Why Acoustic Panels Aren’t Simply a “Magic” Solution
Russ Cooper | May 19, 2017
When you first notice something sounds “off” with the acoustics of a space, the natural reaction is to start looking for a quick fix. Although your initial Googling may suggest acoustic panels as a magical fix to your sound problem, the actual solution is a bit more complicated. With so many different causes of poor acoustics — and multiple types of panels to address them — it’s important to make sure you’re taking the proper steps to effectively tackle your unique sound issue.
First thing’s first: before you can proceed with a solution, you need to identify the problem. Since poor acoustics can be affected by numerous factors, it’s a good idea to bring in an expert acoustician to diagnose the problem. An acoustician can help you determine whether sound quality issues are due to sound that is too live, too dead, or too concentrated, then recommend the right type of acoustic panel to improve the listening experience.
To give you a better idea of the types of acoustic problems you may be facing and the acoustic panel that can solve it, here’s a breakdown of the three main types of acoustic panels:
If the acoustics in a room are too live, it will sound unpleasantly loud and reverberant. This may be perceived as echo or excessive ring. In this case, absorptive panels are needed to absorb some of the sound energy. Generally, absorptive acoustic panels are made out of thick, soft materials, such as foam or fiberglass.
If the sound is too focused and bright, diffusive panels can help by redistributing sound more evenly. The most important characteristics of a diffusive acoustic panel are shape and articulation, with different thicknesses and orientations used to evenly distribute the sound.
If certain areas of a space suffer from poor sound quality, you might be struggling with both “dead spots” — where the sound isn’t quite loud enough — and “hot spots” — where the sound is too loud. Since this issue is particularly difficult to diagnose, it’s especially important to enlist the help of an acoustician to use reflective panels to redirect the sound. Made out of hard, flat materials, reflective panels don’t cause any of the sound energy to be lost; instead, they point the sound in a specific direction.
If you’re struggling to understand how each of these panels improve sound quality, picture a cue ball bouncing off of a rail. With reflective panels, the direction in which the cue ball bounces would depend on the angle, but no energy is lost and the cue ball remains the same size. For absorptive panels, some of the energy is lost, so the cue ball would “shrink” when it bounces off the rail. Finally, the diffusive cue ball would gently explode into many pieces to spread out the energy, causing a small loss of energy within each reflection, but no overall energy loss for the space.
How to Avoid Common Acoustic Panel Mistakes
Since acoustic panels are a common solution to improve sound quality, many music department heads or administrators make the mistake of taking shortcuts and thinking any available acoustic panel will work. For example, we recently worked with a music department head who wanted to reuse expensive acoustic panels gifted from a donor. Unfortunately, these particular panels — while visually appealing — were only reflective, which didn’t solve the acoustic problems of the music hall.
That’s why putting a little more effort into the cost and planning of solving your acoustics problem upfront can help avoid errors and ensure you get the solution you need the first time. With the help of an acoustician, you can have your problem accurately diagnosed and the acoustic panel and placement for your particular space correctly determined — allowing you to start enjoying better sound quality sooner.