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Two Sides of Speaker Design

Few subjects can inspire debate among homeowners like the aesthetics of the house in which they live, but finding the perfect audio setup for a room can be a winnable goal with the right approach and speakers designed to impress.

The Balance of Aesthetics and Engineering Sets Freestanding Speakers Apart

Opalum’s FLOW.1010 is designed to match the newest LED TVs with its translucent acrylic glass floating about 1.7-inches (4 cm) off the wall. The array of precision made aluminum drivers is controlled by the Actisonic digital audio technology.

MartinLogan utilizes electrostatic transducer with three basic components–stators, diaphragm, and spars.Few subjects can inspire debate among homeowners like the aesthetics of the house in which they live, but finding the perfect audio setup for a room can be a winnable goal with the right approach and speakers designed to impress.

Kathy Gornik, president of Thiel Audio, said that solid engineering and aesthetic appeal aren’t just compatible; often, one follows the other. “Because people generally recognize and respond well to quality, they usually find things attractive that are well engineered,” Gornik said. “Thiel speakers are extremely well engineered, and the high-quality materials we use are naturally appealing to the quality audiophile. We feel strongly that in most cases, if you are building a music system that looks great but sounds poor, you are going about it the wrong way.”

Gornik added that in Thiel’s designs, form follows function, which means that the size, shape, and materials of the speakers have specific engineering reasons for being.

“The decision about whether one should have aesthetic or audio quality is seldom absolute,” Gornik said. “When aesthetics and performance are in conflict, there is always a happy balance between them.”

Such deliberation in design can be conveyed to consumers with the right demo.

“Our experience has been that the dealer who is willing and able to spend time and create a good demonstration is the most successful in selling good sound,” Gornik said.

She recalled one particularly successful dealer who developed a compelling presentation that started with the customer listening to speakers hidden behind wallpaper, then to exposed inwall speakers, followed finally by floor-standing speakers.

“The improvements were so dramatic at every step, that even the uninitiated could clearly understand the benefits of the free-standing speakers over the previously presented options,” Gornik said. “Dealers with the ability to demonstrate are in a unique position to educate the customer into a higher performance system.”

It stands to reason that a customer–or a customer’s reluctant spouse–will be able to focus on and appreciate the superior sound quality of a speaker if they first appreciate its looks. Jack Shafton, vice president of sales and marketing for GoldenEar Technology, says that aesthetic appeal is the starting point for all GoldenEar products, and the company’s recent origins make this goal easier to accomplish.

“The great thing about a new company is you are not tied to a ‘tool box’ filled with old parts and existing designs. A fresh start means new looks and latest technology,” Shafton said.

“Sandy Gross, GoldenEar’s designer–and the founder and designer for Polk Audio and Definitive Technology speakers in his past–envisions the product’s look based on his aesthetic design goals, with full knowledge as to what is necessary to achieve the performance goals he has set for these ‘next-generation’ products, and then works with our industrial designers to turn this vision into a 3D model,” Shafton said. “The design then goes to our engineering team to implement the technology necessary to achieve the designer’s performance goals.”

Shafton added that GoldenEar’s products all have a family resemblance, but are designed to stand on their own as unique and attractive products in their category.

“Besides their very unique look–they are not wood wrapped rectangular-ish boxes–the GoldenEar speakers represent the culmination of the speakerdesign expertise of one of the most gifted and prolific speaker designers of our time. Our speakers have raised the bar for performance and value, thanks to innovative new technologies like the GoldenEar High Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter used in all GoldenEar models and out-of-the-box creative design, engineering, and manufacturing.”

“Looks have a lot to do with a consumer’s willingness to live with a speaker on the floor, according to Jack Shafton, VP of sales and marketing for GoldenEar. “One customer told us ‘My wife likes the look of our living room better with the Triton Two in the room,’” he said.Shafton suggested that there are instances when aesthetics should be set aside in favor of unmatched audio quality–particularly if audio is one of the focal points of the room in the first place.

“It’s all a question of what’s important, and that varies with every customer,” Shafton said. “If a space is primarily for audio–including home theater, of course–there should be a way to incorporate an attractive floor standing speaker into the environment.”

Opalum, a new speaker company based in Sweden, offers designs by Eva Hanner, whose previous creations included award-winning concept cars and private jet interiors, to designer collections launched by high-profile home-styling brands. The company’s speaker models all incorporate a waveshaped front baffle/grill, and are made as slim as possible.

“Aesthetic appeal is the most important criteria,” said Rune Karsbaek, managing director for Opalum. “We design the speakers first and then we build in our patented Actisonic technology with which we can achieve high-end sound quality from ‘impossible’ designs.”

All of Opalum’s models are active and feature Actiline and Actisonic technologies. According to Opalum, the company’s DSP algorithms eliminate the need for a big speaker box to get rich bass.

“Floorstanding speakers are as much furniture as they are audio components,” said Al Baron, product line manager for Polk Audio. “Every aspect of the aesthetic is debated and checked right up until the time they go into production.”

All Thiel speakers, including these CS24SEs, are phase and time coherent, a technical parameter that certainly impacts its industrial designs from floor-standing products to our architectural speakers.According to Baron, each of Polk’s speaker series are designed with a unique look that helps the models blend into a room.

“At a time when flat panel displays often dominate an entertainment system, we know that freestanding speakers have to be both visually appealing and sonically superior to other solutions if they are going to be popular and profitable for our dealers,” Baron said.

Sound quality may have ample research and lab analysis to support it, but pure aesthetics remain ultimately subjective. Many loudspeaker manufacturers have embraced bold, unique designs that help win over customers and create a sense of brand unity.

“Our unique technology using Curvilinear Electrostatic (CLS) panels and exotic Folded Motion drivers sets MartinLogan in a completely different world from typical cone and dome speakers,” said Justin Bright, director of digital marketing at MartinLogan.

MartinLogan utilizes electrostatic transducer with three basic components–stators, diaphragm, and spars. The diaphragm is an ultra light plastic film, impregnated with an electrically conductive material and stretched between the two stators.

“We use these materials to achieve better accuracy (because of lower distortion) and controlled dispersion to get the sound exactly where it should be, without the room and other close objects adding coloration to the sound,” Bright said. “MartinLogan speakers are also uniquely stylized and our obsessive attention to detail is apparent in our entire family of products. When customers walk into a store, our speakers grab their attention as something uniquely special, and that’s confirmed with one listen.”

According to Bright, MartinLogan’s design language involves using the necessary elements of an electrostatic speaker to create a lightness and clarity and minimizing the imposingness of the speaker in a room. This design language is transferred down the line into all of the company’s products.

“And of course,” Bright added, “a good selection of musical recordings for two-channel playback and a well-setup demo pair of speakers with a neutral sounding demo space is also critical.”

Jack Shafton of GoldenEar agrees that it’s often all about the demo.

“A great demo sets the tone for what’s possible. Many customers will find a way to make it work in their room in order to have the same experience in their home [as] they had at the store,” Shafton added. ”Looks have a lot to do with a consumer’s willingness to live with a speaker on the floor.”

Derek Dellinger is web editor for Residential Systems.