Can you tell me a little bit about Stealth Acoustics and how you came to be a speaker manufacturer?
Stealth Acoustics is a division of Dimensional Communications (DCI), a large systems integration firm for over 36 years in the Seattle area. While taking a demo of an invisible speaker offering in the late 1990’s, Paul Hagman president of DCI realized that invisible speakers were a very cool idea, but the limited available offerings were expensive, difficult to install and didn’t sound very good. Paul felt he could do better and since DCI had built Hi-Fi speakers as early as 1977, he had the background and shop facilities to take on the project. Through 2-years of R&D, DCI created its first invisible speaker and branded it “Stealth Acoustics”. Our first speakers didn’t sound that good either but sounded as good or better than those available at the time and could be installed easier and at less cost. Based on this, we went to market and found an audience hungry for speaker solutions that solved aesthetic issues for home owners, interior designers and architects. As it turns out, our timing was excellent and we continually advanced our portfolio towards better sound and easier installation, winning prestigious industry awards along the way from CEDIA Lifetsyles for best new product in 2006, CEA TechHome Mark of Excellence and Residential Systems Magazine RESI awards.
Many people have heard about invisible speakers, but really don’t understand how they work â€“ can you explain how invisible speakers work in general? What are the technologies involved? Are there different types?
There are three basic types of invisible speakers; Transducer pucks which attach to a surface material like wood, drywall or glass and make sound by vibrating the surface. Distributed Mode Loudspeakers (DML) where exciter motors are attached to a panel and radiate de-correlated (non-point-source) sound. And flat-front-cone speakers which use typical speaker components, but instead of firing sound through a grill, use a special flat-front material as a combined speaker cone which can be painted or wallpapered. Stealth speakers fall into the last category and we’ve taken that flat-front cone, added a stiff “frame” behind the panel so it can be mounted to studs or other framing material and made the whole form factor install like a segment of wallboard. All of our speakers are less than 3.5″ deep, so they fit right into standard 2″x4″ or deeper stud bays. You can think of our speakers just like any high-quality visible ceiling or in-wall speaker, only with a flat-front that you can finish just like the rest of the adjoining surface, making the speaker totally disappear. Most invisible speakers, other than Stealth, have a limited frequency response, especially in the lower ranges. Stealth is the only company that can claim a totally invisible speaker solution that goes from 20Hz to 20kHz.
What specific technologies does Stealth use in its speakers? Why is this different than other invisibles?
Our invisible speakers use typical high-quality speaker components like cone woofers, rare-earth tweeters and multi-stage crossovers. DML speakers are typically constructed of single or multiple exciters of the same type and employ no crossovers, but may use filters to eliminate low sounds from the panel. The same is true for transducers. The key difference here is we create a multi-element speaker with different devices for highs and lows just like visible speakers. This allows us to use crossovers to send the right sounds to the right elements, once again just like regular speakers. To get the high and mid frequency stages to activate the flat-front cone properly, we use specialized carbon fiber stiffeners behind the panel face. Carbon fiber is stiff and light, which is a desirable material for creating accurate speakers.
What about sound quality â€“ I’ve heard that invisible speakers just don’t sound very good? How do your speakers sound compared to “visible” speakers?
Many invisible speakers still really don’t sound all that good â€“ that’s what motivated us in the first place and few outside of Stealth have invested continuing R&D into the space. We’re now on our 11th generation of panels, making sonic improvements all along the way. Today with our new LinearResponse (LR) series of invisibles, we are now arguably audiophile quality and surpass the sound quality of the visible in-wall or in-ceiling speakers one typically finds in homes. It used to be a compromise decision of aesthetics verses sound quality with invisible speakers, but we’ve turned that equation on its ear – you get great sound and invisibility with Stealth speakers. One of our greatest challenges is to overcome the poor sound quality perceptions created by other less capable invisibles and we’re making strides, primarily by educating buyers through listening experiences and successful installations. Over time, we believe the buyer will realize that our invisibles are not just for aesthetics, but also for great sound â€“ perhaps even better than many visible speakers.
So, are invisible speakers finally to a level of performance that will satisfy critical listeners?
