Loudspeaker Hobbyist to Professional

Making the transition from a hobby loudspeaker builder to doing it for a living, about 20 years ago, have made me realize how different the approach to loudspeaker design often is as a professional versus a hobbyist. In my youth, my speaker projects were focused around a set of drivers I would acquire and then design an enclosure around them. This worked quite well; the speakers usually turned out ok, and the form-factor was usually mainly my personal preference.

When designing loudspeakers for a company where other departments make many of the decisions, the design process often takes a very different path. Some companies will start with a price-segment they want to compete in with that particular loudspeaker; they have decided it will be a two-way bookshelf model, for example, and the industrial design (ID) is mostly done. This means they want the sales price to be within a few dollars of that target. Backing out the dealer markup, the distributor markup, and the margin the company wants to make, we end up with an amount that needs to cover the cost of the bill of materials (BOM), labor, packaging, shipping etc.

If the enclosure is already decided from the ID design, we only have flexibility in selecting drivers, crossover components, binding posts, grille, feet, and similar small items. In the end, there is often much less money left for the important components than we would like. It then becomes more of a penny-pinching exercise than loudspeaker design. We would like to use this tweeter and that woofer, but due to the cost being too high, there just isn’t money left in the budget. What this challenge has taught me is to squeeze the last bit of performance out of the drivers available. This is often more of a challenge than getting awesome drivers to sound good in a loudspeaker. Although not necessarily my favorite activity, it can be very satisfying to get the loudspeaker to perform much better than you would ever expect, given the cost of the drivers used in the design.

As much as I hate to admit it, industrial design (ID) sells speakers. Someone, I don’t recall whom, coined the acronym WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor), and it is basically a measure of how well the speakers will fare with the wife. As most of you might suspect, audio guys are mostly void of critical esthetic taste, at least for their beloved loudspeakers. And this can easily be experienced when browsing the DIY audio sites and blogs. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending of your viewpoint, our better halves usually don’t share this deficiency and they generally think our awesome speakers look like ugly monstrosities that would fit best in the shed, basement or where you hide things out of sight from visitors. Ideally, they would prefer invisible speakers, but until that technology is perfected, we are stuck with things we can see. If the ID department gets to do what they want, we often end up with a design that is too limited acoustically. The best compromise is to work with ID from the start of the project, before it becomes an idea with the sales and marketing people, since they often want a certain look and drive the ID that direction, when we as engineers need it to go in a different direction to meet the performance goals.

During the last couple of decades, most successful consumer loudspeaker companies have found a balance between performance, price, and Industrial Design; and most companies that go to the extreme in either direction, except for a handful high-end companies, usually do not have long-term success.