Which ingredient most influences a hifi system’s sound quality? The instinct-driven first responder might first point to his loudspeakers. But no. For those who don’t think they all sound the same, amplification might get the nod. Nope. Source-firsters (aka flat-earthers) will probably opine that it’s the DAC and streamer or, in the analogue domain, the phono stage, turntable and cartridge that make the biggest differences. Again, close but no cigar.
A room’s size, including ceiling height, can colour more of what we hear from the listening position than the loudspeaker or its upstream electronics.
For an apartment, a two-way standmount might be a better acoustic fit than a multi-driver floorstander. Transplant that same standmount to a larger room and it will work a good deal harder than a floorstander in generating a sense of physical presence.
The loudspeaker must be matched to the room…and larger rooms open the door to more possibilities. We might be tempted to think therefore that bigger is better. Until we factor in the room’s material make-up.
Hard surfaces cause reflections. Reflections can wreak havoc with the listening experience. Keeping things simple atop this reviewer’s Berlin apartment shopping list were “carpeted floors”. Alas, the first hard truth to learn about Berlin apartments is that fitted carpets are rarely seen.
My temporary Airbnb rental is an enormous first floor apartment in an Altbau (‘old building’, pre-1949) in West Berlin’s Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district. The lounge room alone runs 10m x 6m. A 4.5m high ceiling adds to the sense of space. Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors open into a bedroom that adds another 6m to the long wall. The whole place is nicely decked out with vintage furniture. A dream home for many a Berliner.
But in every dream home, a heartache: this loudspeaker-loving audiophile could never live here.
Instead of a carpet we get a parquet floor – easy on the eye, tough on the ear – which, in tandem with high ceilings and minimal furnishings, transforms the space into an echo chamber. A generous helping of rugs would alleviate some floor-borne reflections, but not entirely.
It gets worse: in the guest book, a warning that playing the apartment’s B&W Zeppelin speaker too loud would disturb the neighbours above (“especially the bass”). Acoustically treating the ornately-patterned ceiling would be an aesthetic crime, not to mention wholly impractical.
Sonic disturbances are a two-way street. I hear each and every one of the upstairs’ neighbours footsteps. Especially at 4am. The folks below likely hear the same from me.
According to one new acquaintance: Berlin isn’t as laissez faire as its reputation might first suggest. Twenty years of gentrification apparently now puts the once nightclub-heavy Prenzlauerberg and its neighbourhood noise tolerance to bed at 8pm. Only screaming babies get a daytime pass. Hifi systems working on thin floors apparently do not. Not ever.
A paper-thin floored/walled Alt-bau is apparently fairly typical for Berlin. So says property expert Sabine Engelhardt of relocation agency Move to Berlin. Engelhardt has been charged with helping me find somewhere more permanent.
With a 4-week clock ticking down on the Airbnb rental, time to beat the Berlin streets with the most convivial Engelhardt in search of something better suited to an audiophile. But first, a couple of mis-steps as we find our feet.
The first stop is a very large studio in Charlottenburg. It’s bright and airy but the ‘his n hers’ bathrooms lend the place an awkward feel. The floor feels solid enough but neighbours above and below make it a risk to hope they work elsewhere during the day.
Next up, something from the leftfield: a former factory in Weissensee that is slowly being carved up into artist ‘spaces’. Photographer Stephanie Schneider has her studio here. On-site manager and professional cigarette smoker Herr Pettr walks us through several possibilities.
Catch number one: putting the dust in industrial, even the smaller spaces retain a warehouse vibe. Pettr’s places provide an indication of what’s possible when thinking outside the in-town apartment box but they are workplaces first, homes (a distant) second.
Catch number two: the option to play music as loud as one likes at almost all hours has infinite appeal but exten$ive room treatments would still be called for. There’s that heavy echo here.
Catch three: despite fitting a loft-like platform for a bed, Pettr would have to (officially at least) turn a blind eye to any tenant sleeping on site. A basic kitchen and bathroom would be installed upon receipt of deposit – but to what standard?
