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Insights: Indulgences

Shoebox Speakers You don't need the behemoths from your college days to enjoy great sound
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

It's a well-worn mantra: everything is getting smaller. This miniaturization is expected for everything, it seems, except great stereo speakers. Somehow, the old notion of "bigger is better" still clings to stereo speakers like nostalgia at a college reunion.

So you'll have to forgive me when I tell you: whatever you thought (and what I once thought, too) about great stereo speakers is simply not true anymore. Size doesn't matter. Well, not that much anyway.

The best small speakers -- what audiophiles call "high-end minimonitors" -- defy belief. If you close your eyes and listen to the music, you won't believe what you see when you open your eyes. It doesn't seem possible that such a small speaker -- a foot-high box about nine inches deep and maybe eight inches wide -- could make such a big, beautifully defined, resonant sound. Yet it's so.

The last decade saw a revolution in speaker design. "What people once thought was essential in a speaker, especially to achieve good bass, is no longer true," says Paul Paddock, a speaker designer whose design credits include the highly regarded (but now-defunct) Linnaeum speakers. "They thought you had to have size. You don't."

Paddock is a pro. And he has a pro's clear-eyed view of speakers, devoid of the oohing-and-aahing of enthusiasts. "Let's take bass reproduction," he begins. "That's always the biggest challenge in designing small speakers. And it's what everyone is dubious about."

According to Paddock, substantial bass in a small speaker -- an enclosure little bigger than the proverbial breadbox -- is both possible and easily explained. "First, you need high-power amplification, by which I mean 100 watts per channel or higher. Twenty years ago that was rare and expensive. Today it's relatively cheap and easy to find.

"The reason you need that kind of power is simple physics: you need a lot of oomph for bass extension," he says. "A small speaker has a four-inch or five-inch woofer. To get good bass it's got to physically extend -- literally push itself out of the speaker box -- pretty far. That takes sheer amplification guts."

The second feature is the woofer (the bass speaker) itself. "Twenty years ago a four-inch woofer could travel 1.5 millimeters to two millimeters," says Paddock. "Today's woofers can travel six millimeters." This linear movement is called "x-max" among speaker designers.

Why is this important? "To go one octave lower at the same output requires four times the amount of cone travel," explains Paddock. "At the same time it's got to resist distortion, as well as dissipate heat in the process. Today's woofers can do all this."

To test this, I enlisted a friend in the high-end audio business, Kurt Doslu, who co-owns Echo Audio in Portland, Oregon ( Doslu is what the geeks call a "golden ears." He hears things most dogs don't. And because he specializes in used high-end gear, he listens to a far greater array of stereo equipment than conventional retailers, who know only the handful of lines they carry.

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