The Integration Guide to Architectural Speakers

February 2, 2017

This Integration Guide was sponsored by James Loudspeaker as a supplement to Residential Systems, February 2017

Minimalism, as a design concept, has continued to dominate the aesthetic choices of homeowners across the country. Everything from furniture to televisions have slimmed down to create larger interior spaces that highlight color and a few, key visual objects to define various rooms. This paring down, however, has not slackened the demand for more technology and entertainment devices.

The same engineers who design the award-winning KEF Muon, Blade, LS50, and Reference series are the ones who design the KEF Architectural range.

The minimalist aesthetic has exerted a heavy influence on not only the design of traditionally boxy consumer electronics, but on their integration into living spaces, as well. This is particularly evident in the popular custom integration category of architectural speakers, which has improved from just simply hiding away speakers into real innovation in bezel designs, sound quality, and integration modifications that make the process of installing architectural speakers less taxing on walls, the integrator, and the client.

“The availability of music delivery systems for all aspects of life, especially mobile devices, leads to a need for a variety of choices in home speakers that can be deployed in all types of situations, within and outside the residence, to ensure a quality music experience everywhere,” said Dennis Fink, technology manager for Crestron. “The acceptance of in-wall and in-ceiling residential speakers, and advances in magnetics and speaker components, guides our design approach to create products that rival the quality of freestanding products.”

Matt Shute, director of product for SnapAV’s Episode line of speakers, also underscored a key development in the category, when he noted that the variety of audio applications the consumer has and their sound quality expectations.

“From multiroom audio to lifelike surround sound, there are tons of use cases, and that has pushed companies like SnapAV to develop tailored solutions to fit those needs,” Shute said. “There is also the continued innovation in immersive audio being developed through products like Atmos and DTS:X, which require continued innovation to deliver the performance and features needed to keep pace with the ever-increasing demands of home theater.”

SIGHT AND SOUND

Bezels and sound quality are two factors that have driven innovation in the architectural loudspeaker category. The goal for most manufacturers is to match, as close as possible, the rich output of floorstanding and bookshelf speakers.

Crestron’s top-of-the-line in-wall options are its Essence In-Ceiling and In-Wall speakers, along with companion in-wall subwoofers and LCR speakers.

“Crestron’s top-of-the-line options in the category are its Essence In-Ceiling and In-Wall speakers, along with companion in-wall subwoofers and LCR speakers,” Fink said. “Zero-bezel grills provide an attractive and unobtrusive design aesthetic for those products, while the company’s dog-toggle mounting system helps simplify installation.

“In our Essence product line, the use of high-quality components, from cast aluminum frames, to Kevlar cones, and high-order passive crossovers results in a superior-sounding product. We continue to design and evaluate transducer technology and EQ/processing interactions. We offer listening demonstrations in our various showrooms throughout the world so a customer can not only hear the quality, but also see the product as it would be installed.”

SnapAV’s Episode Signature line, which includes the 1300, 1500, and 1700 series, offers patented quick-set tension dogs for easier installation, and improved sound quality and price point. Shute outlined the clarity and response of the 1300 series, which he said is best suited for multiroom audio and the 1700 series, which he said offers great sound quality and ease of installation at compelling price points.

“For us, the most critical aspect of the sound design is not to compromise on the quality of the materials, like pure titanium tweeters and honeycomb fiberglass cones with ribbed surrounds,” Shute said. “This prevents distortion and allows for true sound transmission to create a more realistic sound experience. Secondly, everyone’s ear is different, and offering the ability to customize the sound field with compensation switches and directionally adjustable tweeters ensures the best possible sound for each end user’s taste.”

The Director Collection from Origin Acoustics promises to deliver the same audiophile listening experience that box speakers provide, with larger woofers that fit into the same form factor of traditional in-ceiling speakers. The company recently partnered with Bang & Olufsen.

