Room Breakup

Published On: January 28, 2022Tags: , , ,

Room Breakup: the Audiophile’s Curse

You care deeply about sound quality and the joy it brings. You’ve gone to great lengths to optimize all the components in your playback system, and hopefully even addressed any airborne acoustic problems. But there still may be one thing holding back your room’s ultimate performance: Room breakup.

This week ASC President and TubeTrap Inventor, Art Noxon, PE shares his extensive knowledge on the subject.

Nothing, not even audio, is perfect all of the time.

But most of the time, the audio system seems to behave just fine. Still, if you crank the volume up just one notch too high, in most systems, something changes and the system no longer sounds musical. What you are hearing is not cone breakup but room breakup. Yes, rooms too can be overdriven and more easily than we might suspect. This is all about Room Breakup, the audiophile’s curse.

There are limits, even in audio

The world of digital audio seems nearly perfect. Waveform replication is fantastic. The standard CD provides a 44k sampling rate which traces waveforms beyond the range of hearing and 16 bid audio depth which provides 96 dB of dynamic range. Just because we can apply some wonderful signal to the sound system doesn’t mean we will hear it while seated in the listening room.

Room breakup, cone breakup image. diagram of speakers with high tonal displacement

Every loudspeaker driver has some upper limit to how loud it can be played without the cone breaking up, vibrating in a way that is not part of the music signal. Cone wobble, diaphragm flexing or over-excursions begin to be heard. Every amp has an upper limit, above which some distortion, non-linear behavior, usually clipping, begins to be heard. Every power supply has an upper limit in its ability to deliver power, above which fade-outs can be heard. Even power cords provide distortion during heavy power surges due to electromagnetic coupling effects and wire heating.

It should come as no surprise that the surfaces that comprise the audio playback room also have an upper limit, above which sonic distortion begins to be heard.


In the electronic chain, distortion effects generally begin to become apparent at sound levels above 95 to 105 dB(A). However, in the playback room, distortions begin to be heard at much lower sound levels, in the range of 75 to 85 dB(A). Above this level, rooms no longer stand still, they begin to break up. Doors resonate, windows twang, lampshades ring, walls shudder, floors shake and ceilings thunder.

Room breakup. illustration of soundwaves emitted from a speaker in a hifi room

In high-performance audio rooms, one of the performance standards by which a room is known and judged is to determine how loud the room can be played before it begins to break up. Generally, this will be in the range of 75 to 85 dB(A). The audiophile has learned through careful listening, that if the sound level is kept at a “reasonable” level in a room, the whole sound system behaves quite nicely, except that it might get a little too quiet at times. Even the audiophile can’t resist temptation forever and eventually experiments with turning the volume up. To some degree, the louder the volume, the more dynamic range becomes available to the music.

But as with all good things, where a little is very good, a little too much begins to not be so good. In every room there is some sound level, and it varies from room to room, where something new begins to happen in the room and music no longer sounds clean and clear. The audiophile is a purist at heart and is not really interested in sullying the listening experience with distortion of any sort—and so they just turn the volume down.

How to fix Room Breakup?

Room breakup, Room Breakup: the Audiophile’s Curse. cross section illustration of an isowall


…Continue reading the rest of Art’s article and be sure to check out ASC’s selection of world-class acoustic treatments.

Room Breakup: the Audiophile’s Curse

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