Adventures in Speakerland

As I browsed through the latest issue of Stereophile during a late afternoon lunch break, the waiter who brought my soup glanced at an advertisement.

"What's that?"

I responded that it was a loudspeaker, wondering if he had ever seen a speaker with the grille removed. It wasn't exactly one of those exotic-looking designs that you'll find in our Ultimate Gear entries—the ones that look like they belong in Star Trek. In fact, with just three ordinary-looking drivers in a slick but non-pretentious floor-standing cabinet, it looked only slightly more upscale than hundreds of affordable designs. But it was expensive, and I couldn't quite muster up the nerve to tell the poor fellow that not only was it a speaker, it was a $12,000 speaker. Each.

The quantity of super high-priced audio gear has exploded in recent years, but even if we discount the currently dismal economy (which the designers of such equipment could not have anticipated—it often takes years to engineer products and get them to market), it all seems a bit over-the-top. I just checked on the number of speakers in last year's (2009) Stereophile Buyer's Guide that equal or exceed $20,000. There were 233 (inexplicably, there was no way to distinguish which price listings were per pair and which were priced as singles, but at these prices, whose counting).

I am no party-pooper when it comes to high-priced products. In the years I have contributed to Ultimate AV, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (from whence UAV was spawned), Stereophile, and Home Theater I have reviewed, or heard, any number of extremely expensive speakers that most of us would be proud to own, though few of us can afford. Products from companies such as Revel, B&W, Aerial, TAD, Focal, Wilson, and ATC come immediately to mind. There are others as well.

When judging the price of any product, many of us ignore the intangible costs, including R&D, factory space, staff (design, production, warehouse, administrative), shipping, and distribution. Then there's the biggest factor of all: economy of scale. As a product becomes more expensive, its potential sales numbers decrease rapidly. As the number of units that might be sold goes down, the price must go up even further to cover parts costs and fixed overhead.

Still, once you get above a certain price, the law of diminishing returns sets in. That is, for every additional dollar spent, you get a smaller improvement. But where is the breaking point, the point beyond which the increase in performance is slowed dramatically or even non-existent? There's little agreement on this, and the issue is complicated by the needs and desires of different listeners. Specialized requirements, such as filling a huge room, or bass extension to below 20Hz, will alter the inflexion point. But in general I'd put it much closer to $10,000/pair than $20,000.

A designer for a well-known speaker company once told me that he didn't know how to engineer a $25,000 (per pair) loudspeaker. By that he didn't mean that he could not design such a speaker, but rather that he didn't know how to put $25,000 of value into it. But a year or so after he moved on to another company his former employer had a $25,000 model on the market. Was that company simply shooting for a few big sales? Sure. But never underestimate the simple desire to have an expensive flagship to give luster to the rest of the line.

More often, however, this works the other way around. A small cottage-industry company comes out with an exotic, expensive design. If it's modestly successful they can build on that reputation to make and sell more consumer-friendly models. That's how Infinity, for example, got started. In the late '60s or early '70s they came out with the Servo Static I, a stereo speaker system consisting of two electrostatic panels and a servo-feedback subwoofer. It sold for something around $2000—a shocking price for a speaker in those days and probably equivalent to $20,000 to $30,000 today. The rest, as they say, is history.

For adventurous souls who yearn for that high-end speaker but simply can't afford the finished product, it has always been possible to put together your own set of speakers. How do you think most professional speaker designers got started? If there are college degrees in the art of speaker design, I don't know of them.

DIY speakers can be built from scratch, from proven designs, or from the limited number of kits available from vendors that sell into the do-it-yourself market, such as Parts Express and Madisound. Such speakers will cost you a fraction of the price of commercial designs, with the potential savings, and risks, greatest at the high end. For an investment of roughly $4000 you could purchase the drivers and crossover parts needed for a pair of three-way speakers that, in many cases, will be similar, or even identical, to the parts found in many a $20,000+ speaker system. And parts nearly as good can be had for far less. But the process of selecting appropriate and compatible parts, designing the crossover, and building the cabinets (or having them built) is hardly a walk in the park. Unless you know what you are doing, the odds are high of ending up with a very expensive flop. Even experienced designers go through scores of prototypes, assisted by computer design, sophisticated measurement tools, and exhaustive listening tests to arrive at a high-quality, finished product.

But for the brave, ambitious, or simply foolish there's tons of information about speaker building on the Internet. Not all of it is helpful or even accurate, but one site that I've found particularly useful when it comes to raw drivers is Zaph Audio. It provides detailed data on dozens of drivers readily available to the do-it-yourselfer, including measurements of frequency response, distortion, and cumulative spectral decay. There are also pithy comments about the drivers, plus designs engineered by John "Zaph" Krutke, the site's founder. I can't vouch for these designs, but they appear to be well thought out and the discussions on each are exceptionally thorough. It makes for fascinating reading if, like me, you're an incurable speaker geek.