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Loudspeaker Manufacturers Keep Interior Designers in Mind

By Llanor Alleyne February 4,2013

This Integration Guide to Loudspeakers was sponsored by Crestron, James Loudspeaker, Niles, Proficient, and Speakercraft as a supplement to Residential Systems, February 2013.
Over the years interior designers have come to be not so silent partners to custom integrators working on high-end home system installations. In fact, interior designers have been rather vocal in their objections to the visibility of anything resembling an electronic black box in their home designs, exerting considerable influence on the industrial design of products CI manufacturers and integrators have come to rely on to produce optimal sonic and visual experiences in finely outfitted homes.


Crestron’s Aspire 5.25-inch 2-Way In-Wall Speakers.

PSB’s David Farrage-designed Imagine series feature “a very small footprint and beautifully curved surfaces.”

The consequence of this meeting of the electronic with the decorative has produced a specific kind of designer-friendly speaker that has significantly grown in popularity as aesthetic tastes continue to move toward discreet consumer product placement in the home. While it’s true that these speakers have often come under fire for being less sonically dynamic than their boxy, displayed counterparts, the fact is consumers find them visually more appealing and are willing to sacrifice some sound quality to avoid having to see the speaker among their carefully plotted architectural and decorative designs.

“Interior designers have a fairly significant impact to our architectural speaker designs partially due to the higher end installations to which we find our products attached,” said Jim Garrett, director of marketing and product management for Harman Luxury Audio Group and Loudspeakers, of which JBL and Revel are product lines. “They don’t want to ‘see’ anything from our speakers either."

The finished look of the installation is critical and the low-voltage systems need to be as invisible as possible. A very high percentage of the products end up in ceiling locations, so as to be naturally less visible. And, any way you can minimize the finished look of the grille is highly desirable.”

Giving Designers What They Want
As much as the visual impact of speakers has become a larger consideration for manufacturers, sound quality is still a primary concern. What is the point of having a speaker, hidden or otherwise, that is incapable of beautifully delivering sound? CI pros, as a rule, are obsessed with the best sound. It is then not insignificant that they, manufacturers and integrators alike, are often quick to acknowledge that while designer-friendly speakers, by their smaller nature, are not going to deliver the same incredible sonic experience of big box speakers, they are a product category for which improving sound quality is still a priority.

“We simply have had to engineer better ways to push exceptional sound (not loudness) out of a smaller footprint,” said Don J. Huffman, marketing and communication director for James Loudspeakers. “With higher performance designed to accommodate changes in style, we feel the customers will ultimately benefit the most.”

Wisdom’s Insight models’ bezel-less grille design has been such a hit with Wisdom Audio’s integration partners that the company has modified its earlier in-wall Sage Series with the new design.

At James, the ability to offer multiple architectural solutions has been coupled with the question, “Where do you want the sound?” According to Huffman, that question has produced the company’s 63SA (Small Aperture) series that offers designers James’ smallest external footprint as well as the ability to integrate the speakers into virtually any kind of surface material, including wood, drywall, and stucco. The series also features a flexible portfolio that can be matched to lighting fixtures, colors, and style.

To underscore Crestron’s recently launched Interior Design Partner program, which the company’s director of residential vertical markets, Ami Wright said was to “increase communication and create mutually rewarding business relationships for the design community,” Crestron has expanded its line of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.

“We have invested a lot of time designing technology that maintains the integrity of a room’s design yet delivers premium performance along with flexibility,” Wright said. “Our Aspire and Essence speakers are perfect examples of this. With our paintable zero-bezel design, they simply disappear into the space. Technology is supposed to make your life better and simpler, not more complicated and cluttered.”

Just as fanatical about clutter-less paces is Sonance, whose “degrees of invisibility” tagline, as noted by Simon Wehr, director of marketing for parent company, Dana Innovations, signifies the company’s decades long commitment to working with designers and never putting “ugly cabinets into any project.” In a product range that moves from its Original Series to the most recent Invisible Series of speakers, Wehr shined a spotlight on the Visual Performance Series, which he said was the first to speaker to use a microtrim bezel–a one-piece removable grille that includes the bezel.
Niles Audio’s flush-mount CM ceiling mount loudspeakers feature magnetically attached grilles and are paintable, which allows for décor blending.