Catch four: Price. €900 for up to 80 square metres. €1400 for over 100 – the latter better suited to the kids from Fame than an SPL-pushing audiophile.
Time for Frau Engelhardt and I to sharpen this newcomer’s special needs.
A top floor apartment would slice the potential to disturb neighbours (and them me) in half. A fine idea but according to Engelhardt, top floor apartments come at a premium. I remain keen despite the additional cost.
Non-negotiable too would be a fitted kitchen. Many German apartments come without. Tenants must foot the bill of installing their own. If a kitchen is present, the outgoing and incoming tenants either cut a deal for ownership transfer (or it gets ripped out). Either way, this adds Euros in their thousands to the total cost of renting an apartment. I was after somewhere with a fitted kitchen but included in the monthly rental price. Another premium to swallow.
If I’m moving to Berlin, I want to live in Berlin, not on the inner-city’s periphery. Talk of tourist attractions like Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburger Tor might cause the average Berliner’s eyes to roll with over-familiarity. But not mine.
Next up, an “architecturally overhauled” top-floor maisonette in Prenzlauerberg. The neighbourhood (‘Kiez’) was beyond charming and remains the pick of all that I saw before or since.
Inside the apartment itself, a decent sized lower level with the typically creaky, cardboard-thin floor. If located on the level above, the loudspeakers would less likely disturb neighbours. An attractive, bannister-free staircase chimed with the minimalist fit-out but also cut a significant hole in the usable floor space above; insufficient width for proper loudspeaker spacing, even less for a couch in front. A second floor cut out on the opposite side of the staircase pushed the possibility of losing a standmount loudspeaker to the level below above zero. Yeah nah.
Staying in the East, a top floor, single storey apartment within spitting distance of Alexanderplatz offered narrow balcony views to the north from the bedroom and the south from the lounge room. The latter benefitted from non-parallel walls and high ceilings. A contender at last.
Then came news that competition for securing this place would be fierce and that a SCHUFA (local credit history report) was required for my application to succeed.
This administrative roadblock as well as an abundance of other interested parties quickly blunted my sharpening interest in an apartment in nearby Mitte. Just north of the river Spree, the views across rooftops from its wraparound balcony were stunning.
The rental scene here moves quickly and, according to Engelhardt, demand consistently outstrips supply. That means prices are heading north at a fair clip. Cast a beady eye upon anyone telling you that renting in Berlin is super cheap. It isn’t. This Alexanderplatz-proximate place is yours for €1450/month. Ditto the aforementioned Prenzlauerberg joint.
A ballpark figure of €1500 (‘warm’ – with heating and hot water included) was being asked for what would be the penultimate destination on Engelhardt’s viewing tour. Above the Mall of Berlin at Potsdamer Platz, rental apartments are being released in stages. The place being inspected by yours truly ticked the square meterage and room layout boxes. So too did the retail store below.
Bringing us back down to earth though was the outlook: a car park and a concrete block of a housing estate. Berlin winters are grey enough without adding to the bleakness. Having neighbours above moves us from the top floor ideal which itself poses the potential for neighbourly disharmony below.
How about a top floor maisonette in a Neubau (‘New building) where offices occupy the six floors below? Concrete floors? Check. Inside, a spiral staircase takes us upstairs to a landing that splits bathroom from bedroom. The room roles could easily be reversed in the unlikely event of noise complaints.
A balcony runs the length of each floor. Downstairs, the kitchen comes fully fitted and without additional hassles (or upfront costs). Location? One block from Gendarmenmarkt and the Deutsche Dome. At the end of the street, Friedrichstrasse. No SCHUFA required.
Engelhardt handling the transaction and paperwork, a DARHaus has been secured. Apparently, doing so in only three weeks is unusually fast. More info to follow once a basic furniture kit out goes in next week.
Further information: Move To Berlin