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Walls of Sound

Call it a renaissance, of sorts. Over the past few years, the mp3 player-led dark ages of low-quality audio have given way to a proliferation of innovation–not only in the increased fidelity of content, but in its delivery and consumption.

Call it a renaissance, of sorts. Over the past few years, the mp3 player-led dark ages of low-quality audio have given way to a proliferation of innovation–not only in the increased fidelity of content, but in its delivery and consumption. Driven by widespread adoption of mass-market wireless solutions, people are listening to music more socially, as well. Enthusiasm for room-filling music is surging.

Thankfully, this market boom has also translated to the custom install space, and one of its staple elements: in-wall speakers. Soaring high above the sonic capability of mass-market wireless systems, manufacturers of these loudspeakers have been striving fervently to outdo one another in providing products that not only upscale the experience for consumers, but make life easier for installers, as well.

Clockwise: The Director Series D108 from Origin Acoustics features the company’s Zip-Cliq tool-less mounting system. The ATX100 from SpeakerCraft is a Dolby Atmos-enabled in-wall height speaker, designed for rooms for which in-ceiling height channels aren’t feasible. KEF provides architectural solutions for nearly any application, such as the shallow T-Series with a mounting depth of less than 1.75 inches.

Origin Acoustics is one manufacturer that is working to capitalize on the consumer trends–particularly the popularity of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo–with an upgrade in performance. “The major benefit to wired systems is the option for much greater fidelity,” said Origin’s CEO, Jeremy Burkhardt. “With sources such as the Amazon Echo and Dot becoming almost free now, music is available to 30 million Americans. However, many of them want more than small speaker sound. We’ve developed an amplifier that integrates seamlessly with the Dot, allowing our dealers to now have voice control and access to content through every architectural speaker in the house.”

Appreciated by integrators since its inception just a few years ago, Origin Acoustics has pioneered install-friendly features such as its tool-less Zip-Cliq mounting system, and has recently introduced additional performance features to its line like the Variable Density Absorption Layer, which eliminates reflections that cause mid- and high-frequency distortion.

Like Origin, Paradigm has also acknowledged that a “can’t-beat-’em-join-’em” stance is a smart way to complement consumer desire for wireless solutions. “With featured technologies such as DTS Play-Fi and the ability to integrate wireless into a traditional wired whole-home system, what we are seeing is a coexistence in the home between these two types of solutions,” said Devin Zell, marketing manager at Paradigm. “In the future, we are likely to see this trend continue, with media and content delivered wirelessly into wired whole-home installations.”

Such an approach combines Paradigm’s “Crafted in Canada” quality, engineering features like Active Ridge Technology for high performance in a reduced speaker profile, and the ability to evenly cover large, whole-home installations, with the accessibility and features that consumers want.

Driving the category for more than four decades, SpeakerCraft sees the differentiating factor in architectural speakers in their ability to handle anything a distributed, multiroom entertainment system can throw at them–a versatility that consumer-grade devices can’t claim. “Does your multiroom audio solution address multiple video zones?” asked Mark Fisher, director of product management at Core Brands, rhetorically. “Does it support uncompressed audio? How about object-based audio such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, or Auro-3D?

His latter point is particularly salient for the category, as in-ceiling speakers are in many cases the ideal candidates for today’s popular immersive audio format height channels. In addition, for rooms for which a ceiling-mounted speaker isn’t possible, SpeakerCraft has developed ATX100, a Dolby Atmos-enabled in-wall height speaker.

The DaVinci Group (TDG) is another company that tailors its architectural offerings for home theater use. Last year it introduced its Signature Series with hand-matched drivers, integrated crossover networks, and built-in back boxes specifically targeted for the high-performance requirements of theaters. At CEDIA 2017, it will expand this line with S8 satellite rear-channel speakers and a new subwoofer.

The DaVinci Group’s Signature Series features hand-matched drivers, integrated crossover networks, and other features for the high performance requirements of home theaters.

According to Jeff Francisco, TDG’s president and CEO, the company’s in-wall speakers’ flexibility also has made them at home in other areas of the home, and beyond. “TDG Audio Signature Series speakers became so popular that they can now be found almost everywhere,” he said, “including a wide range of high-end, high-performance dedicated home theater installations, in the homes of heads of state, and even in Porsche dealerships.”