“Our design allows for a single-step painting process to match the wall or ceiling color and also ensures that the grille goes back into place correctly once painted,” Wehr explained. “Removable mesh means that the bezel stays on the speaker and ends up being painted by a roller or brush along with the wall or ceiling. This process can cause the grille slot to fill with paint, preventing the grille from sitting properly when replaced and making it sit proud of the bezel. It also increases the chances of a color miss-match between the grille and bezel.”

With the intention of never calling attention to themselves while maintaining sonic accuracy, PSB’s David Farrage-designed Imagine series feature “a very small footprint and beautifully curved surfaces,” as noted by Greg Stidsen, director of technology and product planning for parent company, Lenbrook International. “There are no fasteners visible anywhere, even with the grilles removed, giving the speakers a sophisticated sculptural presence,” said Stidsen, who also highlighted PSB’s new CustomSound W-CLR and W-CLR 2 in-wall speakers that feature frameless grilles with magnetic attachment and that also utilizes similar drive units as the Imagine in-room speakers, “allowing mix-and-match sonic flexibility.”

Reducing the visibility footprint has also been a factor in Harman’s revamped Revel Architectural speaker range, which Garrett explained now features zero-bezel magnetically attached grilles. “Eliminating the traditional frame elements of the finished grille greatly reduces the visibility of the installed speaker and the magnetic attachment simplifies installation,” Garrett said. “Plus, almost all of our in-ceiling models include both round and square grilles to fit a variety of décor.”

Bezel-less design is also an important feature of Wisdom Audio’s Insight Series of in-wall speakers, which company president, Mark Glazier pointed out, “feature uncommonly narrow profiles, as well as bezel-less grilles just 2mm in depth, resulting in an elegant and minimalist appearance.” In fact, the Insight models’ bezel-less grille design has been such a hit with Wisdom Audio’s integration partners that company has modified its earlier in-wall Sage Series with the new design.

Interior designers and integrators were the driving force behind Atlantic Technology’s (AT) new TLC (Trim Looking Ceiling) speakers, designed to outperform the company’s earlier in-ceiling products while maintaining comparable price points.

“Unlike many other speaker manufacturers, we didn’t add an additional line of in ceiling speakers with bezel-less magnetic grilles at a much higher price point,” noted Lawrence R Davis III, VP of sales and marketing for AT. “We maintained our current price points, improved the speakers overall performance, and added the designer-friendly bezel-less grilles and square grille option.”

Flange-less speakers with miro-perf grilles has been the focus of Golden Ear’s development of its architectural speakers, including the latest Invisa series.

Phase Technology’s Ken Hecht, VP of R&D for parent company MSE Audio, said the company’s product evolution has underscored the company’s mission to subdue the appearance of speakers in keeping with interior design demands. “We introduced Microflange designs into all our series of products from our least expensive CS-6R/Micro to our best performing CI series,” he noted. “Secondly, we introduced the HS series of hanging speakers. They range from very small unobtrusive designs to larger high performing models. These speakers look like designer hanging lights and can be painted to match any color. Lastly, for high-end home theater applications, we have our dARTS system. These speakers can be hidden in cabinets or behind screens with no degradation to the sound quality.”

Niles Audio’s flush-mount CM ceiling mount loudspeakers feature magnetically attached grilles and are paintable, which allows for décor blending, while sister company Sunfire is talking up its new in-wall subwoofer, which can be either hidden or displayed in piano-black accents. “Designers want technology to be invisible, and Niles’ in-ceiling speakers with magnetic, paintable grilles disappear into a room to provide high-fidelity audio seemingly out of nowhere,” said Mitch Witten, brand manager for Niles Audio and Sunfire. “And, with new innovations like Sunfire’s in-wall subwoof-ers, we’re committed to making the entire audio system invisible while retaining incredible quality, power, and clarity.”

Flange-less speakers with miro-perf grilles has been the focus of Golden Ear’s development of architectural speakers, including the latest Invisa series, which company president Sandy Gross said was the result of designer feedback. “The feedback we have received is to try to keep size reasonable, styling simple but elegant,” Gross noted, “and, at the same time, have a classic element that allows them to integrate into a diverse group of environments.”

