There’s no objective way to determine the best acoustics for concert halls, though most people agree on the basics.
Sydney Opera House? Awful. New York’s Avery Fisher Hall? Mediocre. Vienna’s Musikverein and Boston’s Symphony Hall? Divine.
Acoustic consultants now playing a central role in any new concert venue design.
"With the objective criteria of today, one can safely plan for a hall that would be somewhere on the scale from good to excellent," says Magne Skålevik, a senior acoustical consultant at Brekke & Strand Akustikk. "Another way of putting it is, we are able to explain 70-80% of the average listener's preference by the physical and acoustical properties of the hall."
For now, the only effective way to rank concert halls acoustics is subjective. Acoustics legend Leo L. Beranek, 102, has published several rankings of concert halls based on interviews conducted around the world. Earlier this year, he published an updated list that took into account ratings from a survey by Skålevik.
One notable trend is that the highest-rated concert halls were built before 1901. Beranek attributes their high scores in part to rectangular, or shoebox, shapes and lightly upholstered seats. Many newer halls, meanwhile, sacrifice sound quality for visual design, size, and comfort.
"Architects are reluctant to design shoebox shapes because they show no originality," Beranek says. "So the new designs are like the recently opened Philharmonie de Paris. There are some excellent seats, but because the audience is seated everywhere, front, behind, to the sides and above the stage, the acoustics sound different everywhere and in some places are unsatisfactory to me."
Here are the highest-ranking concert halls on Beranek's list.
#1 Musikverein, Vienna, Austria
Musikverein is a shoebox hall with 1,744 seats. It opened in 1870.
"This certainly is the finest hall in the world," world-famous conductor Bruno Walter said. "It has beauty and power. I had not realized that music could be that beautiful."
Beranek explains in "Concert Halls and Opera Houses" that "the superior acoustics of the hall are due to its rectangular shape, its relatively small size, its high ceiling with resulting long reverberation time, the irregular interior surfaces, and the plaster interior."
#2 Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
Symphony Hall is a shoebox hall with 2,625 seats. Designed by McKim, Mead and White, it opened in 1900.
Harvard Professor Wallace Clement Sabine helped plan the hall, introducing new techniques to measure and increase reverberation time.
"Even the first time that I conducted there, I was struck by its acoustics," Bruno Walter said about the hall. "It is the most noble of American concert halls."
#3 Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Concertgebouw is a shoebox hall with 1,974 seats. It opened in 1888.
Writes Tom Service for the Guardian: "I’ve never heard a performance in which the colors of textures of Debussy's marine onomatopoeia sounded so thrilling, in which the mere sound of a gong or a celesta was transfigured into musical poetry simply by being played in that space by those musicians."
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