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Trends in speaker design. What to listen out for?

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  • Trends in speaker design. What to listen out for?

    Is it possible that loudspeakers along with clothing and cars go through fashion cycles? Are these technical, cosmetic or sonic?

    What should the listener/buyer watch out for?

  • #2
    Stagnation?

    I think speaker design has stagneted for some time myself. I genuinely get the feeling that the conventional "two-way drivers with passively-driven crossovers in an oblong wooden box" rulebook was written decades ago and only in recent years, have advances in materials and technology, coupled with a deeper understanding? of the way and how we suspend disbelief in audio reproduction made any real improvements possible - and even then, many of these improvements have been evolutionary in my opinion, rather than groundbreaking.

    For the future, separates HiFi as we know it will almost certainly fade away with "our" generation, although interest in legacy vinyl formats may see this survive CD. My hope for "loudpeaker future" is another look at fully "active" operation, where, at the very least, the crossover dividing the drive units can be done in the electrical domain, feeding dedicated amps then directly to the drive units, thus freeing the driving amps from having to drive the effects of inductors and other components often in the signal path.

    Advances in digital technology may well bring in full in-room equalisation, since the listening room is often the weakest link after the speakers themselves. My small experience of early versions of this technology were not very enjoyable, but so much has happened in recent years along these lines, I await developments with much interest.. In the meantime, the simpler the load as seen by the driving amp(s), the better in my opinion :)

    Comment


    • #3
      In the last few months, I have been in conversation with folks who have far more opportunity to listen to generally available loudspeakers than I do. They have, completely independently and with no knowledge of each other, casually commented that 'today's speakers seem to be extremely toppy'. I have been vaguely suspicious of this for some time, and have a general recollection that the frequency response curves that occasionally I see in hi-fi magazines do seem to hint at this.

      Now, to be fair, I'm not sure if we can have full confidence in any loudspeaker measurement that is not using calibrated analysis equipment, positioned carefully and in a measurement environment that is known to contribute as few reflections as possible: there are lots of variables there. Can we assume that published curves are reasonably reliable and that it is easier to accurately measure high frequencies than mid or low ones, where the room has a substantial influence?

      After further discussion I have prepared what I believe to be three design trends that some, not all, modern contemporary loudspeakers evidence - see attached plot. If you are not familiar with interpreting frequency response curves, they are not at all alarming and they certainly do not need great skill to read - or I wouldn't be able to use them. First, the X (horizontal) axis: this is graduated from 10Hz (subsonic) to 40kHz, but the audio band is generally about 40Hz to 20kHz so it more than covers what we need in audio. The Y (vertical) axis is scaled in decibels: and each little vertical fine-graduation is one decibel, 1dB. I've hand drawn three curves onto the one chart, to save paper. That really is all we need to know.

      If we say that the crossover region for most good speakers is no lower than about 3kHz (you can't see that from the curve, this is just for background information) then Curve A is the equivalent of stepping-up the tweeter's entire contribution by about 4dB across the tweeter's entire operating band. Just one resistor adjustment in the crossover could produce that effect, by accident or design.

      Curve B exhibits a different design choice. Here the bottom end of the tweeter's rage from, say, 2-5kHz (remember the tweeter is fully operational at about 3kHz) is in line with the general bass/midrange output, but the mid-high region of the tweeter is elevated by about 8-9dB. As audiology textbooks say that 6dB is a doubling in sound pressure, and 10dB is considered to be a doubling in loudness we could expect this region to be markedly more prominent replaying music that has a significant energy in the mid-tweeter range.

      Curve C exhibits a marked boost at the upper edge of the audio band. As most of us in our 50s have significant reduction in acuity above 10kHz or so simply due to age, it could be argued that if a speaker was targeted at an older customer that a boost to the extreme-top would somewhat compensate for age-loss in the extreme high frequencies and make the speaker sound 'right' to ears that were significantly 'wrong' through age or life on the rock and roll circuit. However, one would have to caution the designer that if a younger person or one who had not abused his hearing happened across such a speaker, he/she may be aware of the tilt. So now we have the overall shapes that we may experience or read about. Comfortable with this idea so far? OK, now let's take a recording that is 'flat', and process to to give it the sound of A, B or C as you would experience if you listened on-axis to speakers exhibiting these traits.

