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What to Know About Loudspeakers That Nobody's Talking About

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  • What to Know About Loudspeakers That Nobody's Talking About

    You're here because of your interest in loudspeakers and sound. Hopefully you're interested in better sound.

    There's a lot to the speaker where good sound is concerned, but the author's working experience can help pass on what to be aware of. This is not a how-to on speaker engineering, but a what-for.

    This is the overview on loudspeakers that nobody's telling you.

    Introduction and qualifications

    Chane's work centers on performance speakers with a focus on realistic, engaging sound and strong value. Chane users regard this sound as authentic and enjoyable, with scores of their reports and reviews expressing their satisfaction by comparison to the commercial marketplace; internet darlings and Big Box brands alike.

    Achieving this goal is an involved process.

    The following short essays will relate the philosophical core of what we've learned over decades. Parts of it may surprise some readers, but it's a realistic, correlated, and verifiable set of findings. It can't be a how-to of the actual technical aspects of this work, but it should reframe them into a useful customer perspective, one that with the wide scale commercialization and commoditizing of the retail field can identify key aspects of fulfilling sound in personal music and cinema.

    Chane is qualified by forty years of research and work. Our joint team has a century of background in the field and much of what the author relates herein also reflects their experiences. A brief backgrounder is here, and lists a broad range of pertinent work and winning results ranging from autosound to audiophile, commercial to institutional, on three continents, in a dozen nations, and involving dozens of other professionals. Years ago our list of one-off projects stopped counting at two hundred, and the author has created dozens of commercial models and developed key methods and techniques.

    The core finding of this work is as simple as it is complex: Realistic sound observes methods and rules and like any complex, technical discipline, there are no ways to escape their underlying physics. Good sound goes beyond the superficial gloss of simple behaviors and into complexity.

    There are no short cuts and there are no magic technologies. It's all physics all the time and as the artist he really is, the audio scientist must paint from that palette.

    We've done all that. This is our opinion and narrative.

    [Subject to revisions, corrections, and further thoughts as time permits.]

  • #2
    A philosophy of quality

    It shouldn't be surprising that good sound is the product of the unrelenting quest for quality. As with all fields of endeavor aimed at highest form or performance, there is too much to entrust to cursory assumptions, shortcuts, or compromises. The same diligence needed to succeed in any other field of achievement applies here.

    Commercial compromise abounds in many fields of endeavor. Scores of fast food drive-ins vie for the lion's share of the local retail culinary dollar, yet one walk-in restaurant in a sidewalk community will put all of their menus combined to shame. This is a given; it's not controversial, debatable, or avoidable. The best is not the mainstream, and quality matters.

    It's been said that real audio quality pursues the sound of acoustical events happening in acoustical space. It's true, and achieving results here translates to all forms of reproduced audio content, from home cinema to nightclub, listening chair to studio. Realism is always realism and achieving as much of it as possible is simply the work of dedication, exactitude, and above all, simple quality.

    Identifying quality is the trick, and with so much retail interest being brought to bear on the drive-in base of the sales pyramid, with it narratives have been devised to restructure the usual and expected rules of quality to suit. Audio is not much different. The belief that there are successful work-arounds to quality is incorrect.


    • #3
      Reasons to do audio

      Before any analysis of the invisible sound of reproduced audio can succeed we could ask why we're doing audio at all. Is it really for this sound? It absolutely doesn't have to be. There are many reasons to do audio and all of them are fine in the judgement of any one buyer and user.
      • Filling a common need with a cursory commercial solution
      • Price
      • Proximity
      • Serving a brand loyalty
      • Preferring a cabinet's furniture style and look
      • Reading sound into chartwork and specification
      • Following the crowd and fandom
      • Any dissociated belief about reproduced sound
      • Any other epistemic closure on any arbitrary yardstick, intellectual or emotional
      There are others.

      Last on this list is however, the ostensible first on this list: Actual good sound. And it's the author's opinion that sound itself could account for about ten percent of all audio purchases.

      Which is fine. Any customer need not justify, except to him or herself, the decision to buy and use. However, when the goal is real sound and relative acoustical success per the definition of what constitutes this sound, we have to look deeper, and each of these other rationale could fail to deliver. More than a few may actually be in conflict with that goal.

      Next let's talk about one of them.


      • #4
        The "Science" and what a simplified version got wrong

        Let's single out and investigate one of the stars of purported loudspeaker analysis allegedly in service of sound. We've written on it previously, attempting to correct erroneous assumptions that could come with it.

        There have been many attempts over the years to isolate, represent, and codify aspects of sound as data, so as to identify beforehand authentic reproduced sound. Most of these data are simplified into the retail marketplace to amplitude response, usually with a nod to the presumed effects, whether positive or negative, of the speaker's acoustical surroundings, also given in amplitudes. Given the immediate issues this raises the author finds this perplexing and contradictory.

