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DIY Loudspeakers: Can You Build "Better" Than Professional Designs?

by December 27, 2012
Contributors:
DIY Loudspeaker

DIY Loudspeaker

Loudspeakers are in a class by themselves. No matter where you find yourself on the audio enthusiast spectrum, there is no doubt that people have very strong feelings about them.  This article discusses why so many enthusiasts feel like they’ve got a grasp on making their own loudspeakers based on:

  • The kind of design approach they like
  • Features/build quality they think are important
  • What kind of drivers they like (ie. dome, cone, flat, pleated, electrostatic, metal, plastic, paper, hybrid, half-roll surround, inverted half-roll surround, accordion surround, cast basket, stamped-steel basket, neo magnets, ceramic magnets, Alnico magnets, etc.)
  • Philosophical design preferences (first-arrival axial vs. far-field power, sharp near-field imaging vs. diffuse wide-dispersion spaciousness, etc.)
  • Tonal-philosophical approaches: “accurate,” “musical,” “forgiving,” “detailed,” “lifelike,” “forward,” “laid back,” “punchy,” “exciting,” “polite.”
  • Bass-alignment preferences (sealed, ported, transmission-line, passive radiator, etc.)
  • Multiple smaller woofers or fewer big ones
  • Angled/front-rear/bipole mids/tweets or all forward-facing
  • Single driver in each passband (concerned about comb-filtering and interference) or multiple drivers in each band for greater power-handling and dynamics (the heck with near-field imaging)
  • Bi-amp connectors or if they think that’s snake oil
  • 3” MDF front baffle thickness or beyond a certain point, you’re just kidding yourself

And so on. The variations are endless, and so are the viewpoints.

So you can see, enthusiasts have strong opinions on everything, from cabinet construction to internal wiring to feet/spikes, to cabinet finish quality to grille design to crossover topology to crossover component choices to hookup options. Everything.

Not only do they have strong opinions, but hard-core audio enthusiasts are the harshest critics of commercially-available speakers. They second-guess designers’ and engineers’ decisions, they question why a manufacturer choose to name or price or market their product in a particular way, and above all, they praise or criticize the speaker’s sound according to their own purely-arbitrary yardstick of acceptability, citing any or all of their favored aforementioned factors as supposed “proof” as to why the Venus Godzilla 4 tower does or does not sound as good as it should.

There are two really interesting aspects of an audio enthusiast’s reaction to speakers:

 

1.     DIY Loudspeakers but what about DIY Electronics, Cars or Breakfast Cereal?

They don’t have anywhere near as strong an opinion about power amps or CD players or DACs or pre-pros. They have opinions, firmly-held even, but not as deeply ingrained as they feel about speakers.

Yeah, OK, you may truly believe that an Adcom power amp doesn’t sound as “sweet” and “musical” as say a Parasound Halo or a McIntosh, but you likely don’t hold that position as fervently as you do with speakers.

DIY Line ArrayMaybe that’s because most audio enthusiasts (I’m defining “audio enthusiast” as a highly-interested end user of the equipment, but someone not professionally involved in the industry) feel more at home with speakers than any other audio component. This enthusiast has a good working knowledge of basic electronics and/or acoustics, but probably doesn’t have a formal engineering background. Their technical knowledge has been picked up through the years by reading the buff magazines, going to hi-fi shows and talking to company personnel.  Discussing loudspeaker things for hours on end with their fellow enthusiasts and perhaps even belonging to local audio organizations can help them identify with how a speaker works.  They can see first-hand how the drivers make their sound. Amplifiers are a bit more mysterious in that you can’t actually see the output transistors doing their thing. You can’t visualize the circuitry performing its tasks. But you can see a woofer moving in and out and you can see that there are no baffle obstructions around the tweeter hindering its off-axis output. You can rap on the cabinet and feel its solidity.  You can see the cast-aluminum woofer basket and just know that it contributes to a better-articulated bass sound.

Therefore the typical audio enthusiast feels they know speakers, even though they may or may not really understand the inner workings of an amplifier, may or may not understand the benefits/drawbacks to various electronics design approaches, may or may not understand which types of amps produce what kinds of distortion spectra, may or may not understand the relationship between “watts” and SPL, may or may not understand S/N, slew rate, TIM, THD and IM, current capacity and headroom.

