The Incredible Shrinking Speaker

Speaker Sizes

People's ideas of how large their speakers should be have sure changed over the years. During the 1970's, our most popular model, the RSL Studio Monitor was a 12" 3 way system. It was 25" tall, 14 1/2" wide, and 12" deep. Our customers would put these in their living rooms or dens in bookshelves or on speaker stands. Fast forward to today where our CG4 speaker is only 10" high, 6" wide, by a little over 6" deep. While most people are happy with their compact size, there are a few who wish they were even smaller!

So, the question is: has sound quality diminished over the years due to the downsizing of speakers? Actually, the opposite is true. Imagine having a pair of large floorstanding speakers in front of you. Each speaker would have a large woofer. Then, closer to the top of the cabinet, there would a midrange, perhaps 4" in diameter and a 1" dome tweeter. Instead of this setup, we now have the 4" speaker and the tweeter in one compact cabinet and the woofer (now called a subwoofer) in another cabinet that's easy to place or hide.

There are big advantages to this as long as 2 criteria are met: First, the 4" woofer has to have enough bass response to meet the subwoofer, so that there is no gap between them. Second, the subwoofer must be fast, without sloppy overhang (the woofer needs to stop when the music stops). If the system meets these 2 criteria, the sound can be as big as a large floorstanding speaker and in some cases may present a more realistic sound image.

There are also other advantages. Large floorstanding speakers must be placed where they'll image the best. This position may not be a good spot for even bass distribution in your room. By having a separate subwoofer, you can place the small satellites for best image and the subwoofer for even bass distribution. Most floorstanding speakers will not allow you to adjust the woofer level separately. So, they may not deliver the proper level of bass where they are positioned. Having a separate subwoofer allows you get the exact bass balance you need. A good subwoofer, such as our Speedwoofer 10, will actually give you deeper and more powerful bass than many of the 12" speakers of the past.

The bottom line is that even though speaker sizes have shrunk, the sound quality is better than ever.

 

Dolby Atmos Vs Auro 3D

Dolby Atmos

ATMOS

Auro 3D

Auro3d2 - Copy

Since we first discussed our impressions of Dolby Atmos a few months ago, we've taken several more Atmos systems for a test drive. We also had the opportunity to experience Belgium's Auro-3D during our visit to CES.

We found that both systems have strengths and weaknesses. So we thought we'd put together our list of pros and cons for each system to help you decide which is right for you, if any.

ATMOS

Dolby Atmos is a new home theater speaker configuration that "transports you from an ordinary moment into an extraordinary experience with breathtaking, moving audio that flows all around you" according to Dolby. Basically you're taking an existing surround system and either adding speakers in the ceiling, or on top of the front and rear channels. The ceiling setup has two options: 2 speakers in the center, or one speaker in every corner totaling 4. If in-ceilings aren't an option, you can use reflecting speakers. You can place one reflecting speaker on top of your front left and right channels, totaling 2. Or you can place one on top of each of your front and rear channels, totaling 4.

Atmos Pros:

1. We found that with 2, or better yet, 4 in-ceiling speakers you will indeed increase your audio dimensionality and create a more immersive experience. Airplanes, bullets, rain, etc really will come from above you. You'll also notice more accurate sound placement than a standard surround system. Adding Atmos via in-ceilings is definitely a step towards the ultimate goal of realism.

2. Cost. Receivers aren't cheap, especially when you get to 9 channels and above. Fortunately, you can get a 5.1.2 Atmos system (2 in-ceiling speakers) with some reasonably priced 7.2 receivers. For those of you that already own one, all you may need to do is download a free update. If you want to have 4 in-ceiling speakers, then you'll need a 9 channel receiver or an additional stereo amplifier.

3. Space. Atmos is spatially efficient. Considering the fact that you're installing speakers into the ceiling, an Atmos system is not very intrusive in your room. For some people, putting 5 speakers in a family room is a tough enough sell. Now if you want to add more, at least they're out of sight.

Atmos Cons:

1. Compatibility. Atmos is not compatible with every room. Actually, to achieve the desired results, you really need a fairly specific room with a flat ceiling no lower than 9 to 10 feet. Unfortunately, if you have vaulted ceilings, you may be entirely out of luck. For those of you who can't install into your ceilings, you're faced with a less desirable alternative, which brings us to point #2.

2. Reflecting speakers. We're not big fans of this approach. That's not to say it can't work. We just feel the results are inconsistent and less fulfilling than the in-ceiling systems. We found that the reflecting speakers don't achieve the desired dispersion commonly leaving you with a narrow sweet spot. So one seat may sound great; its just too bad for anyone not sitting in it. Also, we didn't experience the same level of definition as we did with the in-ceilings. If you ask us, we'll say that firing sound directly at you is definitely more optimal than bouncing it off of another surface.

