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UBS Arena's sensitive surfaces optimized for premium concert experience, rocking home-ice advantage

By Bret McCormick
While appearing to be normal wood work, the paneling across the top (Box 9) is part of the arena’s acoustic treatment.Javier Alvarez

Fiberglass material that makes concerts sound better and hockey crowds sound louder is camouflaged throughout UBS Arena.

WJHW Managing Principal and Chairman Jack Wrightson reckons his company, one of the top sports venue audio/visual design firms in the world, put a couple hundred thousand feet of the material on the building’s surfaces to absorb live music-ruining reverberation, while untreated surfaces ping crowd noise back into the seating bowl to give the New York Islanders a true home-ice advantage.

Oak View Group’s involvement in the New York Arena Partners development group, alongside Islanders owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky and Sterling Project Development, including former Mets owner Jeff Wilpon, is the clear source of the acoustic emphasis.

Every decision, from the number of suites to the material on the walls, was based on having the best sound available.Javier Alvarez

“Instead of just saying, ‘yeah, we want to do that, too,’ it was a priority for this owner[s],’” said Wrightson. “Other places, ‘yes we want it to be good for concerts, but the team comes first.’ And we’ve had a couple of projects like that that will remain unnamed, that we went back afterward and added acoustical treatments.”

Arena sound comes from three sources: the crowd, which is roughly 17,000 to 19,000 sound sources; the concert loudspeakers; and the house sound system. The different launch points of those sources — some from high in the building, some from low — create different acoustic reflections, invisible sound waves bouncing around, or being absorbed by, the building.

There are two acoustic phenomena that are critical to control, both of which can lead to undesirable echo effects: low frequency reverberation and reflection. To counter those effects during concerts, WJHW covered the building’s interior with acoustic treatment, including almost 80% of the roof and all vertical walls between the seating sections. At the back of the lower seating bowl, the perforated metallic paneling resembling a cheese grater is easily visible. In the UBS Club premium area, the acoustic treatment is colored to blend with the wood-finished surroundings.

The arena’s speakers sit about 60 feet off the event floor, and their sound hits the lower concourse and bounces back. So WJHW and Populous made that surface extra absorptive. And the arena’s seats were upholstered specifically for acoustic reasons; they’re not just plastic ballpark seats.

UBS Arena’s vertical surfaces that aren’t hit by concert sound were left untreated, which allows crowd noise, the sound that WJHW wants to reflect, especially during Islanders games, to bounce back into the bowl. UBS Arena has 3,000 more seats than the Isles’ old home, Nassau Coliseum, despite the buildings having the same roof height, so it’s more compressed, which is great for shows and crowd noise. And the building has only one row of suites, which traditionally are not kind to live music acoustics.

“We selectively treat these things,” said Wrightson. “Certain things we can’t do anything about.”

That includes the LED ribbons around the rink, which are reflective during concerts. But while concert music fades in the upper reaches of most arenas, it won’t at UBS Arena, thanks to an additional array of speakers covering the top third of the seating area, evidence of the extra expense New York Arena Partners committed to their building’s acoustics.

“It’s unusual to do it at the level that we’ve done it here,” said Wrightson. “Usually, the speakers for cost reasons aren’t robust or loud enough to keep up with the loudest concerts, and the ones at UBS certainly are.”

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