It’s a given: every year, speaker technology gets a little bit better, and a little bit closer to perfect reproduction of natural sound. At most points in the history of audio, it’s minor enhancements: a slightly stiffer cone material, a minutely lighter tweeter. But every once in while, a new development comes around that kicks innovation into high gear, and sends engineers back to the drawing board to find interesting new ways of capitalizing on a revolutionary new way of experiencing sound. The past couple years have been one of those phases.
The explosion of object-based, immersive 3D audio has been a revelation in the way sound is delivered, and the rapidly expanding capabilities of wireless networks are allowing the transmission of extremely high-quality music to just about anywhere, in and outside of the home. These stimuli, among others, have been a tremendous boon for the manufacturers of perhaps the most important element in the audio equation–the speakers themselves–and have them hard at work formulating new ways of making sure the latest technologies meet listeners’ ears in the most faithful fashion possible.
Triad has leveraged its relationship with Dolby to add to its ATMOS speakers for the residential market.
One company that was quick to recognize the impact that 3D sound formats would have on the market is Triad Speakers, which began by forming a relationship as a Dolby Labs Development Partner for Home Atmos speakers three and a half years ago, and maintains a strong collaborative partnership today. “We have a great deal of experience with Atmos,” said Paul Teixeira, marketing director at Triad. “When properly implemented, Atmos provides movies, TV shows, and games with an immersive overhead layer of sound.
Anticipating the strong market demand for this format, in 2014 and 2015, Triad released its first Atmos-enabled InRoom speakers called the LR-H (modified versions of its Bronze and Silver LCRs with integrated height modules). “Recently we brought to market standalone Height Modules that can be used with existing front speakers. Today, we continue to expand our development with new and exciting InWall and OnWall Atmos speakers for the residential market. These offerings, along with our existing, dynamic InCeiling speakers provide our dealers with a wide assortment of options when designing state-of-the-art Atmos cinema systems for their clients.”
Core Brands’ SpeakerCraft brand has also devoted significant efforts to capitalizing on the object-oriented sound boom, with solutions developed for the Dolby Atmos format. Its AIM Series 2 line was designed to be the “ultimate in-ceiling solution to maximize the performance of such systems,” said Matthew Dever, Core Brands product manager, Audio.
But the brand has also sought to innovate in the portion of the Atmos market that caters to installations where in-ceiling speakers aren’t practical or possible: deflected sound solutions. This year, the company is launching the first AIM Series 2 Dolby Atmos-enabled in-wall “Height” speaker–an architectural, in-wall loudspeaker that reflects sound off the ceiling and down to the listeners, achieving a similar affect to that of an overhead speaker. “It’s pretty impressive; the demos we’ve done at recent shows have blown people away,” Dever said. “We’re also introducing the new AIM Series 2 version of our in-wall LCR speakers. Together with the Height Speaker, these will create really stunning Atmos-enabled in-wall systems.”
SpeakerCraft’s AIM Series 2 line was designed to be the “ultimate in-ceiling solution to maximize the performance of object-oriented audio systems.”
Harman’s JBL Professional brand is known for its widespread use in a variety of commercial applications, and it continues to leverage this expertise in an effort to provide a home theater experience that rivals that of the commercial cinema. Its recent work with 3D audio formats is no exception: along with the JBL Synthesis line of sound processors, which can accommodate up to 32 channels, the company has also been developing high-performance flush-mount speakers, as well as other high-performance architectural speakers for cinema applications.
“The new SCL-3 and SCL-4 use true compression transducers that were derived from the now-legendary D2 technology, as well as horns designed with the same technology as the highly-acclaimed JBL Professional M2 HDI (High Definition Imaging) speakers,” said Kevin Voecks, acoustic technologies manager, Harman Luxury Audio Group. “The SCL-3 and SCL-4 provide solutions for high-output, wide-dispersion in-ceiling or in-wall applications such as immersive audio theaters, as well as conventional theaters.”
JBL’s new SCL-3 and SCL-4 speakers use true compression transducers that were derived from its D2 technology, as well as horns designed with the same technology as the JBL Professional M2 HDI (High Definition Imaging) speakers.
As revolutionary and captivating as this newest wave of home theater audio developments is, it pales in comparison to the scope of influence that wireless and distributed audio is exerting on the industry. Consumers today are coming to demand and expect audiophile-quality audio to envelop them throughout their homes, and even their yards. Faced with stiff competition from high-quality DIY solutions from relative newcomers like Sonos, the industry’s established brands have had their work cut out for them–but are coming through looking all the better for it.
Klipsch, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary, is devoting its efforts to stay on top of these trends, while keeping the desires of its premium customers in mind. Its technology plan for its milestone year of 2016 includes three platforms, according to the company: high-resolution wireless audio, a multi-room strategy, and DTS/Play-Fi and Bluetooth for portability and affordability–in essence, making sure that the current consumer demand for convenience is met with the highest quality solutions.
Klipsch has launched the Reference Premiere HD Wireless speaker system, which combines the Reference Premiere acoustic platform of the brand’s traditional speaker offerings with an HD Control Center for lossless, wireless audio transmission.