3. Lack of source material. Right now there's only a few movies actually recorded in Atmos. Obviously this will increase over time, but how do we know something better won't come along in the meantime?

Auro1

 

AURO-3D

Auro-3D is on its way to the U.S. and is taking a different approach to achieve a similar goal. Auro looks at sound in layers and adds a second layer of sound on top of your standard 5 or 7 channel system. Its kind of like stacking one surround system on top of another. They achieve this with four bookshelf speakers, front and rear left and rights, mounted on the wall above your current surround system and angled down at approx 30 degrees.

Aura Pros:

1. Sound. Our sole experience came from Auro's room at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The demo took place over a 9.1 system (5.1 surround + 4 height speakers) with a high-quality demo disc. The experience was exhilarating. The demo disc actually included a/b comparisons with Auro on and off. Wow, what a difference! It was the closest simulation of reality that we've ever experienced. A pipe organ in a cathedral was 100% convincing, as was a symphony orchestra. A recording of a London street corner left you struggling to believe you weren't there. A jetliner passing overhead made you want to hit the deck. It was so convincing it was almost scary. We felt this was a substantial leap towards ultimate realism.

2. Compatibility. Auro is compatible with a larger variety of rooms. Since you're basically just adding bookshelf speakers to the wall directly above your left and right channels, you don't need to worry about vaulted ceilings or cutting holes. The only potential for a problem is a room with a really low ceiling. You may not get enough separation between high and low speakers. We don't yet know what the spatial requirements are.

3. Sweet spot. Auro, from what we could tell, has a much wider sweet spot. We don't feel that a narrow sweet spot is a huge problem with Atmos (with in-ceilings) but we have heard the issue mentioned on several occasions.

Auro Cons:

1. Cost. To enjoy Auro, you'll need a minimum of 9 channels. Your choices are to either buy a 9.2 receiver, or add a stereo amp to an Auro capable 7.2 receiver. That's going to up the price right off the bat. Then come the 4 speakers. With Atmos you can run a 7.2 receiver and you have the 2 speaker option to minimize costs while still improving your sound.

2. Space. Adding 4 bookshelf speakers to your walls could be a really tough sell if your theater is also your family room. Most people face enough of a challenge just trying to add a 5.1 system to the family space; let alone a 9.1 system. The sound is definitely worth it, but the footprint is much bigger.

3. Lack of source material. Material is out there, but the selection is very limited. We have, however, heard that several movie studios have already signed on with Auro which means more is sure to come.

At this point, if sound were the only desire, we would recommend Auro-3D. But keep in mind that that's only based on one demo with a carefully perfected demo disk. We'll continue to provide updates when we have more real-world testing under our belts.

How Long Should A Speaker Last?

 147CG4-Without-Grille-White

RSL 28 - Circa 1972                                                                          RSL CG4 - Current

The answer to that depends on how they're constructed and if they're designed to be repaired. Many current speakers, in order to save money, have their woofers and tweeters built into a single plastic front board (called the baffle). In this speaker, if either the woofer or tweeter were to fail, the entire front board would need to be replaced, which would include the woofer and tweeter. In some cases, even the crossover is built into this baffle. In these situations, repair of the speaker isn't economically practical and the whole speaker needs to be replaced. Some speakers even have non-removable woofers and tweeters as well. These speakers are also non-repairable.

Every RSL speaker uses high quality separate woofers, tweeters and crossovers that are accessible for repair. Many of our speakers from the 1970's are still in service. Sometimes speakers (some of our models and many other brands) use foam surrounds around their woofers. After many years (usually over 20), the foam rings may deteriorate. However, they can be replaced and the speakers can sound like new.

Our current RSL Speakers are built the same way and when you consider their long life expectancy, the cost of ownership per year is extremely low.

 

What Are Dipole And Bipole Surround Speakers? Are They Necessary?

Dipole1

Many speaker companies include dipole or bipole surround speakers in their systems. What are they? In a conventional surround speaker, the drivers (woofer and tweeter) are mounted on one board, facing one direction. A dipole or bipole speaker mounts speakers so that the sound emanates from the sides of the speakers. In a bipole speaker, both sides of the speaker push air outward at the exact same time. They are in phase with each other. This can work if the speakers are not positioned to the exact sides of a listener. In a dipole speaker when one side pushes the air, the other side is pulling the air. Or, they are out of phase with each other. This results in a dead zone or null point 90 degrees from the wall, which requires the listener to sit in this area in order to take advantage of the effect.

