When I was twelve years old, I built my first speaker. I had taken apart broken toy police car (to see what was inside of course) and one the parts was a small round speaker. I first hooked the two wires up to a 9-volt battery to see what would happen. All I got was a dull buzzing noise. After playing around for a little while I remembered that my dad had strung a wire from the family stereo down into the basement. I disconnected his speaker and hooked up my little cop car part.
Of course it sounded terrible. I looked at my speaker, and the one I had just disconnected, and concluded that mine lacked a cabinet. I ventured deeper into the basement, found an old shoebox and some masking tape and constructed my first speaker box, or what I now know is technically referred to as an enclosure.
It was better, but it still sounded pretty bad. It was just a cheap speaker from a broken toy, but I had stumbled onto my first lesson in acoustic design.
Everything is a compromise… well almost everything.
To the designer/engineer of just about anything ever made, trade-offs (or compromises) are both a blessing and a curse. Let’s take something as simple as a coffee cup. The product description might list the following requirements:
- Hold a reasonable volume of coffee
- Keep the coffee hot
- Easy to drink from
- Pleasant to look at
- Easy to clean
- Reasonably priced
That sounds like a wonderful coffee cup, right? Unfortunately it can’t be built since most of the listed criteria, if taken seriously, conflict with all the other criteria. Just look at number 2 and 3. Easy to drink from requires a wide, comfortable opening, while keep coffee hot demands a nearly closed container. In fact to be most effective at keeping the coffee hot, the cup would provide no access at all, let alone easy access.
Effective design, for all its artistry, is rooted in compromise. A good designer will find the right balance and produce an effective, attractive product that consumers are willing to pay for. It is much harder than you might think.
From the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, American society has been enamored with the idea of custom anything. Mass production brought product consistency, but with that also came ubiquity. Whenever we can make it happen, we like our stuff to be customized to our specific needs, tastes and environment.
Custom is the opposite of compromise.
Loudspeakers are almost all compromise.
The lesson I learned by combining the little toy speaker with the shoebox was that environment is critical to sound. Speakers are dramatically affected by their surroundings, and speaker designers never know where their creations will be placed. Will it be:
- In a corner?
- Hung on a wall?
- In a bookcase?
- Next to thick curtains, (or worse) behind them?
- Right up next to a wall or six inches off?
- In a big room or a small room?
- Will the room have carpet or hard floors?
- In a quiet room or one with ambient noise?
The speaker designer must consider all of these things to produce a design that will “sound OK everywhere.” Even if the speakers are shipped with specific instructions on proper placement, those details will be ignored.
As someone who spent the first half of his career writing user documents, I can tell you with certainty that nobody reads them.
So, with the goal of “sound good-enough everywhere” the designer is forced into creating a product that could never realize its full potential. It’s a little like a one man band. It plays all the instruments, but none of them well.
In 1995 I purchased my first house. It was a super fixer-upper so I spent almost all my free time working on it. About a year into home ownership, I started getting the itch to build some speakers.
All through high school and college I had improved my speaker-building skills to the point where every new project produced better results than the one before. This was however the first time I knew all the details about the environment where these speakers would live. I was the designer, and I didn’t have to compromise.
I took measurements of the room, and considered all the materials present, from the stone fireplace mantle on which the speakers would sit, to the makeup and distance of the walls in all directions. I made notes on the average humidity in my living room (sound travel is materially affected by humidity) and about a dozen other factors.
I used all this information when I sat down to design my speakers.
It took me about six weeks to design and build the speakers. Some details of the design caused them to be a little funny looking, but my only goal was to build the best sounding speakers for MY living room… no compromises.
Over the years I had slowly replaced different pieces of my stereo system to the point where the weakest link was definitely my old speakers. I knew the system possessed potential that I was not hearing, and that these new speakers could unlock it.
One annoying aspect of speaker building is that you can’t test them at all until they are finished, so you really have no idea how it’s going until you’re done.
When the time finally came, it was around 10:00 on a weeknight. I checked every component: the amplifier, the preamp, the CD player, the outboard D/A converter, and all the cables and wires.
I took out my “reference CD,” REM’s Automatic For The People. This is a CD who’s every detail I know intimately; it is also a recording of exquisite quality. I closed the CD player tray, checked all the settings, grabbed the remote and positioned myself in the middle of the room’s “sweet spot.”
I turned out the lights and pressed play,
and the first thing I heard nearly gave me a heart attack.
Until that moment I thought the first sound in the opening track Drive, was the strum of the guitar, but in that moment I heard something else. In the background, one of the band members counts off faintly “one, two – one, two, three, four” in the seconds before the first guitar note. It was so clear and unexpected that, for a moment, I thought there was someone in the house (it was dark after all).
These new speakers had unleashed all the potential my other components had been yearning to deliver. The sound interacted with the room just as I had expected. The room was just as important as the speaker design, and the results were incredible. Remember what I said about connections?
How much of our lives are a collection of compromises? Of course there are the unavoidable ones, like two school concerts, on the same night, on opposite sides of town. But what about those we can do something about?
If your job is like a room and you’re a speaker… are you a good match or do you just sound OK? We cannot change who we are, or the gifts we’ve been given, but we can seek out environments that unlock our greatest potential.
What is the weak link in your life right now?
Close your eyes, and press play. If you don’t hear the band faintly counting off “one, two – one, two, three, four,” it might be time to find a different room… one that truly appreciates you, even if you’re a little funny looking.
Copyright © 2014 - Stephen S. Nazarian - All rights reserved.