Home Audio Speakers: What’s Hot? What’s Not?
The picture on the left shows the Bozak Concert Grand Speaker System. Invented by audio pioneer Rudy Bozak and sold from 1951 – 1965, The Concert Grand was universally considered by almost every reviewer as the finest production speaker system available. Weighing 250 pounds and costing more than $2000 (About $20,000 in 2011 dollars), each unit contained four 12″ woofers, two midrange drivers and an array of eight tweeters contained in a gigantic box that was close to an infinite baffle enclosure. If you wanted to hear (feel) the lowest note on a bass viol, the Concert Grand was, arguably, the only system capable of producing those notes distortion-free. Short of very costly custom-built systems, no modern technology has been able to sound as sweet as the Concert Grand in my less-than-humble opinion. Unfortunately, the Concert Grand demanded a) vast wealth; b) an extremely understanding spouse; and c) a very large room, thus narrowing the market to the point at which the Bozak company could not sell enough to make a profit.
Since those heady “HiFi” days, speaker designers have developed hundreds of systems based on technologies, both esoteric and simple. The speaker designer’s job today is complicated by the need to reproduce both music and movie sounds. Crashing automobiles heard through 6 channels and the strains of Beethoven heard through 2 stereo channels require very different aural profiles. Further, most music content these days is digitally-sourced and digital music sounds a lot different than analog-sourced music. (Although, if you are young enough, you may never have heard analog music, and therefore don’t know the difference!) In short, except for a diminishing number of audiophiles, the Concert Grand and its brethren are no longer hot.
Hot speakers today are likely to be a) small; and b) wireless. Small means that infinite baffles are out, and enclosures tiny or non-existent. To make up for that deficit, designers compensate by using the aforementioned electronic trickery, employing sound modifier circuitry that attempts to create realism. Sometimes the trickery is built into the amplification system and sometimes in electronics that are embedded into the speaker equipment. Bose pioneered this methodology with great success. (Although I will admit that some Bose systems sound very good, they still ain’t Concert Grands.)
The technology has progressed to the point where much sound processing circuitry has reached commodity status, enabling speaker and amplifier manufacturers to offer a range of sound processing options at low cost. An outstanding example is the so-called sound bar. A sound bar is a collection of speakers and sound processing electronics housed in a narrow long cabinet designed to fit under or over a TV set. The electronics often try to emulate surround sound. Since the speakers are very small, a separate subwoofer is usually needed to get decent bass response. Sound bars typically sell from $150 to $1500. A few years ago, the Polk Audio company was the only producer of sound bars. Today, virtually every speaker supplier is in the sound bar business. Put them in the very hot category.
Another hot category are speaker systems with tiny satellite speakers.
Pioneered by Bose under the trademark “Acoustimass”, these systems consist of a subwoofer and 2-7 little satellite speakers usually coupled with electronics that strive to make the sound realistic. Prices for satellite systems range from $100 to $2000. Spouses tend to like them because they are inobtrusive.
The person who would have bought a Concert Grand 50 years ago, can get some very hot speakers that offer great sound in large rooms. The most common form factor for these high-end speakers is the so-called “tower.” They look like skinny Concert Grands and usually have several speakers contained in a single enclosure. They may or may not include sound processing electronics. You can expect to pay from $300 to $2000 per enclosure for tower systems, so a multichannel setup can set you back big bucks.
I mentioned before that wireless systems are hot. That means that the audio signal can be sent from its source to speakers using either an Internet-based network or a proprietary wireless scheme. This eliminates the need for wires and makes it easy to play music sourced in one room to speakers located in another room. Unfortunately, wireless transmission quality is not as good – yet – as wired transmission, so, if you want high-end sound, you are still stuck with wires.
I close this article with mention of an item that is semi-hot. That is, the high-end DAC (Digital -to-Analog Converter). Audiophiles will tell you that analog music beats digital music hands down. That is why many DJs use vinyl records rather than CDs, and why vinyl media is actually on the increase. Neilsen Soundscan recently reported that, while overall album sales dropped 13% in 2010, sales of vinyl increased by 14 percent over the previous year, a new record. These DACs take digital input from a CD/DVD player (for example) through a Toslink or Digital Coax connection and output analog sound to the system receiver or amplifier. Very cool, indeed!