In our opinion and in the opinion of those who have critically listened to our LR series in the lab the answer is yes. We’ve done blind listening tests and have been told that our invisible in-wall speakers sound as good or better than many premium 2-channel free-standers. Speakers are a bit like shoes; you have to walk in them to see if they meet your needs, but the looks of disbelief on the faces of the 2-channel listeners we’ve demoed to tell me we have very good sound, which is supported by our measurements. And, since we now have DSP-based amplification to go with our speakers, you can create tri and quad-amplified invisible speakers in the walls and tune them. This is what professionals do in large scale playback systems. I’ll certainly put our speakers up against any comparably priced visible solution. Better yet, we are close to releasing a visible speaker using our latest invisible technology. We’ve taken the flat-front concept, placed wood veneer over the face and built it into a beautiful enclosure where the tops, sides, front and back look like solid wood. Other than a hidden input connector in the bottom plate there is nothing that tells you this is a speaker- no grills, no exposed drivers. We will also offer this in paintable and custom wood-finish versions for use in design-centric applications that desire a high-quality free-stander. I like to think of this product as a “visible” invisible speaker.
How do you install Stealth invisible speakers? Can the customers do it themselves?
Our invisible in-wall / in-ceiling speakers install just like a wallboard patch using the same taping, mudding, sanding and finishing as found in any other wallboard seam. If a customer is comfortable with doing wallboard finishing and knows how to hook-up a pair of wires to the speakers, they certainly can do the installation. However, making a perfect finish to completely hide the speaker by making it a seamless element in the wall or ceiling requires skill and commitment to doing the installation correctly. This is why we recommend that an authorized Stealth Acoustics dealer be involved. They have the experience to manage the installation and provide maximum performance.
How reliable are your speakers once installed â€“ does the customer or dealer have to worry about installing speakers into a finished wall? What is your warranty?
Reliability is our number one goal because our speakers become a finished part of the wall or ceiling. Even though replacing a Stealth speaker is the same as repairing any wallboard installation, we realize our speakers have to work reliably for a very long time. This is why every Stealth speaker is hand-made and thoroughly tested before leaving the factory. We test each and every speaker using sophisticated electronic equipment and we have a dedicated test staff that listens to every speaker with pink noise, sine wave sweep and music. If those testers hear anything they don’t like they have full authority to pull it off the line, even if the machines say the speaker passes. We have millions of dollars’ worth of our speakers installed with only a few failures â€“ this is an impressive metric. Part of our reliability is due to over-provisioning all of our components and using multi-stage, self-resetting protection circuits on every speaker. We further support the product by providing a 5-year standard product warranty and an optional 15-year in-wall replacement warranty, where if a speaker fails we will pay fully to restore the install to its original condition. We’ve sold a number of the extended warranties and have never had a claim, which is a nice comfort for the customer and good business for us.
Will paint or other finishing materials crack or come loose from the speaker?
This is a very common question. The short answer is no, if the speaker is properly installed and finished by a quality craftsperson. There is no movement of the panel at the edges where it joins the rest of the wall surface, so no seam cracking occurs after installation, even with our totally invisible subwoofers. Our speaker panels move less than other speakers because we trade-off excursion for panel surface area, this is especially true of our subwoofers which we’ve used in high-impact home theaters for years without cracking or failure. Our speakers inherently ensure that paint and other properly applied finishes remain adhered to our panel face material which is specifically designed to receive the finishes.
Steve Olszewski is vice president of Stealth Acoustics, a leading manufacturer of award-winning invisible speakers and amplifiers. Steve is also vice president of Dimensional Communications, a successful systems integration firm with over 36 years of business experience, which is also the parent company of Stealth Acoustics. Steve’s audio roots are as a musician and have grown through being a lead audio designer and project manager at Dimensional for over 30 years. During that time, Steve has managed sound system implementations from critical listening rooms to NFL football stadiums, garnering invaluable experience and insight into what makes a good sound system and ultimately a great sounding loudspeaker. Steve is also an advanced graduate of Syn-Aud-Con, one of the industry’s leading educational firms in electro-acoustics and audio systems design. In 2002, Steve and Paul Hagman, President of Dimensional Communications and the key inventor of Stealth speakers, brought their first invisible speaker to market. Since then Stealth invisible speakers have won many prestigious industry awards including the CEDIA Lifestyle award for best new product and CEA’s TechHome Mark of Excellence Award. Today, Steve spends the majority of his time in the pursuit of bringing invisible audio perfection to the audio world with Stealth’s latest audiophile-grade invisible speakers, freeing listeners of the clutter and aesthetic pollution from visible speakers, bulky boxes and unsightly grills.