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Top Ten Loudspeaker Gimmicks to Avoid

by November 25, 2006
Avoid Loudspeaker Gimmicks

Avoid Loudspeaker Gimmicks

We wrote this article when we became a bit heated at some of the nonsense we observed in the industry, so please don't take it as a biblical source as it is not free from our own personal biases. There are many fabulously designed and superb sounding loudspeakers out there. The trick is how to actually find them in an environment that isn't flooded with over-exuberant marketing literature, relentless advertisements and sometimes bogus endorsements.

We decided to visit some of our local dealers to observe and listen to their latest offerings of electronics and speakers. It seems lately that more and more gimmicks are surfacing in the audio world and the consumers are letting the industry get away with it.  It is sad to see so many companies are simply implementing what we call "cookie cutter" designs.  What we mean by this is that they are actually not designing loudspeakers. Instead, they are implementing design guidelines set forth by driver manufacturers that specify types of crossovers and enclosure dimensions to use with their drivers. Many of these so called loudspeaker "designers" don't have the proper test equipment and engineering technical staff and necessary tools to accurately design and measure their loudspeakers performance.

We have seen many products come to market with continuous glowing reviews in Audio Magazines (especially in the ones in which the manufacturers advertise their products). However, we have found many of these products to be subpar and not worth much more than the materials they are made from. In my opinion, they are certainly not worth the retail prices that dealers and retailers are charging consumers. Rather than mentioning particular speaker manufacturers, we have decided to list below some of the "design features" that we deem as gimmicks. This is not to "avoid" or sidestep responsibility to our readers, but rather as a determination that manufacturers sometimes have decent products in addition to "gimmicky" models. Because of this, broadbrushing certain companies seems counterproductive compared to simply educating our readers in identifying the potential problems for themselves.

Top Ten Loudspeaker Gimmicks

1) Poorly constructed speakers that have a little bottom compartment that you are supposed to add sand in for "improved bass"

We noticed a trend where some international companies manufacturer the cheapest and lightest cabinets possible. In my opinion, they do this to save on manufacturing and export shipping charges. Weight=money when shipping is concerned. They sometimes attempt to make up for the lack of bracing by claiming adding sand will dampen resonance. The truth is, mass loading the bottom of the cabinet isn't always good enough for adequate resonance control in a poorly designed cabinet and may only move the resonant problem into another audible range. We're not saying that mass-loading the bass of a cabinet doesn't do any good in any circumstance, but it is no substitute for good cabinet bracing. We have, however, heard poorly designed mass loaded speakers that no matter how much sand you stuff that little compartment with, the speaker remained boomy, unarticulate and inaccurate sounding.

Better cabinet designs usually employ a combination of complex baffling and cabinet reinforcements in critical areas, and sometimes provide a heavy base for added stability and resonance control in the cabinet.

We believe another reason some manufacturers offer this feature to give the consumer the illusion that they have the ability to "custom tailor" the sound of their speakers. While this may give them control to a small degree, the question is, how effecitive will it really be in providing an accurately controlled environment for the drivers to achieve optimal performance?

2) Speakers that have metal grills over the tweeter that, according to the manufacturer, you are supposed to remove for extended highs

In actuality based on the hole spacing and size, the waveguide effect should not cause frequency attenuation within the audible bandwidth of the tweeter. While the metal grill may be a good feature to protect the tweeter from physical harm, it should not be responsible for tailoring the sound if it is designed properly.

3) Speakers that employ porting and multiple passive radiators (that look like woofers) in the same design

Speakers should use either port(s) or passive radiators, not both. This is a gimmick used to make the consumer think they are buying more speaker for the money by employing multiple "fake" woofers. Think about it, what is the benefit of having a small woofer driving a series of larger passive radiators with a port? The answer is: None. A port, or larger enclosure, or one passive radiator properly implemented should function more efficiently and accurately.  We are not bashing passive radiator loudspeaker designs. In fact, we have heard many loudspeakers designed with passive radiators that sound quite good. We are, however, bashing the abuse of passive radiator implementations that some companies do purely for cosmetic and marketing purposes to boost product appeal.

4) Some brands of loudspeakers (usually imitator brands) that place the tweeter on top of the cabinet in their own neat little chamber

There have been many cases where we have pulled the tweeters out of these chambers to find a cheap $4 OEM 6-watt driver with a tiny neodymium magnet (the kind typically found in car audio systems). Sometimes these tweeters make no physical connection to the "tuning chamber" that supposedly helps reduce ringing or break up. But, hey - it looks trendy, so it must be good right? Some companies go so far as to make claims that they spent millions on R&D efforts on developing their own drivers. In many cases, such as with tweeters, these companies simply use off-the-shelf drivers and anodize them to give the appearance of gold. They then slap their logo on the faceplate and call it their own. Hey, that's some good marketing - now they may claim the driver is their own design and that it's a "Gold Dome" design or model. Very few companies properly execute the isolated tweeter and dampened chamber approach, but countless companies enjoy imitating it and getting it wrong.