The niche for James Loudspeaker, according to chief marketing officer Ted Telesky, has been to “engineer architectural solutions that maintain the superlative sonic performance of our entire lineup while nearly disappearing into the décor.” This quintessential demand of its architectural speakers has made the James’ Small Aperture (SA) line and its PowerPipe subwoofers popular with integrators, who are drawn to their “invisible” form factor—including grilles to match light fixtures and a subwoofer that can be integrated into the ceiling, furniture, or wall—as well as the customized design service that the company offers.

Telesky said that the performance of architectural loudspeakers suffered initially because the demand for hidden speakers drove some manufacturers to produce products that looked the part but were not supported by sound engineering principles. “It has been the mission of James Loudspeaker to deliver musically accurate solutions that fill a room with beautiful music from a disappearing form factor. Our Small Aperture models provide wide bandwidth (38Hz–20kHz) from a single aluminum enclosure, using coincident drivers in a three-way design for spectacular in-room dispersion—this is an engineering feat matched by no other architectural speaker on the market. The best way to demonstrate this to the user—and call me old fashioned here—is to play them! Nothing beats a real-world demonstration of superb sound, especially when the visual footprint in the room is so miniscule.”

Benefiting from a large research and development team based in the U.K., KEF’s David Kroll, who heads up the company’s CI product team and is its VP in the U.S., gives his colleagues all praise for coming up with a patented speaker driver that is only 27mm deep, allowing for the creation of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers that require only 36mm of mounting depth.

The KEF Architectural range, in a minimalist home setting.

“The same engineers who design the award-winning KEF Muon, Blade, LS50, and Reference series are the ones who design the KEF Architectural range,” Kroll noted. “The performance of these well-respected speakers is the target for all of our CI models. Because we are a Tier-1 manufacturer, and build our raw drivers from scratch, we are able to customize the design of the driver in each and every KEF speaker to achieve optimum performance. Inherently, our Uni-Q technology delivers off-axis response not possible from conventional speaker designs. As we develop new complementary technologies, such as the Tangerine Waveguide and Z-Flex Surround, we incorporate them into our CI line as constant-running improvement.”

The Director Collection from Origin Acoustics promises to deliver the same audiophile listening experience that box speakers provide, with larger woofers that fit into the same form factor of traditional in-ceiling speakers. Taylor Nichols, director of marketing for Origin Acoustics, said that room correction and DSP are pushing advancements in architectural speakers that can rival the best-sounding box speakers. He also pointed to the company’s new line of DSP Environment Correction amplifiers that allow integrators to fine-tune the performance of the speaker line.

“Our flagship Director Collection has been a true hit with the integration community,” Nichols said. “We’re proud to offer our installing partners the fastest and easiest means for mounting in-ceiling speakers. As a byproduct of the tool-less design, integrators can offer models at any price point in a single cutout. This has been a huge success in the new-home market, where integrators can install a pre-wire package with blank speaker grilles in the ceiling and easily fill the hole with over 17 different models at any time. It adds a whole new level of flexibility that never existed until now.”

SpeakerCraft is renowned for its AIM line of architectural speakers, now in its AIM Series 2 iteration, which offers steerable woofer and tweeter arrays to direct sound to the desired listening area. The company recently introduced Acoustic Isolation Technology to its brand, which are co-molded materials that isolate speaker vibrations from the ceiling or wall materials.

“Sound is subjective, and every manufacturer will say ‘our speakers sound the best,’” said Mike Jordan, vice president of product management for SpeakerCraft parent company Core Brands. “We look at specific attributes that create consistent timbre and performance quality across each speaker family. The tweeter array I mentioned for SpeakerCraft’s AIM Series 2 makes for what we think is the most controlled audio experience available from an architectural speaker. Not only does the sound direct more precisely, but the increased surface area from the multiple tweeters and our asymmetrical crossover give extra midrange performance—it’s a three-way experience from a two-way speaker. Visually, it’s stunning, and is something end users can see as a clear differentiation. That visual, of course, helps with the literature; in a showroom setting it’s easy to hear the difference.”

