Most of our Meet Your Dealer sessions are relatively standard issue. They revolve around a series of answers to a stock set of questions. Occasionally though, this concept is abandoned because what the dealer in question provides goes above and beyond the norm. Such is the case with The Listening Suite, in Dublin, Ireland.
The Listening Suite itself recently moved from an upstairs store in the heart of Dublin to a larger, more traditional venue at 99 Terenure Road North, in Terenure itself (which is itself a salubrious suburb of Dublin, and has strong local connections to James Joyce among others). Across two floors and three demonstration rooms, the company ostensibly specialises in good audio at the affordable and attainable levels. Its line-up of brands includes companies from Astell & Kern to VPI, with accent on a handful of lines not commonly seen in stores around the land (such as Synthesis electronics and Jean-Marie Reynaud loudspeakers – both of which the Listening Suite distributes – and Vela Audio out of the Audio Analogue stable). However, some of its most popular brands such as Moon by Simaudio, Dynaudio, Chord Company, Rega, and Wilson Benesch are almost ubiquitous. And, while the company isn’t afraid to build a high-end system, the systems they produce are nowhere near the stratospheric top end of audio. And yet, there’s something about the systems they put together…
It’s a company of two Managing Partners – David Browne (pictured above, right) and Jonathan Ford (left) – who between them have amassed almost 50 years of studio and live sound engineering under their respective belts. They have worked as recording engineers on some of the best albums of the time (including several ‘demonstration’ quality discs), and David even designed a universal microphone mount that has been adopted by the likes of David Gilmore and Sting.
With the profound change in the studio system in the first years of the 21st Century, David turned his attention full-time to audio, first becoming Avantgarde Acoustics International Sales Manager for Asia, before setting up The Listening Suite in 2014. Jonathan’s talents in the live venue are still called upon, and he specialises in mixing orchestral, traditional, and folk music. But this brings both a fundamental understanding of recorded sound, and the scope of both recording and replay, which is so often profoundly lacking in audio retail.
This also makes a significant change in the way audio is demonstrated and installed, reflecting in part decades behind the faders. David explains this change by standing across the room and talking, then moving very close to you and continuing the conversation. In the process, he ably demonstrates how – by having the loudspeakers in the far-field, the sound of the loudspeaker is profoundly altered by the acoustics of the room, but in the near-field, such room acoustics problems are largely avoided. The two Managing Partners both came to the realisation that when listening to a near-field presentation of music at a mixing desk, the listening position and loudspeaker placement were entirely different to those in the studio itself. As a consequence, a system demonstrated and installed by The Listening Suite generally features loudspeakers far wider apart than usual (almost touching the side walls), with minimal toe-in, and with the listener sitting far further into the room than usual.
Common convention in domestic audio has the loudspeakers at the bases of an acute equilateral triangle (with the loudspeakers somewhere between 2–2.5m apart) and the listener sitting on the apex about 4–5m from the midline between the loudspeakers. Those trained in room treatment might deploy the 38% rule, where the listener will sit 3.8m from the back wall with the loudspeakers along the opposite wall in a 10m long room. Those not so trained might just have a sofa along the rear wall and hope for the best.
A system set by The Listening Suite changes all that, with the loudspeakers at the base of a wider and obtuse equilateral triangle, again with the listener sitting at the apex. You might find the loudspeakers at least 3m apart, and the listener sitting perhaps just 1–2m from the midline between the speakers. Again deploying the 38% rule, the listener in a 10m long room might sit 6.2m from the rear wall. Toe-in is crucial here, but the amount of toe-in is tiny.
The installation involves a lot of critical listening to music that features a central singer, to ensure a well-controlled centre image. This can be adjusted slightly to include more than a single listening position, but is ideally optimised for one listener in a sweet spot. In such a setting, it’s easy to create a soundstage with a congested centre, or so diffuse that the image has a hole in the middle. Getting the balance right requires careful listening on site, very precise loudspeaker placement, and a system installation sympathetic to the concept. To this end, most of the electronics rest on an elaborate, custom-made cork isolation system of their own invention.
David and Jonathan assure me that the choice of loudspeaker is relatively immaterial in terms of dispersion characteristics, despite the fact the tweeters are focused on a point several metres behind your head. This argument is somewhat offset by The Listening Suite’s choices of loudspeakers (such as Dynaudio) that all have good dispersion properties. But having experimented at home on my own equipment it seems that they are probably right and even loudspeakers with tweeters that ‘beam’ perform well in such a set-up.
That being said, I don’t think this is a ‘try it at home’ option, because of the skills required in that fine-tuning of the sound. David and Jonathan have honed their craft over many, many years of working in the professional environment, and the critical listening skills gained over that time makes for a fairly significant short cut in the installation process. It’s why the ‘choice of music’ question becomes largely irrelevant, because after years of analysing mixes, you can apply that listening criteria to virtually any track. Having spent a wet weekend that passes for summer trying – and largely failing – to replicate The Listening Suite’s set-up procedure, it’s clear this is a job for the professionals!
In sum, The Listening Suite is more than just another suburban hi-fi store. It’s a sign that the phoney war between studio and audiophile is finally beginning to come to an end, but most importantly it’s two guys who are passionate about music offering a new way for music to sound good in the home. And it does sound good. We can all learn from this.
The Listening Suite
Address: 99 Terenure Road North, Terenure, Dublin, D6W W650, Ireland
Tel: +353 (01) 492 5392