Music in the sauna need not be a yes or no proposition. Like at a spa or while deep into a massage, a little ambient auditory-ness may just be the thing to enhance your sauna experience. But what sauna sound system design should you go with? Those walk around blue tooth speakers are ok until the charge runs out. And what a buzz kill when your phone rings right in the middle of Kengo Tokusashi’s Music for Sauna Quiet Night. I’ve always been a big fan of hard wiring saunas for really good sound. And I’m pleased to introduce Michael, who is a professional sound engineer. Michael has curated installations for Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He has a keen sense and ear to “acousmatic sound” and we are grateful for his contributions to Saunatimes. Welcome Michael:
My favorite thing about a sauna is its simplicity.
I love how the straightforward act of heating up a small space has the potential to excite transformational experiences. It can also be an element of a routine—whether focused on relaxation, community, or some combination—that demands no explanation.
What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing.– C.S. Lewis. The Magician’s Nephew, 1955
Listening inside the sauna
A few weeks ago, Glenn let me try out his personal sauna. Standing there, I experienced so many small but significant sounds: evaporating water, a humming lightbulb, the crackling of burning wood, the low rumbling of heat. Even internal sounds like my own perspiration became more present as I stood there heating up. I was reminded how the organization of space, how it’s orientated and how the facilitation of sound in space—or lack thereof—can drastically influence our experience.
For a long time, humans have been designing concert halls and various structures in which to better appreciate the sound that travels through them. In the mid 1950’s, Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari, along with several others, began experimenting with a notion called acousmatic sound. The defining feature of acousmatic sound was that the source of the sound was hidden from the listener. In other words, this was sound that could really only be transmitted and played via a set of loudspeakers. Not seeing the source of a sound was a revolutionary idea when it was first conceived and is still a very relevant idea—one that influences our experience of a vast number of public and communal spaces.
Much of my work has been about discovery through amplification. I find great satisfaction and insight in amplifying a seemingly invisible object and bringing it into a perceivable range. It’s interesting to me the new perspective you find when amplifying latent qualities of everyday life. On YouTube, the trend of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, which highlight a broader human fascination with “quiet being loud”, illustrate there is a specific kind of power in the intangible, the tranquil, and the unseen.
considering sauna sound system design
Glenn asked me to come up with a simple sound system that can be used in a sauna environment. Diagram A shows this “sound installation” that can be easily assembled via the various parts I’ve selected, all of which are hyperlinked at the end of this article.
In 1974, Swedish designer Stig Carlsson introduced a speaker that could sit on the floor and disperse sound upward and into the room. This approach works well for a sauna context where it’s ideal to have speakers sitting on the floor. Speakers down low protect the electrical components from heat and humidity. Floor speakers also allow the sound to diffuse into the sauna more evenly, regardless of where you are in the room. Placing speakers on the walls or ceiling put them too close to actual “ear level” and actually detract from a nice sauna experience since most saunas are designed for people to sit about halfway between the floor and ceiling.
Why to include a subwoofer within your sauna sound system design
The box to the lower-left in the diagram is the subwoofer. Sharing an exterior wall with the sauna allows low frequencies from the subwoofer to be perceivable from both inside and outside the hot room. (This design is for a sauna that shares a wall with a changing room that has its own set of loudspeakers). The sound from the subwoofer acts as a source of low frequency content for both rooms. Low frequency sounds are less directional than high frequency sounds, meaning that the subwoofer does not have to directly face the listener. So, the subwoofer can be outside, while still being appreciated inside, and visa versa.
In diagram B (above) you can see that the subwoofer and the two speakers inside the sauna can be connected through a passive attenuator “T”. An attenuator is a small knob that can be mounted on a wall to control the volume of the sound inside the sauna. It’s completely optional. You can add the attenuator between the subwoofer and amplifier as shown in the diagram, or you can bypass it and connect the amplifier directly to the subwoofer if you don’t want the added control.
The amplifier I selected for this project has a Bluetooth antenna that you can use to adjust the level of sound. Having a physical knob is nice if you don’t want to bring your phone with you into the sauna (assuming you use your phone to control Bluetooth). I should also note that this installation is wired in series. In series, the total load impedance is distributed between the speakers, putting less stress on the amplifier and allowing for this specific configuration of loudspeakers to function properly.
Recommended sauna sound system design
- $236.00 Loudspeaker (2 sets @ $118.00). Gallo Acoustics.
- $129.95 Subwoofer. Polk PSW 10.
- $114.63 Amplifier. Pyle Pro.
- $ 63.99 Attenuator. Atlas IED.
- $ 13.49 Speaker Wire
- $558.06 TOTAL
Above are hyperlinks to the parts I selected for this project. I also really like these loudspeakers from Gallo Acoustics and this subwoofer. You can find them for sale here. The subwoofer from Gallo Acoustics works a little differently from the one I linked to from Polk Audio. It connects to the amplifier’s “bridge” port that’s designed specifically for subwoofers. In that case, the other loudspeakers connect through the amplifier and are not routed through the subwoofer like diagram B suggests.
There are many other possible approaches to this. I believe that the organization of a space and the objects and sounds inside it have the potential to facilitate seemingly transformative experiences. I hope these suggestions spark some helpful ideas. I’m excited to be a part of this community and look forward to being a part of more exciting collaborations still to come.