        Amplitude response is a philosophically simple, single function - often represented in exhaustive and excessive detail for its own sake – of a speakers loudness per each frequency increment over its range. This output is one of a dozen or more complex loudspeaker functions but it's rocketed to the top of all of them, eclipsing the rest, whether singularly or as a group.

        Amplitude response, also called frequency response, is in fact the bedrock framework of speaker design. All initial goals center on it, and it composes the yardstick any speaker design seeks as its original center. Amplitude response is also the easiest to achieve, all things considered, with sound-by-numbers design work usually completed by lunch, if not the weekend. It's only a question of a microphone, a design theory, a reasonably cooperative box of parts, and the time to lash it all together and render that nice even amplitude function.

        Great sound, however, involves all aspects of the loudspeaker's many behaviors. Engineered well, what had been a metric of one can and should at times compromise itself in order to balance all factors in relative importance to the ear. Fortunately this can be done, this balancing of all variables, instead of assuming only one, and it's what labels the loudspeaker engineer an artist who works with the “scientific” paintbrush.

        A book could be written on the errors, rhetorical and technical, audible and physical, of assuming and then insisting that one response or family of responses is the singular indicator of speaker sound quality. It certainly does constitute a science of sorts, and it is a handy referent to a putatively correct way to do things, but the whole of this science, to actually be science, has by comparison vastly more complexity, and in this broader field also has numerous additional findings to lend meaningfully to the whole.

        The simple amplitude response function is rather a part of a particular set of knowledge yet it's ultimate importance is mingled with six or ten other very important variables, some more so than others and some more audible and important than others.

        We'll go into that next.


        • #5
          What to do

          Now comes the part of the essay that eventually delves into proprietary technique and method and whose strict detail is off the table - nobody's talking about it because it's stock and trade. We can however isolate the key categories, behaviors, and manifestations of a loudspeaker's complex character and present a simple list.

          Organizing these elements by some artistic blending, one that is itself inherently complex and prone to trades between physical function and sound, is the engineer's challenge. He has at least a few standards and conditions to involve, but is the net result of the recipe a genuinely insightful, truthful, and connected recreation of an original performance.

          We'll come to that in a subsequent comment; this sound of success. It's very rare but it is also not at all unheard.

          We can list these related and interrelated factors two different ways, almost as if to cross-confirm them. One of these lists comprises the notes of many years experience as sound derives from behavior, and the other is the reverse, as behavior that invariably influence and present sound.

          It's interesting to find that they were noted years apart, and the earlier was forgotten until after the latter was jotted down. Yet they mirror one another. It should be noted that these are from one perspective and they are certainly variable – the orders of relative importance are subjective, although they are largely in sync, the interesting correlation that's also a confirmation.

          They follow in the next essay. Each are in relative, approximate order of importance assuming the others in the list are been brought into reasonable, customary compliance with the rules of good design.


          • #6
            The list of important speaker behaviors in which Sound Follows Function

            In approximate order of importance:

            Dynamic ease, pace, freedom. Strongly related to acoustical size. Heavily favors the larger speaker over the smaller.

            Natural timbre and organic rightness. Illusive and implicitly unrelated to simplified technical speaker attributes, this quality involves image specificity, palpability, organic sound or the sound of nature, and true tone colors. It stems from the interplay of many important behaviors, and has little reference to absolute amplitude linearity.

            Wide bandwidth, not to be confused with flat axial amplitude response. Always physically related to efficiency and acoustical size. This quality impresses the listener as a property of a high fidelity system.

            Three dimensionality, which is a proof of all other factors.

            Low evident distortion, which should involve the subjective adjectives used to describe better sound as much as it does strict technical responses.

            Low self-noise and resonance. Quality in construction matters.

            Benign time and phase error, which given the math, involve most other elements but do not derive from them. This could actually be #1, although it's clearer to list this as a factor and not a central overriding quality.

            Flat axial amplitude response, which is more a proof of an abstract design goal than indicator of absolute sound. Since not all multiway speakers mathematically sum to flat, can indicate a compromised design goal, interestingly. The assumption that all good speakers sum to flat at an arbitrary test point or at an average arbitrary test point is debatable.

            Linear acoustical power response, which has technical relevance to basic amplitude and power responses. Extraordinarily good-sounding speakers may have natural directivity control as successfully as they have virtually none at all.

            Everything else: Impedance magnitude, specific driver type (with very few notable exceptions, few of them currently in popular vogue), sensitivity for its own sake (again with notable exceptions but these vanish when speakers are well-sized to use, and others.