      What prompted me to write this today is that this afternoon when driving, I heard a live concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here. I thought this would give us a good clip to manipulate.

      NOTES ON HOW TO PROCEED WITH THIS COMPARISON

      What I think you'll find interesting is this: play Ref. clip Q and familiarise yourself with it entirely then replay it to about 1/3 and pause. Then play 1/3 of A and pause, then 1/3 of B and pause then 1/3 of C1 and pause so that Q, A, B and C1 are all stopped at about the same point in the music. Then play a little more of A and stop, then B and stop then C1 and stop (but not Ref Q). Inch A, B and C1 forward by playing/stopping in that way. After a few start/stops like that then play Ref Q. Quite a shock isn't it: it sound so dull and lacking in top. But we know that it is the reference, exactly what left the studio. How can this be? How can the reference sound so wrong? If we were comparing speakers in a hifi store, and we started with model Q, listened to A, B and C1 how many listeners would recognise the correct balance of Q having acclimatised to the others with the boosted top? One in a hundred? Key point: It is to be expected that the average consumer will be attracted to a brighter, more 'revealing', 'crisper' sound even under quasi A-B comparisons like this and the marketing awareness of average consumer preference drives the design process that sets the overall speaker balance.

      Loading the player ...
      Reference clip Q. This is what it should sound like. This is what was sent from the studio.


      The HF characteristics that are not uncommon in modern speakers can be heard here:


      Loading the player ...
      Example A (see attached curves)

      Loading the player ...
      Example B

      Loading the player ...
      Example C (ignore this one - go to C1)


      UPDATE
      --------

      Silly me. I forgot that the BBC cut-off everything above 15kHz at the studio before it is distributed. So the boost curve of C is boosting nothing above 15kHz. So here is Curve C1 where I'm moving the boost of C left a little to give more prominence to the 10-15kHz region. I'll re-do this with a full bandwidth CD shortly.


      Loading the player ...
      Example C1


      AFTER THE TEST

      Stop all audio playing. Just sit in silence and reset your ears for a few minutes. Do you feel that your ears have 'pricked-up' and have now heightened sensitivity in the upper region? Do they whistle? Are the ear muscles tingling? Is that a pleasant sensation or not?

      >
      Attached Files
      Alan A. Shaw
      Designer, owner
      Harbeth Audio UK

      Comment


      • #4
        Screaming top end v. Harbeth

        The trend in speakers, for some years now, is for slim, floor standers, the smaller the better. Bass appears to be an optional extra.

        Sonically, modern speakers appear to be thinner, brighter, sucked out mid and with a screaming top end for extra 'detail'. Not all but many.

        Harbeth are bucking these trends, which is why they sell well in audition. IMO of course.

        Comment


        • #5
          Please note the clip was wrongly labelled as R.

          It is taking forever to download those clips. Meanwhile, the Reference clip Q compared to my TER ORBIS CD sounds a bit flat. Now, which one suppose to be the correct sound? My CD was recorded DDD at Abbey Road Studios. i would go for the other clips but still unable to download them fully. Anyone having problem with the loudness level of the clip(s)?

          ST

          Comment


          • #6
            Proper comparisons need a 'control' ...

            Originally posted by STHLS5 View Post
            Please note the clip was wrongly labelled as R.

            It is taking forever to download those clips. Meanwhile, the Reference clip Q compared to my TER ORBIS CD sounds a bit flat. Now, which one suppose to be the correct sound? My CD was recorded DDD at Abbey Road Studios. i would go for the other clips but still unable to download them fully. Anyone having problem with the loudness level of the clip(s)?

            ST
            Clip re-labled, thanks.

