This post was written by Stuart Beacham, our audio supervisor, to help all of our audience members achieve the best at home theatre experience.
As we continue to adapt to this new normal, traditional venues for the arts and entertainment have moved to the digital world. As presenters living in this digital medium, the way in which our audience experiences the content we share is still as important today as it was when our theaters were filled with people. With the upcoming presentation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, it is important that we investigate how to maximize the listening experience for a virtual concert. It may seem pretty obvious that the best way to listen to a concert, or really any music for that matter, is to find the biggest and most expensive sound system you can get your hands on, however we recognize that this may not be feasible or practical for many reasons. Instead, we will be focusing more on how best to optimize your current listening environment to get the most out of the experience.
For many people, the most convenient or preferred way of experiencing online content is through a computer. Whether it is a laptop or desktop, there are a few things that you can do to improve your listening experience. One of these ways is to use a pair of external computer speakers rather than the ones built into your computer. Generally speaking, one of the main advantages of an external speaker system over internal speakers is the ability to set up your system to suit your environment. With your laptop, for example, manufacturers often make concessions when it comes to the integrated speakers both in the size and quality of the components, the positioning of the speakers in the laptop chassis, and the volume at which content can be played at. The result is a sound system that is functional, but it may sound thin, distorted or just too quiet, resulting in a listening experience that detracts from what you are trying to watch rather than enhancing it.
If using external speakers, one of the most important ways to make sure that your speakers are working optimally is to look at the positioning of them. Your speakers will want to be positioned so that they are equidistant from your ears as well as from each other, such that if you were to draw an equilateral triangle, your 2 speakers and your head would each be at one of the corners. You will also want to elevate your speakers so that they are at the same height as your ears. These small changes will have a significant impact as your ears will now be positioned in the sweet spot of your speakers. The addition of a subwoofer will help in recreating the concert experience as it will help recreate the low frequency content that you may be used to from an actual concert loudspeaker system. With a home subwoofer, its proximity to your walls or other hard surfaces will have a meaningful impact on how much low frequency it can reproduce. The closer you place a subwoofer to a wall or corner will increase how much low end you perceive allowing you to fine tune your system to suite your taste.
With the prevalence of smart TVs and streaming devices, livestreamed content is more readily available on your home entertainment system. Whether it is your computer speakers or home stereo speakers, the same principles regarding speaker positioning apply.
If you don’t have access to speakers, or it not practical in your current environment, headphones can make a considerable improvement to the listening experience especially when viewing on a mobile device like a cell phone, tablet. There are a few things to consider in order to best maximize the performance of your headphones. It is important that whatever style of headphone you use, whether they be earbuds, over the ear or on ear, that there is a good seal between the headphone and your ear. For your headphones to perform as intended, they should fit snugly against your head or in your ear. Many earbuds have interchangeable tips with different sizes to accommodate different sized ears. It is important to spend some time to find the right size tip to create a complete seal in the ear canal which will dramatically improve bass response and help reduce the distraction of outside noises. With over the ear and on ear headphones, that same seal is created with the padding of the ear cup and its fit against the side of your head. Again, the fit should be snug yet comfortable. One other piece of equipment to consider in conjunction with headphones is a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). While there is one already built into many devices, the use of a DAC can be beneficial to fine tune your headphones (many have an adjustable equalizer or additional level of processing) or to make up for a poor quality or noisy headphone amp.
Regardless of whatever device or equipment you use, the most important thing you can do to have a positive experience is to be conscious of the volume at which you listen to things. Prolonged exposure to high SPLs can lead to ear fatigue in the short term, and over time, lead to permanent hearing damage.
Even though nothing can really compare to the experience of being at an actual concert, hopefully some of these tips can help you recreate the next best thing at home.