            And in the second list the Function Determines Sound

            In approximate order of importance:

            Acoustical size

            Damping, transient response, stored energy, self-noise, etc

            Fundamental bass highpass function, damping, and power behaviors, especially absolute reference level, which can vary in design by a few Decibels broadband, all of it being quite audible but missing from virtually all popular literature.

            All pass, minimum phase, linear phase, and transient relationships; and how and where time offset, group delay, and step response affect the first-arrival design center.

            Intermodulation and distribution.

            Bandwidth and spectral balance.

            Strict or absolute amplitude response.

            Distortion, type, and distribution; total harmonic distribution.

            Interdriver transfer function Q.

            Vertical symmetry of directivity.

            Excess power deviation and location

            Absolute environmental uniformity and distribution

            There's a lot to a loudspeaker, however with enough perspective good sound is shown to derive from concrete phenomena in a technical hierarchy.

            This all hews fairly closely to quality, and we know quality costs. There are still no free lunches. There are sales and there is overcharging but the good product still costs more.

            This is the fundamental distinction between the speaker thought of as a simplified almost binary, digital signal generator and the speaker as the intricate, organic, and almost alive collection of potentials it really is. The engineer's job is to arrange them to a list of priorities almost as extensive as the customer's eventual buying decisions. That is, unless he's arranging them to a bill of costs, a market peculiarity, or something else.

            How many products achieve the desired result? Read on. In some rare cases, a few of them achieve it with spellbinding effect.


            • #7
              The Threshold Effect

              No one set of knowledge, especially if compromised by its premise and set of variables, can ever speak for all science. In the sound of audio all of the sciences are present in degrees and effects, in a nearly endless sea of variables, methods, and therefore, end results. In the popularized armchair science only a few are. As it turns out experts of the highest order find that the very top sound has little resemblance to commercial grade retail sound. As we'd expect, the qualities of the top quality, in sound and in the hardware that makes it, are almost unlimited. It certainly has unlimited room for the finer points that make better reproduced sound.

              This sound has one manifestation, at least in the author's experience. This sound crosses a human physiological threshold of sorts, and once there it induces a largely involuntary response. In other words, by the realism of the sound's recreation of a sufficient listener involvement in the original event – like a time machine – the listener has a unexpected reaction.

              Think of it as the reaction we'd have if any real, live musical performance were to magically manifest true to life in our space and room. How dumbstruck would we become? This is the full dose of reality we'll never hear outside of the original event, but we can trick the mind with enough of it that three senses become involved, not just one, and a deep internal reaction is unavoidable. I hear it; I see it in 3D perspective, and I feel its emotion, weight, and physical presence.

              This is the sound of joy, wonder, awe, and the pleasure they produce. That's music. That's cinematic realism.

              It's also rare. It's expensive. It is never the product of plug and play. And elements of it can be reduced, with care, into affordable consumer products. Having once witnessed it we can get solid glimpses of it in things we can afford and use. Yet, the full monty effect is, as writers say from time to time when in its presence, connected. It's sophisticated like virtually nothing we've heard prior.

              It's sufficient to induce a sense of actually being there. It connects air to air, presence to presence, and time to time. There's no way to predict, mimic, emulate, or proxy it. No metric applies, no yardstick measures. It is however, like all fine things, the product of a known method and uncompromised goal, and with luck, definite aspects of it can transcend the cost and complexity and visit more common products.


              • #8
                The hard truth and the return to a philosophy of quality and experience

                From the speaker-maker's standpoint, all of this is founded in experience, physics, and real-world results. From the user's perspective it's also a summary of what to know about loudspeakers that nobody's talking about.

                No rational exploration can or should ever be hyperbolic or narrowly centered on sales-minded rhetoric. There's no breathless, outlandish claims to amazing feats here, but taking it to heart could help the search for a meaningful acoustical experience at home, studio, or professional environment. It all boils down to the most predictable conclusion possible. Quality still matters.

                Quality matters. The best costs more. There are no end-runs or work-arounds. There are no substitutes and nobody's rewriting physics. And to find and experience it takes effort but not as much effort as making it. It's rare but not unattainable, and with care, it can translate, in parts, to affordable options.

                As sensible as they are, these may not all be popular sentiments. Yet they are long-considered principles and they are the product of a long time engaged in the work and thought behind better sound. They bear up under scrutiny and they connect to many of the qualities and touchstones we already know as consumers. They also remain abstract in a sense, although not as abstract as measured acoustical phenomena proxied into purported sound in promotional literature.

                Because they are impossible to sort and predict in any universally cogent way, they, in sum, have to be experienced. Actually witnessing it is the key to this higher experience as much as listening is what audio is for.