On December 16, 2020, I posted the picture below to my personal Facebook newsfeed with this caption: “There are valid reasons why I don’t often post pictures of my listening room—this reviewing gig can get a little out of hand sometimes.”
In no time, that post gained dozens of encouraging reactions—Facebook Like, Love, and Wow emojis, as well as more positive comments than I expected. A surprising number were about my collection of retro skateboard decks that can be seen leaning up against the front wall. Thankfully, nobody called me a slob, a hoarder, or some such thing—things that, in some ways, might be true. In fact, a couple of people even conceded that their places had a similar amount of clutter.
As I said, the comments were largely positive, but there was one that gave me pause for thought: “Wow! That’s a pro level of ‘out of handness.’” It came from Livio Cucuzza, the chief designer for Sonus Faber, whose own Facebook pictures make his listening room—in Padua, Italy—look way more organized and stylish than mine is (or ever has been).
I knew that Livio’s comment was made in jest, but there was a ring of truth to it—I had let my room get “out of hand” in terms of the equipment lying around. I also knew that I had been shortchanging our readers by hiding the mess that’s often there. There have been numerous requests to show what my room looks like with a photo rather than by the written description in my review. Looking back at my December 2020 Facebook post, I’m glad that I finally put it out there—it wound up being a call to action.
In early January, I was lacking the motivation to write, and one day, at about 4 p.m., Cucuzza’s words started bouncing around in my head. I was sitting in my listening chair and staring at the clutter of cables, speakers, amps, hard drives, and whatnot on the floor in front of me. Suddenly, I jumped up from the chair—it was time to clean up my room.
Before I got down to it, however, I paused and laid out some ground rules in my head. First, I decided to do it slowly and methodically, so I didn’t break anything. More than once I’ve rushed into a similar project and lived to regret it. Next, I realized that I couldn’t clear all the equipment out—in particular, I needed to keep a few preamps and amps close at hand and ready to go. As a reviewer who receives equipment of all shapes, sizes, and prices, I sometimes have to swap components in and out to do a proper evaluation. I also needed easy access to both the front and back of the components—to operate the controls, and to change cables around on the rear panels. Finally, I wanted to keep the skateboard decks around.
Skateboarding has been my passion and a big part of my life, almost as much as hi-fi has been. I got into skateboarding in 1978, when I was 14, and into hi-fi in 1980, just before I turned 16. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to wager that the people who commented about the decks are around the same age as me and remember what skateboarding was like in the late 1970s and early 1980s; an era immortalized in the fabulous documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys, which was directed by Stacy Peralta. Powell Peralta, cofounded by Peralta and George Powell in 1978, is a skateboard company still in business today whose reissued skateboard decks tend to be the most popular among enthusiasts. In fact, most of the skateboard-related comments on my post were about the Powell Peralta decks I own.
I originally put the decks against the wall because, at that time, there was no better place to store them. But I soon learned that they served two purposes in my room that I hadn’t anticipated. The first was that they improved the sound—mainly by increasing soundstage spaciousness and midrange clarity, likely because they were adding a little bit of acoustical diffusion (i.e., sound scattering) to that wall. I had already placed a bunch of RPG ProFoam panels around the giant projector screen on that wall to absorb some mid- and high-frequency reflections, and two quarter-round TubeTraps, one in each of the front corners, to help tame bass frequencies. The second thing I discovered was that they’re nice to look at while sitting in my main listening chair, to the point that I even rearrange the placements every once in a while, just for variety. They’re now my room’s art pieces. But not everyone’s tastes are the same—my wife, for example, won’t let me put any decks on the walls of our living room, where I have another system.
As I’ve mentioned in numerous reviews, my room measures 36′L × 16′W × 8′H, but I only use one-half for my stereo system. When you walk into the room through its only door, the listening space is on the left-hand side, while storage space and a small photography studio that I use to create product shots for our reviews are on the right side. The room is sectioned off near the middle by three home-theater-style recliners that, when I took that original shot of my messy room, had audio stands placed directly behind them. I use these chairs for both listening and working, because everything I do now is on my laptop. There used to be a desk in the photography and storage area, but I got rid of it because I prefer working this way.
My first step for the clean-up was to take all the speakers, electronics, cables, and other things strewn across the listening-area floor that I knew I wasn’t going to use anytime soon and move them over to the storage area. Doing just that reduced most of the clutter in that part of the room. I also ripped most (but not all) of the masking-tape markers off the floor. I had placed them to indicate where certain speakers should go, but I figured that if I wanted to put those speakers back in, I could determine the best positions again without all the unsightly tape to guide me.
Already, my system looked night-and-day better. But as I mentioned, I wanted easy access to the front and rear of the components on the stands—so I wasn’t done yet.