            What are you suggesting by introducing an unquantified new variable into the experiment, namely your CD version of the music? If I say that clip Q is the reference, that's a fixed variable whether or not you like the sound. Reference means reference. Comparisons need a control. My control is clip Q which is the source sound for the other clips. Q is clearly and unambiguously labelled in red as the reference. Like it or not, that is the sound that was sent from the studio to the listening audience. It is a 'broadcast balance'* - what you would hear at the hall, (not a hotted-up CD balance) and would be familiar to a concert-goer or BBC listener even if the audiophile didn't like or recognise it. The BBC balance is right technically, artistically and acoustically. It is not necessarily a 'commercial' sound; it is not designed as a substitute for purchasing a commercial CD. It exists for an entirely different (probably non-audiophile) audience familiar with live sound and I picked it with some care.

            The BBC sound will be available for a few days here.

            As you mention Abbey Road, are you aware that a significant part of their income is from 'sweetening' or mastering recordings for commercial release? To quote the above link:

            (Abbey Road Mastering) ... involves polishing the mixed sound with equalisation, compression and other outboard processing and then producing the final master.
            And only yesterday I gave up my morning to demonstrate what mastering can/does do to natural sound.

            * This is a whole new subject which we need to look at together.
            Alan A. Shaw
            Designer, owner
            Harbeth Audio UK

            Comment


            • #7
              False reference etc.

              I am not introducing a third variable and regret that it is seen that way. I am addressing what was said earlier, i.e., ” Key point: It is to be expected that the average consumer will be attracted to a brighter, more 'revealing', 'crisper' sound even under quasi A-B comparisons like this and the marketing awareness of average consumer preference drives the design process that sets the overall speaker balance. “


              So the point is to an average consumer I am unwittingly got attracted to the sweeten sound. There may be 100s of CD in my collection that may qualify as a perfect recording to my ears, but in reality, it would not meet the standards of correct recording of BBC. The same applies to the speakers as you are trying to guide us in this thread.

              As most people here in HUG or others are in the middle or last leg of our life, we move forward with quick decisions. Now, the examples that you picked with great care failed to drive into my head the very important point you were trying to make, which was, the correct sound that a speaker should represent. I was just pointing out the danger that for whatever reasons that my preference in the above clips were based on ignorance. The same ignorance that made by many in choosing excessively bright speakers and the examples you gave me shows the modified clips which were representing today’s bright speakers fit into my liking.

              It is simply difficult to cross the first hurdle, when my heart is telling me, the examples of the excessively high on treble speakers sounds better in the illustration above, and my head is telling if that’s what I like, then that’s right for me.

              The questions that I am asking myself now are - “Did I audition the Harbeth SHLS5 with my reference CD, which are excessively bright?” and “ Did Harbeth make the sweetened CDs sound perfect to my ears?" If the answers were affirmative to both questions, then Reference Q will never ever be my liking listening over the SHL5. And if I were to search for ideal speakers with Reference Q clip as my reference track then Harbeth SHLS5, no matter how perfect they are, would have never met my flawed standards as I would probably choose a speaker that would make Reference Q to sound a little brighter. This was the danger that I tried to highlight.

              The problem here are the consumers not the perfect speaker.

              As a designer, you have years of experience and knowledge about sound but for poor souls like myself, I have only one reference, i.e. the recordings that I liked very very much that I want to hear over and over again which may technically be flawed but deeply appreciated by myself with no means to convey how my ears hear and my brain interprets them and my search for good speakers was based on how well those speakers capable of making this technically flawed recording to sound best to my ears. As a designer there is no way for you to go please every individuals preference and you have to make your own reference.

              End of the day, it is not how good the speaker must be but how well the combination of the reference CD ( which may not be technically correct) that I used and the speakers sound. That’s what consumers want. That is the danger that this thread seem to leading me to.

