Architectural Loudspeakers Still in Demand on High-end Projects

The in-wall trend is enjoying strong support at the upper reaches of the market, and the nascent recovery in the pace of luxury new-home construction could help keep that mini-trend in place.
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Financial industry executive Jay Dweck is very particular about sound. That’s been the case with any music systems he’s ever purchased. His speakers were always rigorously vetted by what he considers a “pretty good set of ears–mine.” His protocol was straightforward: bring several pairs of candidate speakers into his listening rooms and test them in situ. But when he applied that regimen to in-wall speakers, it turned into a whole other process, with the accent on “hole.”

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The Niles Cynema Soundfield soundbar features three 100-watt self-powered dual-speaker modules with a wireless connection to Niles SW series subwoofers.

The walls and ceiling of one bedroom in a new home were “turned into Swiss cheese,” Dweck said, laughing at the memory of testing in-wall speakers. But it was worth it, he added. “You have to listen to speakers in the same room at the same time and be able to switch between them instantly to be able to get a useful, accurate comparison,” he explained. “We just had to replace the walls and the ceiling when we were done.”

Not everyone will go to those kinds of lengths to find exactly the right in-wall speakers. Alfred C. Faicco, owner of Spectra Design Group, the New York City-area AV integrator who guided Dweck through his elaborate A/B adventure, says the entire process went through four rounds, with six pairs installed in the room initially (Dweck recalls 10 pairs), which were narrowed down over the course of several days of intense listening. Crestron’s speakers made the cut (pun intended) for the in-wall winner for the most audiophile areas of the house. Wisdom Audio ceiling speakers won for social areas, and James Loudspeaker outdoor speakers were chosen for the exterior areas of the home.

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Later this year, Sonance looks to set a new standard for sonic performance of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers with its next-generation Visual Performance Series.

“We actually started the process at the CEDIA show the year before, where we picked the speakers that we were going to test in the house,” Faicco said. “We wanted to be able to have the exact same environment in which to listen to all of them, and listen to the same source material through the same amplifiers. Choosing in-wall speakers is sometimes as challenging as installing them. But you know, that client is going to have to live with those speakers for the next 10 years.”

One thing that every integrator contacted for this article agreed with is that they’ve seen demand for in-wall, in-ceiling, and invisible speakers increase in the last two to three years. That may turn out to run counter to the long-term sales trends and forecasts. The CEA’s 2012 U.S. Consumer Electronics Sales and Forecast report shows that, last year, both in-wall and ceiling speaker sales increased year-over-year, with in-wall shipment revenue at $66 million and unit sales of 556,000, and ceiling shipment revenue $72 million and unit sales 944,000, versus 2011’s in-wall- shipment revenue of $62 million and unit sales 496,000, and ceiling shipment revenue of $67 million and unit sales of 858,000.

However, the 2013 forecast shows in-wall shipment revenue declining to $63 million on unit sales of 540,000, and ceiling shipment revenue of $68 million on unit sales of 908,000. The long-range forecast shows the decline becoming embedded, with 2016 projections calling for in-wall shipment revenue of $62 million and unit sales at 532,000, while ceiling shipments will see revenue of $66 million and unit sales at 879,000, a trend CEA director of industry analysis Steve Koenig attributes to “pressure from wireless models that address [multi-room audio] solutions.”

However, the in-wall trend is enjoying strong support at the upper reaches of the market, and the nascent recovery in the pace of luxury new-home construction could help keep that mini-trend in place.

It’s About Fashion

The “now you see it, now you don’t” revolving door of in-wall speakers has now been through enough cycles to establish itself as a periodic, if unpredictable, fashion trend, much like bell bottoms and three-button suits, which have also entered, departed, and re-entered our collective couture consciousness several times over the last few decades.

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Manufacturers are coming out with simpler mounting systems, especially for ceiling speakers. Faicco cites the P4i and P2i models from Wisdom Audio’s Insight Series for their ring-mount approach.

“Most of my clients today don’t want to see any speakers, except for maybe the left-center-right in the home theater,” observed Richard Hollander, managing director of Performance Imaging, an AV specialist in Stamford CT, who says as much as 60 percent of his audio installations now use invisible speakers, up “substantially” from just a couple of years ago, and rising. He attributes the trend to both the cyclical nature of fashion–which AV has been part of ever since manufacturers created offices for marketing directors–and the movement to wireless mobile devices to control AV and home automation systems, which he says has fostered a demand for clean-looking walls, unpunctuated by either speakers or touchscreens.

Manufacturers have responded, with companies like Sonance and Leon expanding their in-wall offerings, and most recently, the inclusion of soundbars in the in-wall category, with the introduction this summer of the Niles Cynema Soundfield soundbar: three 100-watt self-powered dual-speaker modules with a wireless connection to Niles SW series subwoofers. They are also becoming easier to install. Sonance’s manual for its IS series is aimed at both the professional and the ambitious amateur, and offers useful installation insights for both.

