Designer-Friendly Speakers Still Strike a Formidable Pose
Cover image: Sonance has taken aesthetic requirements of interior designers to heart by producing a range of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, micro bezels (for its Visual Performance range), and its much lauded Architectural and Invisible Series of speakers to emphasize its understanding of the minimal visual impact concept. “First impressions are nearly always visual. The rules are that speakers visible in the family living space must be drop-dead gorgeous, or they must be invisible,” said Monitor Audio’s director of Eastern USA sales, Jay O’Brian, succinctly summing up the ongoing relationship between custom audio integration and its aggressive partner, aesthetics. While the industry has thrived on creating repeatable implementations of high-end audio distribution that benefits the business of custom integrators, one challenge has always been client— and by extension interior designer—frustration with the physical presence of speakers in the living space.
Not often inclined to show off the technological accouterments of luxury living, homeowners and their decorators have, in a sense, pushed speaker manufacturers to innovate their products along a definitive line of beauty with the ultimate goal ironically being invisibility or, at the very least, a sonic chameleon act. To their credit, custom speaker manufacturers have come up with the goods, employing a variety of speaker masks and integration techniques that have proved not only popular, but also praiseworthy.
STYLING THE ESSENTIALS
Sonance, a speaker manufacturer that cottoned on to designer disdain of box speakers early on, has built its business on literally stepping outside of the speaker box. Acknowledging that the company was “born from the voice of the architecture and design community,” Simon Wehr, director of marketing for Dana Innovations, Sonance’s parent company, said that the less-is-more mantra is not only fitting for speaker design, but technology as a whole.
The Model M speaker is one of Steinway Lyngdorf’s most popular speakers because the design lends itself to a wide variety of installations.
“Architects and designers have a vision, and no matter how beautiful the industrial design of a product is, it will always distract from their design vision and compromise their project,” Wehr explained. “Ask any architect and designer if they Photoshop technology out of their project portfolio, and you begin to understand just how much they dislike it.”
Sonance has taken this grimacing to heart by producing a recognizable range of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, micro bezels (for its Visual Performance range), and its much lauded Architectural and Invisible Series of speakers to emphasize its understanding of the minimal visual impact concept.
“We are also pushing this philosophy into the outdoor space with our Landscape Series, which provides audiophile-like quality while blending discretely into the garden or hardscape,” Wehr added. “Landscape architects love it because it means no more trying to hide fake rocks, cabinets, or ugly mushroom speakers.”
From very early on in Bowers & Wilkins’ history, the company has partnered with leading industrial designers such as Kenneth Grange of Pentagram and Morten Warren of Native Designs to ensure that the aesthetic quality of its loudspeakers was consistent with their acoustic performance, noted VP of sales and marketing, Doug Henderson. “Today, we have a wide range of products, some of which are designed to be very inconspicuous, such as our new CI600 and CI700 architectural models with thin bezels, dark interior surfaces, and very flat grilles to minimize their visual footprint, to our 800 Series free standing models, which have been compared to ultra high-quality furniture, offering rich piano black, rosenut, and cherry veneers.”
This past fall, B&W introduced its PM1 (Prestige Monitor), which is a bookshelf or stand-mounted speaker. It uses a unique enclosure design that has a rounded inner enclosure made from a DMC (dough-molded compound) material. “This allowed us to sculpt the form, minimizing abrupt surface terminations for acoustic reasons,” Henderson explained. “It also has our hallmark ‘tweeter on top,’ which affords a more transparent, detailed high-frequency presentation than an in-box tweeter. The tweeter sits in a beautifully finished metal housing that is seated into the enclosure. Stainless trim on the grille accents the curved form. To bring in some visual warmth and furniture appeal, the enclosure sides have been fabricated from wood, in a high gloss mocha gloss finish.”
B&W’s PM1 is a bookshelf or stand-mounted speaker with a unique enclosure design that has a rounded inner enclosure made from dough-molded compound material.
Also cutting a distinct figure in the category is Steinway Lyngdorf, a manufacturer that focuses on speaker integration flexibility by concentrating on system configuration, speaker placement, and speaker design. Leif Schmücker, CMO of global sales and marketing, outlined this three-tier approach when he highlighted the modular, mix-and-match composition of all of its products, made possible, he said, by the company’s RoomPerfect technology, which uses a 3D measuring technique and target response calculations to ensure that a Steinway Lyngdorf audio system produces the best sound regardless of furniture, room size, speaker location, and listening position.
“We can look at the Model M speaker, which is one of our most popular speakers because the design lends itself to a wide variety of installations,” Schmücker said. “When designing this speaker, we made the total cabinet depth under four inches, allowing it to be completely hidden in a standard stud bay; this is quite useful when visible speakers distract from the interior design of the room. However, this same speaker is available in a high-gloss lacquer, which is applied by hand at the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg, Germany. The high-gloss finishing can be applied in nearly any color allowing an interior designer to create a custom-colored speaker to perfectly match a paint color in the room, for example.”