              ST

              Comment


              • #8
                Oh dear. You are beating yourself up needlessly again as you have jumped over all the incremental knowledge-building steps I'd planned, and are now at the very end of the mental journey, standing alone in unfamiliar territory without a route map and understandably anxious. But the genie is out of the bottle now and I just don't have the time to retrace back to base camp.

                1. Not only have you introduced the variable of an alternative recording/performance, you have now introduced hi-fi speakers to your listening
                2. You have now drawn all sorts of confidence shattering conclusions based about your entire CD collection based on just the few audio clips I've presented you with ...
                3. You have unwittingly positioned yourself in a highly vulnerable mental position such that, presented with 'solutions' to your self-imposed anxiety by a marketeer, could you resist paying-out for a gadget to reduce your anxiety?!
                4. I didn't actually ask for a preference between A, B and C1. That's up to you and your ears. What I asked for was a report on "Do you feel that your ears have 'pricked-up' and have now heightened sensitivity in the upper region? Do they whistle? Are the ear muscles tingling? Is that a pleasant sensation or not?".

                Could you be thinking about this too deeply, and too quickly. Please don't. You'll make yourself ill. If you don't mind, leave the route planning to me. I'm an expert tour guide and I can lead you through the wilderness and back to safety. If you run ahead without me, you will be vulnerable. You will be confused. You will put yourself in danger. You will take wrong turnings. You will stumble about in circles chasing your own tail. You will eventually be sucked down into a mental quagmire. Can you trust me to reveal, step by step the way out of the audiophile mess? You don't have to believe me - why should you? - but at least I'll show you where we are on the map and you can make your own decisions; you can always re-read the map and reconsider where you've been and how you got there, even plan another exit route. I am nothing more than a compass. You can follow me or not: it's your choice. But to rush ahead is deadly.


                Moving on ....

                I'm certain that I've said before that as I don't have a hi-fi system at home, all audio clips I present here are made/monitored on my Logitec LS11 active speakers. Cost about $20. Pretty good actually for plastic boxes. That's all you need for listening (or headphones). You do not need to turn on your hi-fi. You do not need Harbeth speakers. You could probably even just about get along with the speakers built into some PC monitors. But you have, unexpectedly, taken a huge earth-to-moon leap and conclude that your entire CD collection, which has given you years of pleasure is now, today, 'wrong' based on audio clips made on $20 speakers. That's a massive over-reaction don't you agree? We're not here to drive an emotional wedge between you and your music. I'm solely illustrating a point about speaker trends, and the audio clips are intended to be interpreted literally as A v. B within the confines of the thread step and not indiscriminately applied to the big, outside world. To apply to the bigger picture, we have to complete this journey first and not get ahead of ourselves.

                Your observations about preference suggest one thing to me. You (in common with most audiophiles I meet) are not exposed to live music. Regrettably then, your own internal frame of reference about how instruments and halls sound is significantly different to those of us who have the chance to attend concerts. That is not a criticism - it's a fact. And yes, it must come as a shock to be presented with a sound balance that is closer to what a concert-goer (as opposed to a CD buyer) would recognise*. And yes, that must indeed be confusing and make you anxious. We've covered that before here. But, as I said in post #3, "this afternoon when driving, I heard a live concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances ... I thought this would give us a good clip to manipulate". I didn't say that I heard this broadcast sitting in the sweet spot between my M40.1s did I! I said that I recognised its merits just listening over my manufacturer's fitted, standard car audio system on FM radio with lots of crackles whilst my wife and her mother were chatting. It was blindingly obvious to me that it was the sort of balance that I am familiar with in the hall.

                We need to explore recording balance in more detail, and I just do not have the time now. I have to set off for The X Factor studios in London.

                * The recorded balance of a (classical) CD is not necessarily intended to convey the sound of the instruments in a concert hall with an audience and by an audience. A BBC 'broadcast balance' must convey what the audience would hear. The recording approach is almost opposite.

                [51 mins.]
                Alan A. Shaw
                Designer, owner
                Harbeth Audio UK

                Comment


                • #9
                  Thanks!