“Clients are looking for clean and crisp now,” Hollander said. “[Speakers] are supporting players in the background now. They’re not furniture anymore.” That’s pushing hidden speakers not only off the floor and off the wall but into the ceiling. Hollander is among several installers who say that over-the-head has become a recent favorite for social areas in homes, including ceiling-mounted subwoofers. The trade off, of course, is stereo imaging.

Integrators are looking for ways to keep speakers as hidden as possible. Jim Beaumont, founder of Home Tech AV Solutions, which has offices in Seattle, New York, and Palm Springs, says a growing percentage of his work is with invisible speakers with plastered-over grills. Beaumont said it’s the interior designers that are driving the trend and that it might be a logical follow-on to the increasing thinness of television displays. “We’re using recessed boxes behind the TVs in the walls for the power and the baluns,” he said. “It really makes the display look great on the walls but then the soundbar is sticking out even further.” That’s led him to the Niles in-wall soundbar as a solution, with the self-powered version particularly useful for retrofits.

But aside from looks, Beaumont said the sound quality from in-wall speakers has been steadily improving, which is also contributing to their uptake by clients. He says they’re not replacing freestanding speakers for critical listening applications, but he is finding more use for them as surrounds in home theaters and as the L-C-R array for perforated screens. Possibly the biggest inroads they are making is replacing the iPod docks that are found in even high-end projects, in guest and spare rooms and in social areas. “People are paying more attention in general to sound quality these days,” he said. “They want to hear the disc, not the iPod, and they want to hear it through better speakers, but they still want the clean look. So there’s a niche for quality in-walls, even for background music.”

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After Spectra Design Group’s rigorous A/B listening test, Crestron’s Aspire in-wall speakers made the cut to serve as the in-wall speaker of choice for the most audiophile areas of the house of a very discerning client.

Alfred Faicco said that he’s seen a dichotomy develop with in-wall speakers. On one hand, in-wall speaker installation is becoming more complicated as clients and their decorators increasingly demand complete invisibility. “It has to be perfect before you close up the walls, and for that you have to depend on the contractor and builder getting it right when you ask for sufficient wood framing inside the walls, to keep the speaker from vibrating the walls,” he explained. On the other hand, manufacturers are coming out with simpler mounting systems, especially for ceiling speakers. Faicco cites the P4i and P2i models from Wisdom Audio’s Insight Series for their ring-mount approach.

“The speaker is screwed into the ring, which is installed to the wall; you don’t need to remove the entire assembly to get to the speaker wiring,” he said about Wisdom’s new offering. “Manufacturers have definitely been giving the installation aspect a lot more thought lately.”

Condos

Much of the housing rebound that’s (finally) under way in the U.S. involves multiple-dwelling unit (MDU) construction, and in large urban centers, much of that is in the form of condominium buildings. These present a special challenge because their owners are subject to the same fashion desires as their single-family-home counterparts when it comes to in-wall speakers, but they’re also subject to noise concerns and HOA boards able to levy fines for transgressions of noise regulations.

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Jim Beaumont, founder of Home Tech AV Solutions, which has offices in Seattle, New York, and Palm Springs, says a growing percentage of his work is with invisible speakers with plastered-over grilles. 

Richard Hollander said it’s critically important to install back boxes behind any in-wall speaker. That’s not always possible in common walls between units, so he suggested avoiding those if possible and, if not, going in ceiling instead, which should also use some kind of back enclosure. He also recommended sufficiently powering the sound system to avoid a homeowner’s inclination to overdrive a system.

Gerry Lynch, president of System 7, an AV integrator in Winchester, MA, notes a high-end Boston condo projects he did in which there were only two inches of clearance in the ceiling cavity. “We went with in-walls for that,” he said. “But even then, if the walls are exterior walls, you’re often limited because in-walls require a certain amount of insulation to be taken out to fit them in.”

Alfred Faicco insists on back boxes and wooden framing in condo installations, particularly in Manhattan, where even the priciest units are constructed using metal frames inside walls. In a recent installation, in a four-story penthouse in the city, he had to specify carefully to the contractors the wood-framing locations, which were in virtually every room in the residence.

“The potential for having vibration conducted through the metal framing is huge,” he said. “It can ruin the sound and the system.”

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Richard Hollander, managing director of Performance Imaging, an AV specialist in Stamford CT, says as much as 60 percent of his audio installations now use invisible speakers, up “substantially” from just a couple of years ago, and rising.

The first in-wall speakers that Bob Cole, president of Worldwide Stereo in Hatfield, PA, ever installed were actually car speakers that he took indoors, back in the 1970s, before “in-wall” was even a residential category. He said they’ve come a long way since then, as he’s watched the bezels get ever thinner. “In-wall speakers have to place an equal emphasis on sound quality and their aesthetics,” he stated.

For all the challenges that in-walls present, they remain a good revenue generator and profit center, helped by a rising tide in their fashion cycle and because those challenges tend to make them nearly DIY-proof.

“There are so many little things that you have to be aware of, like making sure there are no air leaks in the box, which can cause loss of the low frequencies,” Cole said. “It’s still a category you have to have knowledge and experience to do right.”

Dan Daley is a freelance writer in Nashville, TN.

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