Audiophile or DIY Speakers, Pick One…
digital audio speakers or analog speakers?
Why can’t you have both?
One thing that keeps coming up in responses to this site has been that we “try to cater to both audiophile and the DIY community”. I can live with that…
Some believe this is a mistake and could be construed as double speak to both the audiophile and DIY communities.
We politely disagree… and so do most of our readers.
Miscellaneous rants about the audio community, audiophiles, and DIY speaker builders
Here you will find some of our pet peeves and ‘rants’…
We don’t expect every one to agree with us on the issues about stereo speakers and home theater.
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Rest assured we are passionate about home theater and digital audio speakers and are trying to give you information that is valuable.
Both Science and Subjective listening are crucial:
Musical satisfaction and science go hand in hand.
To me, having one without the other is preposterous. You need to have science built into any design in order to achieve maximum benefit to the listener.(this means using measurements)
Yes, we focus on other aspects of the home theater experience but our idea of maximum fidelity is taken from our two channel music roots.
A speaker system must first be musical in order for it to be accurate in the home theater. And a speaker system must be accurate to be musical.
Otherwise, what is the point of recording music if it cannot and does not sound like the recorded event? (It wouldn’t be accurate then would it?)
Often, a two channel music system can be more successful at delivering a high end sound environment over a multi-channel sound system.
I love surround sound, but basic stereo speakers are the foundation. Beyond that, I like the advantages of digital audio speakers over passive.
Any given speaker system must be able to deliver a believable surround environment from only two speaker channels. Stereo speakers need to be able to convince the listener of a place and time.
Theories regarding music reproduction and the speaker/ listening room environment are key.
If using an LP (analog record) system I believe that the entire system should be kept in the analog domain.
It’s true that digital to analog converters are becoming so good today that you can easily mix and match the two, but there are obvious compromises when converting back and forth between digital audio speakers and an analog speaker system.
If your system is using an analog front end (a record player) then keep the signal at the analog level if at all possible. (Converting to digital is necessary sometimes such as using room correction)
Analog crossovers and Analog Speakers:
The active crossover has too many advantages over passive crossovers to be ignored. So if you want to take your analog speaker system to the next level a well-designed analog active crossover is the best place to start.
Adding an active crossover to your speaker system can make huge improvements to the sound quality. The parts in a passive crossover do much damage to the delicate signal. This is a known fact especially amongst engineers. The advantages of active crossovers and digital audio speakers are huge.
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Consumer speaker systems seldom use active crossovers, why?
It all comes down to market awareness and consumer viability.
Consumers by and large aren’t willing to go active because the systems are set up so much different.
Active system looks more complex, use more amplifiers, need more preamplifier channels, and can be more expensive if using the same quality of components. (Until it is understood how they work, and why they work better. )
Without getting into extreme detail here; understand that an active crossover does not need amplifiers and preamplifiers that are as high in quality as a basic two channel amp and preamp.
And active crossovers can do this while delivering better results than passive systems.
By coupling the speaker drivers directly to the amplifier you maximize the damping factor of the amp.
You need less power because there are no passive crossover networks robbing current from the speaker drivers.
The phase is kept original to the signal the amplifier receives.
Timing errors, phase angle, and distortion are easily kept to a minimum. Allowing music and movie sound to play back as they were intended.
Why do audiophiles and the DIY community disagree?
Honestly we can’t understand this, but we think it stems from a belief that ‘our idea is always the best’.
We are not immune to this either. We think digital audio speakers are the best. But I have also seen and heard some very good designs that were built using passive technology.
This should not be an either/or conversation
In fact, you need to have both critical listening and measureable facts to arrive at an excellent design.
Why is the audiophile community so against using measurements to decide if a design has merit?
Having good sound without good measurements should be next to impossible.
It is true that some audible tricks like imaging is difficult to measure with instruments. But there are simple ways to determine if a design will image well or not. (Even before the speaker is built)
One factor that contributes to good imaging is a very inert speaker box construction.
Another is time coherence and keeping the phase of different drive units as close to linear as possible.
Again, active crossovers or digital audio speakers make this easier to pull off successfully.
This is another reason that the DIY speaker builder should use active crossovers. Active speakers are much simpler (in our view) to design, build, and voice for maximum fidelity.
One reason; the tolerance range for active circuit components is much tighter than passive speaker crossover parts.
Passive crossover components can have 3% to 5% accuracy. Active crossover components easily hold 1% accuracy. If a crossover has 10 parts a 3% to 5% accuracy can really add up.
The science is there, plenty of study has been done by engineers and scientist that back up this theory.
You won’t have to look very hard to learn that active and digital audio speakers (digital crossovers) are the way to go if you want to build an accurate speaker system.
And in our view, there’s not much point in arguing over work that has already been done and proven to work better.
If there is a problem with our concept it’s that passive crossovers are more widely accepted in the retail speaker marketplace.
Go into any Best Buy store and how many active speaker systems or digital audio speakers sets do you see?
