In-Wall Speakers: No Sir, We Don't Like Them

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Thursday, April 30, 2009
Somebody has to put a stop to this in-wall speaker madness. Here's my attempt.

For years, installing in-wall speakers has become more and more popular. Thus more and more people spend too much money for inferior sound.

A simple at-home demonstration will illustrate my point. Ask a friend or family member to stand with their backs (and heads) against the wall, and then speak in a loud, clear voice. Or better yet, ask them to sing! Then, as they are talking/singing, ask them to take one step away from the wall. Notice how the sound of their voice becomes much more clear, more open, more natural? That's because a human, or a loudspeaker, inherently sounds better when it's not jammed up against a wall -- or worse yet, jammed inside a wall. The way sound behaves when it emanates from its source too close to a wall is not good. This is why you always see audiophile-quality speakers parked out into the room, a good couple of feet away from the wall.

For years companies have worked on ways of solving this problem. And there are some decent in-wall (or sorta-in-wall/sorta-out-of-wall) speakers on the market. But they tend to be pretty pricey, and the sonic results variable. And then there's the cost of installing those in-wall speakers and their wires. Yipes! It can easily end up costing you $1,000-$2,000 to have a pair of high quality in-wall speakers installed in a room. So be prepared to pay a lot for this kind of sound system and to settle for less sound quality than you really want.

Go wireless with Roku, Squeezebox, Sonos or Apple...and maybe a little ZVOX

If you want music throughout your house, you don't need to string all those wires. The companies listed above all have pretty great wireless audio solutions that will cost about the same or less than wired audio systems. Then connect them to a small amp and a pair of good bookshelf speakers (that can be wall-mounted), and you'll get much better sound than in-walls. Or connect your Sonos/Roku/Squeezebox/Apple-Airport to a ZVOX single-cabinet sound system. Then life is very simple, sounds very good, and doesn't cost nearly so much.

iPod Speakers: Why is Everybody Settling for Low-Quality Sound?

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Tuesday, April 28, 2009
iPods® are such cool things because they package great technology in a way that's so easy to use. When the first iPod models (and other MP3 players) hit the market, the big focus was on the incredible number of songs that could be stored on such a small device. But that number was big -- at least back then -- because everybody was recording at 128 kbps sampling rates. The marginal (this is a kind word) sound quality that resulted from these sampling rates seemed acceptable at the time because, hey, "look at how many CDs I've got loaded onto this thing."

Then more affordable storage, bigger drives and/or memory came along -- and so did better sampling solutions, including Apple's "Lossless" Encoder system. So now, for everyone who cares about sound quality, you can get pretty good fidelity from your iPod.

So the big question is, "Why are so many people using crappy speaker systems with their iPods?!?!"  Little plastic speaker cabinets with super-tiny speakers. Their sound quality reminds me of what I hear when I hit a cookie tin really hard with a serving spoon. Metallic, edgy, thin, awful, lifeless, cold...just plain terrible. How can anyone listen to these shiny plastic turds? If I had my way, I would bring back stocks as a form of punishment, and put the designers/marketers of these "things" on display in the lobbies of concert halls.

Yes, it's cool that these "things" are so small. But cute only goes so far. It doesn't make up for screechy.

Here are some rules-of-thumb about how to avoid the awful:
  1. It the system is about the size of a ham sandwich, don't buy it.
  2. If the system's speakers are about the size of a quarter (or smaller), don't buy it.
  3. If it can run off AA batteries, don't buy it.
  4. If the system is shaped like a frisbee or a donut, don't buy it.
  5. If it sells for under a hundred bucks, you probably shouldn't buy it.
There are a number of good-sounding small (but not tiny) sound systems on the market that will make your iPod sound wonderful. We make a couple of them.  Give quality a try. As a friend of mine once said, "When you buy the best, you only cry once."

How to Design Great Speakers: A Henry Kloss Story

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Saturday, April 25, 2009

In about 1997, when I was at Cambridge SoundWorks, I wanted to write an article about how to design great sounding speakers. To this day I think it's amazing how many not-great-sounding speakers are designed and made. You'd think by now, with all the computerized measurement tools on the market, that the design process would be, well, a math equation. And if that were the case, why were so many speaker manufacturers flunking? Because the world is full of unexceptional speakers in just about every price range.

