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Some speakers are meant to be heard, but not seen.
What’s that? You want a really fast car that’s quiet, comfortable, and has room for four? No such animal. You’re looking for a truly professional-grade camera that’s fully automatic and simple enough for a five-year-old to use? Out of luck again.
Shopping for an A/V receiver that doesn’t require an owner’s manual to operate? Keep looking. But if you want great sound from speakers that are all but invisible, you’re in the money.
In sharp contrast to the days when bulky boxes were par for the loudspeaker course, today’s transducers are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, an increasing number of which are surprisingly unobtrusive. Applying some clever nuts-and-bolts engineering has engendered a wonderful variety of hi-fi speakers that blend into the visual background while leaving excellent sonic performance very much in the forefront. You needn’t look far for the impetus behind this trend: As the core hi-fi generation reluctantly enters its middle years, the demand for audiophile performance has plowed headlong into the desire for speakers that don’t take over a family’s living space. The result is a flowering of models at virtually all price levels that are easy to appreciate while they’re playing, but tough to find when they’re not.
Inconspicuous speakers come in three basic varieties: in-wall models that are designed to be built into the room, mini-speakers or satellites so small that they effectively fade into the background, and speakers that don’t look like speakers at all but rather furniture or objects of art (see “In Camouflage”).
Hide ‘n’ Seek
The modern in-wall speaker, pioneered by Sonance, ADS, and Boston Acoustics, among others, is an obvious choice for anyone who wants speakers that are truly concealed. When intelligently located and painted to match the walls, they can be almost impossible to spot. And, when properly installed, they can deliver the hi-fi goods—provided, of course, the music source is clean and the amplifier is good.
Most major speaker companies have embraced the in-wall format in recent years, so there is quite a variety of products to choose from. Prices start as low as $100 a pair and scale up into four-figure territory. All in-wall speakers share certain advantages — as well as a few liabilities. Obvious benefits include a “zero footprint”—a boon to the space-conscious home owner and apartment dweller—and the ability to blend seamlessly into the decor; most in-walls are designed to be flush mounted and have grille covers that can be painted or even wallpapered to match an interior scheme. But there are sonic pluses as well. When carefully deployed, in-wall speakers have an imaging advantage over many freestanding speaker systems because there are no cabinet edges to cause diffraction. Being mounted on the same plane as the wall also helps to mitigate the inevitable effects of room acoustics on mid-bass smoothness and accuracy.
On the other hand, in-walls do have a few serious encumbrances. For one, you have to cut holes in your walls and snake wires between the speakers and your power amplifier or receiver—not the easiest of tasks for the average weekend warrior. And because it’s nearly impossible to forecast sonic performance reliably, it’s extremely difficult to evaluate in-wall speakers and select optimum mounting locations. The sad fact is that you won’t really know how they’re going to sound until you stick them in the wall—at which point it’s too late to try another spot or another model. Nor are in-walls particularly portable, which is why you won’t find many short-term renters who are willing to go the in-wall route.
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On the aural side of things, the lack of a conventional enclosure makes the deep-bass response of in-walls some what elusive and hard to predict. In- wall speakers also tend to transmit sound (especially lows) to adjacent rooms quite readily—something to keep in mind when choosing mounting locations. One popular way to enhance bass performance without overly “polluting” the adjacent room is to assemble a three-piece system that teams a pair of in-wall speakers with a conventional freestanding subwoofer. And for bass lovers who want to keep things simple, a few full-range in-walls are equipped with an integral enclosure—usually a tall, shallow cabinet that is concealed inside the wall be tween the studs. The potential benefits to such a design are improved bass performance and reduced through- the-wall sound transmission. Finally, a few manufacturers offer subwoofers that are engineered to be secured between wall studs or mounted under the floor and vented through a heating-type grate.
Another interesting twist on the in conspicuous theme is the on-wall speaker: A conventional speaker with a very shallow enclosure (usually only 6 to 8 inches deep) that can be hung directly on the wall, providing at least some of the space-saving appeal of in- wall speakers. Many on-walls are attractively unconventional in visual appeal but most fall a bit short in the deep-bass department.
