The first time a noisemaker was reportedly placed behind a wall was in 1846, in the form of Fortunato, whom Edgar Allen Poe’s grisly narrator was bricking up in his family’s catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado.” Since then, in-wall speakers have grown significantly as a product category.
In-walls, also known as architectural speakers, are more tethered to the residences they’re installed in than just about any other audio category. Understandably, the sector has declined as the housing market wallowed in the Great Recession, but this year housing starts are up and buyers are buying again, making the in-wall category one worth making a wager on.
The Wall As A Baffle
New construction techniques have helped change the perception that in-wall speakers offer inferior performance in exchange for invisibility. That might have been the case once, but newer designs more often employ active electronics, putting the electronic crossover before the amplifier, and taking into account the challenges of putting speaker components in a wall instead of a ported and baffled box.
AV systems integrators need to watch for many of those same challenges. Bart LoPiccolo, national sales manager at Genelec, said the baffle–the surface plane that the loudspeaker components are mounted on–generally stops at the edges of the enclosure with stand-alone speakers, but the wall that the in-walls are placed behind essentially becomes a drywall extension of that baffle. That can actually work in an installer’s favor. “Inside a typical enclosure, the edge of the baffle when it hits the inside of the box can become a diffraction point, which can introduce LoPiccolo explained.
However, just as the extension of the baffle by using the wall can help, another kind of extension can be troublesome. The speaker enclosure is defined space; therefore, its volume is part of the speaker’s acoustical and performance design. If speaker components are mounted inside a wall without their own box, the inside of the wall becomes its de facto enclosure. Studs are typically 16 inches apart, so the horizontal width is reasonably predictable, but floor-to-ceiling heights are far less so, thus creating significantly the speakers to work in, with unpredictable results. LoPiccolo recommended using speakers that have their own enclosures to avoid this.
KEF’s Classic Ci Series features a two-way design.Another point well taken is to avoid placing in-wall speakers too close to a corner, where the sidewall can create reflections and distortions. Similarly, exterior speakers can be canted and turned as needed for directionality; in-walls have to follow the plane of the wall. Some speakers offer swiveling tweeters and mid-range drivers, but inside a wall, even minor changes in directionality which close to the extended baffle discussed before, can create issues, such as phase distortion. LoPiccolo said waveguides, such as Genelec’s direct control waveguide technology, matches frequency response and directivity characteristics of the drivers in the loudspeaker to optimize overall frequency response for on and offaxis listening positions and reduce reflected sound energy at the listening position.
Flush-mounted speakers–including inceiling speakers–are application-agnostic, of course, but dealers find that they are the overwhelming choice for distributed audio systems, though they’re less in demand for home theaters. Gerry Lynch, president of System 7, an AV integrator in Winchester, MA, said the ratio is about 80/20 for flush-mounted speakers for distributed audio and the reverse of that for home theaters. One reason is the increased use of acoustical fabrics in home theater designs, which he said enables integrators to hide stand-alone speakers behind fabric finishes. There is an overall increased emphasis on aesthetics when it comes to audio systems, particularly when dealing with speakers, which are their most prominent protuberance. But, Lynch pointed out, “Distributed audio is mostly about appearances, or more precisely, about not seeing things like speakers. In home theaters, there’s more of an emphasis on performance.”
Selling in-wall speakers is its own kind of experience, one in which a speaker’s looks are as important as its sound. Whereas the aesthetic of the box speaker is generally judged relative to the rest of the AV componentry, or even apart from them as a work of industrial design unto itself, the in-wall speaker has to accept camouflage without complaint and never at the price of performance.
Ryan Heringer, president of Sound Concepts, said in-wall speakers have consistently grown as a category for his store in Jonesboro, AR. He has set up part of his 17,000-square-foot, $2.2 million showroom to display and demo a total of 10 inwall brands in pairs, with the left speaker grilled and painted to “show the wife how it blends into a wall,” he said, and the right speaker left exposed, “to show the guy what he’s getting.”
Ryan Heringer, president of Sound Concepts, has set up part of his showroom to display and demo a total of 10 in-wall brands in pairs, with the left speaker grilled and painted to “show the wife how it blends in to a wall,” he said, and the right speaker left exposed, “to show the guy what he’s getting.”Fabric-covered walls, using acoustical coverings that have become more popular and affordable in recent years, have helped mitigate some of the aesthetic differences between speakers. Heringer said that’s allowed more emphasis to be placed on speaker types and performance. He delineated most often between horn-loaded and diaphragm speaker designs, pegging them to the listeners’ musical tastes. “If they say they like rock and roll, I’ll steer them toward the horn-loaded speakers like the Klipsch,” a design, he said, that handles high power more efficiently tends to “sound brighter.” Classical and jazz buffs will generally first listen to diaphragm-type in-wall speakers from Sunfire, Paradigm, or B&W. “They tend to be smoother around the edges, less harsh,” he explained.
Gerry Lynch at System 7 finds that if a speaker can pass the aesthetics test–if it’s sufficiently able to pass muster with women and interior decorators–then the competition is a matter of performance versus budget. “When it comes down to joint decisions for a couple, aesthetics tends to trump performance,” he said. “Once you get past that, then you have to weigh budget issues against the kind of performance that people are expecting.
Of course there are just some places that flush-mounted transducers were not meant to go. Lynch refers to a high-end Boston condo projects he did where there were two inches of clearance between floor and ceiling, which meant in-ceiling speakers were out of the question. “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.”
Perhaps the hardest part of the sell is simply letting customers know that in-wall solutions exist. An 80-inch LCD seen by a client in a friend’s home registers instantly on their mental “to-get” pad, but an invisible sound system can blend into their awareness as well as it blends into the home’s décor. “It still shocks me when I encounter people who have never seen or heard of an in-wall speaker,” said Lynch, eyes wide at the thought.
Dan Daley is a freelance writer in Nashville, TN.
Rockin’ the House
Making the Case for In-Wall Subs
Sunfire’s HRSIW8 is a dual-driver, 8-inch in-wall sub.Subwoofers are all about making the home theater experience visceral. However, once installed inside a wall, the sub can potentially do as much damage as Bruce Willis on a bad day.
Sustained high sound pressure levels (SPL) in the lowest reproducible low-frequency range, between 20 Hz and 40 Hz, have been shown literally capable of tearing the house down, starting with protruding nail heads and ultimately cracking and tearing drywall. And even at non-destructive SPL, a subwoofer’s mechanical coupling to a wall could add unwanted resonances (i.e., distortion) to the low frequencies.
As much a concern is that while a stand-alone sub can be moved around until the ideal location is determined, once an in-wall sub is in, it’s in–unless the installer enjoys drywall repair. Mark Weisenberg, director of audio at Core Brands’ Sunfire, said analyzing a room before committing to an in-wall sub location is critical, as is making the installation as vibration-free as possible.
Rooms have frequency nulls and resonances that can distort intelligibility and inhibit even propagation but that can be predicted very precisely using an analysis tool, like an Audyssey Pro, which can indicate how best to apply equalization to correct these anomalies. Distortion introduced by mechanical and acoustical vibration will require stabilization of the installation site. Methods to accomplish this include installing reinforced back boxes on subs, adding studs and more drywall screws, silicone caulking to seal spaces between drywall and studs, or acoustical materials designed to reduce low-frequency propagation.
Multiple subwoofers are often a simpler solution, reducing low-frequency propagation problems and vibration issues. The drawback to that, of course, is cost; in-wall subs can come with a premium of over 50 percent more than stand-alone subs.