For flush-mounting solutions, Harman’s JBL Synthesis SCL architectural speakers offer professional-grade compression driver technology as well as patented High-Definition Imaging waveguides to stand out in the category, according to Jim Garrett, director of marketing and product management for Harman Luxury Audio. Those HDI waveguides, he explained, virtually eliminate any “bad seats” in the house.

“This gives the system designer flexibility in dealing with the realities of less-than-ideal loudspeaker placement within the room,” Garrett said. “Indeed, we are just now introducing our highest performance SCL model to date—the SCL-2—as part of the 2017 ISE show in Amsterdam. The patented HDI waveguides found in the JBL SCL models deliver remarkably consistent power response with the off-axis performance nearly identical to that of the on-axis. A great demo for this is to stand between the loudspeaker and the listener while they have their eyes closed and they won’t even be able to tell that you are there!”

The tweeter array for SpeakerCraft’s AIM Series 2 makes for a more controlled audio experience from an architectural speaker. MartinLogan goes to great lengths to design and manufacture architectural speakers with performance approaching that of its floorstanding electrostatic speakers.

According to Devin Zell, MartinLogan’s marketing manager, the company’s integrators have shown a fondness for both its Stealth and Installer Series lines of speakers. The latter represents MartinLogan’s affordable high-performance solution that is visually unobtrusive while relying on traditional driver technology and solid acoustic voicing, as Zell explained, while the former incorporates powerful, accurate woofers and mid-range drivers that deliver audiophile quality with the company’s Folded Motion ZT thin-film tweeter technology. Both feature special mounting locks that latch firmly to the back of the wall surface, holding the lock in place until they are deployed, and allows the locks to retract out of the way should the speaker need to be removed.

“The most distinctive selling point for MartinLogan speakers is the acoustic performance,” Zell said. “MartinLogan goes to great lengths to design and manufacture architectural speakers with performance approaching that of our legendary floorstanding electrostatic speakers—richly detailed and with three-dimensionally etched soundstage capabilities, revealing the truth hidden inside of every recording. The same dedication to high levels of acoustic performance will carry into future generations of architectural speakers just as it does in all audio products we design.”

IOT, DSP, AND OTHER ACRONYMS

Architectural speakers have long been discussed in the same breath as interior and home design, but the current conversation has swiveled the significance of this category toward growth in the home theater segment. With consumers recognizing, embracing and enjoying immersive audio technologies such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro 3D, among others, architectural speakers are finding renewed purpose beyond discreet audio delivery.

This functionality extends to the growing power of digital signal processor (DSP) platforms, as many of our contributors have noted in their comments, including James’ Telesky, who added that “the application of DSP, using the power of small computing platforms to enhance performance for any acoustic environment, is likely to play a larger role in the future of high-performance distributed audio.”

It is also nearly impossible these days to discuss any aspect of residential systems integration without touching on the significance of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is growing at breakneck speed thanks to huge investments from household names like Amazon, Google, and GE. As the connected home begins to gain a stronger foothold in the lexicon of consumers, there is no escaping its influence on how we will integrate audio systems, namely in how we control and deliver music to them.

“It’s no secret that the trend is moving rapidly toward the fully connected home,” Shute said. “Giants such as Google and Amazon are leading the way with products like Alexa and Google Home, making the once-futuristic dream of being able to verbally interact and control many parts of your home technology a reality. This will continue to drive the need for innovation to create a line of integrated products that offer support. Streaming audio will become the norm, driving the availability of open-source platforms that will need to play well with other devices. This, along with the increasing network speeds being supported, will allow for wider distribution of lossless, non-compressed audio. In turn, this will also increase the demands on speaker performance as the end consumer’s bar for sound quality reaches new heights.”

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems.

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