Leon Speakers is also driven by the idea of speaker flexibility while adhering to a strict aesthetic code, which is something the company’s president Noah Kaplan pointed out when he underscored Leon’s policy that each of its speakers must have three custom options. The company recently partnered with Veranda magazine in its New York City Designer Vision show home (designed by Thomas O’Brien) to demonstrate Leon’s capabilities to the design community.
“The 5.2 Leon Living Space Theater system featured an ultra-thin Horizon soundbar that was custom built to match the TV in the living room,” Kaplan said. “Our award-winning Aaros ultra-thin subwoofer was custom built using the reclaimed, espresso-stained hardwood flooring. It was then stowed away, down-firing from under an exquisite American-made, Thomas O’Brien cabinet.”
Kaplan continued, “Finally, our Vault in-wall speakers were painted in-house using the exact Benjamin Moore paint color that was featured on the walls. In one area of the home, we even wrapped our in-wall speakers with a hand-printed fabric by Katie Leed to match the fabric walls. The end result was a fully functional, high-performance sound system that truly blended into the décor of the home.”
MAKING THEM INVISIBLE
The Stealth Acoustics invisible LR4 home-theater speaker can be used as the substrate of a painted-on projection screen. Sound emanates directly from the screen image just like in a movie theater, with impressive visual cogency and sonic realism.
To help homeowners sidestep the fear of their homes becoming “technology museums,” as Steve Olszewski puts it, Stealth Acoustics is an advocate of the invisible speaker—citing the potential aging that can occur with outdated aesthetics.
“By not competing with the décor of a room, our speakers track the life-span of an interior designer’s vision not just as long as the gear is trendy looking,” said Olszewski, vice president of the company. We’ve achieved such great performance with our invisible in-wall or in-ceiling speakers and subwoofers that they will satisfy critical listeners and their migrating aesthetics for years and years.”
Built on a three-tier price-performance-application system, Stealth Acoustics’ speakers have a “flat-front” design that mates with half-inch or thicker wall surfaces, fits in between standard building framing depths of 3.5 inches or deeper, and can be finished with virtually any wall or ceiling material.
“In most cases, the design goal is to just have the speakers completely disappear into the surrounding surface, but our flat-front speakers are also a great base for creativity,” Olszewski said. One example is to use our invisible LR4 home-theater speaker as the substrate of a painted-on projection screen. Sound emanates directly from the screen image just like in a movie theater, with impressive visual cogency and sonic realism.”
Paradigm’s Mark Aling is still a fan of floor-standing speakers for their superior audio playback, but the company’s director of marketing understands the demand for unobtrusive speakers under certain lifestyle circumstances. In discussing the manufacturer’s designer-friendly ranges, Aling pointed to the Millenia LP, Paradigm’s slimmest on-wall speaker that uses dual high-velocity passive radiators instead of ports to get the desired bass, while rigid domes create spacious and extended highs, as well as the RVC-12SQ MilleniaSub.
The KEF Blade high-end speaker stands as a model of KEF’s emphasis on the marriage of form and function.
“In the RVC-12SQ, the two woofers fire in phase, or in opposite directions, resulting in a physical cancelation of wall vibrations, and power without structural damage,” Aling explained. “The MilleniaSub offers a similar back-to-back dual-woofer design to eliminate bloated, boomy bass. The slim, oval form factor works well cradled, under furniture or mounted on the wall, giving designers several options.”
SPEAKERS AS ART
The KEF Blade high-end speaker stands as a model of KEF’s emphasis on the marriage of form and function. KEF’s marketing manager, Stephanie Scola recently enthused that the Blade is not only a major advancement in speaker design namely in its shape, structure, and form, but it is also so original that it begs to be looked upon as an art piece.
“Even product finishes are an element that is carefully considered,” Scola said. “For example, KEF Blade is available in 12 custom color finishes, but we are able to paint them in just about any color a customer would like.”
Monitor Audio’s trick-of-the-eye designer-friendly speakers play on the chameleon idea that has been given a warm reception by some designers. While the company’s Monitor Audio box speakers are wrapped in everything from wood veneers to lacquer finishes, O’Brian also pointed to its SoundFrame speaker models that appear to be a picture on the wall.
“Clients first choose from white or black lacquer or paintable picture frames,” O’Brian explained. “Then they may submit any high-resolution image to us for application to the speaker grille. The choices are limited only by one’s imagination.”
Sunfire’s general manager, Mark Weisenberg said the manufacturer is committed to consistently producing products that deliver on high fidelity and high value, which has included the redesign of several internal components to be small and compact.
