Technology - Audio
Invisible Speakers Open up a World of Design Possibilities
Advances in technology have made invisible speakers a viable solution in any area where a client wants great sound.
BY GEORGE MCCLURE
PHOTO COURTESY OF SONANCE
INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY WITH DESIGN IS ALWAYS A CHALLENGE. The physical requirements of audio/video and other equipment sometimes necessitate a compromise to décor, and vice versa. That’s why the category of invisible speakers is so exciting — they bring the promise of great sound reproduction to any room, with no impact on the interior design whatsoever.
Conventional architectural speakers certainly provide a less invasive approach than speaker boxes placed in the room. Though many manufacturers have marketed these solutions as “practically invisible,” they still have visible grilles, which some clients would prefer not to see. On the other hand, today’s invisible speakers are just that – totally invisible, which brings unprecedented options for their placement.
Invisible speakers have actually been around for over 30 years, but up until recently they were mostly used for background music, as the sound quality was not sufficient for home theater or critical listening applications. Today, however, advances in technology have made invisible speakers a viable solution in any area where a client wants great sound.
We recently talked with representatives from three manufacturers to get their take on today’s invisible speakers. So, without further ado, let’s hear their stories.
JBL SYNTHESIS (HARMAN LUXURY AUDIO)
Last fall, JBL introduced the JBL Conceal Series of invisible speakers. We caught up with Dave Tovissi and Jim Garrett from the Harman Luxury Audio Group and asked them what drove their decision to offer this type of product.
DAVE: Prior to working for Harman International, I was a partner of an atypical technology integrator based in South Florida, with satellite offices in New York, Philadelphia and Las Vegas. What made us unique in our industry was the fact that we also offered interior design and construction services. We had acquired an established interior design firm in Aventura, Florida and merged technology and design together under one umbrella. Our reputation as an integrator with an eye toward interior design helped us differentiate ourselves from the other system integrators in the market.
Vice President and
Senior Director, Product Management and Planning
PHOTO COURTESY OF HARMAN LUXURY AUDIO
We understood the importance of the architect and design professional, who were often involved in a project months before the audio/video guys were brought in. I will never forget having my first company meetings with our designers expressing concerns about the aesthetics of the components and speakers that our audio consultants were proposing to our joint clients.
At the time, there were various architectural speakers that could be installed in the ceiling, in the wall, or on the wall. But when the designers were specifying chandeliers that were the center piece of a room, they would not compromise on the fact that we also needed to install speakers with visible grills in the same ceiling. Needless to say, the cost of the chandelier and the impact of that piece often took precedence over a pair of speakers on the project. There were more times than not that we had to compromise a client’s music needs with that of their design needs. Rooms that should have had sound, such as parlors, dining rooms and kitchens where people gather often had the speakers removed from the design project. That’s when I started looking into invisible speakers and found that there were products out there, but most of them didn’t perform well except for low-volume background music.
Fast forward 15 years later, and now I’m working at Harman Luxury Audio with some of the greatest engineers in the world who have access to the greatest resources in the industry. In short, we now have the ability to make invisible speakers sound great. And that’s how the JBL Conceal series was born.
JIM: People were using invisible speakers, but the sound quality was really compromised, and that’s part of the reason that the category wasn't gaining a lot of traction. We knew if we could take the aesthetic benefit of invisible speakers, which eliminates what we call the “wall acne” of grilles all over the wall and the ceiling, and combine that with great sound, we’d have a product that would be very appealing to the design community and their clients.
DAVE: We didn’t want to settle by just launching another in¬visible speaker into the market— we weren’t going to change the design world with that. Our goal was to approach and even match the performance of conventional box speak¬ers, because we want end users to have high-performance sound wherever they want it. Let’s face it, no matter how cool we in the A/V business think speakers look, a lot of people still think they’re just big ugly boxes. And when you have big ugly boxes or any box in the room, your mind sort of con¬centrates on listening to the box. But when you listen to JBL Conceal speakers, you’re listening to the music, not the box.
