Nobody loves an In-Wall.
No aspiring rock star ever says: “When I become rich and famous, I’m going to snag a pair of mediocre speakers that I can cut into my wall, paint over and ignore.” World-class audio is the stuff of dreams, yet it becomes ever more difficult for qualified customers to buy it.
Back in the 1980s, Cerwin-Vega’s ad slogan was: “Life in order of importance-Food, Shelter, and a Pair of Very Loud Speakers. “Those were the days! In the system-design articles I wrote during my freelance days, I routinely simplified the speaker selection process with the quote, “speakers make sound by moving air.” The more air you want to move, the bigger the speaker (and/or drivers) needed. During my stint as Automotive Editor at Maxim, I often borrowed the phrase, “there’s no replacement for displacement,” which explains the direct relationship between power and engine size. What these auto and audio examples have in common is that you can’t cheat the laws of physics: if you want more horsepower, you need a bigger engine; if you want more bass or sound pressure, you need a bigger loudspeaker.
During the twenty-three years since I started Specialty Sound and Vision, no component category has changed as dramatically as Loudspeakers. Before the 90s, most consumers bought box-type speakers, either Towers or Monitors, after visiting a local HiFi store, consulting with a salesman, auditioning multiple models and choosing the speaker best suited to their taste.
Those days are gone. Few customers visit HiFi stores anymore, in part because there are ever-fewer stores and in part because purchasing behavior has changed. In the past, great sound was a priority and those individuals able to afford top-notch equipment would actively seek out the best gear: visiting dealers, reading magazines and soliciting expert advice. Nowadays, most affluent buyers abdicate their “sound decisions” to decorators or architects whose product choices are determined by visual impact or, more precisely, lack thereof. One of the largest integrators in our territory told us that Invisibles comprised eighty percent of their speaker sales and the best-selling models from virtually every speaker company—even High End ones—are architectural.
During my life in audio, loudspeakers have marched the “Trail of tears” from Tower, to Bookshelf, to In-Wall, to In-Ceiling and finally…Invisibles. At every step of the journey, sound suffered, to the point where today’s standard “Millionaire’s System” is at once more expensive and worse-sounding than those of two decades ago.
Don’t get me wrong, HiFi equipment has steadily improved and if we’re comparing “Apples to Apples” there are compelling sonic improvements to be had in the latest gear. Problem is, we’ve moved from Analog to Digital to Bluetooth, from Tubes to Transistors to ICs, from Towers to Bookshelves to In-walls to Invisibles. Convenience, installation-friendliness and domestic acceptability have skyrocketed…at the expense of performance.
So, here we are in the twenty first century, at a time when High End Audio has realized its ultimate expression, hawking a bunch of wimpy, low-performance products which condemn consumers to the sonic stone-age. Designers and architects seem contemptuous of High End Audio. Customers—and we’ve witnessed this—request great sound, only to have performance beaten down by designers who couldn’t care less about performance. End users still care. We recently met with a music-loving “Master of the Universe” who hired Elvis Costello and Joan Jett to play his birthday party. After his integrator spec-ed and installed a house full of invisibles, the fellow called his salesman, screaming “Get this shit out of my house NOW!!!” As I write this, Leon President Noah Kaplan is custom-designing bespoke speakers that will combine luxury aesthetics with the performance this customer demands.
Big bland boxes precipitated the downfall of in-room loudspeakers and the rise of architectural alternatives. Think back to your Large Advent, Acoustic Research AR-3a or KLH Nine from the late 70s: pretty sloppy, in retrospect, and certainly nothing one would proudly display in a modern living room. Now, think about the latest Wilson Wamm, Maarten Coltrane, EgglestonWorks Viginti, etc. These are gorgeous, intricately-shaped objects which radiate quality and exclusivity…and that’s before you turn them on! High End speakers can be as sculpturally stunning as they are sonically sublime. They can be objects of profound pride and admiration, if we can only convince designers to spec them and integrators to sell them.
The central point is this: big speakers can be beautiful. They don’t disappear the way architectural and invisibles do…and that’s the point! If we accept that a speaker will be seen, we can choose something that looks as special as it sounds, enhancing décor instead of competing with it. I’ve spoken to a couple of “heavy-hitter” architects and there is genuine enthusiasm for integrating large, high-performance speakers into the design of high end living spaces. For integrators, the margin from a single pair of “Statement” loudspeakers easily exceeds the profit of a dozen pairs of Architecturals.
Better quality for the consumer, more profit for the dealer and a design showcase for the architect. Everyone wins. All that remains is for dealers to initiate a return to performance….