Mini Duo and Trios
Back in the late Seventies a handful of speaker makers discovered a fertile market for mini-monitors, acoustic suspension speakers small enough to be held easily in one’s hand. Brand- name minis quickly became known for the astonishingly natural, dynamic sound they delivered. Stereo imaging, in particular, was excellent thanks to their very small and narrow front baffles, which helped to reduce image-smearing diffraction effects. Legions of buyers discovered that only rarely did they miss the bottom two octaves of bass that was all but absent in these speakers’ output; far more important was that miniature speakers could be placed inconspicuously on a bookshelf or mantelpiece.
For all these reasons—and more— mini-monitors remain popular today. They can do an excellent job as primary speakers in studio apartments or small rooms, and they make great secondary speakers in the kitchen, bed room, or just about anywhere. Many are available in white or off-white for more natural blending into the room’s decor, and some are even weather-proofed for use outdoors. Minis are also widely used as primary (front) and surround-channel speakers in home theater setups.
An even more popular speaker disappearing act these days is the three-piece subwoofer/satellite combo, a system made up of a stand-alone subwoofer and two mini-speakers. The concept, popularized by Bose in the middle 1980’s and quickly adopted by dozens of other makers, is simple: A woofer module—sometimes powered by its own built-in amplifier—reproduces low frequencies, while a pair of miniature “satellite” speakers handles the rest of the musical spectrum. Since deep bass is difficult, if not impossible, to localize by ear, the bass module can typically be placed wherever it’s convenient, freeing the stereo speakers—which in many cases have been shrunk to subminiature size—to be positioned for minimum visual in trusion.
Several sub/sat systems from Bose and others employ satellites that aren’t much bigger than a pint milk carton. Such micro combos can deliver remarkably full-range sound and precise imaging. Millions of unwary listeners have been astonished during a first encounter by full-bodied stereo that seems to emanate from a pair of minute speakers. (Typically, unsuspecting listeners don’t even spot the woofer module until the beaming demonstrator reveals its whereabouts — pulling back a drape or pointing behind a couch.) Sub/sat systems have thus become immensely popular wherever space is tight or the decor is incompatible with conventional tower-style or even bookshelf speakers.
Though not universal, there are a few shortcomings to many three-piece speaker systems. First, the quest for miniaturization has led to ever-shrinking satellite speakers. And as the satellites get smaller, their ability to adequately reproduce mid-bass frequencies suffers. Consequently, the companion bass modules may have to operate up into the lower midrange, which tends to muddle imaging and midrange-to-bass smoothness. And the higher the cross over frequency between the bass module and satellites, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to localize the bass output. While you’d be hard pressed to pick out the location of a bass module that plays up to, say, 80 or 100 Hz—with your eyes closed, of course!—you’d probably be able to sense the location of one that operates beyond 200 Hz or so.
Second, through no fault of its own, the sub/sat system’s very convenience can be its undoing: Micro satellites are so easy to camouflage that many owners place them in locations less than conducive to good imaging—like be hind the ficus tree or a few inches from the ceiling, rather than at ear level and out in the room. With any two-channel stereo system, an unobstructed triangular layout (with the listener at the apex) usually produces the best sound.
Third, there’s the question of ultimate level and deep-bass output: More than a few compact speaker trios simply cannot play loud enough to reproduce symphonic or rock music realistically. And despite very high-tech, computer-aided enclosure designs, compact bass modules are sometimes too small to deliver the bottom octave or so of bass with authority.
Finally, wiring can be another three- piece conundrum: Cables running be tween the bass module and the satellites can be tricky to conceal. None of these caveats will cause casual listeners to take pause, however, and even serious listeners should be able to find a sub/sat system they can live with.
If you determine that a sub/sat combo answers your needs, there are few things to keep in mind. If serious listening is part of your plan, look into systems whose satellites are able to play below about 200 Hz—often not the case with the tiniest of speakers. Generally speaking, the lower the sub woofer-to-satellite crossover point, the more natural the sound—and the less sensitive the bass module is to placement. As for bass performance, larger subwoofers will almost always deliver more genuine deep bass than smaller ones.
Audition three-piece systems as critically as you would listen to any high-performance speaker pair. Common flaws include a “chesty” mid range (male voices sound too “fat”), an overly warm mid-bass (which comes across as a prominent boom in well-recorded pop music), and an audible gap in response or imaging (often due to a high crossover point between the subwoofer and satellites).