In any event, it does not seem to be anywhere near as much fun to argue about amplifier design as it is to argue about speaker design.

Which brings us to aspect number two:

2.     Opinions over Facts?

Audio enthusiasts hold fast onto their opinions about speakers regardless of the degree of technical/design/engineering knowledge they have about acoustics and electronics.

This is fascinating, isn’t it? Even if Joe Q. Listener is an accountant, he’ll insist to the day he dies that the reason the Godzilla 4 sounds better to him than the Jupiter Marvel is because the Godzilla uses internal Monster wiring, has a 3rd-order HP network with Solen bypass caps (Joe can’t even define “3rd order”) and its two 8” woofers are “faster” than the Jupiter’s single 12” driver.

This kind of thinking is rampant among audio enthusiasts in the speaker end of this industry. Non-engineers insist all the time that they “know” why this speaker sounds this way and what would make that speaker “better.”

Nonetheless,

  • They have no way to try out their ideas.
  • They have no way to measure their proposed designs or modifications. (Except for those very few hobbyists who bought computer-based measuring software a year or two ago and a moderately-priced microphone, then amusingly manage to convince themselves that they are somehow the very-near equivalent of a real speaker engineer with 20+ years’ experience and dozens of successful products of all kinds under their belt)
  • They have absolutely no understanding of the relationship between material cost and retail price.
  • They have close to zero understanding about the practicalities or processes of manufacturing on a large scale, packaging and shipping.

None of this is meant to denigrate the speaker hobbyist/customer. People are certainly entitled to their opinions and impressions as to why a product performs as it does. After all, you don’t have to be an automotive engineer to render an opinion on whether you prefer the Mustang over the Camaro and whether you think the Mustang would benefit from more power or stiffer shocks.

But opinions are one thing. The speaker industry is probably unique in the high-tech consumer products field in that its followers—amateurs, admittedly—actually think they can design and build the product themselves. They often think they can do it better than the speaker company itself!

No one would ever try to build his own Mustang or his own iPad from scratch.

But give someone access to a good cabinet shop, a Parts Express catalog, and the latest edition of Vance Dickason’s Loudspeaker Cookbook, and look out! Vastly superior speaker systems are right around the corner.

In fact in the after-market car audio business, this is exactly how it’s done: amateur enthusiasts gather up the best information they can, misconceptions and all, and fearlessly plow ahead into the New World of DIY Speaker Excellence. Some of them actually manage to be pretty good too, against all odds.

But home audio is another matter. We take things, and ourselves, far more seriously in home audio—real audio—than mere ‘car stereo guys.’

Besides, taking it all seriously is so much fun, and that’s the point: It should be fun.

So, having said all this, we pose the following questions to you:

  • What are some of your favorite commercial home speaker designs of both past and present and why?
  • How would you improve them?
  • What obvious shortcoming does it have that you just can’t understand why the manufacturer did that?
  • If you had a ‘clean sheet of paper,’ what would you design in the various size/price categories? Drivers? Bass alignment? Crossover? Features? Cabinet construction? Finish?
  • Modest-sized bookshelf
  • Medium-sized floorstander
  • Powered sub?
  • Home theater array (mains, center, surrounds)
  • Full-sized tower, SOTA, your dream speaker?
  • Do you have the most respect for a cost-no-object design, an over-achieving budget unit or a medium-priced speaker that delivers very close to top-of-the-line performance?
  • What would your design be? Fire away!

We look forward to hearing your ideas on loudspeaker design and sharing your DIY projects.  After all, the hobby of building can be as fun and perhaps even more rewarding when listening on your own creations.

 

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About the author:

Steve Feinstein is a long-time consumer electronics professional, with extended tenures at Panasonic, Boston Acoustics and Atlantic Technology. He has authored historical and educational articles for us as well as occasional loudspeaker reviews.

