fluke were it not that he performed the same service with very similar results on a friend’s familiar system. Our two systems improved in similar ways and are similarly involving. I am now fully convinced that the speaker/listener/room relationship is the primary component to good and convincing sound and that the equipment plays a subordinate, though important role.

On Good Friday, I went to the BSO to hear Bach’s Passion according to John. It is a large choral piece with full orchestra and six solo vocalists. The performance was deeply moving. On Easter evening, two days later, with Bach fresh in my mind, I listened to an LP recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Passion according to Andrew Lloyd Webber. No, it did not sound quite like the real thing, nor was the scale of the music as majestic as in Symphony Hall, but the performance was just as emotionally involving. I was just as moved by the recording and as Jim predicted, I continue to think about how good it sounded.

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System
I've heard Magnepans set up in J. Smith's old Audition audio shop in Birmingham AL. HE may have been the guy who helped me when I visited the store that day, not sure. Best sounding Maggies probably I have ever heard still, and I bought a pair on the spot and ran them for 20 years. He no doubt knows what he is doing. I see few Maggie systems set up the way his were....too bad! Gotta have the right room though where the speakers will not be in the way.
Okay, I'll bite...So, how did he have the Maggies set up (and I don't even have Maggies - anymore). I do agree that you have to start with the right sized speakers for the room. Too big and you'll never tame the boomy bass; too small and you'll never "pressurize" the room. This has to fall into place before you can start to fine tune anything else if you're truly pursuing perfection IMO.
And here I'm looking for a procedure, a bit more detail on the above process rather than exact measurements which of course won't be the same for any two rooms. I'll probably be advised to search for threads on this, and there are many. I've tried a few as you probably have. Acoustics is an evolving science. Let's share what's worked for us, then what you finally did to tweek/personalize your method.
I'll go first: ( I don't have a choice of where to place my couch due to a pool table so feel free to give your seating placement procedure input starting right there!) Then: Start from where you currently have your speakers placed..and mark that with tape. The bass is optimized first. I used a Stereophile test CD with bass tracks one one channel at a time (disconnect other speaker carefully - no shorts/turn amp off!), while my son moved each speaker (sans spikes) in & out from the front wall until I heard what I liked the best. Start close to the wall and move out. One of the frequencies will give you the most resonance problems. Just listen and trust your ears to tighten it up. Listen again to verify other frequencies line up OK. Same with other speaker. They should be about the same distance from the wall..but, maybe not, mine were. (try averaging here? or,does it sound worse?)
Then adjust the "wideness" by spreading your speakers using a full symphonic piece so your soundstage is as wide as possible without forming a hole in the middle. Here you need to measure to be sure speakers are same distance from your ears (and same from centerline, should be). Now put spikes back on and level both speakers. Now, lasers work very well.
Next, with your favorite music, try pivoting speakers on one corner ("same" corner) to focus tweeters in front of, directly at you, and behind you to find what you prefer. Move around the room. Again, it's your system, your ears and your choice. Don't worry, in the end it will sound fine to all of your friends and you will love it.
Finally, level speakers again and by listening only to female vocalist,(with eyes shut and moving head right to left) pinpoint center image and fine adjust toe-in on both speakers to center her voice/image while lasers focus together on centerline (in front of, at, or behind your head as you've chosen) ..along with you head. Done.

-If it doesn't work for you,
you can move them back to where you first marked them. Just remember how much this cost you. Ha.
Great writeup, Peterayer. Although Jim's book is quite good, I think it takes someone with his years of field experience to pull it off correctly in a reasonably short amount of time.
Truman, Here are the basics of Jim's method in order:

1. Locate best position and height of the listening seat. Based on measuring
bass for smoothest response.
2. Proper speaker distance out from front wall based on room nodes and
tonal balance.
3. Proper speaker distance out from center line of room based on warmth,
fullness, center fill, soundstage, body and weight of instruments and voices.
4. Proper speaker toe-in and tilt based on focus, imaging.
5. Address first reflection points, reflection behind listening seat, other room

It's been two years, and I may have forgotten something, but that is what I
remember. "Get Better Sound" explains it more accurately and
with greater detail. Everything he did was measured with instruments and a
laser so distances, toe-in, tilt etc were EXACT to the nearest 1/16th of an

I had read the book and improved my system's sound and was quite satisfied.
That cost about $65 and about three months of adjustments. After Jim did
the voicing, the sound was much better and the cost was low compared to
other equipment purchases. I could not have achieved the tone, dynamics
and presence in my system without Jim's help.

The value of the service is a subjective calculation that each person must
make for his/her self.
Thanks for sharing your experience Peter. I bought Jim's book and the DVD and it made a slight improvement. I know there is more performance that can be squeezed out of my stereo just by speaker placement. At some point in the future, I'd also like to have him come do his RoomPlay for me.

I'm also interested in knowing what he did that you weren't able to do yourself after reading his book?
You are very welcome Erndog. Jim has a lot more experience than I do. So he uses his measuring instruments and then plays 20 or so digital songs that he knows extremely well and he basically fine tuned what I had started. He spent ten hours straight without a break. The difference is that he knows better than I did at the time what to listen for.

I got close but his small changes really improved the sense of presence and dynamics mostly. But imaging and extension increased a bit also. In the end, my listening seat was lifted about two inches, the sofa was moved back 7 inches, the speakers came into the room about 4 more inches, and the distance between the speakers changed about 2 inches closer together. But this small changes had a dramatic effect.

I read and followed the advice in the book, and he said that I came pretty close, but I did not know how to take it to the next level. That's where he came in.
Makes sense, he's a pro at this.