                  I want to thank you Alan (again) for taking the time to educate on aspects of recorded and reproduced sound. It is appreciated!

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    I much appreciate your feedback. I could move faster and with more enthusiasm if I could keep subjects strictly in focus and not have to spend time pulling them back into track. It must be hugely confusing for those reading. Explanations, like chapters of a book, need to flow in a logical, incremental way or the reader gives-up in confusion.
                    Alan A. Shaw
                    Designer, owner
                    Harbeth Audio UK

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Very fatiguing

                      Originally posted by A.S. View Post
                      ...What I asked for was a report on "Do you feel that your ears have 'pricked-up' and have now heightened sensitivity in the upper region? Do they whistle? Are the ear muscles tingling? Is that a pleasant sensation or not?"
                      Ok, I just finished spending listening to all the clips and after 35 minutes it is very fatiguing. The ears feel like the rain has just stopped.

                      ST

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Extreme fatigue

                        Originally posted by STHLS5 View Post
                        Ok, I just finished spending listening to all the clips and after 35 minutes it is very fatiguing. The ears feel like the rain has just stopped. ST
                        Fantastic! That is exactly what I hoped you would say: bang on track.

                        That's just what I experienced - extreme listening fatigue.*

                        Ok, great .... as a matter of interest, which of the 'enhanced' clips did you find the most fatiguing? I found one especially fatiguing and it was always a pleasure to revert back to Q, which as I warned, in comparison, did sound dull on the switch-over. But as I said, Q was and is correct even though one could be forgiven for being attracted to one of the enhanced clips due to inexperience. We'll put that right. I picked this music because of the prominent brass instrument content. That was deliberate.

                        *Even reference clip Q, which I think you previously dismissed as too dull would become tiring (but hopefully not fatiguing: not the same thing at all) after long exposure I'd expect.
                        Alan A. Shaw
                        Designer, owner
                        Harbeth Audio UK

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Fatigue results

                          Originally posted by A.S. View Post
                          Ok, great .... as a matter of interest, which of the 'enhanced' clips did you find the most fatiguing? I found one especially fatiguing and it was always a pleasure to revert back to Q, which as I warned, in comparison did sound dull. But as I said, it was and is correct.

                          I picked this sonic example to make a point.
                          I find Clip A to be more fatiguing but it is difficult to say because at a different passage of the music. I find Clip B to be even more fatiguing.

                          Clip C1 is not that bad and even though you asked to skip C, I find it smooth much better than B.

                          B is very fatiguing.

                          ST

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by STHLS5 View Post
                            I find Clip A to be more fatiguing but it is difficult to say because at a different passage of the music I find Clip B to be even more fatiguing. Clip C1 is not that bad and even though you asked to skip C, I find it smooth much better than B. ST
                            Excellent. That's a very astute observation.

                            Ok let's have a think about C or C1 first. You can see from my frequency graphs showing the frequency bands that I have boosted, that C and C1 are only enhancing the very top end of the audio band - the 'extreme top'. Yet, you (and I) could tolerate what is a massive amount of boost in that region without distress (at least, on this short clip: we cannot necessarily say that hour after hour of exposure would be so benign.) How can that be? How can I have cranked up the extreme top without it becoming obvious or irritating to the critical listener?

                            Possibilities come to mind .....

                            1. Whatever you listened to the clips on (plastic speakers, nasty headphones ...) didn't actually reproduce much HF (due to cheap design, poor parts) so even when the signal was massively boosted, no sound was generated at you ear ... or perhaps

                            2. There is so little energy in music at the extreme high frequencies as a proportion of the entire audio band that even when boosted it's an insignificant part of the energy spectrum.

                            What do you think? Probable?
                            Alan A. Shaw
                            Designer, owner
                            Harbeth Audio UK

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              10k limited

                              Originally posted by A.S. View Post
                              ..
                              What do you think? Probable?
                              In this case, looks like nothing much above 10kHz.

                              ST

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