When addressing key trends seen in the in-wall and in-ceiling speaker market over the past year or so, Polk Audio marketing manager Paul DiComo noted that 2005 was the first year that sales of in-ceiling speakers surpassed those of in-walls.
The reason is clear: homeowners and interior designers just dont want A/V equipmentand that includes speakersintruding on the look that they want to create.
Americans are coming to expect a much higher level of design in virtually everything they see, touch, buy, and experience, said Steve Crawford, chief marketing officer for Sonance. He noted that particularly in higher-end custom installations, many clients simply are not willing to give up the wall space for in-wall speakers; they want to reserve that space for artwork or other design elements. And so, thats creating a much larger emphasis on in-ceiling speakers.
Not surprisingly, most manufacturers catering to this market are focusing heavily on their in-ceiling offerings, though the in-walls cant be ignored. The key challenge long faced by those opting for in-ceiling speakers is how they are mounted: due to increased directionality at high frequencies, if pointed straight down, not enough of the high end of the audio spectrum makes it to the listeners ear.
To address this directivity issue several loudspeaker manufacturers have been working on ways to get the best performance from their in-ceiling and in-wall offerings. This includes, as Crawford noted, employing materials that are traditionally found in audiophile components. As an example, Sonances newly redesigned Virtuoso series uses beryllium in the speaker diaphragms of their top-of-the-line models. That is a fairly esoteric material thatjust a short while agowould have only shown up in a very high-end, expensive box speaker, he explained.
In addition to better materials, loudspeaker manufacturers are putting stock in speaker component movement within their in-ceiling ranges. SpeakerCraft, which has led the way in aimable in-ceiling speakers, has expanded the AIM line by replacing its previous CRS6 speakers with the AIM7. A more compact speaker, the AIM7s feature a larger seven-inch woofer, which fits into the same space as six-inch speakers. True to SpeakerCrafts AIM concept, the entire woofer swivels, while the one-inch, concentrically mounted dome tweeter independently pivots.
Similarly, Sonances Virtuoso series feature seven round ceiling-type speakers all of which (with the exception of the VRS2, V831SSDR, and V833SSDR) have pivoting woofers, midranges, and tweeter assemblies. The least-expensive models in this range use polypropylene woofer and midrange cones and silk dome tweeters, while the mid-line products use carbon fiber cones and silk dome tweeters, and the top-of-the-line models use beryllium diaphragms throughout.
The four in-wall systems in the Virtuoso line all feature eight-inch woofers and a pivoting, concentric midrange/dome tweeter assembly. The entry-level V831D and next-model-up V832D use polypropylene woofer and midrange cones and a silk dome tweeter. The step-up model V833D features a carbon fiber woofer and midrange with silk dome tweeter, while the top-of-the-line V834D uses beryllium drivers.
Russound offers two grades of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers: the high-end HiFi line, and the more value-oriented Music line. Russounds round in-ceiling speakers employ what the company has branded Twist & Tilt technology, which allows the entire speaker to be tilted up to 15 degrees. A differentiator for the companys in-wall speakers is Iso-Mount, a thermopolymer gasketing system that Russound claims dramatically reduces vibration of the sheetrock wall panel surrounding the speaker system, improving frequency response.
TruAudio also uses a tilting mechanism in its Revolve series of round eight-inch two- and three-way speakers, which sport woofers mounted at an angle, with the three-way models tweeter mounted on a tilting mid/tweeter bridge that rotates to a desired listening position.
Danish manufacturer Jamo is broadening its lineup with two new in-ceiling speakers as part of the top-of the-line Kevlar series. The Jamo 8.521K4 is a round three-way speaker with 8-inch diameter woofer, a pivoting 1.5-inch dome midrange and one-inch silk dome tweeter. The SU6.521K4 is a three-way dipole surround in-ceiling speaker with a 6.5-inch woofer, two 1.5-inch dome midranges and two one-inch dome tweeters. It can be paired with the 8.521K4s at the front, to make up a complete in-ceiling surround system.
In the home theater segmentparticularly in the more lavish, no holds barred renditionsthe trend toward banishing speaker enclosures has been a boon for the makers of high-end in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. SpeakerCraft is taking that concept several steps further with what it calls the theater in motion experience (TIME). The brains behind the TIME series is the rack-mountable TIME Controller, which can receive commands via infrared or RS-232 and comes with a handheld IR remote. The motorized in-ceiling speakers are round, eight inches, and a coaxially mounted one-inch dome tweeter. When inactive, the TIME series speakers look like any flush-mount ceiling speaker, but at the touch of a button on the remote, they tilt down by 15, 30, or 45 degrees and can swivel to point in almost any direction.