Gross also touted the company’s evolution in free-standing speakers, pointing to Golden Ear’s SuperSat Series as an example of free-standing and wall-mounting speakers that feature a thin design and still deliver on sonic performance. Meridian’s Resi Award-winning M6 floor-standing DSP loudspeaker is a departure from the focus on in-wall solutions. It was “designed to complement contemporary interiors through a compact, soft, radial form plus its ability to easily tone its grille cloth color to the room,” noted Allen Boothroyd, co-founder and design director, Meridian Audio Ltd, who also emphasized the company’s joint presentations with and for interior designers in London in the last two years. “Uniquely, M6 looks the same from any angle with even the cable, being underneath, capable of being completely hidden. The Meridian DSP520, an in-wall version of the M6, is designed for those systems where no speaker is to be visible.”

A “sound sculpture” created by Leon Speakers for LENA, a restaurant in Ann Arbor, MI, shows just how far the designer-friendly speakers aesthetic can be taken.

Based on Scandinavian aesthetics and a drive to make the world’s thinnest on-wall, active speakers, Opalum’s product approach is to create design-driven products. According to Lasse Hald, Opalum’s managing director, this policy is underscored by the company’s technology, which allows it to “design first and create the sound afterwards,”–which, Hald acknowledged, is the opposite of many of its competitors’ approach but is something that resonates with designers.

“The two models [FLOW.1010 and FLOW.4810] that are probably the thinnest, active on-wall speakers in the world, has actually become the hallmark of our company,” Hald said. “More and more people are mounting their flatscreens on the wall, so finally being able to match that with two speakers that do not require any other electronics and are as flat as the screen makes a good match.”

Leon Speakers has taken its designer-friendly conceptualization outdoors. The company’s Boundary Series of outdoor speakers, launched last year, is referred to by Ethan Kaplan, Leon’s marketing director, as “objects of desire–they represent everything that is great about American manufacturing.” Citing the Boundary B404, Kaplan explained that the speaker is handcrafted out of solid mahogany, finished with a rich gloss varnish and is modeled after the American-made Chris-Craft boat.

"They are not disguised as faux rocks or planters,” Kaplan said. “They are visually elegant, articulate and extremely well crafted– the ideal blend of performance and design.”

Speakers for Evolving Spaces
While audio streaming, interesting new speaker designs and wireless options have all been cited as inevitable evolutions for designer- friendly speakers the consistent points of emphasis has been on improving future speaker performance, especially that of in-ceiling speakers and thin on-wall units that complement flatscreens.

“An entirely new level of sonic performance available from in-ceiling installations will influence the designer-friendly speakers selected by designers and clients,” said Wisdom Audio’s Glazier. “There are designs on the market today, but all with sonic compromises. Discerning clients who demand superior performance have been forced to live with inferior performance for the design benefits of their preferred inceiling speaker locations.” (Glazier, it should be noted, cited Wisdom Audio’s Insight Series P2i and P4i as exceptions to this observation.)

Harman’s Garrett, too, believes that sound quality improvements will be the most significant boost to future designer-friendly designs, saying, “Technology and designer tastes will continue to position a high percentage of speakers in the ceiling not only for primary channel use but also for height channel applications with the latest audio formats. That will require continued improvements in coverage patterns to try and account for the less-than-ideal placement of the loudspeaker. The next great evolution will come in the form of active loudspeaker designs to further enhance performance within the typical constraints of architectural in-ceiling, in-wall, and on-wall loudspeakers.”

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor for Residential Systems.

Kal Smith
Home Theater of Long Island, Manhasset NY

What features would you like to see in future iterations of designer-friendly speakers?
I think the idea of creating a designer friendly speaker and shipping it to the masses doesn’t work for every situation. The reason is that no matter the feature set, there will be situations where they won’t work. I think as we mature as an industry, the question should become, “What is the process to create a perfect solution that can be clearly communicated to all the project stake holders, and how can we deliver a product that surpasses expectations?”