There is nothing wrong with using quality OEM drivers, however we find it misleading when some companies claim the driver(s) are their own design when in fact only differences appear on the front panel cosmetics of the driver(s). This is a rampant issue in the industry and we have found that a majority of the smaller companies will outright lie about manufacturing their own drivers, simply because they feel the need to be able to say this.

5) Speakers that are long and thin and contain nothing but multiple 4" full-range drivers

To most audioholics this point should be obvious without explanation. Multiple 4" drivers rarely have the frequency range to reproduce the full audible bandwidth, and never do they have the excursion ability to produce adequate and linear bass response down to 20Hz. Is reproduction down to 20Hz mandatory for a good speaker? Certainly not - but you'll find that almost all of these companies claim such response from these simplistic "line arrays". In order for this topology to reproduce excellent fidelity, superb and usually very costly drivers need to be utilized, and the system must be coupled with a very musical, perhaps even an active servo subwoofer or multiple subwoofers for the lowest bass extension to be realized. We've received inside information on a very well-known company that once developed a new speaker in a similar manner simply to get rid of an overstock of drivers.

The bottom line is, a small 3-4" driver is too small to woof and too large to tweet.  You typically have to EQ the snot out of them just to linearize their response to make them listenable.

That being said, a curved vertical array of drivers spanning almost the entire floor to ceiling, also known as a line array, does have it's advantages and place in audio. For one, it's SPL drop off is only 3 dB for every doubling of distance as opposed to a conventional array of drivers being roughly 4-6 dB in real rooms. But, the very best line arrays still utilize separate high frequency drivers to overcome the limitations previously mentioned.

6) Speakers where you have to place a metal cylinder or cone on top of the cabinet to dampen resonance.

This is another gimmick similar to the poorly braced cabinet example above. Again if a cabinet is inert from the beginning, you shouldn't need magical methods to improve its performance. Some companies even go so far as to claiming these "magical" cones will help reduce tweeter resonances. The truth is, most well designed tweeters contain a dampened chamber for controlling resonance. Placing a little metal cone on the speaker cabinet cannot effectively resolve the high frequency resonance of a system. Patently and obviously absurd.

7) Speaker companies that sell little "Cubed" systems and expensive clock radios endorsed by musicians on infomercials that claim "Better Sound Through Research".

 

While size constraints can play a big role in one's purchasing decisions, the buyer should at least know there are better sounding alternatives at lower cost, better build quality, and in similar footprints. In addition, the alternatives are non-proprietary and offer a greater amount of features and future upgrade options. The notion that a successful marketing campaign makes for the "world's greatest" speaker is ridiculous - it simply means that the company spends more on marketing than any other aspect of their products - including parts and build quality. Now with that said, are we trying to change the world or defeat some "evil" empire from taking over home audio? Nope. Everyone is free to make their own decisions and everyone will have their own opinions and experiences with respect to what makes a good audio system, but know that alternatives exist - and a little research may go a long way to getting you better performance, and better compatibility at far less cost.

8) Some speaker companies that tell the consumer their speakers use the simplest crossovers possible to preserve phase coherence and that they build better drivers to match each other for optimal integration.

In an ideal world, it may be possible to design a linear phase coherent loudspeaker system with a moderately complex series first order crossover by implementing high quality low Q drivers and crossover elements in slanted transmission line enclosures. However, in reality, many of these companies who claim phase coherence are using poor quality OEM metal cone drivers that have harsh break-up modes. These types of drivers require more than just a first order crossover to eliminate these break-up modes, and do nothing to address the enclosure type and baffle alignment to linearize the system's response.

In addition, it is usually cost prohibitive for many manufacturers to offer a properly designed loudspeaker at a competitive price using this approach. In reality, there are many variables such as cabinet properties, baffle alignment, driver sensitivity, etc, that have a synergistic affect sometimes requiring additional compensation in the crossover design or enclosure design for optimization. There are also inherent trade-offs to designing these type of speakers (i.e. drivers firing at the listening position off-axis, limited vertical dispersion and power handling, etc).

Many loudspeaker manufacturers and experts today consider proper phase coherent speakers to be somewhat of a myth considering the limiting factors of room acoustics, listening position, and quality of the source, and may also choose not to implement these type of designs for commerical considerations or to avoid compromising the design of the product.

9) Speakers that use multiple 10" or 12" Chinese stamped woofers in large, bulky, poorly constructed cabinets with cheap horn-loaded or paper tweeters.

This is bad for the same reason as #3 above. More is not better in this case unless you are after an ear-bleeder speaker that will play loudly with plenty of distortion and lack of fidelity. If quality is the goal, don't be dazzled by a poorly designed speaker with larger and more drivers than one that is well designed with higher quality parts. It's always a good idea to investigate what's inside the box via our product reviews and/or asking the manufacturer for more specifications of their product.

10) Floorstanding speakers that are too large for bookshelves, yet so small that you have to bend over to orient the tweeter at ear level.

This point is pretty much self-explanatory. If a speaker is too small to be a floorstander than it should be a bookshelf. A floorstanding speaker shouldn't require stands to position the tweeter at ear level.

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About the author:

Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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