Technology: Balancing Interior Design with Quality Audio


By Simon Buddle, HiddenWires. Do you remember the time when Peter W. Belt had his day in the sun, tone controls were derided and recor...

Simon BuddleBy Simon Buddle, HiddenWires. Do you remember the time when Peter W. Belt had his day in the sun, tone controls were derided and record players had suspension? A large chunk of the dealers within the custom install market have their origins in the audio and Hi-Fi world, me included. So it goes without saying that for us, audio quality is an important part of any installation. Great-quality two-channel audio however, is not easily achieved within the custom installation arena. So many speakers are in ceilings and walls, with huge cavities behind, they are too far apart, too close, too high, too low and nearly always in the wrong place for the ideal 'listening position'. It makes my heart ache. As you can imagine, my music room has always been organised around the speakers, the sad nerd that I am. [caption id="attachment_5673" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Companies such as Triad make in-wall and in-ceiling speakers for discreet placement in designed spaces. Companies such as Triad make in-wall and in-ceiling speakers for discreet placement in designed spaces.[/caption] There is little patience within the interior design world for a cracking pair of floorstanding speakers or indeed shelf- or wall-mounted ones, but it is a world with which we interface - a world where we ply our trade, and one that simultaneously supports and suffocates us. So what to do? A good conversation might be a music room, for example. We looked at that idea last year. But what of all the other rooms? What if they are simply not interested in that as a concept? How do we go home with a happy heart? I am still very much of the opinion that people would want good music in the same way that they want good food or a good driving experience from their car. Convincing them is harder though, when they are looking for 6, 8, 10, or more audio zones. A demonstration would clearly be of benefit, but may be unlikely. At the very least, a quick conversation about rooms where better quality audio may be of value should be had. Back Boxes Wherever possible, I'd always recommend speakers with back boxes, be they in-wall or in-ceiling. Why? Well the answer is fairly obvious. The back box was designed by the speaker manufacturer specifically for the drive units that are producing the noise. The back box plays a huge part in bass response, ensuring a known frequency response from the driver. What would the frequency response be of a speaker whose back is open to a loft space? Triad, B&W, Meridian and many others make a number of boxed speakers that are designed to be installed in voids. The benefit to us is that we know the speaker's frequency response and therefore have some control of the sound quality once installed. [caption id="attachment_5675" align="aligncenter" width="250"]B&W in-wall speakers with back box. B&W in-wall speakers with back box.[/caption] Invisible Speakers There are lots of people who simply do not wish to see any speakers at all. Sometimes virtually invisible is simply not good enough, so what then? Nowadays we are blessed with many manufacturers that make plaster-in speakers. Stealth Acoustics, Amina, Sonance and Triad all do them, and now in many flavours. [caption id="attachment_5674" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Procedure for plastering-in Stealth Acoustics invisible speakers. Procedure for plastering-in Stealth Acoustics invisible speakers.[/caption] Invisible speakers do need careful installation, and arguments will always rage about their sound quality. This, for me, is a non argument. Our role is surely to provide the customer with the best possible solution within the context of their own desires. What I would be inclined to do though, is provide high-quality amplification and maybe even add a DAC to the zone in order to give the speakers the best possible chance of performing well. Their performance is to an extent what we will be judged on after all. Maintenance Whilst speakers don't typically need maintaining, we should spare a thought for our poor engineers who may get called out the morning after the night before. Speakers may need a bit of maintenance, and if they do, then accessibility is key. On a building site with large ladders, scaffold towers or even cherry pickers, they are no problem. In a home, such access can be tricky. Maintenance should be thought about during the design phase. Any plastered-in speakers should always have their exact locations documented, ideally with photographs and a tape measure. Crucially though, always use the protection circuitry, as this will protect those hidden speakers from an electrical fault, thus ensuring many years of happy playback. [caption id="attachment_5676" align="aligncenter" width="563"]Protection circuitry for Amina plaster-in speakers. Protection circuitry for Amina plaster-in speakers.[/caption] Conclusion We all dance to different tunes; the world is full of different people, cultures, styles and beliefs. Whilst we would all love to put in a great music system for our clients, it is not always feasible or wanted. We can, however, aim to provide the best possible audio within the context of the customer's desires and budget. As Beethoven said, "Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life", so it is always right to have the music room conversation with customers. Music is so much more than aural wall paper. Music played well is uplifting, joyful and engaging, and bringing that enjoyment to our customers is part of why we do what we do. Simon Buddle is a systems integration consultant and installer. Simon is also a regular contributor to HiddenWires magazine and KNXtoday magazine, and the first winner of the CEDIA Region 1 Special Recognition Award. You are welcome to comment on this article. See below.