Technology – Audio
The Speakers of the House
Today’s architectural speakers can be as unobtrusive as you want them.
BY GEORGE MCCLURE
Invisible in-wall speakers. Photo courtesy of Stealth Acoustics.
IN OUR LAST ISSUE, we featured several articles about high-performance sculptured speakers, the floorstanders necessary for the highest performance sound reproduction. This time we’re going to discuss architectural speakers, the built-in models that can integrate into any room while taking up no floor space at all. The vast majority have paintable, low-profile grilles to easily match any décor, and some manufacturers even offer models that are literally invisible behind a wall’s surface.
Years ago, built-in speakers were used primarily for background music, as their less than optimum sound quality made them unsuitable for critical listening or home theater applications. Today, however, a plethora of newer technologies has elevated the performance of architectural models to a point where they can nearly approximate that of many conventional freestanding speakers. With the rise in accessibility and quality of architectural speakers and wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, architects, designers and A/V integrators are able to bring a home entertainment system to any room the homeowner desires.
There are several different categories of architectural speakers, including in-ceiling, in-wall and on-wall. Within those categories, manufacturers have developed a number of innovative solutions to meet the needs and wants of any homeowner. Let’s take a look at some of them.
in-ceiling: let the sound rain down
Ceiling speakers take up no floor or wall space and can serve a variety of functions, from being part of a whole-house music system to acting as surrounds or main speakers in a home theater. Most traditional ceiling models are round in shape and from 4 to 12 inches in diameter. One or two can usually provide sufficient coverage for music in small to medium sized rooms; larger rooms and multichannel setups require more. Some companies have newer systems in which a number of smaller speakers, the size of small downlights, are placed throughout the ceiling to provide better sound coverage (see Sonance sidebar).
Many ceiling speakers offer rotating tweeters that can be precisely directed towards the seating area for a better sound experience, and some even have adjustable woofers, as well. Sometimes there’s only room or budget for one speaker; in these cases there are models available with one lower frequency driver and two tweeters (one each for the left and right channels), which makes for stereo sound from a single speaker!
In-ceiling speakers. Photo courtesy of Sonance.
Moisture-resistant in-ceiling speakers. Photo courtesy of Sonance.
moisture-resistant speakers for kitchens and baths
According to realtor.com, “The kitchen has become the most valuable room in real estate.” As such, the area demands not only all the accoutrements traditionally associated with the space, but high-end audio/video, as well. Today’s luxury homeowners also require the master bathroom to be a luxurious sanctuary, in which great sound is essential. Fortunately, there are specially designed ceiling speakers available which use heavy-duty materials that hold better up in humid environments, so they can withstand steam in bathrooms, kitchens, and saunas. You can even use them in the ceiling of a covered porch for music outside.
Many ceiling speakers need only a few inches of depth for mounting, but some require considerably more (as much as 8-10 inches) if they have really large woofers or their own back boxes. Enclosed speakers offer better sound quality, but the extra depth can pose a fit problem in some homes. Speaker placement is very important, so, as always, we suggest that architects, builders and designers work with an experienced audio/video integrator as early in the process as possible to create the best possible outcomes.
home theater and Dolby Atmos
As mentioned earlier, ceiling speakers are often employed not only for music, but also for TV/home theater sound. To keep the wall uncluttered save for the mounted TV, some installations call for five or more in-ceiling speakers for the front left, center and right positions plus the surrounds. Today’s most advanced surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X require ceiling speakers as “height” channels to create a three-dimensional soundfield. In this case, you’ll often see systems with various permutations of freestanding, in-wall, on-wall and in-ceiling speakers.
advanced solutions from Sonance
The Sonance Architectural Series employs a unique system design using satellite speakers and subwoofers to provide a more subtle aesthetic than larger, traditional in-ceiling loudspeakers while delivering superior sound coverage and quality. These smaller speakers exactly match the footprint of small aperture downlights for minimal distraction, as their totally flush and bezel-less grilles disappear into the surrounding ceiling surface.