JIM: By nature of the design, the speakers radiate sound in ev¬ery direction. We recently did a demo in a room where we had two Conceal speakers installed. When you sat in the middle of the room you could hear things coming around to the sides of you — it was this uncanny holographic presentation. No matter where you walk in the space, there’s consistent volume and consistent sound quality all throughout it.
DAVE: Design professionals are not bound by installing these products just behind drywall. You can cover them with almost any material as long as it doesn’t exceed 1/16th of an inch. For example, you can install them behind wallpaper, wood veneers and leather — we’ve even seen them installed behind fiberglass in a yacht installation.
JIM: By nature, since they’re covered, our invisible speakers are also weatherized, so they’re perfect for bathrooms and other humid environments.
DAVE: We’ve actually installed them in showers and you don’t see anything in the ceiling except perhaps the rain shower fixture. Those lucky homeowners just experience this three-dimensional, holographic sound as Jim described it, and wonder where it’s coming from. That’s why we often are quoted saying, “Music should be heard and not seen.”
"We recently did a demo in a room where we had two Conceal speakers installed. When you sat in the middle of the room you could hear things coming around to the sides of you — it was this uncanny holographic presentation."Jim Garrett, Harman Luxury Audio
A company called Sound Advance brought the first invisible speaker to market over 30 years ago, but they were basically a novelty. They provided a way to have audio in a space without having to have a bookshelf speaker or an architectural speaker with a grille. For the first 20 years of invisible speakers’ existence, though, there was a pretty significant compromise in the audio. One that a lot of design-centric homeowners and architects and interior designers were okay with, but, candidly, the audio/video community really struggled with.
Sonance began in 1981 with the desire to blend technology into architecture. Fidelity has always been our cornerstone and the founders saw the acquisition of Sound Advance in 2005 as a way to bring this idea forward in the industry with the ability to totally hide speakers while remaining true to the artist's intentions.
Since then, the product category of invisible speakers has proliferated. New companies have entered the space. And today there are a bunch of different options when it comes to invisible speakers that dealers can choose from to get onto those projects that have a really design-centric slant to them.
Chief Sales Officer
We are introducing a new range of invisible speakers to the marketplace which we started shipping in December. For the very first time, there’s no sonic or acoustic compromise to incorporate an invisible solution into your project. In fact, these are some of the best sounding architectural loudspeakers in the Sonance lineup, believe it or not.
There are a few advancements that our Chief Speaker Engineer, Todd Ryan, was able to understand as he did a ton of research in this space. And he constructed elements from speakers that exist today and was able to figure out how to marry those with basically the cloak of invisibility. So you don’t have to see them anymore. And the end result is a speaker that is, from a fidelity standpoint, from a performance standpoint, as good, if not better than anything at the equivalent price point from any manufacturer. We feel really, really bold saying that, but it’s proven out in the demos that we’ve done.
What that gives the consumer the ability to do is to say, look, the design of my house is really important. I make design-oriented decisions every day — I choose the fridge, I choose the range, I choose the countertops, the furniture, the furnishings, all of those things are design-centric solutions, but they’re easy to make because you can make a value-based judgment with your eyes. Audio is often this kind of obscure thing where you go to an expert and ask, "Okay, what are you recommending for me?" And I think that the best dealers say, well, let me understand what’s going on in your house and how important different things are to you. And when you look at a space, it’s really obvious and easiest to see, wow, I just can’t see a speaker grille in this space — an invisible product is ultimately going to be superior, but before, you always had that sonic compromise. Obviously that all goes away now.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SONANCE
Very rarely on a project are the audio/video consultant and the architect or designer in harmony, because the A/V consultant will say something like, "oh, I want to put a speaker right there," and the designer or architect says that aesthetically doesn’t work for what we’re trying to accomplish here. Invisible speakers remove those shackles. You can put them where they make the most sense for the design and because of their very wide dispersion (the number of degrees that sound radiates from the speaker’s position) they’re going to deliver performance that will drop jaws. And you can cover our new line of invisible speakers with up to three millimeters or an eighth of an inch of really anything flexible, including drywall, plasters, wallpaper, wood veneer and more.