Spencer Clark
Audio Breakthroughs, Manhasset, NY

How have designer-friendly speakers helped your integration process when dealing with interior designers?
[Golden Ear’s] flangeless architectural speaker concept, as in [the] Invisa Series, was a brilliant idea, which has allowed us to put more and better speakers into our designer projects. [Golden Ear’s] freestanding Triton Towers have uniquely passed muster with many designers because their simple, elegant form factor, and their extensive use of high quality fabric allows them to blend into a wide variety of decors instead of more intrusive wood finishes. Their new 3D Array soundbar finally gives us the ability to achieve state-of-the-art performance when the designers call for a sleek, unobtrusive solution.

What features would you like to see in future iterations of designer friendly speakers?
I would like to see even smaller speakers with similarly uncompromised performance, especially in the area of subwoofers. [Golden Ear] has always had a good eye for design and a good ear for performance, and I hope that [they] continue to come up with distinctive innovative designs that make my customers and their designers happy.

Richard Hollander
Performance Imaging, Stamford CT

What features would you like to see in future iterations of designer-friendly speakers?
I would imagine speakers with paint that matches the exact wall color from the paint schedule would be a nice option. Trufig has that with the idea of creating seamless color options where the cover plate can be painted, covered with wallpaper or even blanked out. Why not have this option for speakers that are not invisible. Finally, the outdoor speaker sector has come a long way with the Sonance Landscape Series and again, this goes back to the “heard and not seen” concept. Speakers that blend into the landscape design that don’t look like a speaker (they look like small lighting fixtures) make a fantastic statement.

Don Dixon
Definitive Electronic Solution, Jupiter, FL

How have designer-friendly speakers helped your integration process when dealing with interior designers?
First and foremost, designers are not usually fond of freestanding floor products, so we are always looking for ways to hide great sound. They might allow a unique set of custom shelf speakers, but generally their designs include some form of in-wall or in-ceiling solution. Having said that, James Loudspeaker can give us something for just about any room style or design consideration. The SA’s (small aperture speakers) compliment the in-wall speakers and provide greater reach in a room or design space. Couple those SA’s with a couple of hidden PowerPipe subwoofers, and we can make a room sound amazing.
John Turchinetz
Crane Appliance Sound & Vision, Falmouth, MA

How have designer-friendly speakers helped your integration process when dealing with designers?
Atlantic Technology has always provided full performance in-wall and in-ceiling versions of their traditional “box” home theater speakers. This has allowed the designers we work with to unclutter the home theater without sacrificing the performance our customers demand. Also, the recent transition to the TLC in ceiling speakers, and now the option to offer square grills, will be a welcome addition to our installs. The ability to sell my customers the PowerBar 235, which doesn’t need a sub-woofer, has also made a lot of designers and wives happy.

Paul Rushing
Rush2Design, Houston, TX

How have designer-friendly speakers helped your integration process when dealing with interior designers?
Phase Tech speakers are great because of the many models to choose from for various designer applications, like a speaker that fits into a dual gang electric box in kitchen back splashes, and the new hanging speakers that can hang over center islands or bars. PhaseTech makes my job easier with fewer job site visits and they are a one-stop shop. Also, PhaseTech’s parent company, MSE Audio, has a speaker line called SolidDrive, which really can address a designer’s challenges as it installs in the wall or ceiling and generates sound over the face of the wall or ceiling surfaces without the customer ever seeing a speaker.

What features would you like to see in future iterations of designer friendly speakers?
I would like to see passive architectural speakers that match up and attach to the various flat-panel TVs that produce a L/C/R presentation or a L/R speaker that carries the center channel feed to a driver in the L/R speaker for a L/C/R sound presentation.

Michael Woods
Elite Audio Systems, San Francisco, CA

How have designer-friendly speakers helped your integration process when dealing with interior designers?
In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have historic Victorian homes, ultra-modern lofts, and everything in between. Meridian products complement almost all of those styles. Meridian speakers avoid the necessity of what interior designers hate–what they call “lots of boxes.” For example, to install a beautiful and high-performance system, all you need is a Meridian Digital Media System (Sooloos) and a pair of speakers. For speakers, I recommend the M6, DSP5200, DSP7200, or DSP8000. Designers love the simplicity and functionality, without having to install an armoire, a rack, or some other type of storage system.