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amirm

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Architectural Audio Systems
By Amir Majidimehr

[Note: This article was originally published in the Widescreen Review Magazine]

Usually my articles in Widescreen Review are focused on maximum performance as I suspect is the shared interest of you reading this. We are always seeking ways to improve the fidelity of our systems. When building a dedicated theater or purpose built music listening space that should indeed be the goal. But what about the other spaces in the home? Increasingly we spend time in a fully connected world where we may be on our computers, phones or interacting with others as we try to concurrently enjoy our TV or music programming. A great example is the living/family room which often puts severe restrictions on where we can put audio/video equipment let alone getting it to perform. Adding to our obstacles are other family members who may not share our appreciation for high fidelity experience at the expense of room décor.

Believe it or not we can have our cake and eat it too. Blending good looks with high fidelity reproduction is not the impossible battle it used to be. At least not in the right hands. To get there we need to divorce ourselves from off-the-shelf gear and welcome a class of products called “architectural products.” This broadly describes audio/video solutions that attempt to blend good looks with hopefully good performance. I say hopefully because sadly many compromise in that area, giving the category a bad name. But this need not be the case. Let’s look at two example cases of doing it right.

Scenario 1: Totally invisible audio system, minimally offensive video
In this situation the requirement is to preserve the look of the room as much as possible. This can be quite challenging when we are talking about a large piece of glass in the form of a flat panel display and a 5.1 audio system that would require no less than three speakers flanking it. Add to this the typical need to place such a system above the fireplace and you have the makings of an impossible situation.

Do not despair. Take a look at this picture of a mockup of a living room in our showroom:

MadronaLivingRoom2.jpg


Believe it or not you are looking at six (6) speakers representing Left, Center and Right channels! Where do you think they are? No, they are not in the light cans above. Or the shelf below. They are located where you expect them: to the left, right and above the screen.

The speakers, manufactured by Amina, are actually part of the drywall structure. This is what they look like before they are installed, mudded, and painted to match their surroundings.

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It is hard to get a good sense for them from this picture but these are no lightweight structures. The drivers are actually quite substantial and optimized to produce fair amounts of the low frequencies – a typical problem with this class of product. The panel can be mated to other materials besides drywall/plaster. We have for example blended them into the custom woodwork of built-in bookcases making them as invisible as they are in our showroom sample.

To increase power handling, more than one unit can be used as we have done. Each of our speakers has two panels. Speakers are safety protected as to heavily reduce the chances of them being damaged and hence require work to remove and repair.

The speakers are very musical and far better than you would imagine them to sound. Still, there is a limit to how low of a frequency you want your walls to produce as eventually you risk chipping paint and objects falling off the wall! Fortunately as with ordinary surround systems, you can deploy a subwoofer to handle that duty. Ours is an in-wall subwoofer installed low on the left side of the sofa (not visible here). Since bass frequencies are not easy to localize (i.e. tell which direction they are coming from), there is a lot of flexibility in where the sub can be located.

Between the in-wall sub and entirely invisible look of the Amina speakers, unless we tell people where they are, they have no idea no idea where the sound is coming from. They are shocked when they touch the wall and feel it vibrate to the tune of the music and movies.

One great bonus here over typical in-ceiling speakers is that the sound is directed toward the listener and not showering from above. While the “ventriloquist effect” is quite strong in the way our brain thinks the sound is coming from where the picture is, it is still desirable to get the speakers close to where they should be. And at any rate, that doesn’t work as well for pure music listening. Another benefit is that one hears the “on-axis” (direct) sound of the speaker in this installation which usually is far better than its off-axis (indirect) sound.

The electronics for the above system can be placed in a separate rack hidden from view. We have gone further and installed a Kaleidescape server in that rack which stores our library of Blu-ray movies and music on its internal hard disk and presents it with a very easy and elegant to use interface. This means that we don’t even need the classic disc player visible. With the addition of a control system we unify the interface for all, letting you use the system without any of the hardware visible.

While you are at it, you can also integrate the power shades and lighting as we have done with our Lutron system allowing finger control of those for a totally elegant solution. Lutron shades are dead silent and bring a sense of elegance that is hard to explain until you see one operate in person (the three segments you see covering our window show three levels of light transparency). The shades also act like a modest absorber making the room sonically more symmetrical in our case since there is no wall on the right.

As to the display, there is no getting around that large piece of glass. To mitigate it somewhat we have inset the TV into the wall with a black frame creating a more seamless look. The TV itself is special. When off, it becomes a mirror! This solves a major design issue: the large black hole when the TV is off. How often would an interior decorator decide to have a large black painting on a wall? Never. Yet that is exactly the look we get when the TV is not being used. Custom displays like this transform what could be an eye sore into something that appears to have been part of the home design. The illusion is completed with a custom picture frame in any shape, color and style.