Both dipole and bipole speakers attempt to spread out the sound in order to create a diffuse ambient effect in the rear of your room. Our philosophy is a bit different. We believe in using the same speakers as your front left and right for surround purposes. With our Compression Guide Technology, the imaging is completely focused and wide. For example, in a movie sound track, if a person is supposed to be speaking in the back right corner, we don't want to hear his voice spread all over the side and back of the room. Just 2 RSL CG4s will create a 3 dimensional surround environment where everything is in its proper place. With CG4s in the back, you will hear elements in sharp focus along the sides of your room and behind even though there are no side speakers. For speakers that do not have this level of performance, the dipole or bipole design may be useful.

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact us.

Dolby Atmos – Is This The Latest And Greatest?

Dolby Atmos

Just when you thought it was safe to settle in and enjoy your 5.1 or 7.1 surround system, the folks at Dolby are conjuring up more ways to make surround sound even more elaborate. Why? Home theaters have gotten incredibly good with big screen TVs and excellent sounding audio. Commercial movie theaters need new ways to attract the public by providing experiences that are different from those at home. Enter Dolby Atmos, a new way of doing surround sound.

Currently, when movie tracks are mixed, the elements of sound are assigned to specific speakers in either a 5 or 7 channel surround format. With Dolby Atmos, the elements are assigned to a specific spot in the theater. In the theater, up to 64 different speakers located in the front, back, sides and overhead receive the appropriate audio signal at the appropriate time. This is computed automatically. At home, if someone plays at Atmos movie with a conventional 7.1 or 5.1 system, the sounds are automatically distributed over the existing speakers.

The home version of Dolby Atmos is different. It starts with a 5.1 or 7.1 system and then additional ceiling speakers are added. Generally up to 4 ceiling speakers are used, 2 in the ceiling in the front of the room in a left and right position, and 2 in back of the room, left and right. If 4 ceiling speakers aren't used, then 2 ceiling speakers can be used in the center of the room on the left and right sides. There's also a solution for those who can't install ceiling speakers. In this case, special front and rear speakers are used. These speakers have elements that aim the sound up towards the ceiling to bounce the sound back toward the listener. The ceiling would have to be flat (not vaulted) and have to be able to reflect sound. To me, this sounds "iffy." Several manufacturers have announced Dolby Atmos compatible receivers with additional channels of amplification. So that means you will need a up to a 9 channel receiver for Dolby Atmos in a 5.1 system or up to 11 channels for an Atmos 7.1 or 7.2 system. Apparently, standard Blu-Ray players will be able to play Dolby Atmos soundtracks.

Is Dolby Atmos worthwhile? Last night I saw the movie The Equalizer in a Dolby Atmos theater (Regency in Agoura Hills, CA). This shoot-em-up starring Denzel Washington had quite a few sound effects; gunfire, explosions and the like. Overall, I thought the sound was excellent, but I've also made that comment about certain conventional movie theaters. Having multiple speakers on the sides of the room gave a great surround effect. However, I think that multiple speakers on the sides would also give a great effect with a conventional surround movie. I didn't notice much benefit to the speakers in the ceiling. Did it seem like I was experiencing a new type of movie sound for the first time? In a word, no. Bottom line: the sound was great, but I'm not convinced it's vital for the movie-going experience.

For the home, it will obviously benefit audio manufacturers and speaker companies like us. So far we haven't experienced what the home version of Atmos will sound like. We'll need to be convinced, before we can recommend it.

We've heard some initial opinions that the upward firing speakers under ideal conditions have a very limited "sweet spot", meaning that numerous listening positions may not get the effect. Also, with in-ceiling speakers, there may be some localization issues if they are turned up too much or a person is sitting under them. It was also said that there seemed to be no benefit with non-Dolby Atmos movies. But again, we'll have to evaluate it for ourselves and let you know.

Will Dolby Atmos catch on or will it be one those ideas that fails due to lack of public acceptance? We'll get back to you on this in a future newsletter. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more, Dolby has a white paper that you can download:
Dolby Atmos White Paper

How To Make Sure You’re Getting True Surround From Your DirecTV Receiver

directv-channels

At our home, we have DirecTv. They broadcast many shows and movies in Dolby 5.1 surround. This enhances the viewing experience and in many cases, the surround audio is quite good. Normally, DirecTv receivers are not set by default to output Dolby surround. This may also be true for other cable and satellite services as well. However, we'll confine the discussion here to DirecTv, since that's what I'm most familiar with. If you have your satellite feeding your audio/video receiver through an HDMI cable or an optical cable and it never indicates that any program is in Dolby, chances are your satellite receiver isn't set up correctly.

