When the press release named Kii Audio as the sender, my ears pricked up. When their novel Three loudspeaker promised 20Hz – 20kHz bandwidth from a 20x40x40cm box with six drivers; six 250-watt custom nCore amps; full DSP control and controlled dispersion… my ears got hot and bothered. When I learnt that former folks from Grimm Audio were involved including Bruno Putzeys of Hypex, UcD, nCore and Mola-Mola fame, I got my thermometer out just in case. It pegged. Time for another keep-it-honest installment.
As have Devialet with their Phantom, I firmly believe that today’s best active loudspeakers backed by sufficient R&D and out-of-the-box thinking set hifi’s path for our future. By design, that entire motion goes against the current establishment. As a quasi entity, the status quo is far too deeply invested in the past to condone any 180° turnabouts. Hence it’s been predominantly pros—recording and mastering engineers—who have embraced active loudspeakers (and often not their more ambitious examples). In a studio, their all-in-one convenience, linearity and ability to play very loud and full bandwidth from a compact cab in the nearfield are boss.
At home the room is. How loudspeakers behave in the mid- to farfield is one of the remaining frontiers. If not wall-mounted or endowed with a very wide baffle, hifi-typical speakers make you inebriated. In the lower registers, you hear them twice; once their direct sound, then their echo reflected off the front and side walls. Shy of turning half your living space into an anechoic eye sore to kill off those time-delayed reflections, there’s nothing one can do about hearing double.
But there is. It involves time delay. One must delay the direct sound off the speaker’s front baffle until its side and rear emissions have caught up. To do this properly involves digital signal processing. That means either a digital input signal or conversion of analog signal to a digital likeness. And to do so at its most exacting, there should be controls to input the precise distances of the front and side walls so the DSP brain can calculate the required delay.
Kii Audio’s Three has front, side- and rear-firing drive units. Exactly how these are timed to arrive in sync at the listener’s ears as is claimed for them wasn’t divulged in the press release or on their website prior to the Munich HighEnd 2015 show. I’d have to visit their off-site launch party in a recording studio during regular M.O.C. show time to find out. Apparently delay lines in loudspeakers aren’t exactly a novelty item in the sound reinforcement industry. Even in hifi, the venerable Quad point source involves them. But in the high-end sector and for the express purposes of controlling dispersion, Kii Audio’s take on it seemed pioneering.
This raises all the typical audiophile flags. Active means you’re locked in. DSP means manipulating the virgin-pure signal (which, during recording and mastering, has been through extreme manipulations but never mind). Bruno’s class D amplifier tech relies on unabashedly high amounts of negative feedback. This and related antipathy reflect on HighEnd’s inertia. On a whole, we’re committed to the past and how things used to be done.
But think about it. If current A/D conversion for example still caused any losses, it’d be a 0.05% problem compared to the 50% problem of room-induced issues. It’s only idealist and theoreticians (identical twins if ever there were any) who’d in this case protest A/D. Then there’s the unpredictability of how electronics and passive loudspeakers interface when it’s up to the end user to configure it. I don’t know about you. But I’d not trust myself farther than I can spit or piss if the automotive sector allowed me to hodgepodge my next car from a 10’000 item long list of engines, brakes, suspensions, control systems and bodies. By the same token, if I wanted a skilled audio engineer’s 100%, I really ought to give him full control over the entire lot. Not to implies that I know better. Fancy that!
Of course hifi reviewers like us depend on separates to pin specific performance traits on. And it’s also fair to say that our industry at large loves our piecemealing of separates. With the many possible mistakes or sub-optimal matches inherent in that approach, it becomes the roaring engine of built-in dissatisfaction which keeps the hamster mill of buy’n’sell spinning. The closer to perfection any hifi product comes, the longer its owner will live with it. Any product which purports to solve the 50% issue of uneven power response aka in-room sound dispersion with its concomitant ghosting between direct and delayed sound should be a far more perfect long-term investment even if in the course, it committed 0.05% issues. Wouldn’t it?
At least that’s what my thinking cap got out of Kii Audio’s website presentation prior to hearing a pair. In the spirit of KIH, we’ll do something different this time. I’ll complete this feature post show to not only fill in certain tech gaps but more importantly, contrast my expectations based on the paper tech with the actual experience based on the bio tech (my pink bits and the connected gray matter interpolating the data). Time delay indeed.
Stay tuned… Part 2 runs here.
Further information: Kii Audio