This past week I attended the International Loudspeaker Manufacturer’s Association (ALMA) Winter Symposium in Las Vegas where the theme was “Sound Quality in Loudspeaker Design and Manufacturing.” Over the course of 3 days there were presentations, round table discussions, and workshops from the industry’s leading experts focused on improving the sound quality of the loudspeaker. Ironically, the important question of whether these improvements matter to consumers wasn’t raised until the final hours of the symposium in a panel discussion called: “What loudspeaker specifications are relevant to perception?”
The panelists included myself, Steve Temme (Listen Inc.), Dr. Earl Geddes (GedLee), Laurie Fincham (THX), Mike Klasco (Menlo Scientific), and Dr. Floyd Toole (former VP Acoustic Engineering at Harman), who served as the panel moderator. After about 30 minutes, a consensus was quickly reached on the following points:
- The perception of loudspeaker sound quality is dominated by linear distortions, which can be accurately quantified and predicted using a set of comprehensive anechoic frequency response measurements (see my previous posting here)
- Both trained and untrained listeners tend to prefer the most accurate loudspeakers when measured under controlled double-blind listening conditions (see this article here).
- The relationship between perception and measurement of nonlinear distortions is less well understood and needs further research. Popular specifications like Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) and Intermodulation Distortion (IM) do not accurately reflect the distortion’s audibility and effect on the perceived sound quality of the loudspeaker.
- Current industry loudspeaker specifications are woefully inadequate in characterizing the sound quality of the loudspeaker. The commonly quoted “20 Hz - 20 kHz , +- 3 dB” single-curve specification is a good example. Floyd Toole made the observation that there is more useful performance information on the side of a tire (see tire below) compared to what’s currently found on most loudspeaker spec sheets (see Floyd's new book "Sound Reproduction").
For the remaining hour, the discussion turned towards identifying the root cause of why loudspeaker performance specifications seem stuck in the Pleistocene Age, despite scientific advancements in loudspeaker psychoacoustics. Do consumers really care about loudspeaker sound quality? Or are they mostly satisfied with the status quo? Why do loudspeaker manufacturers continue to hide behind loudspeaker performance numbers that are mostly meaningless, and often misleading?
The evidence that consumers no longer care about sound quality is anecdotal, largely based on the recent down-market trend in consumer audio. Competition from digital cameras, flat panel video displays, MP3 players, computers, and GPS navigation devices, has decimated the consumers' audio budget. This doesn't prove consumers care less about loudspeaker sound quality, only that there is less available money to purchase it. Marketing research studies indicate that sound quality remains an important factor in consumers' audio purchase decisions. Given the opportunity to hear different loudspeakers under controlled unbiased listening conditions, consumers will tend to prefer the most accurate ones. Unfortunately, with the demise of the speciality audio dealer and the growth of internet-based sales, consumers rarely have the opportunity to audition different loudspeakers - even under the most biased and uncontrolled listening conditions. This is a perfect opportunity and reason for why the industry needs to provide new loudspeaker specifications that accurately portray the perceived sound quality of the loudspeaker.
So why is the loudspeaker industry not moving more quickly towards this goal? In my view, complacency and fear are the major obstacles. The loudspeaker industry is very conservative and largely self-regulated. There are no regulatory agencies to force improvement, or even check whether a product's quoted specifications are compliant with reality. Change will only occur as the result of competition, or pressure exerted by consumers, industry trade organizations (e.g.CEDIA, CEA) or consumer product testing organizations, like Consumer Reports. The fear of adopting a new specification stems from the realization that a company can no longer hide beneath the Emperor's new clothes (i.e. the current specifications). A perceptually relevant specification would clearly identify the good sounding loudspeakers from the truly mediocre ones. In the future, a perceptual-based specification like the one illustrated to the right, could provide ratings on overall sound quality, and various timbral, spatial and dynamic attributes. The consumer could then choose a loudspeaker based on these measured attributes.
In conclusion, all evidence suggests that consumers highly value sound quality when purchasing a loudspeaker, yet current loudspeaker specifications provide little guidance in this matter. It is time the loudspeaker industry grows up and realizes this. Adopting a more perceptually meaningful loudspeaker specification would permit consumers to make smarter loudspeaker choices based on how it sounds. This would better serve the interests of consumers and loudspeaker manufacturers who view the sound quality of a loudspeaker to be its most important selling feature.