To check, first press 'menu' on your remote. Then, on the left side of your screen, scroll down and select "Settings & Help." Arrow over to the right and press select on "Settings." Then, on the left side of your screen, scroll down and select "Audio." Then on the left side, select "Dolby Digital." Then press select and you will see 2 choices: "Off" and "On." Select "On" Then, press "exit." Try watching some movies and your audio/video receiver should indicate "Dolby", "Dolby Digital", or "Dolby D."

If you have a different TV service, you should consult the manual to determine how to set up your system for surround. If you don't have your TV hooked up to a audio/video receiver, do not set your TV service for surround.

The Difference Between Music Speakers And Home Theater Speakers.

Music vs Home Theater Speakers

A question we're often asked goes something like, "I see that your speakers are top rated for home theater use, but I listen to a lot of music. How good are they for music?"

The question implies that there is a difference between a great home theater speaker and a great music speaker. Here is how we typically answer this question:

When RSL started making speakers in 1970, home theater didn't really exist. Our speakers were designed specifically for stereo. When we developed our current speakers, our goal was to make the ultimate, but affordable stereo music speaker system. All of the design work and refinements over the years led us to the concept of a 2.1 system, where there would be 2 smaller satellite speakers and a subwoofer. This concept has numerous advantages over large floorstanding speakers, which we covered in an earlier blog.

Once we finished the stereo design, we figured that it would be nice if people had the option of using these speakers for home theater. So, we added a center channel. That way, people could use 4 of our satellites, the center channel, and the subwoofer for a 5.1 system (or 6 satellites for a 7.1 system).

Although the system wasn't specifically designed for home theater, we decided to submit it to the home theater magazines, just for fun. They went bananas over the system and gave us top ratings including "Top Picks of The Year." This proves that building a reference quality speaker that offers extreme clarity and accuracy is just as relevant for music as it is for home theater.

If I had to point out any difference between music speakers and home theater speakers, I would say that the difference is often in the bass range. Movie soundtracks, with their explosions, crashes, etc. produce large amounts of the very lowest frequencies; some you hear and some you feel. Most music doesn't contain as much of this low frequency content, the possible exceptions being pipe organs and synthesizers. Many subwoofers that are capable of handling the low frequency content of movies don't do a good job on music due to their sloppy response. The RSL Speedwoofer 10 will not only handle the lowest bass frequencies in movies, but its Compression Guide tuning provides the type bass clarity for music that's usually only found in the most expensive high end subwoofers.

Bottom line: There really shouldn't be any difference between a home theater and a music speaker.

How To Listen To Stereo Music Over Home Theater Systems

Listening to stereo over HT

In addition to watching movies, most of our customers use their home theater systems for music as well. The source of music can be CDs, music over the Internet, iPhones, tablets, etc. Here are some of the ways to listen:

 Direct mode - some A/V receivers have a direct mode, which bypasses a lot of the circuitry in an attempt to provide the purest possible sound. This can be good for stereo listening provided that the subwoofer is not disabled (which some receivers do in direct mode).

Regular stereo - some receivers will allow you to just use your front left and right speakers along with your subwoofer for listening to stereo music, which is fine.

All channel stereo - some receivers offer and all channel stereo mode. In this situation, all of the music that would normally go to your left speaker will also go to your left side and rear speakers if you have them. Likewise, all of the music that would go to your right speaker will go to all of the speakers on the right half of your room. This mode is OK, but sometimes makes the imaging of individual instruments difficult to discern.

Synthesized DSP modes - many receivers offer synthetic surround modes, such as nightclub, Stadium, churches, concert Hall, etc. I don't know why they include these. Nobody I've spoken to has ever liked the sound of these and we recommend that you do not use these artificial sounding modes.

Dolby Pro Logic - this is a method of extracting surround information from a two channel stereo source. It is not really synthesized and it can be useful. Many two channel recordings have out of phase information hidden within the recording. Dolby Pro Logic can retrieve this information and use it to provide a convincing surround experience. This is a mode that you should experiment with as some stereo recordings will benefit from it and others won't. Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon CD is an example of a recording that will can sound amazing with Dolby Pro Logic.

