Greening up the ManCave

Adding plants to the listening room and why this is an ecologically sound practice

Is there anything ecological about adding plants to a room with a sound system? Aside from the fact that most plants are likely going to be green in color, plants also contribute to a creating a greener and healthier environment for people in the room. Now before you click away to another site, let me just say that there is good evidence for this. Personally, I’m not a believer in auras, telepathy, bending spoons with the mind, or the idea that a power cable will dramatically change the sound of an amplifier. The fact is, if I’m going to write about it, it better be verifiable and repeatable in a controlled setting.

The color green

Aside from being symbolic of the green movement, the color green has interesting properties on its own. Psychologist have shown that the color green has a calming effect on people. It is used in public spaces where this is important, is encouraged for the bedrooms of children with hyperactive children, and is also used in therapies (ref. All About the Color Green).

More importantly, green is recognized by the eye as balanced and centered. Because green is in the middle of the color spectrum, the green wavelength hits the eye in a way that requires very little adjustment. As a result, the mind recognizes green easily and interprets it to be centered and balanced (ref. Wikipedia: Green). This could be helpful when audiophiles are trying to evaluate two different pieces of equipment or different musical selections. Of course, for many people and many types of music, actively listening also requires a peaceful and balance setting.

Finally, green also symbolizes life & nature. At some level, perhaps only subconsciously, adding green to a sound room is a tacit acknowledgement that ecological issues matter. In rooms that are traditionally dark and typically painted or decorated in color schemes ranging from beige to pure black, adding a little green color suggests that there is more to this room than just the ordinary hum-drum sameness of all the other sound and home theater rooms seen in magazines and movies. I’ll even go out on a limb and suggests that it can add a modicum of still-acceptable life-giving/nurturing feminism to this otherwise dark and ominous place.

Plants help cool the room

Aside from the fact that the calming color serves to cool the room psychologically, plants can actually cool the room that a sound system is in. According to several recent research projects on the topic, such as the one done at Washington State University, “Plants cool by a process called transpiration, which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, decreases air temperature in offices by ten degrees” (see: Why Go Green?). This is quite significant for sound rooms since the equipment there, everything from home theater processors down to simple amplifiers typically raise the temperature in the room. If we also consider that people in the room also raise the temperature, plants almost become a necessity.

So did that work for me? I can’t really say. I’ve added several plants to the room now and still have not been able to measure a difference in temperature. Granted, I’m not doing extensive or carefully controlled testing of this. I’ve merely placed a thermometer in the room and have been keeping a record of the temperature, but I have not been able to establish a reliable baseline to rely on yet. Perhaps as I continue to do this will there be more data to draw on, but for now, my results have been inconclusive.

Plants clean the air in the room

This is already well known, but for audiophiles there are additional details to consider. Sound equipment has many parts made of synthetic materials, plastics and glues that off-gas when they reach a certain temperature. Some of these gasses can actually be toxic when equipment overheats. While ordinary sound equipment does typically go through some testing to ensure that toxic chemicals are not released under normal use, this is also where products from countries where this testing is not as rigorous, show their disadvantage. Can we really be certain that that beautiful preamplifier manufactured and assembled in a sweat shop in some poor country by overworked and abused workers is going to meet the higher standards of quality control? Likewise, is that rock-bottom-priced tubed CD player really designed to be listened to for hours on end in sunny Arizona all day? Can we really be sure that it doesn’t emit just a trace amount of chemicals that over the lifetime of the equipment could contribute to some illness?

Now plants aren’t going to prevent this process, but they can help a little. As a matter of fact, plants are designed to do just that. It is their function in the wild. NASA researchers found that some plants can actually “remove many of the more than 300 chemicals found in the air of a spacecraft” (ref: Manfred Kaiser). Certainly adding a plant or two to the room can help clear the air just a smidgen.

So does it work? Well, I can say that it has worked for me. My TV room always had a distinct burned iron smell – it was very minor but always noticeable. So I added two potted ficus trees and a large money plant to the mantle of the fireplace in the room and after just a few days, the smell was gone. Now I doubt the smell was toxic in any way, but it was certainly nice to get rid of it. Not to belabor the point, but one could think of other “smells” in that room that could probably be addressed with a strategically placed plant or two…

Plants clean the dust in the room

Now for anyone who has stereo equipment of any type, this should be reason number one to add plants. As we all know, hi fi equipment is like a magnet to dust. If the equipment is black, which most hi fi is, then this is easily seen after just a month or two of owning the equipment. Over my lifetime I have probably wiped a whole suitcase full of dust off of my equipment. Well, there is some good news here.

According to researchers at the University of Washington (same group of folks referenced above), plants can remove as much as 20% of the dust from a room (ref: Impact of Interior Plants). Now 20% may not seem like a lot, but that equates to 1/5 less dust to wipe off of equipment. If we also consider that most of that wiping just re-distributes the dust into the air, and that vacuum cleaners also release dust back into the air, then adding plants can certainly help. Speaking of vacuum cleaners, I use one with a pretty good filter, but the fact is that even the best HEPA filters will still blow the smaller particles back into the air of the room. This is OK for plants, since they can more easily remove smaller particles than bigger ones, so together, vacuuming and plants are likely to remove far more than just 20% of the dust in the room. Using air filters can help as well, although these will require more energy to run as well and they typically are noisy and need to be kept on a while to be effective.

So did my plants help remove the dust? Yes, I do believe so. I now vacuum less often (and not just because I’m lazier, lol). While it’s hard to prove this conclusively, it does seem to me that I need to vacuum the room less often and I also dust less. I have several smooth piano black and glass surfaces in the room and they seem to need less dusting now that the plants are there.

Plants help diffuse sound

Now why is this important? Well, we’ve all clapped our hands in an empty room and heard the echo. This is reflected sound and it arrives at our ears just slightly later than direct sound. When listening to music or speech, it makes the sound seem blurred and imprecise. Typically, most people turn up the volume, but that doesn’t really solve the underlying issue. What is needed is less reflective surfaces around the room. Audiophiles will typically hang special sound-absorbing panels at reflection points around the room, and good movie theaters use thick curtains for this, but these solutions can be expensive, unsightly and cumbersome.

Another way to reduce reflections is to use large small-leafed plants at those same reflection points and in corners of the room. This is especially true for panel speakers like electrostatic panels since they project sound from the whole surface of the panel against the side and rear walls. A well-placed ficus behind each speaker, as this person has done: (see: Paco's Living Room System), would certainly help tame those reflections.

Did it work for me? Yes, but I’m not certain if I like the change as much as I would have hoped. The Ficus I have behind my Magnepans do help diffuse the sound that is reflected onto the back wall and does improve the sound, but I can’t quite say that I like the new sound any better than the old. It now sounds crisper and more focused, but I kind of liked the softer sound I had before adding the plants. Perhaps I just need to get used to the new sound but I’m not sold on it yet. The difference is also minor in most cases.

So do plants help contribute to greening up one’s system?

Yes, a little. Combined, the benefits listed above do make a compelling reason to adopt a few green plants in the audio/TV room. They contribute color and life to the room, they help clean the air, and they help tailor the sound to one’s liking by diffusing some of the reflected sounds in the room. This in turn may also persuade someone who was about to purchase a new set of speakers or “better” equipment to try adding plants to the room instead. This in turn helps reduce electronic waste over the long term.