In that photo of my messy room, you can see the amplifiers I use—they’re between the speakers—but you can’t see the preamps, digital-to-analog converters (DACs), and other components that come ahead of the amps in the signal chain. At that time, those components were behind the recliners, each sitting on one of the three audio stands placed back there—a four-shelf one, another with three shelves, and a very low one with just one shelf. They were fairly close to the chairs, too. A pair of long interconnects ran from whatever preamp I was using to the amps in front of the recliners.
I originally positioned those components back there to make the rear-panel access easier. They were oriented on the stands with their fronts facing the backsides of the recliners and their rear panels toward the storage and photo studio half of the room. Set up like that, I could easily walk behind the components to connect or disconnect wires, which was handy. But it also meant that while listening to music, I’d have to reach through the gaps between the recliners to get at the knobs and switches on the front panels, which was often a pain.
To improve access to those components, I brought the three stands from behind the recliners and placed them side-by-side across the left-hand side wall of my listening space. I put the four-shelf stand closest to my listening chair, followed by the one with three shelves, and then the stand with one shelf.
At first glance, placing the stands on that wall might seem like I’m giving good access to the components’ front panels but poor access to their rear panels. But the wall behind them has sliding doors that open into a closet, so to switch cables on any of the components, I can now go into the closet and slide open a door to get at the backside of whatever component I want.
For the components for those stands, I decided that I wanted four preamps (EMM Labs Pre, Anthem STR, Simaudio Moon 740P, and JE Audio VL10.1), one DAC (EMM Labs DA2 V2), and one power conditioner (Shunyata Research Hydra Alpha A12). The EMM Labs, Anthem, and Simaudio preamps are solid-state designs, while the JE Audio preamp is a vacuum-tube model. I felt those would give me enough variety for most of my reviews. The DA2 V2 is one of the very best DACs on the market today and sounds so good to my ears that I have trouble listening to anything else after I listen to it, so it’s all I want to use for the bulk of my reviews—at least for now. I kept the balanced interconnects to connect the DAC to whatever preamp I’m using the same as when the stands were behind the chairs: the discontinued Crystal Cable Standard Diamonds. My music server has also remained the same: an Asus Zenbook UX303U laptop, connected to the DA2 V2 with an 11′ Shunyata Research Alpha USB cable. I have the laptop just sitting on the floor, because I often pick it up and bring it to my listening chair when I’m playing music.
The Hydra went on the single-tier stand because I knew I’d need the least access to it, so I didn’t mind having it furthest away. The Hydra is plugged into one of my room’s two 20A dedicated circuits with a Shunyata Research Venom HC power cord. The preamps and DAC plug into the Hydra with Shunyata Research Delta v2 NR power cords.
The rest of the components went on the four- and three-tier stands the way you see them in the photo above. But if you are wondering why there’s an Accuphase C-2850 Precision stereo preamplifier on the top of the tallest rack, please know that it’s in for review—that top position of the tallest rack is the easiest one to access, so any preamplifier, DAC, or other source component in for review is likely to go there.
Since I also need to have multiple amplifiers on hand, I kept all the amps that I had there before: the gigantic Constellation Audio Revelation Taurus Mono monoblock amps, the smaller JE Audio VM60 monoblocks, and the tiny Purifi Audio Eigentakt stereo amp. The Taurus monoblocks are high-powered, solid-state, class-AB designs capable of delivering at least 500W of power each into 8 ohms; the VM60s use tubes throughout and are capable of outputting 60W each into 8 ohms; and the Eigentakt is a solid-state, class-D design that, power-wise, more or less cuts through the middle at 200Wpc into 8 ohms.
If you look at the photo of my messy room and then compare it to the picture above of the cleaned-up room, you’ll see that the placement of the amps hasn’t changed much—I only moved the Eigentakt from where it was on the floor in front of the other amps to a small stand behind them, where it peeks out between the VM60s. But that doesn’t mean I won’t make more changes. As I’m typing this, I’m thinking about pushing all of the amps closer to the front wall so they’re not further out into the room than the speakers. I’m torn, though, because the way they’re set up now leaves plenty of room for interconnects and speaker cables and it allows me to walk behind them, which happens fairly often.
None of the amplifier-related cabling has changed from before. More Shunyata power cords (Alpha v2 XCs for the Taurus monos, Zitron Alpha HCs for the VM60 monos and Eigentakt stereo) plug the amps into a Shunyata Research Venom PS8 power distributor. The PS8 is plugged directly into the other dedicated 20A circuit in my room with yet another Venom HC power cable. Crystal Cable Standard Diamond balanced interconnects run between whatever amp-preamp combo I’m using. I’ve encased the interconnects in plumbing-pipe insulation simply to protect them from getting stepped on. As I write this, the speakers are Revel Ultima2 Salon2s—reference-caliber floorstanders that you can see in the photos throughout this article—connected by QED Supremus speaker cables. I’ve been using these speakers for more than ten years, but some others have just come in for me to listen to, so by the time you read this article, the Salon2s might be in the storage area.
