The Ralston Listening Library – An Expert Appraisal

February 20, 2012

Over the past three years, classical-music record producer John Marks has served as an advisor to the William Ralston Listening Library, the new state-of-the-art music-listening complex in duPont Library. Marks is a senior contributing editor and columnist for Stereophile magazine, audio editor of Listen magazine, and a contributor to Early Music America. Sewanee magazine asked Marks to share his impressions of the primary listening room.

To my knowledge, the Ralston Listening Library is unique in the United States and perhaps the world. I know of no other facility, public or private, that enjoys its combination of: a room designed and built from the bare walls for the sole purpose of recorded-music playback but which nonetheless is an elegant, relaxing, and congenial place in which to attend lectures and demonstrations; that has such a level of sophistication and capability in sound equipment, especially loudspeakers and amplification; and most of all, which houses recorded-music archives of such depth and connoisseurship.

Certainly, there are other facilities that contain audio equipment of this level of sophistication. However, most of them are private rooms wherein mastering engineers make the final adjustments to music recordings before they are commercially released. Such rooms are usually designed to sound best at only one listening position — the chief engineer’s. But for a room designed for 15 or more listeners, the sound must be as uniform as possible. A paramount acoustical design goal for the Ralston Room therefore has always been “Not a bad seat in the house.” That goal has been achieved.

The sound throughout the room, front to back and side to side, is remarkably and unusually even. Much of the credit for this goes to the bass-trapping scheme designed by Chris Huston of the consulting firm Rives Audio, which cleverly uses the space above the cloth-scrim ceiling to hide acoustical absorbers. Such treatment is necessary because the room itself is bounded by structural concrete and therefore is not “lossy” the way a conventional home listening room is, and further because the room has been carefully sealed off from the rest of the library to minimize sound transmission into quiet areas.

Another major factor contributing to there not being a bad seat in the house is the emplacement of hardwood acoustical diffusion panels throughout the room, primarily in the corners behind the loudspeakers and surrounding the light fixtures in the ceiling. These complex devices are made from Paulownia hardwood, a wood often used for musical instruments. Each two- by two-foot panel is divided into 64 cells of varying depths, which serve to redirect sounds in a more complex way than a flat surface can, thereby imitating the function of architectural ornamentation in a traditional concert hall. This creates a listening experience that is at once more intimate and more enveloping.

It is the room’s complex combination of acoustical absorption, reflection, and diffusion that lets you hear the equipment at its best — or not. A haphazardly designed room has been the downfall of many an expensive stereo system — and that, decisively, is not the case here.

The equipment in the Ralston Room is world-class. The loudspeakers are Alexandria IIs, the flagship model from Wilson Audio Specialties of Provo, Utah. Wilson Alexandria loudspeakers are generally recognized as among the world’s finest. These impressive works of engineering art measure 73 inches tall and weigh 605 pounds each. Their frequency response extends from below the lowest pedal note on most pipe organs to above the range of human hearing (19.5 Hz–22.5 kHz).

The value of such imposing loudspeakers is not merely their ability to play loudly. Quite the contrary. Rather, the point is to reproduce the full impact of concert music without strain or distortion, or having to turn the volume up to unnaturally high levels. With less-capable systems, people tend to listen too loudly in an effort to make up for the lack of realistic bass and dynamics. Not in the Ralston Listening Room. Bass and dynamics are superbly unfettered. When Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio Specialties put on a recording of some electric blues and cranked it up, I measured a clean, undistorted 95 decibels from more than 20 feet away. It was by no means overbearingly loud — just exciting. And fun.

The purpose of the Ralston Listening Room is to provide students the life-changing experience of a vibrant encounter with the glories of Western musical culture. Between the magnificent room, its state-of-the-art equipment, and its unique collection of recorded music, books, scores, and memorabilia, I know of no finer facility.

— John Marks


Reference Sound System

Analog Sources: Ayre/Bauer DPS; VPI Classic 2, Koetsu Coralstone, Miyajima Shilabe and Mono BE; Ayre P-5xe
Digital Sources: Ayre DX-5; MacBook Pro; Weiss INT202; Bricasti M1, Sony XA-5400ES
Preamplifier: Ayre KX-R
Power Amplifiers: Ayre MX-R
Loudspeakers: Wilson Alexandria XLF
Cables: Ayre Signature Series; Cardas Clear
Accessories: Grand Prix Audio Silverstone isolation system; EquiTech 10WQ balanced power system; Ayre L-5xe power conditioners