As always, if you have any questions, please either contact us or give us a call at 800-905-5485

The Important Role Of Acoustics In Your Home Theater

Audyssey

The importance of your room's acoustic cannot be overemphasized! In college, I was working part time as a DJ at a local radio station. The studio walls and ceiling were covered in white acoustical tiles with little holes in them. You may have seen them in photos of radio and TV studios of the past. The sound system in this studio was not nearly as good as the one I had in my dorm room. I couldn't figure out why. The dorm room was not carpeted and in combination with the bare walls sound pretty echoey. One day I brought my speakers into the studio and hooked them up. The difference was night and day!

Since that time I have heard mediocre audio systems in rooms with great acoustical properties and high end systems in terrible acoustical environments. I would always prefer the sound of the mediocre system in the room with better acoustics.

To generalize, items that help a room's acoustical properties include carpeting, stuffed furniture, wall treatments such as drapes and any other items that absorb sound and keep it from bouncing from wall to wall or ceiling to floor. The shape of the room will also have an effect on acoustics. Parallel walls will increase reverberation.

In the past the only way to improve a room's acoustics was to change its shape or the way it is furnished or decorated, which for many people wasn't practical. There really hasn't been any electronic gadget that could tame a room's reverberation until now. With the introduction of Audyssey room correction, all that's changed.

We recently had an unusual situation where a home theater system didn't sound good due to the room's bad acoustics. This was a giant room with almost no furniture, a hardwood floor, thin window treatments and a vaulted ceiling. The room opened into another room with similar characteristics. We hooked up an AV receiver that had one of the best versions of Audyssey room correction (This one was an Integra, but Audyssey can be found in several popular brands of AVRs). Our jaws dropped! All of a sudden, this was a great sounding system. It sounded full and three-dimensional.

A good room correction circuit can make all the difference in the world when it comes to sound. There are different brands of room correction that come with different A/V receivers. So far, our favorite has been the Audyssey. Audyssey makes different levels of room correction circuits. Obviously, the more expensive receivers have the better versions. If your room acoustics are very challenging you should consider an AV receiver with a better Audyssey room correction circuit. If you'd like to discuss your acoustics, give us a call at 800-905-5485.

How Much Should You Spend On A Blu-Ray Player?

 

Blu-Ray Players

The prices of Blu-ray players can range from under $100 to well over $1,000. I think there is a lot of miss-information out there. How much should you spend?

When you play a high definition Blu-ray disc on an inexpensive player, the video quality will probably be very close to that of an expensive player. Honestly, there isn't that much difference. Regular DVDs aren't high definition and will be upscaled to better quality by the Blu-ray player. Upscaling circuitry is found in all Blu-ray players and will vary in quality depending on the cost of the player. Upscaling circuitry can also be found in most audio/video receivers and flat panel televisions. If you have a better upscaler in your AVR or TV, you can usually bypass the upscaler that came with your Blu-ray player through it's settings menu. This isn't a critical issue with inexpensive players. If you have a 3D capable TV, you'll need a 3D capable Blu-ray player, but these are also inexpensive.

Audio quality is a different story. All Blu-ray players have the ability to decode the surround sound tracks such as Dolby True HD, DTS Master HD, Dolby Digital, and DTS on Blu-ray and DVD discs with pretty good sound quality. In addition, most audio/video receivers of the past few years can also decode these formats. So, you have a choice of whether to use your Blu-ray player or your receiver to decode the audio. With most high quality audio/video receivers, you'd want to use the AVR to handle the audio and not the inexpensive Blu-ray player. You can do this through the settings menu by choosing the digital bitstream output. If you choose the digital PCM output, the blu-ray player will decode these formats and send the decoded audio to your receiver. This feature is handy if you have an older receiver that doesn't handle the latest surround formats of Dolby True HD and DTS Master HD. The bottom line: for many of you, a reasonably-priced Blu-ray player may be all you need.

Many people who purchase top rated Blu-ray players such as the Oppo feel that they will automatically get better sound. They hook it up to their audio/video receiver just like any other Blu-ray player, with an HDMI cable. This bypasses the expensive audio decoding circuitry of this high end Blu-ray player and sends it to the audio/video receiver for decoding with its built-in circuitry. If you want to take full advantage of the superior sound of these high end players, you'll need an analog connection (RCA cable) for each of your 5 or 7 channels and subwoofer. A high end Blu-ray player is also capable of delivering better sound when playing CDs as long as you use analog connections mentioned above.

Another advantage of a higher end player is the ability to play high definition music files that are downloaded to a flash drive or burned to a DVD disc.

Many homes do not have a wired network connection available for their Blu-ray player. If you don't, then look for a player with wi-fi built in. This is important for firmware updates to keep you player current as well as being able to work with Internet movie players such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.