By Lawrence Rogers
Listen. If you haven’t been in the Thomas Carlson Listening Room of the William Ralston Listening Library, you don’t get it. Two behemoth Alexandria II speakers from Wilson Audio Specialties—605 pounds and just over six feet tall each—stand against the back wall, delivering the highest sound quality available on recorded media. How much better than my standard-issue Apple headphones can these speakers be? you might be thinking. You have no idea.
Said to be “unique in the United States and perhaps the world” by John Marks, classical-music producer and advisor to the listening library, the room is designed from floor to ceiling with no goal in mind other than to deliver the consummate recorded-music listening experience. According to every professional review of the room as yet published, it achieves this goal with resounding success.
In order to make the sound more even across the room, the walls and ceiling are made of poured concrete, filled with fiberglass and covered in acoustic cloth. The walls and ceilings also feature Paulownia-hardwood acoustical diffusion panels, as beautifully detailed as they are practical. The angled shelves that hold the LPs, despite their ornate styling and seemingly decorative nature, serve primarily to further diffuse the sound, so that the room can reproduce the quality of live music without distortion or strain. Without the detailed acoustical engineering work of Chris Huston of Rives Audio and the architectural work of Albert Filoni, the full power of the Alexandria II speakers would be lost on listeners.
Even silence in the expertly soundproofed listening room is more beautiful, more complete than silence just about anywhere else, as absolute as the darkness in the belly of Lower Solomon’s Temple. Music in the Ralston room meets—and sometimes exceeds—concert-quality sound. The intimacy of the setting approaches that of a private concert, and hearing vinyl or uncompressed digital files through the library’s speakers makes digital audio compression seem sinful.
Students, faculty, staff, townies, and even out-of-townies are invited to schedule private listening sessions at no cost to themselves. It was a group of these lattermost for which the doors to the listening room were opened Sunday, March 12, and I found myself imposing upon an eightieth birthday party as I tried to experience high-end recorded music for the first time.
Requests poured in faster than curator Ben Sadler (C’17) knew what to do with. Cries for John Hiatt’s “Lipstick Sunset,” Jennifer Warnes’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and the Dylan-Cash collaboration on “Girl from the North Country” pierced through Mahler’s Fourth, peppered by requests from the birthday boy to “turn it up a little.” “Who sung that last one?” chimed one of the guests. “Eva Cassidy,” retorted another, “who’s dead.” Yes, these octogenarians knew how to party.
The William Ralston Listening Library is generally open Monday-Thursday 3-9pm, Friday 3-7pm, and Sunday 2-5pm. Go. Then you’ll get it, too.