Invisible speakers (ISE 2016 report)

 Photograph courtesy of LG Electronics

Photograph courtesy of LG Electronics

In this third post following up the ISE trade show, I would like to introduce you to one of the biggest secret of the audio industry. You don't actually need speaker boxes to listen to your music, all you need is a wall and invisible speakers. For audio enthusiasts and tech savvy people this may not be new but for the rest what I am about to present is likely to be completely new and a bit magical.

Invisible speakers are not your usual speakers and require a very specific installation procedure and this is precisely why these solutions are presented in a show like ISE. The Integrated Systems Europe show aims at the professional market, the dealers and systems integrators (call them custom installers) which will not only sell you products but take care of the installation and the commissioning of your system. With this kind of solutions I strongly suggest to consider using a custom installer as they will make sure the installation is done right and the sound optimal.

How do invisible speakers work?

Normal speakers use transducers which traditionally works on pistonic principle. Using the shape of a cone or a dome, transducers are excited by a voice cole oscillating at the frequencies of the sound message. That movement is generally described as pistonic. In order to cover the full frequency range the size of the domes or cones will vary, each being allocated to certain frequencies via an electronic crossover. The simplest setup is to use a small dome also called tweeter to reproduce high frequencies and a larger cone (woofer) to reproduce lower bass frequencies. This configuration is called 2 way because it uses 2 transducers to reproduce separate frequencies. More sophisticated solutions may be using more transducers in a 3 or 4 way configuration.

Invisible speakers work differently and their principle is much closer to the behaviour of the soundboard of a musical instrument for instance. The idea is that instead of a transducer the speaker will use what is called an exciter which will be installed behind a flat panel. The exciter will transmit vibrations to the panel which will generate the sound. That flat panel can be seamlessly integrated into a wall and covered with plaster, paint or even a wall paper. Properly installed it is truly invisible.

Advantages of invisible speakers?

The vibrational technology used in invisible speakers offer a certain advantages compared to traditional speakers. The first one obviously is the ability to disappear in the walls or blend in the decor. The next great advantage of this technology is that the sound emitted from the panel is totally omnidirectional. It doesn't project the sound in a limited cone as normal transducers do. With classic speakers the directionality means that to get the best sound possible you need to seat right in front of your speakers and sometimes position them at a very specific angle. We usually call the best listening position the sweet spot and it can be quite narrow. No such thing with vibrational speakers, making these speakers ideal for casual listening sessions where people can wander around the room and still enjoy a very consistent sound quality without necessarily installing too many speakers. You may also appreciate this technology for more serious and critical listening sessions as over the year the quality of these panels have clearly stepped up and can now stand up against similarly priced boxed speaker solutions.

What is new from ISE?

I was fortunate enough to meet with two of the most well known manufacturers of invisible speakers on the market, Amina and Stealth Acoustics. Both brands have been pioneering this field the past 15 years and developed specific technologies to refine their concept and the sound quality.

Amina

Amina AIW-550i - Photograph courtesy of Amina

Based in UK, Amina has a wide range of flat panel solutions covering residential and commercial applications. Actually, a lot of shop interior designers fancy their products as they don't disrupt their design intentions. Amina has come a long way to make their product as easy to install as possible with very detailed documentation, installer trainings and plenty of online videos.

Their latest products from the Evolution series were presented on their booth and provided a very good sound output both qualitatively and quantitatively speaking. They embed a number of technology improvements like Amina OptiDrive and Amina OptiDamping which ensure superior sound quality in comparison with previous generations. One important thing to keep in mind with Amina is that their panels have limited bass response which requires in most cases the use of a subwoofer. They do offer in wall subwoofer solutions that are tailored to their panels and match their sonic qualities. With this range Amina position themselves on the top end of the invisible speaker market.

  AMINA ISE 2016 BOOTH

AMINA ISE 2016 BOOTH

 Amina ISE 2016 booth

Amina ISE 2016 booth

Stealth Acoustics

Stealth Acoustics LR4G speaker using 2 panels per channel - Photograph courtesy of Stealth Acoustics

Coming from the United States, Stealth Acoustics is another example of a company committed to invisible speaker solutions. Although using similar vibrational technology for the highest frequencies, Stealth Acoustics has developed an hybrid technology on their panel that set them apart from Amina and some other invisible speaker solutions. The key advantage of this technology is that their panels offer full range performances with bass response extending all the way down to 45Hz. In many situations these panels wont require an additional subwoofer which is a real advantage. They also make use of a very specific face panel material which aims at improving the sound response and output. The difference though is that where with Amina you can fully plaster the panel over with a 2-3 mm layer, making the panel absolutely invisible, the Stealth Acoustics panels should not be covered with that much plaster. Only a very thin layer can be applied to minimise the impact on the panel efficiency. This means that the panels are more likely to be slightly visible if not covered with wall paper or another cover material. The other noticeable difference against Amina is that their hybrid technology make their product slightly deeper (2-3/4" or 70mm versus 1-5/8" or 40mm) although still very shallow.

STEALTH ACOUSTICS LR6G - PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF STEALTH ACOUSTICS

Listening to their product I was also quite impressed with the result, especially their top of the line product, the LR4G. I was slightly less impressed by their invisible subwoofer solutions but I would not draw too quick conclusions as the listening conditions on a booth are less than ideal in terms of constructions and acoustic. In general, Stealth Acoustics is more affordable than Amina with their LineaResponse® G solutions making them more suitable for mid-range system installations. 

Conclusion

The listening conditions in an event like ISE are clearly not good enough to fully judge the quality of audio products and especially acoustic solutions like these invisible speakers. I am not able at this point to say which products are best but I really liked what I heard and am very interested to see them working in real life conditions to better appreciate their sonic qualities. Of course, these products should not be compared with exclusive boxed speaker solutions which would inevitably offer more but in the context of people caring about sound quality and interior design, they really fit the bill.

Both brands presented here are well established with good track records so you should be confident using their products as long as the installation is handled by a qualified professional installer. I really love the idea of invisible speakers, especially for multiroom applications or surround sound in a multi channel setup. Being able to enjoy music without any visual impact is really awesome and can be the definitive solution for dandy homes.

 

For your information, Sonance and Triad also offer invisible solutions using similar technologies. I was not able to meet with them or listen to their products so I can't really say much at this point but they are respected brands in the industry.

Interested in my previous posts on ISE 2016, check out the links below:



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