In the 1970s, back in the Advent days, I'd heard Henry Kloss tell stories about well-intentioned people designing speakers with the goal of a perfectly flat frequency response curve. It turns out that speakers that look perfect on paper often sound lifeless and flat. And while measurements certainly had their place, they were only part of the process.

Back then, and later at Cambridge SoundWorks, Henry did a lot of his design work by listening -- not to music, but to noise. He would use a generator to create pink noise and listen to it while trying different crossover combinations. He built this cool panel that was loaded up with chokes and capacitors that he could connect in different combinations using switches and speaker wire connectors on the front (see photo). He would spend hours and hours, for days and weeks, perfecting the tonal balance of a speaker. This process, called "voicing" a speaker, is crucial. And it's a combination of art and science. But it's mostly a lot of work. Boring work. This may be one of the reasons we still have to live with mediocre speakers around us.

A good speaker designer -- like Henry Kloss or Winslow Burhoe -- will do so much voicing work, with so many different speaker/cabinet/crossover variables, that they can predict how a speaker will sound without ever having played music through it.

Anyway, back to 1997. I finally cornered (literally) Henry back in his work area, told him about the article I wanted to write, and asked him what he thought was the secret to designing great-sounding speakers. He scowled (I think it was a scowl, it may have been his "normal" face that day), turned around, walked away 10 feet, and stood there thinking. About a minute later he turned around and said, "Fussing, fussing and fussing." Then he went back to work, without another word.

Is 5.1 Surround Sound Dead?

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, April 19, 2009
OK, calm down. No, I don't think 5.1 is dead, or even dying. But I do think it is fading away -- and fading fast.  In a few years I believe the traditional multi-speaker surround sound system will become very much like turntables and vacuum tube amplifiers. Something, in other words, reserved for serious/fanatic movie fans who are willing to pay a high price for an exotic product.

Five years ago a major retailer conducted a survey and found that over 40% of the people who bought surround sound systems either didn't hook up the rear speakers or -- get this -- lined them up in the front of the room! I have been in the homes of otherwise intelligent, normal people who have five speakers lined up on the front wall by their TV. They just couldn't be bothered with placing the speakers in the rear, then snaking wires to the front. And what's most interesting is that none of these people seem to be suffering very much. When was the last time you heard someone say, "boy I sure miss having speakers in back of me?"

Which brings me to my "painter story." Seven years ago we had our living room repainted, and the painters had to disconnect the entire home theater system and cover it with tarps. A day or so after they reconnected everything, I realized there was nothing coming out of the rear speakers. So I decided to wait to see how long it took for any of my family members or friends to notice. After over a month of no-rear-speaker-sound, I disconnected the things and put them in the attic. They never did look right on top of a Stickley bookcase.

Industry statistics back me up. Every year there are fewer 5.1 surround sound systems sold. Part of this is what I call "MP3-dumbing-down." Everybody seems to be willing to settle for less fidelity these days. And trust me, the speakers built into LCD TVs are as low as fidelity gets.

Now here's the sales pitch. "All-in-one" or "sound bar" surround sound systems like the ones made by ZVOX are gaining in popularity as fast as multi-speaker systems are falling in popularity. That's because they deliver 95%+ of what people are looking for in a home theater system -- without all the expense, the complication, the speaker boxes and the wires.  For $200 to $600 you can get a high quality system with room-filling three-dimensional sound, crystal-clear vocal clarity and great bass. And that's exactly what most people want in a home theater -- not a bunch of speaker boxes and miles of wire.

Home Theater in a (Pandora's) Box

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, April 12, 2009

When surround sound systems really started to take off in the early 1990s, they were often pretty complicated, patched-together affairs -- a Dolby(R) Pro Logic receiver, ramshackle combinations of different-sized bookshelf speakers, and a powered subwoofer hidden off in the corner. As laser disc players and DVD players replaced VCRs, and Dolby Digital replaced Pro Logic, center channel speakers were added.