Utilizing a hand-held remote, TIME speakers can call up several presets arrayssimilar to programming scenes for lighting. One preset, for example, might be for use with the home theater and other critical listening. In this mode, speakers are aimed to give the most precise, most stable imaging. Another preset might be party mode, where the speakers all point into the room to give a more diffuse sound.
KEF is another manufacturer that is bringing to market a motorized in-ceiling speaker specifically for the home theater segment. Flush-mounted in the ceiling when inactive, KEFs Ci 3-80QT automatically tilts downward when activated, to project its sonic output more directly toward the listening position.
To address issues of lobing or fringing, which are caused by phase interference between two or more drivers in a speaker, KEFs Ci 3-80QT utilizes the companys proprietory Uni-Q driver configuration. Uni-Q is a coaxial driver alignment wherein the systems aluminum dome tweeter is mounted at the acoustic center of the low-frequency driver. KEF says that this makes the Ci 3-80QT more of a point source, at high frequencies, providing wider dispersion and a smoother polar pattern. Theoretically, it should help at all angles off-axis, regardless of plane.
For surround applications, KEFs Ci FDT motorized dipole has a high-frequency driver mounted on a panel that automatically pivots out to be perpendicular to the wall when operating. This two-way system uses a five-inch cone driver for midrange/bass.
The sharpest break from convention in in-wall and in-ceiling speakers is Polk Audios new LCi-IP series, which the company bills as the worlds first Internet Protocol (IP)-addressable speakers. The LC80i-IP is a two-way, bi-amped model, while the LC265i-IP (intended for in-wall mounting) is a three-way tri-amped system using on-board digital power amplifiers, electronic crossovers, and digital signal processing (DSP) to tailor equalization and make time delay adjustments.
The LCi-IP series speakers will accept a NetStreams StreamNet TCP/IP network interface card, allowing the speaker to directly accept digital music streams from the NetStreams digital audio distribution network. The use of local amplifiers eliminates the resistive losses associated with long cabling runs. Active electronic crossovers are isolated by the digital power amplifiers from the impedance variations presented by the loudspeaker drivers.
Dont have a NetStreams system? The new IP models will also accept analog inputs from conventional distributed audio systems. Optional back enclosures (for optimal volume, and to reduce sound transmission through the back of the wall and into adjacent rooms) are available for both models.
For those who do not want even a hint of a speaker on their walls, companies like Sound Advance (a division of Sonance) and Stealth Acoustics have the ultimate solution: invisible speakers. Sound Advances SA2 uses a flat (on the front surface) expanded-polystyrene diaphragm, measuring about 21 inches by 14 inches. Two conventional voice coils are mounted on the back surface, and standard magnetic structures complete the linear motors. The whole assembly mounts flush into a standard sheetrock stud wall, and can be finished with spackling and paint or wallpaper, so that it visually becomes part of the wall surface.
Careful contouring of the back of the diaphragm controls sound propagation across its surface, as well as the compliance at the edge of the diaphragm. The company says that as the frequency goes up, the portion of the diaphragm that is actively radiating gets smaller, which works to create more uniform sound dispersion with frequency.
Stealth Acoustics takes a different approach to invisibility. Its F8 and F6 speaker panels use what looks to be a fairly conventional eight-inch or six-inch woofer, mounted on the back side of a foam-core panel that forms the paintable front face which, when installed, becomes part of the sheet rock wall surface. Whereas Sound Advance designed the voice coil to directly drive the expanded-polystyrene diaphragm that forms the paintable front surface, the Stealth Acoustics speakers voice coil drives a conventional woofer cone mounted just behind the foam-core panel. The tight air coupling between the woofer cone and foam core modulates the foam-core panel, which radiates the sound into the room. For high frequencies, a portion of the backside of the foam-core panel is sculpted away in the tweeter area, forming a window for the high frequencies. A plastic film is stretched across this window, and the tweeter voice coil drives the film, making the film the active diaphragm.
According to Stealth Acoustics vice president, Steve Olszewski, his companys matching subwoofer panels are getting the most attention lately. The B1630 subwoofer panel mounts two eight-inch, low-frequency drivers per panel, and two such panels comprise the subwoofer. The two eight-inch drivers are wired in series, so that each panel is a 16-Ohm load, and the two panels are wired in parallel, to yield an 8-Ohm load for the complete, two-panel, four-driver system.
The trends toward ceiling speakers displacing in-walls and in-walls or in-ceilings replacing speaker enclosures, will likely continue unabated. For their part, speaker manufacturers are more than happy to satisfy the demand for more sophistication and audiophile performance in this category. Look for unflagging efforts by manufacturers to constantly upgrade their product offerings in this essential product battleground.
A former loudspeaker designer, Alan R. Frank ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and networking consultant