Scenario 2: Nearly Invisible Audio System
As great as the above system is, there are situations where we can’t deploy it. Take a look at the picture of this is exquisite Seattle waterfront home:

WaterfrontSeattleHome.jpg


As you see the style is modern and unusual in its use of exposed concrete and steel. The customer wanted to enjoy music in that space necessitating the installation of speakers. Needless to say there is no option of using in-wall speakers of any sort as I am sure the architect would not take kindly to chiseling out the space in the concrete for them!

Faced with such challenges, the easy answer is to hang traditional box speakers on the wall, which in this instance would have made the room look like an outdoor patio rather than a high-style living room. That was not acceptable to us. We were determined to keep the system invisible, letting high fidelity music fill the room without detracting from its beautiful architecture and furnishings.

The key to the solution was the channel inside the I-beams that frame the windows. Their dark color was an asset in letting us blend in the speaker with matching color. The amount of real estate was quite small though. Tiny satellite speakers could be placed there but they would lack the full-range response and warm sound of a proper size speaker. And at any rate, getting a speaker to fit the channel perfectly was not possible using off-the-shelf products.

I-beam closeup.jpg


So we set out to do something unusual: design a custom speaker for that location. Of course starting from scratch would be cost prohibitive. So instead we partnered with a local company, Triad, who is in the business of building high-performance speakers. Unlike many companies who build their products overseas, Triad designs and manufactures all of its speakers in their factory in Portland, Oregon. Local manufacturing means they have the ability to customize their speaker designs which we have done with them across a number of projects of this type.

To get there quickly and at reasonable cost, we worked with Triad to modify one of their existing designs and shrink it to the space inside the I-beam. See the close-up image that has been intentionally brightened to show the speakers.

Alas, there is no free lunch. Low frequency performance of the speaker was compromised due to removal of one of the drivers. If we did nothing to compensate, the sound from those smaller speakers would be tinny and fatiguing. This is on top of their inability to properly fill the large space with sound.


Fixing the Low End
To get back what we lost and then some, we added a pair of subwoofers to the room. You might think we took a step backward in our journey to hide speakers as subwoofers are usually quite large. If we lacked space for a normal speaker, where did we find the room to put an even bigger subwoofer, much less two of them? The answer is on top of the shared fireplace! There was a recessed shelf above it that was quite deep and large and easily hid the two subwoofers. See the close up picture of that above (only one of the two subwoofers is shown).
sub.jpg


Audio Calibration And Amplification
Our work is not done yet. You don’t get to shrink a speaker, add two subwoofers and expect them to all play in harmony with each other. The characteristics of our main speakers and subwoofers are different and the sound going to each needs to be shaped to blend well with the other. And of course the room and installation locations affect the fidelity of the speakers.

To solve these problems, we deployed audio amplifiers from Crown International (part of Harman group) which sport built in DSP that can be programmed flexibly for all manner of audio processing from cross-overs to parametric equalization. This amplifier’s main market is live music reproduction where similar need for audio processing exists. A bonus of it brings is that it is designed to withstand the tough conditions of outdoor commercial use and hence has very high reliability factor.

Crown CDI 1000 front.jpg


We treated this part of the project similarly to how we optimize dedicated theaters. We measured the room response for both the subs and the satellite speakers. We then programmed the correction in the Crown amps (one amp per speaker and a common one for the two subs). The resulting sound belies the diminutive size and severe restriction on the design of this system. It is room filing and quite high quality. The customer was exceptionally pleased.

As you have probably figured out by now, these are custom solutions and cost more than just buying a speaker and taking it home. Is it worth it? Think of how much you spend on your home in the form of granite countertops, wood flooring, custom cabinetry, etc. Why not consider the extra cost here as part of the building cost and have high-quality sound that seems to have been completely designed into it? The rewards are certainly worth it as seen in these examples. OK, so I am spending your money :). But I hope you agree it is good to know there are options to get great looks and high performance.

Amir Majidimehr is the founder of Madrona Digital (www.madronadigital.com) which specializes in custom home electronics. He started Madrona after he left Microsoft where he was the Vice President in charge of the division developing audio/video technologies. With more than 30 years in the technology industry, he brings a fresh perspective to the world of home electronics.
 
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Nice setups! But I still think it would look better with a pair of these bad boys in those rooms! 110 lbs of particle board and testosterone!

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Nice exterior setting, with swimming pool, and a piano inside. :cool:
It's a contemporain decor setting, with lots of large windows (great for the magnificent view), and a touch of modernism with spaciousness.
So the automated audio/video systems suit the style and form and customer.

Mike, the Cerwin Vegas would totally destroy the futuristic looks with straight lines and angles. It simply doesn't fit. :D
 
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