“The small form factor of our speakers and subwoofers appeals to both designers and homeowners looking to create amazing home theater audio systems that are as attractive to the eye as to the ear,” Weisenberg said, adding that future iterations of Sunfire speakers will go with the trend of thinner, space-saving speakers while exhibiting “the technological genius that resulted in the SubRosa, our on-wall/in-wall subwoofer that delivers unbelievable bass from an enclosure just 3.5 inches thick.”
Niles Audio’s president Mike Detmer noted that most important factors in its line of home audio products are superior sound quality and design. By way of example, Detmer pointed to Niles’ flush-mount CM Ceiling-Mount loudspeakers that feature magnetically attached grilles and are completely paintable, allowing for color matching of home décor.
Millenia LP is Paradigm’s slimmest on-wall speaker that uses dual high-velocity passive radiators instead of ports to get the desired bass while rigid domes create spacious and extended highs.
Detmer is also proud of the company’s SW compact subwoofers and noted that they are “so powerful and so compact that they can be hidden anywhere, or displayed proudly with attractive piano-black accents, to deliver the legendary Niles sound from an attractive, enticing enclosure.”
According to Daren Egan, RBH Sound’s sales and marketing director, his company’s Signature in-wall models feature cloth grilles, tuned enclosures, and are designed to be custom built right into furniture or walls.
“A product that found its way into our Signature in-wall lineup out of necessity is the SI-770,” Egan said. “Far too often, designers and integrators place conventional speakers into custom cabinetry. No matter the brand or the speaker, doing this changes the environment the speaker was originally designed for, and therefore changes the way the speaker sounds. Certain frequencies are enhanced, while other frequencies get reduced, and this results in a speaker that sounds nowhere near the way it was designed to.”
Egan said that the SI-770 changes all of this, having been designed specifically for custom cabinetry installation; it does not feature an expensive finish and its design is very basic.
Differentiating itself from other designer-friendly models is Soundcast’s OutCast system, which utilizes wireless technology and coupling with existing home theater and whole-house audio systems to offer a more mobile experience for the designer and homeowner.
“Our performance fidelity is accomplished by having sub-woofers, four full range drivers, tri-amplification, and DSP included in both OutCast models for omni-directional stereo sound,” Soundcast’s director of field support John Niski, explained. Our proprietary two-way wireless communication technology provides interference free audio signals up to 300 feet. Our transmitters allow for iPod, iPhone, iPad docking, and analog inputs from any source or USB connectivity for PC applications. We include an internal charging battery system that allows for extended playtime of up to 20 hours on a single charge. OutCast is truly high performance wireless audio.”
It’s always good to keep in mind that what might be considered ‘wow’ today can seem passé in a few years time. It is also true, as the fashion industry has proven over and over again, that ideas tossed on the rubbish heap of time or exhausted into ubiquity can have a second life after banishment from our collective consciousness. These sentiments make the comment by Leon Speakers’ Kaplan that hidden or inconspicuous speaker designs are “a contradiction to most of us as industrial designers and admirers of high design furniture and fixtures” all the more insightful. Looking at the cyclical nature of time, it seems inevitable that the tide will turn and homeowners, as well as designers, will bridge the aesthetic and sonic gap. This puts an emphasis on the harmonious possibilities between form and function that both interior design and technology inherently have.
The push to make speakers more visually appealing or secreted away will continue. For all of the loveliness of KEF’s Blade or Steinway Lyngdorf’s Model M, both companies are still very clear about their missions to sate current designer tastes for the unobtrusive, but the possibility that speakers will regain some stature as objects of beauty in their own right also hovers on the margins of speaker engineers that are commissioned to appease current interior decorating demands.
Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems in Brooklyn, NY.
CLAREO NETWORKS, NEW YORK, NY
Describe one of your speaker installation projects in which an interior designer’s input guided the project.
We worked with Veranda magazine and Thomas O’Brien on their 2011 Designer Visions show home apartment. Part of their mission was to tailor the design to reflect the film, Someone to Watch Over Me, and to use as much American-made product as possible. The design featured livable, yet classically inspired pieces throughout the space. For the audio/video component, it was important to the designer that the speakers we installed stuck to the theme and were minimally visible and unobtrusive, so they didn’t detract from the apartment���s décor.
In one area of the Designer Visions show home, Leon wrapped the in-wall speakers with a handprinted fabric to match the fabric walls.
How did Leon’s speakers help you meet the client’s needs?
All of the speakers that Leon built were customized to match the design of the apartment. They matched the paint on the in-wall speaker grilles to the wall paint in the living room and bedroom. The subwoofers were built out of solid hardwood to match the wood floors. And, all of the ultra-thin televisions were equipped with Leon’s ultra-thin soundbars, built to match the width of the TVs. In one room, there is a fabric wall covering and Leon was able to wrap the speaker grills in the same fabric to match the pattern on the wall. Their custom shop was very efficient, and it only took a week to get the speakers with custom finishes. Overall, the designer was very pleased with the results and the speakers sounded as good as they looked.