For the average consumer, things were getting pretty complicated. Hooking up a decent system could take hours -- if not a whole day -- if you hadn't done it before. So the folks at Sony(R) came up with a brilliant idea: package an amp, tuner and DVD player all in one slim console, then bundle it with five little speakers and a compact powered subwoofer. Put the whole works in a big cardboard box. Then all we've got to do is come up with a name for it.....Home Theater In A Box!

HTIBs were wildly popular because they were affordable, reasonably small, and a LOT easier to hook up than a component home theater system. But most of them had a problem. Cheap, crappy-sounding speakers. The scary part was these speakers didn't look cheap. They looked cool and sexy, with silvery curves. Simple, cheap and visually-seducing -- what a combination.

But the fact is that then, and now, many HTIBs sound like you're listening to five really loud, really tinny TV speakers and a boomy subwoofer that just sits and thumps away the same 70Hz note, no matter what signal is sent to it. It's hard to blame the manufacturers for designing them this way. Today's consumer tends to shop with a checklist, not a pair of ears, while pushing his cart down the aisle. (It still amazes me that the store I started out in, with McIntosh amps, AR and Advent speakers, Revox tape decks and Thorens turntables evolved into a giant supermarket where people push shopping carts.) The customer tends to shop for features.... upscaling DVD player....100 watt amplifier....three HDMI inputs....sub-$500 price -- OK, I'll buy it. Even if he wanted to listen, he couldn't really give it a good test in a 60,000 square foot store. The point is that customers aren't demanding, or even asking for, good quality speakers. And they aren't getting them. They're getting lightweight, flexy-plastic cabinets with painfully-cheap speaker drivers.

And to rub salt in the wound, that DVD player that's built into your system -- well good luck on its technology staying current for more than nine months.

Call me a Luddite, but I think everybody should buy good old fashioned wood-cabinet speakers with high-quality speakers, voiced by someone who knows what they're doing. They might cost a little more. And they might not look like they belong on a space ship. But you'd be amazed how good your music, your movies, even your sitcoms can sound. And a good speaker system will last a good 10-20 years. Amortize your investment and it will cost you a couple bucks a month to get good sound.

PC Speakers: Cheapos, Turbo-Blasters, Tweaksters...and ZVOX

Posted by Tom Hannaher , Sunday, April 5, 2009
It's fairly remarkable how few choices one has when it comes time to pick an audio system for your computer. There are dozens of really awful-sounding cheap desktop speakers --  but if you like music (and your ears), ignore them.

Then there's the "high horsepower" models that appeal to the gaming crowd with megawatt amplifiers and giant subwoofers. Some of these actually sound pretty decent, but it's pretty rare to find one that's been properly "voiced" for good music reproduction. These guys want loud explosions for Halo and and big car crashes for Grand Theft Auto -- so proper octave-to-octave tonal balance is not a high priority.

At the top of the heap there's a relatively new assortment of ultra-high-end computer sound systems. These $500+ systems can actually sound quite good, and they look kind of cool.

But what's missing, for the most part, is good quality systems in the middle price ranges. I've been involved with the evolution of high-quality computer audio systems since 1994 when I worked with Henry Kloss and Tom DeVesto to create one of the first high-performance PC speakers -- Cambridge SoundWorks' eponymous "SoundWorks" system. Back then the most anyone wanted to spend on PC speakers was about $69. So when we introduced a system for $219, everybody (and I do mean everybody) thought we were crazy. When SoundWorks came out it was one of the two most expensive PC speaker systems on the market. A year later it was right in the middle of the price pack, as more companies introduced better systems.

Over time, market forces have pushed price points, and sound quality, down. But as more and more people are using their computers as music servers, we think it makes more sense for them to consider high quality sound systems that reproduce music accurately -- with low distortion, good dispersion and natural tonal balance. As I type this blog entry I'm listening to the the Beatles' "Love" album on the ZVOX 325 system that acts as a stand for my 24" PC monitor. It sounds marvelous, takes up about as much desk space as the monitor would without the speaker, sells for under $300 and -- best yet -- has only one connecting wire.

ZVOX isn't the only company making decent, affordable powered speaker systems for your PC. But we're the only company that give it to you all in one cabinet, with one connecting cord.
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