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Acoustic absorption refers to the process by which a material, structure, or object takes in sound energy when sound waves are encountered, as opposed to reflecting the energy. Part of the absorbed energy is transformed into heat and part is transmitted through the absorbing body. The energy transformed into heat is said to have been ‘lost’.
When sound from a loudspeaker collides with the walls of a room part of the sound’s energy is reflected, part is transmitted, and part is absorbed into the walls. Just as the acoustic energy was transmitted through the air as pressure differentials (or deformations), the acoustic energy travels through the material which makes up the wall in the same manner. Deformation causes mechanical losses via conversion of part of the sound energy into heat, resulting in acoustic attenuation, mostly due to the wall’s viscosity. Similar attenuation mechanisms apply for the air and any other medium through which sound travels.
The fraction of sound absorbed is governed by the acoustic impedances of both media and is a function of frequency and the incident angle. Size and shape can influence the sound wave’s behavior if they interact with its wavelength, giving rise to wave phenomena such as standing waves and diffraction.
Acoustic absorption is of particular interest in soundproofing. Soundproofing aims to absorb as much sound energy (often in particular frequencies) as possible converting it into heat or transmitting it away from a certain location.
In general, soft, pliable, or porous materials (like cloths) serve as good acoustic insulators – absorbing most sound, whereas dense, hard, impenetrable materials (such as metals) reflect most.
How well a room absorbs sound is quantified by the effective absorption area of the walls, also named total absorption area. This is calculated using its dimensions and the absorption coefficients of the walls. The total absorption is expressed in Sabins and is useful in, for instance, determining the reverberation time of auditoria. Absorption coefficients can be measured using a reverberation room, which is the opposite of an anechoic chamber