SURROUND SOUNDS, EXTON, PA
Describe one of your speaker installation projects in which an interior designer’s input guided the project.
Our client had very specific requirements for his new addition to his home. He wanted a surround sound system for a large open space devoid of any floor space intrusion. Sounds easy enough for a typical in-wall/ceiling installation, however, this particular client also added two other demands to his request: the system had to be exceptionally resolving and distortion free, and the system had to play loud (very loud).
How did Monitor Audio’s speakers help you meet the client’s needs?
Considering we had an open slate (a bare shell that we could frame as necessary), we jumped on the opportunity to exercise some Monitor muscle on this project. Utilizing three Monitor Platinum in-wall transducers for the LCR and two pairs of Monitor in-ceiling C380LCR’s for side and rear surrounds, we were able to give our client exactly what he requested, namely performance with style!
TODD ANTHONY PUMA
THE SOURCE HOME THEATER, NEW YORK, NY
Please describe one of your speaker installation projects in which an interior designer’s input guided the project.
We’re noticing a lot of designers call for on-wall speakers that offer a seamless aesthetic flow that complements the TV. There’s already a large black box on the wall, or on a piece of furniture, so having minimalistic speakers with a similar glossy finish isn’t intrusive. There is also a perception that wall-mounted speakers offer better sound quality than in-wall or in-ceiling models, which is largely true. What I’m really noticing is that performance is often the most important factor, and I’ve actually had customers overrule the designers advice on my recommendation of what would sound better.
Because The Source Home Theater handles a lot of New York City apartment and condo installs, my team is frequently dealing with odd angles and dimensions, which presents its own challenges when setting up a room for audio, so I think customers appreciate our expertise that much more.
After installing three Paradigm Millenia LPs around the TV and stashing a MilleniaSub out of site, The Source Home Theater’s client was shocked by how well the system filled the room.
How did Paradigm’s speakers help you meet the client’s needs?
One particular client had a large, somewhat narrow living room area that was attached to the kitchen. He wanted an audio system that could provide wide dispersion to fill the entire space, but not have it take up a lot of floor space. We installed three Paradigm Millenia LPs around the TV and stashed a MilleniaSub out of site, and he was shocked by how well it filled both rooms.
PERFORMANCE IMAGING STAMFORD, CT
Describe one of your speaker installation projects in which an interior designer’s input guided the project.
Nearly all of the projects we work on at Performance Imaging are very design centric with an emphasis on the concept “less is more.” Nothing applies better to this than dealing with speakers and their placement within a room. Currently, we are working on a project known as the “Park Avenue project” with acclaimed designer Soren Rose, and the challenge was very clear from the beginning: “Richard, I want the best audio possible with no visible speakers for this project.” Taking into consideration ceiling height, HVAC vents, lighting placement, motorized drapery track and shades, we came up with an elegant solution while keeping within the architectural intent given by Mr. Rose.
How did Sonance’s speakers help you meet the client’s needs?
We came up with an elegant solution specifying and installing Sonance’s Invisible Speaker offering. These products are solid with an ear toward filling a room with pure audio while staying discreet and invisible. In addition, this project is also using a Trufig solution for all outlets, data ports, Lutron keypads and Crestron in-wall touchscreens, giving a full collection of the Dana Innovations brand to the Park Avenue project that lends itself to the original concept of “less is more.”
With a Steinway piano as a primary vehicle for these homeowners live performances and an anchor to their great room, the Steinway Lyngdorf Model D provided a perfect audio, as well as aesthetic match.
Q&A INTEGRATOR VOICES
PARAGON TECHNOLOGY GROUP, GOLDEN, CO
Because of our project magnitude and scope, Paragon Technology Group has worked closely with interior designers for over 15 years on seamlessly integrating clients’ electronics into the interior décor. With some projects, the audio/video equipment must be completely hidden. In other homes, it must be as beautiful as the furnishings. On a 15,000-square-foot, fully integrated estate on Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, CO, the interior designer was not only an integral participant on the project, but Paragon worked cohesively with her team from beginning to end. Because the Texas-based clients are avid art lovers and their home is a showcase for their amazing collection, the Paragon designers had to be mindful of the AV equipment presence. The logical speaker selection in their great room was the Steinway Lyngdorf Model D’s. The system blends into the décor and delivers an unmatched performance, which is as beautiful as its surroundings.
How did Steinway Lyngdorf’s speakers help you meet the client’s needs?
The homeowners have a deep appreciation of music, and the wife is a professional musician, so they wanted state-of-the-art speakers that would deliver the clearest sound. With a Steinway piano as a primary vehicle for their live performances and anchor to their great room, the Steinway Lyngdorf Model D provided a perfect audio, as well as an aesthetic match.