Whole House Speakers: Flat or Phat?
Author: Bob Williams, General Manager of ATON
It is a simple fact that we have changed the way we listen to and enjoy recorded entertainment. Back in the 1900’s you were limited by the existing technology to designated listening areas. In those cases getting sound horns, and later, speakers to reproduce sound “flat” without added textures was a good idea because what systems added to sound back then was not good. Later in the century as technology advanced, that reference point could be painstakingly tweaked for whatever volume and music you were listening to, in that single room, at that particular moment. We are now enjoying digital media on the go and throughout our homes in environments and listening situations that were unheard of in the last century.
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Ask most audio engineers how speakers should be designed and they will say something like “flat,” or “dead flat”. In these cases they are talking about a frequency response that is consistent through the audible spectrum or “flat” from 20 Hz to 20 KHz. Ask any of the design team at whole-house AV manufacturer ATON about “flat” and everyone will agree to disagree with conventional wisdom. ATON staffers maintain that the phrase “the world is flat” dates back to 4th century navigators and 20th century sound engineers. But that was “then” and dealers and installers need to think “now” when it comes to 21st century entertainment and whole-house systems. In fact industry newcomer ATON was built around the notion of shaped sound, with a fresh approach to audio and signal routing that is attracting a lot of attention these days.
It is a simple fact that we have changed the way we listen to and enjoy recorded entertainment. Back in the 1900’s you were limited by the existing technology to designated listening areas. In those cases getting sound horns, and later, speakers to reproduce sound “flat” without added textures was a good idea because what systems added to sound back then was not good. Later in the century as technology advanced, that reference point could be painstakingly tweaked for whatever volume and music you were listening to, in that single room, at that particular moment. We are now enjoying digital media on the go and throughout our homes in environments and listening situations that were unheard of in the last century. Obviously, modern entertainment systems must be able to function in these new ways and yet we found equipment was still being engineered and judged by last century’s standards. We decided to change all of that and started ATON as a development company late in 2005 working to deliver affordable, state-of-the-art products that sounded and preformed the way users expected.
ATON has changed the conventional paradigms on all levels of signal distribution starting with our intelligent, patent-pending Dynamic Level Adjustment (DLA) speaker level audio routers. But the weakest link in whole-house systems for us was still the speakers themselves, so that is where much of the initial development at ATON was aimed. “The first thing we had to do was to break with tradition. To do that we built our audio team from scratch with musicians who also had advanced education in audio and music production. Heading this group was David Acton, ATON’s product manager, independent recording artist and studio engineer for Advent Audio Productions. Also part of the team was Paul Brengle one of the industry’s most trusted names in residential and pro audio speaker tuning as well as being a studio engineer himself. We asked David to design an audio lab for voicing our speakers and he surprised us all by designing something that replicated the acoustics of a family room instead of a basic audio lab. His reasoning was solid – we needed to test our prototypes in an environment close to what they would perform in.
According to David, “Most development in sound systems is still done by engineers who are working toward a theoretical standard that looks great on paper. The problem is that no one who installs a whole home system will ever listen to it in the same way a sound engineer does. In fact, using flat-tuned speakers in real world environments will typically result in disappointing results over the full spectrum of use. At lower volume levels, which is how most people listen to whole-house audio systems, flat tuned speakers have a tendency to sound dull and boring. In order to enjoy the audio you have to really crank the volume up and have an acoustic environment that is not typical for most homes. So our team started from scratch to produce musician-tuned speakers, or speakers tested in a real world environment by people who understand, create and have an ear for music. In other words we started with a speaker tuned to standard, and then worked backwards to what we knew the music had to sound like.”
Always the engineer, Paul Brengle has said that “Although our testing and tuning at ATON was done real world and not in the sterile laboratory settings that are standard in the industry, our test procedures were by the book. Each speaker we worked on took several days to voice. We worked on where the crossovers would occur from low to mid to high, along with the subset electronics to filter and attenuate each speaker. Each test was done using standard test recordings on the speaker operating in the lab, but in addition to what we were seeing on paper, we relied on what we heard. In the final stages of each speaker test, as many as five musicians and musician-based audio professionals were used to lock down each tuning.”
Along with several months of testing on nineteen new speakers, the team did side-by-side comparisons with counterparts from four other mid-level manufacturers. According to David Acton, “This was an amazing payoff for us. The differences in performance were dramatic. We had designed an affordable speaker series from the ground up that clearly outperformed the mid-range competition at all levels. To our amazement, our highest-end Kevlar speakers were able to match the sound and performance of some of the highest priced architectural speakers on the market. The idea of using science to set each speaker’s base-line, while letting musicians fine-tune them in real world environments seemed pretty basic to us, but the results were outstanding.”
As far as the nineteen speakers David and the team tuned for this collection, that is one of the results of the huge changes we have seen in the US market. Modern use dictates style, function and technology, meaning last century’s huge speaker enclosures that were good at general sound coverage, were no longer acceptable by many discriminating homeowners who don’t want to see big bulky boxes or wires coming out of the walls. The solution is giving audio/video designers a palette of balanced speakers for each room to mix and match as needed, for the right balance and coverage while all the elements are hidden behind walls and ceilings. With speakers showing up in limited spaces like secondary bathrooms, designers also needed special support like speakers with single baffles and dual elements for stereo sound. Working with outdoor spaces brought a whole new set of challenges as designers tried to keep the speakers weatherproof, while matching the performance of our indoor speakers.
The final step in speaker tuning does not happen in the factory, but in the room where the speaker is installed. Many of the Storm Series speakers have installer adjustments that range from +-3db base adjustments, to focusing mid and high frequency sound distribution. Although installers understand the importance of this last step, we leave nothing to chance. Each speaker ships with a detailed, yet easy to understand user’s manual, which has detailed recommendations for installation, such as adjusting the baffle and tweeter, to the best dimensions for building back boxes. ATON’s sound pros are also developing a series of installation videos to show specific techniques as well as share install tips.”
So getting back to our opening premise “Flat or Phat?,” it is clear that whole-house designers need to come up to speed on the latest approaches to sound when bidding a new system. Choosing Phat over Flat with a system like the affordable yet high performance Storm Speaker Series from ATON, can make the difference in closing a sale on an entry level system or being able to save enough money on the speaker side to add bonus features like Dynamic Level Adjustment Speaker Level Audio Routing, bump up an existing flat panel display on the video side or add prized accessories like RF remote controls. As the ATON team would tell you though, it is all in the hearing, so you should definitely get an earful of what musician-tuned speakers sound like to decide “Flat or Phat?” for yourself and your customers!
ATON’s complete Storm Speaker Series and the Dynamic Level Adjustment speaker level audio routers are now shipping and will be showcased at CEDIA 2008, from September 3rd to the 7th at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver Colorado. Additionally, ATON’s soon-to-be released line of Digital Audio and HD Video Routers will be showcased. These include the new DH44 Digital Audio over CAT 5 Amplified Keypad System with DIGI-5 Technology and the HDR44 High Definition Video Router using a dual CAT 5 configuration. Demonstrations are also available by request. For more information go to www.atonhome.com.