Be Careful What You Wish For

In one of my earlier entries in this space, I lamented the lack of powered loudspeakers in the American marketplace. Where, I complained, were the compact, affordable, bi- or tri-amplified, DSP-smarts-enabled loudspeakers? Where were the products in the format that any intelligent engineer would identify as the only technically rational way to tackle the reproduction of musical sound?

Boy, did I underestimate the power of my pen. Today, barely three years later, the world is awash in cleverly designed, superbly compact speakers that combine multiple channels of built-in amplification and powerful digital signal processing to work their magic.

Trouble is, from an objective audio-quality vantage point, they are almost without exception mediocre at the very best, because the numberless (and in many cases faceless, too) active loudspeakers that now dominate the marketplace are all small, wireless, and Bluetooth. (Note to self: next time, start out by asking the genie for three more wishes….)

These portables, the 21st century's answer to the hoot-boxes of the '70s and '80s, check all my boxes: they use multiple channels of built-in power to drive multiple drivers—thought it's most often a single woofer and two or more mid-high-frequency drivers; they employ impressive DSP processing power to extend low-end reproduction, smooth frequency response to something more nearly approaching high fidelity, and to monitor driver temperatures and excursions to prevent voice-coils from melting or dinky cones and domes from launching themselves across the room. Trouble is, like the car radios of an earlier, simpler era, they are mostly engineered to maximize output, i.e. loudness, which means that bass extension, high-treble ability, midrange finesse, and most everything else are sacrificed to achieve kickin' mid-bass and the loudest possible middle three octaves, to get the tunes jammin' across the whole beach.

Not that I have anything against outdoor audio.

Well, maybe I do. I don't particularly care to hear somebody else's music (which all too often is some dude angrily screaming over heavily distorted, detuned guitars run through a sub-octave generator and playing open fifths more or less randomly up and down the fretboard) unrequested. But, unhappily, Bluetoth speakers are making this an increasingly common irritation. (Fortunately, I live in the country, so it's not a problem at home, just in public spaces.) Nor do I really mean to dis Bluetooth portables without qualification: I've heard some impressively good ones, and some amazingly small ones, so I'm ready to concede the engineering excellence they represent.

Just the same, they're not really about sound quality for its own sake—nor do they pretend to be. These days, an "audiophile" is coming to be defined as anybody that listens to a system you have to plug in.

I console myself with the knowledge that the skills this new generation of geeks have developed and brought to bear on today's wireless speakers are directly translatable to serious sound reproduction. The same knowledge and hands-on experience with built-in, Class D mini-amps, audio-DSP, and Thiele-Small parameters and fundamental loudspeaker design, could be applied, with very little adjustment, to designing a serious in-home, plug-in-powered, wired, active-DSP speaker of ear-opening quality and gob-smacking value.

Someday soon, I hope, some forward-looking engineer or corporate-climbing product manager is going to interrupt the monthly mini-BT-speaker development meeting to say, "Hey, you know what?! We could scale this puppy up, run it off 120vac instead of 6-volt battery rails, and program the DSP to derive full-range reproduction from a bookshelf-sized box while simultaneously correcting all kinds of driver non-linearities so that cheap drivers perform like costly ones, while even simultaneously measuring and correcting for the worst real-world room reflections and modes, and compensating for less-than-ideal placement—and it all wouldn't have to cost much more than a decent pair of passive speakers and a mid-market integrated amp! Think of the value! Consumers would beat a path to our door!"


notany's picture

Take a listen to the KEF LS50W speakers. They are exactly what you asked for.