If you’re considering a three-piece combo as part of a home-theater setup in which the satellites will be placed close to the TV, make sure they are magnetically shielded (most are). All speakers radiate a magnetic field that can distort the TV picture. Likewise, if you plan to put the bass module near the TV, be sure that it, too, is shielded—many are not.
On the in-wall side of things, planning is the key to success. Unless you’re experienced in the design and installation of custom A/V systems, seek professional help. Reputable dealers will have an in-wall expert on hand to help you select models that are optimum for your situation—taking into consideration things like your available wall space and listening preferences.
A few guidelines: Don’t assume that any wall in your house is suitable for in-wall speaker installation—exterior walls are often avoided because snaking wires through insulated spaces is very difficult. Keep in mind that location plays a critical role in overall sound quality—especially imaging. When auditioning in-wall speakers, make sure that the candidates are in stalled in a partition of some sort, and that the models you’re comparing are in similar locations. After you buy in-walls, don’t mount them too high up, and space them much as you would a conventional pair of speakers. Putting in-walls too high, too close together, or too far apart will degrade sound quality. Stop to consider the room on the other side of the host wall: Some sound transmission is inevitable. Ceiling locations should be reserved for casual listening areas.
In-wall speakers can be a tempting choice for home theater systems. But remember that they’re essentially impossible to relocate if you decide to rearrange your room or home. Additionally, using in-wall speakers up front means that they’ll probably be on a sonic plane that’s a few feet behind the TV screen—not ideal, particularly for the very important center-channel speaker. (Of course, if the TV screen is built into the same wall as the speakers, the effect can be excellent sonically and stunning visually.) Don’t over look the handful of in-wall models designed specifically for surround- channel reproduction—their special driver arrays and dispersion patterns can do a superb job.
Otherwise, approach unconventional speakers the same way you would conventional speakers. Audition them with a sharp ear for vocal naturalness, spatial realism, bass ex tension and definition, and the hundred-and-one other elements of superb sound, and you’ll recognize those that deliver the real sonic goods in a snap.
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Beyond in-walls, minis, and sub/sat systems are speakers that rely on disguise, rather than concealment, to stand out from the hi-fi crowd. Several firms now specialize in speakers that masquerade as something else or present such an attractive facade as to overshadow their acoustic nature.
One of the most prolific sources for disguised speakers is the Danish maker Jamo, which offers a wide array of speakers that look like lighting fixtures or architectural elements. Jamo’s clever Atmosphere model combines an attractively scalloped wall-sconce lighting fixture with a two-way bass-reflex speaker said to deliver full-range response down to 40Hz. A flexible mounting system permits the Atmosphere’s halogen lamp to function as either a spotlight or an indirect light.
----92 Rockustics’ Rocky Jr. ($940 a pair)
---92 Contemporary Audio Design’s CA.D.1 subwoofer end table ($1,300)
Rockustics offers perhaps the most thoroughly disguised of all speakers— transducers that are crafted from concrete and stone to resemble natural stones. While not necessarily the last word in hi-fi reproduction, these “rock” speakers can deliver surprisingly good sound.— especially for casual background listening. Created for outdoor use, Rockustics speakers might also be suitable for some indoor applications—as in a solarium or a corner filled with house plants. Several speakers, including some high- end designs, have followed a different evolutionary path: They impersonate art.
Carver’s sculpted-wood Amazing series and several faux-marble obelisk-like ribbon speakers from Apogee Acoustics come to mind. Bang & Olufsen’s Penta speaker is a strikingly clean chrome-and-gray column just a few inches in diameter that might easily be mistaken for a contemporary sculpture or an architectural element.
Finally, several firms specialize in hi-fi speakers designed to function as fine furniture—fine enough that the speaker aspect is not immediately obvious. One example is the Hepplewhite from Eggleston Works of Memphis, Tennessee: a meticulously hand-crafted antique- mahogany end table that gives fancy cover to a titanium-dome tweeter, two midrange drivers, and an 8-inch woofer. Such craftsmanship does not come cheap, however: Eggleston’s products cost several thousand dollars per pair. Other makers of speaker furniture include Sound Decor of Cortland, Ohio, and Contemporary Audio Design (Patterson Mechanical Services) of Easthampton, Massachusetts.
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From: Stereo Review (Jan. 1994) by DAN KUMIN
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