Personal Technology: Raising the WAF

<< Back to Robb Report, December 2002
  • Ken Kessler

Wives (sorry, but it is always the woman) have been waging war against speakers for decades. They do not want them intruding into their living space. They even hate the gorgeously styled speakers from Italy and those colored to match anything in the Pantone chart. Their ire has risen as the number of speakers in a hi-fi system has moved from a pair to five and a subwoofer—or more. Manufacturers have heard the protests and are finally acknowledging that the wife acceptance factor, or WAF, is an important force. The trouble is, the loudspeaker is the only part of the system that you cannot—and should not—hide; it must be aimed at the listener to operate properly.

Enter on-wall, in-wall (or flush- mount), and thin-panel speakers, the industry’s response to the WAF. These speakers, though not for the audiophile, offer a compromise for couples who otherwise would be at loggerheads. JBL, Morel, NHT, Niles, Paradigm, Polk, and Sonance offer an array of in-wall and on-wall speakers, all of which come with grilles that can be painted to match your wall color. With an increasing number of on-wall and in-wall speakers, the drivers can be directed toward the listener. These speakers are ideal for homes with a distributed audio system that pipes music into several different rooms.

The performance of in-walls varies greatly, depending on the structures in which they are placed. Most of these speakers are open-backed—when they are placed in the wall, the internal volume of the woofer is affected by the composition of the wall. “The whole wall starts acting like a baffle if it’s plasterboard,” warns Giles Charman, chief of technology at Sound Ideas, Britain’s largest custom installer. “If it’s a solid wall, that’s a bit better, but it’s never ideal.” With a freestanding speaker, the manufacturer has control over the boundaries of the sealed box and baffle for diffraction, resonance, and dispersion. B&W Bowers & Wilkins, Dynaudio, Meridian, Snell, Triad, and a few other companies provide enclosures that reduce the problem.

The primary purpose of a flush- mount speaker is to be unobtrusive, but designers still insist on placing them where they are least noticeable, which is usually the worst position in terms of acoustics. One benefit of a freestanding speaker is that it can be moved in small increments to help fine-tune the sound. Obviously, you cannot do that with fixed in-walls. Protruding and adjustable in-wall speakers provide somewhat of a happy medium between fixed and freestanding.

Thiel Audio’s wedge-shaped PowerPoint in-wall speaker, which juts out from the wall, is the company’s best-selling speaker. “They’re the very best compromise possible between a freestanding speaker and a true flush mount,” says company president Kathy Gornik. A motorized version further bridges the gap. When it is playing music, the speaker swings into position; when the music is off, it retracts into the wall. “If people have to have in-walls, well, we did everything we could conceivably do to ensure that the performance was acceptable even by high-end standards,” she says. “No, [flush mounts] are not as 3-D or as airy as a freestanding system. After all, sticking a speaker in or on a wall is like asking a performer to stand in an alcove.”

Thiel Audio, 859.254.9427, www.thielaudio.com

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