Once I had the stands moved, the components in place, and the cables all hooked up, I sat in the center recliner and admired almost all of what I saw before me. The speakers were placed where I wanted them, the Purifi amp was now behind the others rather than on the floor by my feet, I didn’t have long interconnects running from behind my listening chair to the amplifier area, and the audio racks were better arranged. I could also take a picture of the room to post on my Facebook feed and not be totally embarrassed, which is what I did in the middle of January. Like before, the comments were all positive—with many people again fixated on those skateboard decks that I had leaned up against the front wall.
But I wasn’t completely satisfied. Long ago, I got tired of staring at the giant theater screen that I hardly use anymore (I watch movies and shows on the flat-panel TV in my family room, which is two floors down). But I wasn’t ready to tear it off the wall—it took a while to get it positioned there, plus I knew that it could still come in handy if I decide I want to watch movies using a projector again. I also didn’t want to remove it and fill the space with more foam: (1) I thought that having too much foam might make the wall look uglier, and (2) I wasn’t sure my room would sound better, since too much absorption can be as bad or worse than too little. I thought diffusion might be better.
For about two weeks, I tried to figure out how to get a diffuser panel large enough to cover the screen, but still have it be lightweight, easy to remove, and inexpensive. I was dreaming in Technicolor, because all that wasn’t going to happen for a screen that size—it’s about 8′ × 5′. If you’ve ever shopped for a quality diffuser you’ll probably know that one that big made of wood costs many thousands of dollars and is heavy as hell. Next, I looked at Vicoustic’s Mutifuser DC2 foam diffuser panels, which are 2′ × 2′, much lighter, and priced much, much lower than wood diffusers. I knew that I could buy a bunch of them and mount them to a lightweight foam-core board that would cover the entire screen.
I came this close to buying the DC2s, but before I did, I began thinking about those skateboard decks, wondering if they could solve my problem—at least for now. The first eight that I placed to the sides of the screen had improved the sound, probably because their irregularly shaped wood surfaces were acting a bit like real diffusers. On top of that, they made the front wall look better—at least to me, and some of my like-minded Facebook friends.
To experiment, I took two of the decks that were leaning against the wall—one from the left of the screen, the other from the right—and put them on the floor, smack in the middle of the screen, leaning against the floor-level storage area that’s built across the front wall. When I listened to my system with the two decks on the floor, it was hard to tell if they were making the sound better, but I liked the way they looked and figured more might look better—and maybe make the room sound better.
So I went online and ordered three Powell Peralta reissue decks, waited a week for them to arrive, and added them to the two on the floor to make a lineup of five. These new ones are the Ray Rodriguez OG Skull & Sword and the Pro Steve Caballero Street, which are the silver-colored decks that you can see on the left and right in the photos above and below, and the classic-looking OG Ripper, which is the wood-finish one in the middle.
Whereas putting two decks on the floor didn’t seem to do much for the sound, adding three more actually did—the sonic illusion of soundstage depth, which was already staggeringly good in my room, got a little bit better, and the midrange became even cleaner. These were small differences, mind you, but meaningful enough to make me content. And with five there, my eyes were almost always drawn to them instead of the screen. Could even more skateboard decks help even more?
Maybe—but for now at least, I’ve stopped ordering them. My room sounds great as it is. But if I do buy more decks, the first thing I’ll probably have to do is to find a replacement for that new Steve Caballero. When it arrived, I immediately fell in love with its size and the way its curved edges felt as I ran my hands over it. I’ve already decided that it’s too good to just hang on the wall, so by springtime, I’ll mount trucks and wheels on it and take it to the skate parks as I begin traveling around my region again. If you follow me on Facebook, you might know that one of my favorite things is visiting hi-fi companies that are within driving distance and stopping at skate parks along the way. Forty years later, skateboarding and hi-fi still mean that much to me.
For vinyl fans wondering why there’s no turntable in my room, please scroll back up to the picture of the three audio stands and take note of the empty space on the top of the three-shelf one. Because the vinyl resurgence is here to stay, in late January I realized that I had to get with the program and buy a new turntable for my room.
That empty shelf space will soon be filled by a turntable I’ve already purchased and is still in its big wooden box in a storage room in my basement. But I plan to have it set up by the end of March, and you’ll see an article soon about the debut of that turntable in my listening room, which I have promised myself won’t be allowed to become the disaster it once was anytime soon—or, hopefully, ever. Now that I’m not embarrassed to show my room anymore, you may even see a photo of the setup.
. . . Doug Schneider