Yes! Size Does Matter

You have just heard the concert – and you have been blown away with the impact, the energy, the emotion and the sound, and now you just want to get home so that you can re-create the experience in your lounge room – right! The reality is more likely to be – wrong!

Neighbours aside, there are a few reasons why you will never recreate this experience in your living room, one of the more obvious is trying to cram a thousand people into the room so you can feed off the collective atmosphere created when that many like-minded people come together into an enclosed space. Secondly, forking out for a few kilowatts of amplification can be tough on the budget. Plus, did you see the size of those speakers at the venue? Try fitting them into your lounge room!

The good news is that you can do something about the last couple of points. Speakers produce sound by moving air, and physics (and common sense) dictates that if you want to move a lot of air you are going to need a big speaker, and the necessary power to drive it. This is where many modern domestic systems fall down. Over the last decade or so there has been a tendency for system and speaker design in particular to be driven by aesthetic values rather than performance. The result is that speakers are becoming smaller, and in some cases the bass portion of the sound has been separated into a separate box to create what the industry calls sub-sat (subwoofer-satellite) speaker systems. The upper midrange and high frequency signals are covered by two small (left and right) satellite speakers, and the rest is covered by a single bass box. The advantage of these is that they can be placed inconspicuously in a room – the downside is that they generally sound worse than average.

I believe that there are three main reasons for this:

A small satellite speaker cannot handle any bass at all, so the frequency at which the music is divided between the satellite speaker and the bass speaker usually occurs in a critical listening area of the music – and I have never heard a sub-sat system where this crossover point was flawless. Most sub-sat systems suffer a suck-out in the midrange area – the most critical for musical enjoyment.

There is some truth in the argument that you cannot tell stereo imagery in low frequency notes (below 80Hz), which is why you can get away with one subwoofer in a Home Theatre system. Because the brain cannot determine where a bass note is emanating from it is tricked into believing that it is coming from where the action is. The problem with sub-sat designs is that the bass box can handle frequencies of up to 1,000Hz and beyond – where stereo imaging is still obvious.

I believe that possibly the most important reason is that manufacturers of sub-sat systems believe people are more interested in design than performance, so they don’t really care much about the end result themselves.

(Don’t get me wrong – sub-sat speaker systems have a rightful place in the Audio and Audio/Visual marketplace, they can produce some very pleasant and enjoyable music – but they are not High Fidelity!)

So you have discounted the idea of a sub-sat speaker system – great. There is a large number of small stereo bookshelf speakers that do a remarkable job of reproducing recorded music. Fabulous timbre, stunning pin-point imagery, crystal clear yet liquid sweet high-frequencies, open spacious mid-range, deep rich… hang on… where’s the bass?

A good quality bookshelf speaker, correctly positioned in your room, can do a remarkable and immensely involving job of recreating recorded music. This is provided you are not expecting to listen to it at very high volume levels, or to reproduce those very low notes of bass. One of the greatest sins a bookshelf speaker can make is to pretend it has bass when it really doesn’t. The result is always a bloated lower mid-range/upper bass. While at times this can sound pleasant, it is never accurate. I would much prefer to have a speaker which will accurately reproduce the lowest notes that this particular design is capable of reproducing, without adding or subtracting anything.

This brings us back to the problem of recreating the concert experience at home. Sorry – but the only way that you can do this is with cubic capacity. Yes, the industry is now getting a lot more out of smaller box’s than it did a decade or so ago, both in terms of volume level and low frequency reproduction. However is it any coincidence that the next model up in any speaker manufacturers’ range is larger than the model below it. If you want high volume and/or low frequencies you will need to move a lot of air, and as I said to do this you will need a lot of cubic capacity, plus a lot of (genuine) power to drive the speakers to move this air.

I doubt you will ever really recreate the live event in your living area – but you can come close – size permitting.

By Len Wallis

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