Most use passive speaker crossover networks because from a manufacturing perspective the passive speaker is more attractive. You only need a two channel amp for a set of stereo speakers.
Digital audio speakers with digital crossovers
Using digital media? If you play CD’s, DVD’s and blu ray discs the choice is a bit more blurred.
You have some more options with digital audio speakers…
Digital audio speakers using a digital crossover is also an option for you. These take the digital signal from your player (CD, DVD, Blu Ray) keep the signal in the digital domain and execute the speaker crossovers here.
No need to convert the signal into analog, the filters are done using what are called ‘digital taps’ to set driver delay, crossover slopes and even correct for the room your speakers are playing in.
We would be lying if we didn’t tell you that this is our favorite way to deliver the crossover slopes to the loud speakers.
Digital audio speakers make a ton of sense from an engineering perspective. And for digital playback I don’t see there being any better or musical way to play music and movies. This is what I use personally.
So if I were using a record player, I would use an active analog crossover on my speaker system.
If playing digital music, movies or stored music files, I would use a digital audio speakers crossover. You may as well use digital room correction while you are at it.
John Krutke of Zaph audio turned us on to the importance of using low distortion speaker drivers in high quality speaker design. It’s amazing how easily you can hear distortion if you play back the same music, one on a high distortion driver or on a low distortion driver.
Most of the drivers we recommend are used because of his speaker driver testing. His theory has a tremendous amount of merit and it’s hard to argue with his engineering and driver measurement techniques. (Although some critics don’t agree with him either) We do disagree with John on one fundamental issue; the use of active versus passive speaker crossovers.
John basically uses passive crossovers. Honestly, I don’t understand why… maybe it’s because most of his speaker designs are built to keep a lower budget in mind.
We don’t think the small amount you might save by building a passive network is worth losing the benefits of an active or digital crossover.
You don’t need as much power to drive active channels, and don’t need to spend as much on the amps either. So there are better (in our opinion) ways to save in other areas.
If building the best digital audio speakers is what you are after, who is going to worry about a couple hundred dollars to get better performance?
Know your Speaker drivers
You need to understand the speaker drivers you are working with. Understand the different kinds of distortion presented in the graphs. Only then can you determine which drivers will work well with one another. Each driver will present its own set of challenges and the drivers are what determine where your crossover slopes should be set for optimal results.
For a better understanding of speaker drive units and how to match them up we recommend using John’s site.
There’s no point in duplicating what he has already said so well. And by the way, we use John’s site to make decisions on what speaker drivers to use and recommend.
In order to decide on a crossover slope you need to know how the specific speaker drivers measure.
Is the distortion of a specific midrange driver higher between 2000Hz and 3000Hz? It may be able to play those frequencies but if distortion is high in that window it would be better to set the crossover at 2000Hz and allow the tweeter to play above those frequencies. (Only if the tweeter also has low distortion from 2000Hz up to 20,000Hz)
Use speaker drivers that have similar on axis and off axis response. This will give you a uniform response throughout the room.
Match the power response of the drivers. Try to use speakers that are close in efficiency to one another. This will keep you from needing to apply additional filter work to bring them to the same sound pressure level.
In passive networks this is critical.
Efficiency differences are less of an issue in active and digital crossovers but important none the less. If the tweeter is more efficient than the midrange and woofer you will just have to set the levels (within the digital crossover interface) of those drive units lower than the other drivers.
This can limit the dynamic range and output of the digital filter system. Meaning, you may need to use more gain on the preamplifier which can raise the noise floor of the playback system. It is best to use drive units of like-kind efficiencies as much as possible.
Our favorite box type is the sealed box.
The high end speaker manufacturer “Magico” uses sealed cabinets. Why?
• The bass roll off is more gentle (12db per octave, compared to 24db per octave for a ported cabinet) in a sealed cabinet.
This means that while the deep bass may not go as deep at the same sound pressure level, bass rolls off more gradually and sounds more natural.
• Pitch definition in sealed cabinets is better than ported cabinets. This gives a punchy, you are there feel to music and movies. It sounds more believable that you are in the presence of real instruments.
• All things being equal; sealed speaker systems should be more accurate too.
You will need to use speaker drivers that are designed to work in a specific cabinet type. For sealed cabinets a higher Qes and Qts is necessary than a driver designed for ported cabinets.
Woofers designed for ported enclosures may have a Qes and Qts of .25 to .35.
For sealed systems you will want a Qes and Qts of .35 to .65. You can use drivers in either but transient response will be better if in these ranges.
If you need really deep bass then design a large floor standing speaker system using large woofers in sealed enclosures or add a sealed subwoofer.
There are many, many great subwoofers on the market. And building a subwoofer is very easy. Because of this the main speaker system really is not needed to play deep bass.
I’m not saying that sealed is the best. But the design has many technical merits. There are plenty of ported speaker designs that sound great.
Wilson Audio Specialties uses ported enclosures, but there are plenty of sound (pun intended) reasons to go with a sealed design.