"For the very first time, there’s no sonic or acoustic compromise to incorporate an invisible solution into your project."Jason Sloan, Sonance
Now that so many of us are spending more time at home, the whole idea of invisible speakers is more applicable than ever. People are working at home, kids are being educated at home, and a lot of these rooms are multi-purpose — during the day, it’s a classroom and at night it’s the home theater. It’s really nice to be able to fill the room with sound without filling it with equipment.
SETH: When a designer or architect designs a space, speaker grilles are not something that they ever want to see. Amina offers two invisible product lines. The Mobius line can be covered with anything except for glass or metal. So, wood veneer, wallpaper, fabric, leather, wall coverings, etc. The edge is plastered up to and gets primed and painted so that it becomes invisible as well. The key difference with Amina is how the products introduce sound into the room differently than the other invisible products. We’re not simply comparing ourselves to the other invisible products on the market, though – we’re looking at how to provide the right solution for the job, which Amina feels is evenly distributed immersive sound with no visual impact.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TSP SMART SPACES (ABOVE) AND PERFECT INTEGRATION (BELOW)
KEITH: We take a different approach than other manufacturers by focusing only on Spread Source Technology, which allows a loudspeaker cone to be replaced by a planar sound board. This creates a series of surface vibrations that generate acoustic energy — much the same way an acoustic musical instrument works. This technology was born out of R&D by Mission Speakers and the Royal Air Force back in the 1980s to create more realistic flight simulators. Our founder, Richard Newlove, was part of Mission’s team.
Richard left Mission with a dream to make a loudspeaker that could fill a room from corner to corner, just like an instrument. In the late 1990s, he created a picture frame speaker comprised of a rigid panel with a set of exciters (loudspeaker components that function by vibrating a rigid surface to create sound). In 1999 he got a request from a German designer to create one that they could put in a wall, something they could plaster over. That’s how we started to develop the first plaster-over AIW speaker, and Amina Technologies was born.
Today, we create all our own drivers in our own lab. It’s not using conventional speaker technology and adapting it to do something it was not designed for. It is purpose developed from the ground up, and patented. And I think that that is probably one of the most important aspects of this technology — it gives the architect, the interior designer and the sound designer the ability to bring high quality sound into the rooms in such a manner that even in highly reverberant spaces, the intelligibility is much improved over cone speakers, throughout the room. The technology award winning Mobius is certainly a testament to our advancement in sound quality and performance.
SETH: The same way that an architect or designer incorporates function in their designs, that’s how Amina approaches introducing sound into a room. The Amina technology is engineered from the ground up to be an invisible solution, rather than taking a traditional speaker and figuring out how to make it invisible. Amina specializes in invisible speakers and are made in Britain. So if you want to distribute audio in a room where people are typically moving around and not stationary in one spot, the perfect way to introduce sound like Keith mentioned is to have an even sound field from corner to corner, without any hotspots or dead spots as you move about that space. That’s one of the big advantages of our Vibrational Panel Technology, making our panel a spread source and not a point source. Amina products introduce sound into a room similar to an acoustic musical instrument.
"Amina delivers high performance, detailed, immersive sound with no visual impact."Seth Kaplan, LK Stockroom
The Amina solutions are the right tool to introduce distributed audio into an environment, even more so than a traditional in-ceiling speaker, to give you that even sound. Due to being a spread source you can use less of our speakers to cover a greater area in a room, which also leads to less amplifier channels, less wire runs, more space in the rack, and less heat. Amina delivers high performance, detailed, immersive sound with no visual impact.