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Recent Forum Posts:

MrBoat posts on February 19, 2018 23:47
Bucknekked, post: 1234304, member: 81008
MrBoat
I am with you on your general line of thought as it regards things you can DIY verses just buying the end result. The end result often isn't the point: its the process or the path you take to get there that's really important. Given all the resources of a real corporation, the DIY guy probably isn't going to come up with the next great sounding speaker. Given all the resources of a real agri-corp, you aren't going to come up with cheaper produce either, or better.

But working on your own speakers is reward in itself as is gardening and providing something for your own table with your own two hands. The few tomatoes that survive my feable attempts at gardening are always worth the effort. Most things I can do a DIY approach with aren't about the end result being “better”. They are about doing something myself or with my family. If the end result is pretty good, so much the better.

Better produce grown at home most definitely. No pesticides and home ripened is worlds better. One indication being, a home grown tomato, even picked ripe, will live on a counter without refrigeration for two-three weeks. Carrots will keep in a fridge drawer for months. Spinach will keep 4x longer than store bought. My kids/grandkids thought they hated carrots and green beans. Once they tried them raw, fresh from the dirt, they were hooked.

My current strawberry crop. No insect issues, sprays or chems. I have a worm composting operation that devours all of my veg scraps and my cardboard from Amazon and Parts Express. This is in part why things grow/taste so good. There's 3 cabbage plants in that one pot and they usually best 10lbs each.


Somewhat similar to speakers, I rubbed elbows with some pros that told me how and when. Some thought I was crazy trying to grow cool weather crops in Florida organically. Others, a bit more open minded once they checked out my operation and saw the sense in it. Now I am kind of known around these parts for growing killer tomatoes. It is very difficult to find stuff like tis around here. Even at the specialty outlets, with their specialty prices.



When it comes right down to it, I don't want the same thing everyone else has. I'd make some exceptions on some of JBL speakers.

When I built my diysoundgroup Tempests, I could not find a set of grilles I liked at any price. I know I am not the only one who owns the Tempests, but I am betting I am one of a few that has them in cherry with custom grilles and two RSS315 subs that match. This system is a little beyond DIY for it being a kit designed by pros of some sort. But I found a kit that defies WAF, current trends in aesthetics (as does my well lived in home) and actually ends up fitting into my industrial lifestyle. I'm a welder by trade and a bit rough around the edges and I could not buy a system that really fits all that.

Bucknekked posts on February 19, 2018 16:54
MrBoat, post: 1233383, member: 80705
Do current professional results really surprise anyone that has been at this awhile?

Does anyone really believe that there is any significant issues with speakers than cannot be pretty much resolved by a computer these days?
MrBoat
I am with you on your general line of thought as it regards things you can DIY verses just buying the end result. The end result often isn't the point: its the process or the path you take to get there that's really important. Given all the resources of a real corporation, the DIY guy probably isn't going to come up with the next great sounding speaker. Given all the resources of a real agri-corp, you aren't going to come up with cheaper produce either, or better.

But working on your own speakers is reward in itself as is gardening and providing something for your own table with your own two hands. The few tomatoes that survive my feable attempts at gardening are always worth the effort. Most things I can do a DIY approach with aren't about the end result being “better”. They are about doing something myself or with my family. If the end result is pretty good, so much the better.
highfigh posts on February 13, 2018 09:53
One thing that can be avoided by going DIY- reading every document about speaker system design would take several lifetimes, so if someone has an idea that they'd like to try, it requires a bit of lumber, some drivers and a bit of time. If it doesn't work, it's not the same as someone using their life's savings or a manufacturer who devotes their whole company to a design that will ultimately fail.
MrBoat posts on February 13, 2018 02:54
Do current professional results really surprise anyone that has been at this awhile?

Does anyone really believe that there is any significant issues with speakers than cannot be pretty much resolved by a computer these days?
MrBoat posts on February 13, 2018 02:13
If I desired to, I could learn to be a professional speaker designer. I certainly have enough years of listening and have lived through enough decades of advancements and certainly took to the computer age enough.

Where I start falling off the wonder of all of that is right about where the computer era starts. Computer simulations, computer designed drivers, manufacturing processes etc.

Hot rods, the same thing. It's all kind of gotten a bit too predictable. Lemme guess,
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