Brandon White, director of new product development at Vanco International, also points to the versatility as a selling point of architectural speakers. “Beale Street Audio’s robust in-wall and in-ceiling speaker line provides plenty of options to fit any install, whether it’s a simple 2.1 system or 11-channel high-end home theater install,” he said. The Beale Street brand’s inventive Sonic Vortex technology, which is engineered to deliver deeper, richer bass, certainly aids in the all-around suitability of its product offering.

For Jack Sharkey, content marketing manager at KEF, the pitch for selling a customer an entertainment system built around architectural speakers is the same for all things technology related: “It’s always a choice between convenience and level of quality and system reliability, so it still comes down to providing the end user with the best possible combination of both,” he said. “And wired systems are still extremely competitive in that arena.”

James Loudspeaker’s 63SA-7HO Small Aperture series is the company’s best-selling architectural speaker, providing big sound from a discreet opening.

In terms of convenience, KEF provides architectural speakers for almost any installation scenario, from its shallow-depth T-series–with a mounting depth of less than 1.75 inches–for buildings like high rises and older construction, to its THX-certified in-wall Reference Series for the highest-end home theaters. And, its architectural solutions feature some of the same hallmarks of its renowned hi-fi products, such as Uni-Q drivers, so choosing an in-wall solution doesn’t need to be a compromise.

Fellow British speaker brand Monitor Audio also endeavors to buck any notion that in-wall solutions are a sonic sacrifice. “Today, Monitor Audio is one of a small number of manufacturers that can claim their architectural products are based on designs employed in their acclaimed traditional floor-standing speakers,” said Mike Benedetto, VP of sales and business development at Kevro International. “For example, our flagship Platinum In-wall and ceiling speakers feature a revolutionary tweeter design that was inspired by Air Motion Transformer (AMT) technology, which is featured in our traditional Platinum speakers.” According to Benedetto, AMT technology allows the company’s tweeters to play nearly flat to 100kHz–a performance level that, needless to say, you won’t find in any portable wireless speaker.

Monitor Audio incorporates the high-performance features of its floor-standing speakers into its architectural models, such as its Air Motion Technology tweeters.

Of course, performance is only one thing; the primary reason for putting speakers in the wall is for aesthetics–and few companies know how to cater to clients’ design tastes like James Loudspeaker. The Napa, CA-based company utilizes high-end engineering and components like aircraft-grade aluminum construction, sealed rear enclosures, quad-array tweeters, and more than 30 custom-designed and proprietary transducers to satisfy nearly any customer’s performance requirements. As for looks? “We can apply a limitless variety of standard and custom finishes to any speaker, matching critical décor elements from wall paint, fence posts, exotic hardwoods, and countless others,” said Ted Telesky, chief marketing officer.

Satisfying the strict requirements of interior designers is high on the priority list for Klipsch: “Architectural speakers, by nature, disappear in a room,” said Rob Standley, vice president and general manager, professional and component speaker solutions at Klipsch Group. They don’t occupy the living environment.” At CEDIA, the company is introducing 50 new speaker solutions for residential and commercial applications, and they’re all about ease of installation, with its new Skyhook and SecureFit technologies. According to Standley, Skyhook technology is a tool-free, fully automatic, self-adjusting installation system that can reduce installation times by 75 percent. “Integrators simply cut a hole, attach wires, press the speaker into the hole, while Skyhook adapts to the surface thickness with a preset clamping force,” he said.

Stealth Acoustics’ newest “invisible speaker” offering, the LRx83 is designed to provide nearhemispherical radiation of sound across virtually all frequencies, including the subwoofer range.

Taking the “disappearing” aspect of architectural audio to the extreme, Stealth Acoustics’ selection of “invisible speakers” feature no visible presence of speaker boxes of grilles–enabling them to provide even sound coverage throughout a room as discreetly as possible. “With our latest generation of invisibles–our new LRx83, being the beginning of a new LRX product family–we have achieved audio performance that even the most expensive visible in-wall or in-ceiling speakers struggle to attain,” said Stealth Acoustics’ VP, Steve Olszewski. According to Olszewski, the LRx83 delivers near-hemispherical radiation of sound across virtually all frequencies, including the subwoofer range, as its flat-front FidelityGlass diaphragm provides double the surface area of a typical 15-inch woofer.

With such envelope-pushing engineering going on in the category of in-wall speakers, there’s no surprise to see it enjoying such resurgence. Sitting cleverly at the intersection of aesthetics and acoustics, this custom integration staple is soundly poised to stand the test of time.

Matt Pruznick is senior editor for Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News. Follow him on Twitter @Pruznick.