To punctuate this plan, Klipsch has launched the Reference Premiere HD Wireless speaker system, which combines the Reference Premiere acoustic platform of the brand’s traditional speaker offerings with an HD Control Center for lossless, wireless audio transmission. “Through the use of state-of-the-art WiSA technology, not a single detail is lost from the source to the speaker,” said Steve Jain, VP and GM of digital, streaming, and portable audio solutions at Klipsch. “With free ongoing upgrades, quick and simple setup, as well as the ability to expand the system over time from 2.0 to 7.2 channels, the Klipsch Reference Premiere HD Wireless speakers deliver a lifetime of high-definition sound.”
For brands like Origin Acoustics, phenomenal sound quality is just the starting point. For the discerning, high-end customer, preserving a property’s aesthetics can be an equally important part of the equation. So, while the company goes to great lengths in pursuit of the perfect sound quality–according to CEO Jeremy Burkhardt, his team attends hundreds of live concerts per year, from opera to Coachella, to ensure the company’s speakers recreate the artists’ live performances as closely as possible–its designs are equally driven by concerns of visual invasiveness. “This journey never ends, as we explore adding speakers to every environment of the residence, Pandora’s box just gets bigger,” Burkhardt said.
Origin’s Director Minimal Opening System is one such example of its innovation in the realm of non-invasive architectural audio. The system is fully hidden within a home’s ceiling, with a dual 6.5-inch vibration - cancelling subwoofer and 3-inch speakers designed to “perfectly mimic the appearance of interior lighting,” according to Burkhardt. For the outdoors, the brand’s Seasons Landscape Collection of 70-volt speakers and subwoofers are designed to provide even, high-quality coverage across a property–all while camouflaging in with their surroundings.
Origin’s Director Minimal Opening System is an example of the company’s innovation in non-invasive architectural audio.
James Loudspeaker is another manufacturer of architectural speakers that strives to maintain the highest - quality sound in ever-smaller footprints. “Smaller size and better sound don’t necessarily go hand in hand, which is where the engineering aptitude of James Loudspeaker has yielded dividends with award-winning new product introductions that help integrators satisfy clients while differentiating themselves from competitors,” said Ted Telesky, chief marketing officer at James. “The foundation of our product offerings are new and innovative transducer designs–all designed in-house to be as shallow as possible yet still deliver high-output and great detail. And of course some of our speakers are the byproduct of innate creativity smoldering within our design and engineering team.”
The company’s W-Series speakers could certainly fit into this mold of ingenuity: they feature a wedge-shaped form factor in an aircraft-grade aluminum enclosure that can be used either vertically or horizontally. According to Telesky, W-Series is ideal for immersive surround systems but also well suited for challenging climate conditions, such as under eaves, a pergola, or any other outdoor application. In addition, they can be custom finished to match nearly any décor.
James Loudspeaker’s W-Series speakers feature a wedgeshaped form factor in an aircraft-grade aluminum enclosure that can be used either vertically or horizontally.
Rather than putting all of their resources into pushing the limits of sonic quality and high-end innovation, some companies, like ELAC, are looking to a different challenge: delivering the best possible sound at a price point that most people can afford. “Audio seems to have moved upmarket, leaving behind opportunities for those new entrants to audio that don’t have much money to spend,” said Andrew Jones, vice president of engineering at ELAC America.
“Our goal is to not just design great value products, but to do so at entry-level prices that are truly affordable,” Jones continued. “These should have a WOW! factor: even though the purchaser has been told that these are the products to buy, they should still be surprised when they listen.” To achieve this value proposition, the company has taken to developing calibration tools for a device its customers already own: a smartphone. Using an app that utilizes a smartphone’s microphone, users can perform room tuning and system integration tasks for its S10EQ and S12EQ subwoofers on their own, allowing them to achieve greatsounding results at a greatly reduced price.
Similarly, Polk Audio, a longtime staple in the value-oriented home audio space, is maintaining its successful market approach in innovative new ways. Polk has developed a unique approach, in which consumers can begin with one of its Omni S2 wireless speakers, then, if desired, add additional units and pair them with the company’s Omni SB1 Plus soundbar to create a very flexible wireless surround sound system.
Polk customers can begin with one of its Omni S2 wireless speakers, then, if desired, add additional units and pair them with the company’s Omni SB1 Plus soundbar to create a very flexible wireless surround sound system.
Soundbars in particular, are a very popular item within the brand’s core customer range, so it has been working to create solutions designed to give the more entry-level user a great-sounding system. “As more consumers adopt soundbars, we want to continue to offer them the very best 5.1 experience, wirelessly,” said Michael Greco, global brand director of Polk Audio. “In addition, we’re engineering vocal intelligibility technology in our soundbars. Today’s TVs are so thin and with that, so are the integrated speakers. Our products are helping solve for the lack of volume and sound quality the TVs provide, giving consumers loud and clear voices with vibrant detail and ground-rattling explosions —truly immersing the consumer in the entertainment.”
From the hair-raising realism of immersive home theater audio, to the anywhere-everywhere convenience of wireless systems, the development of new speaker technologies is nearing an all-time high. Whether it’s offerings catered to the demands of the masses, or solutions based on far-out technologies nobody saw coming, its safe to say: we can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Matt Pruznick is associate editor of Residential Systems and Systems Contractor News. Follow him on Twitter @Pruznick.