The state-of-the-art driver materials and cutting-edge design set a new standard in audiophile sound quality. Precision engineered Mounting Platforms provide flexibility to align with light fixtures or ceiling features and deliver the highest quality result in drywall, plaster, wood, and other solid surfaces.
The satellite/subwoofer design of the Discreet Opening System allows the entire room to be filled with audiophile-grade sound quality at the perfect volume, eliminating the loud zones and quiet areas experienced with traditional in-ceiling speakers.
in-wall: great sound everywhere
While in-ceiling speakers can provide a decent audio experience, in-wall models take sound quality to the next level, as it’s always better to have the front speakers of an audio system as close to ear-level as possible. When properly placed, they create a “sweet spot” for stereo imaging and surround sound.
In-wall speakers are generally rectangular in shape, and, like in-ceiling models, often have grilles that can be painted to match any décor. There’s a wide a range of models available from almost every speaker manufacturer, and most in-walls can be used as the left and right channels for a stereo or surround system. The center channel is the most important in a home theater setup, as it is responsible for most of the dialogue and many of the special effects in video soundtracks. Most center channel speakers are horizontally oriented, with a tweeter in the middle and at least one woofer on both sides, which allows the dialogue to be clearly heard in a wider listening area.
Surround speakers are usually placed higher up on the wall towards the back of the side walls and/or on the back wall. And in-wall subwoofers provide the deep bass necessary for a convincing home theater presentation, but again without taking up any valuable floor space.
Note: Every speaker manufacturer has its own unique “voice,” so for the smoothest, most coherent sound, we recommend using the same brand of speakers throughout the room.
as discreet as you want
There are several reasons a homeowner might decide to go with in-wall speakers in a particular room. Sometimes there’s literally no space for a traditional set up with a credenza and freestanding speakers, and often it’s an aesthetic decision to have a cleaner look. As previously mentioned, many in-wall models have paintable grilles that can me matched to any color for a very subtle presentation.
For the client who wants the ultimate in clean design, some manufacturers have created speakers that are installed entirely behind the wall for a literally invisible presentation. The appropriately named company Stealth Acoustics offers LinearResponse™, a line of full range, high-output invisible speakers that incorporate patented Stealth technology to provide superior sound quality and extended bass response, all while eliminating the unsightly grilles and bulky boxes of traditional speakers.
high performance with a distinctive look
For those who want the ultimate performance from in-wall speakers, some manufacturers have created models which are essentially architectural versions of one of their freestanding speakers. One such example is the Sonus faber Palladio Collection, which has models designed to match two of their popular series of freestanding speakers. The classic walnut and maple front panel of the Palladio Level 6, for instance, is derived from the Olympia Collection, so an installation looks like there are Olympia speakers literally built into the wall (see photos).
on-wall: easy elegance
On-wall speakers provide a nice solution for retrofits, as, though they need wiring, of course, they aren’t as invasive as in-walls. They can be used in any position in a stereo or home theater system. Specially designed surround speakers called dipoles or bipoles, which produce diffuse sound, are often mounted high on the side and back walls.
With so many homeowners desiring distributed video throughout their homes, numerous manufacturers have developed thin on-wall speakers designed to mount on the wall close to the TV. Some installations include speakers on the left, right and below the TV, while some use soundbars that contain drivers for all three front channels in one cabinet.
The Paradigm Décor Custom Collection takes this approach to a more customized level by creating speakers tailored to the exact height and length of any wall-mounted, flat-panel television. Designers can use one or combine them to build a slim, stylish high performance audio system. Décor speakers are available in both horizontal/soundbar and side-mounted/vertical configurations, with up to three audio channels in a single enclosure.
Finally, the innovators at Leon Speakers have created a truly unique experience with their line of Ente SoundTile speakers, which hang on the wall like a painting. Bringing style to your Sonos system, Leon combines two channels of audio by Leon and power by the new Sonos Amp®. Homeowners can choose artwork from Leon’s Media Décor gallery or use their own. The chosen artwork is printed directly onto perforated metal that can be customized to any décor, then hung flush to the wall with a French Cleat mount. It’s a beautiful way to subtly integrate great sound into any space.