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KIH #6: (Over)-loading the room

  • OMG. That needs no deciphering. Except to explain what context to say it in. Today I’ll suggest something I’ve thought about and worked with over the past year. To come right out and say it plain, big speakers suck. WTF?

    Generalizations are never right. Neither is this one. Let’s qualify to make sense. If you have a normal-sized 15′ x 24′ or 5 x 8m room and particularly if you listen on the short wall, your nearby front corners can trap so much energy as compound pressure zones that significant resonance and compression effects bleed into your midband and treble performance like an overcast angry sky. The key phrase is loading the room. Too much speaker for the room always does that. And one thing you don’t want to do is load the room. The notion of ‘room lock’ as a desirable pursuit is utter folly.

    That little speaker with a sub below 47Hz (2nd-order low-pass) played this big space with aplomb!
    That little speaker with a sub below 47Hz (2nd-order low-pass) played this big space with aplomb!

    We’re back to KIH #2. With a good headphone you can easily gauge how much mud, opacity and coloration your room creates particularly below 500Hz. If you wanted a similarly clean, transparent, quick and communicative sound from your speakers—you may not–a good 6” 2-way monitor or something slightly smaller won’t move sufficient air to become problematic. But it’ll still extend low enough to blend with a subwoofer at or below 50Hz to remove THX-style 80Hz handover issues. A single sub in the centre of the front wall is sufficient to fill in the bottom octave without introducing the same corner loading issues a ‘good for 20Hz’ monkey coffin would.

    For speakers the last/first octave really is the costliest challenge. A difference of 10 cycles could mean a surcharge of €5’000 – €10’000. It also impacts size and weight too. Growth in girth, height and footprint diminishes your options for room placement. The vertical space taken up by your tower of power also obscures portions of the soundstage. At least psychologically it’ll be ‘in the way’. More physical mass equals more energy storage potential. That’s heavier box talk. And connecting or combining large-amplitude mechanical forces to a midrange and tweeter was never the hottest idea to begin with.

    And we haven’t yet considered how a passive good-to-20 speaker has no means to adjust its bass should your room overload. Nor how such a box becomes far more demanding of your amplifier. It’s really easier (and cheaper) to obtain a refined small amp. To get equivalent refinement and speed from a muscle specimen is a different proposition. Its need only arises from the self-inflicted misery of having to drive big beastly boxes in the first place. Hifi is filled with cures for DIY ailments.

    The smart money should consider a compact 2-way speaker instead. Delegate the low bass to a self-powered subwoofer with low-pass adjustments to well below 40Hz. Perhaps it even sports a bass boost at 20Hz to compensate for leakage with lossy house constructions. Such a threesome will play it far cleaner, transparent and linear; look more attractive; ease the burdens on associated amplification; and cost less.

    Despite greater than usual sidewall distances, Boenicke's B10 still created more midband reflections and concomitant darkness than I found ideal for my space.
    Despite greater than usual sidewall distances, Boenicke’s B10 still created more midband reflections and concomitant darkness than I found ideal for my space.

    It’s a win/win all around. The missus is happier. The space feels better. It’s less dominated by hifi to return to your main room its missing ‘living’ function. No more sonic stickum to enclosures. Soundstage scale goes up. So does overall intelligibility. That means you needn’t listen as loud to hear everything. And you’re back in control of in-room bass balance, not held hostage by primitive passive boxes without controls. Your muscle amp budget can pursue a small luxury amp. Not feeding that amp with the back electromotive forces of burly woofers makes it sound mo betta still.

    What’s the fly in our OMG ointment to make it an over my grave veto? A few interrelated things. Whilst the right good small speaker can play plenty loud for these purposes, it won’t ever move as much air as a big box. If it’s the physical skin assault you crave, this won’t do. By not loading the room, the overall sense of pressurization regardless of volume won’t be the same. For transparency that’s vital. But if you’re used or addicted to pressurization effects, it’s the same no-go. Another side effect of a big speaker’s stronger room interactions can be greater subjective warmth. That’s often equated with more sonic substance or density. The headphone comparison previews once more whether you’re a good candidate for our proposed threesome. It’s bound to play it more denuded and pure than a big speaker that interfaces in unpredictable ways with your room. If you’re used to that however, you might not lust after the ‘headphone in open space’ concept.

    Finally, don’t discount the benefits of a true infrasonic subwoofer by pointing at a traditional twosome as the religiously appointed only way to do proper stereo. Our sub’s primary duty is to recover spatial cues tied to very long wavelengths. Yes low bass will extend lower too if and when it’s on the recording. But that’s actually secondary to the improvements on space and scale you’ll hear even on music which lacks primary LF data. With nearly 10 different rooms across my hifi career, I’ve never once obtained bass as linear, extended and non boomy as I do from a proper powered sub.

    Before most audiophiles can open their minds sufficiently to contemplate this approach, they must drop or at least temporarily set aside conditioning around the topic. Subs have gotten a bum rap as primitive home-theatre explosion devices. Few audiophiles use them purely for the lowest octave. That makes all the difference. Small monitors are assumed to be dynamically compromised. That returns us to our prior KIH feature on SPL. Acquire a tablet SPL app to know how loud you play. Aside from a few head-banging exceptions, this should be quite sobering relative to the usual propaganda and what it means for speakers that support your actual requirements.

    Two-way speakers have another leg up on their three-way competition. The all-important midrange isn’t filtered twice (top and bottom to hand over to tweeter and woofer respectively). If you don’t think that matters, ask a few speaker designers. If they’re honest, they’ll admit how much harder it is to duplicate their best two-way’s midband performance with a more-way.

    Today’s threesome proposition has a final wrinkle. Your two-way monitor (or compact floorstander) could become a tweeter-augmented widebander. That means a midrange driver of unusual bandwidth. This can push the tweeter crossover frequency above 6kHz to fall outside human hearing’s most critical zone. As you’re no longer needing such drivers to do low bass, you can avoid big rear horns and similar band aids. This opens doors which remain otherwise closed but could be entertaining and satisfying to explore. Especially for routine low-level listening the 94dB+ sensitivities of many widebanders can be a real boon.

    The li'l ones again. Because they literally worked better than the 4 times costlier B10, I traded the latter for two pairs of the W5 minis. In case you thought I wasn't walking this talk.
    The li’l ones again. Because they literally worked better than the 4 times costlier B10, I traded the latter for two pairs of the W5 minis. In case you thought I wasn’t walking this talk.

    To conclude, too much speaker for the room is probably the commonest most counterproductive mistake we as audiophiles make. Saying no is the first step to sanity and greater satisfaction. Once you watch what you thought were intrinsic room issues dilute or vanish because the speaker suddenly plays rather than fights the room, you’ll be all smiles. Chances are so will be your wallet. Enter old Chuang-Tzu. Easy really does it. 

    Further information: Boenicke Audio

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.

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