The idea of using electromagnetic force to create sound by moving a membrane is almost 100 years old. In the early days audio amplifiers were weak and made a few watts of power. Therefore speakers had to be huge to make enough sound pressure to be usable. As for fidelity - let’s just say that everyone’s jaws dropped if they could discern that music was playing or that a voice could be understood to say something. Nowadays amplifiers have become tiny and deliver more power than ever. Due to advances in material sciences even small loudspeakers can move a lot of air, if the amp can make them. What about fidelity? Sadly, the expectations haven’t moved much beyond the old days. But it shouldn’t be the case - read on to learn why!

Always be compensating

Traditionally speakers consist of three components:

  1. The loudspeaker units - they turn electricity into moving air your ears hear
  2. The enclosure - keeps everything in its right place and helps playing bass
  3. The filtering circuit - prepares the audio signal so that it works correctly with the other two components

During the 100 year period since the inception of the moving membrane loudspeaker, all three have seen some innovation. The loudspeaker units themselves are now computer modelled and membranes often use space age materials like metal alloys, ceramics or composite material sandwiches. Even small speakers can move enough to generate low frequency sounds. The enclosure seemingly has seen the least amount of innovation as it’s still just a “box” which holds together the other components. Again the largest leap forward in enclosure design has been offered by computer assisted design which can tell what shapes impact the sound in the least offensive ways. Modern materials like cast aluminum, carbon or wood composites can be used to make all kinds of shapes. However manufacturing these shapes is rather expensive, so the mainstream speaker usually uses an MDF box with some kind of surface finishing so it looks nice.

Filters are where things get interesting. A simple filter consists of electronic components which divide up the signal so high frequency content reaches the tweeter and everything else gets played by the woofer. In a 3-way system there’s extra circuitry to feed the mids to the mid driver. To get the best sound of an approach like this very high quality loudspeaker drivers are required so they play close to the mathematical ideal. The reality, however, is that ideal drivers exist only in manufacturer sales brochures and designers need to wrangle with physics to stay within a certain budget. Even then effects like manufacturing tolerances are rarely accounted for, unless we’re talking about very high end speaker systems.

With the advent of digital audio it was found out that filtering can be done in the digital domain where filters can be designed close to their mathematical ideals and they can be made fairly complex without using extra electrical components, if there’s enough processing power available. Initially the technology was picked up and widely used in live sound for cinema and concerts. They have little limitations in terms of processors and other gear and traveling speaker kits always need fine tuning once they’re set up in a new location. Next came studio monitors. In serious studios sound quality is paramount as engineers need to hear exactly what they’re doing without speakers standing in the way. Now microprocessors have become powerful and affordable enough that digital audio processing has found its way into consumer sound systems. Every Klear LAYLA soundbar has a digital signal processing (DSP) unit which divides the signal to each speaker. However there’s a secret ingredient which is rarely found even in high end speaker systems.

Extreme measures

Early DSP units just copied to a letter what their analog predecessors did. This approach isn’t a bad start, however DSP can do a lot more! The key is actually measuring, before trying to fix stuff. Here are three key aspects of getting it right:

  1. Know WHAT to measure
  2. Know WHAT to correct
  3. Have enough processing power

Having a high enough resolution measurement of a speaker’s performance means that you can in one fell swoop correct the major flaws found in the three of its main components - the speaker drivers, the enclosure and the filter. And what’s more - measuring every speaker that comes from the assembly line, like it’s done for the LAYLA soundbar, removes any deviation brought upon less-than-perfect manufacturing tolerances. Therefore you get performance similar to companies which cherry pick parts for extra tight matching.

This technique isn’t uncommon in high end studio monitors like Genelec, Kii or Dutch & Dutch, however it’s quite labor intensive, so in consumer audio it’s rarely used. Even high end audiophile speakers often rely on manufacturing tolerances to deliver great sound and forego custom calibration. Here at Klear we decided to finally let every listener in on what they’ve been missing out on.

Tune up for what?

So, technically it’s all impressive, but what about, you know… the sound? The main aspect of any speaker system is the frequency response which incidentally is the main characteristic digital calibration corrects. Frequency or tonal response basically tells whether the speaker changes its loudness, depending how high or low the tone of the sound is. Ideally a speaker should treat all sounds equally and calibration makes sure it does.

An imperfect tonal response messes up a speaker timbre - sounds become skewed, bass booms and overpower mids, treble causes unpleasant ear fatigue. Get rid of coloration and all you’re left with is the music or the sound of whatever film you’re watching. This calibration also tends to extend the bass response of the speakers in question, so don’t be surprised when you get more oomph than you expected!

Calibration is done on both left and right channel of the speaker, so you get superb channel matching. This means that the stereo image is distinct and stable. Sounds won’t float around the phantom stage unless the recording calls for it. If something’s centered, it’ll sound like it’s coming from the center channel even if there are only two speakers. The overall effect is such that most people rediscover their favorite music and enjoy watching movies at home now that there’s a sound system that matches the clarity of the TV. All it took was 100 years of innovation!

Let’s first get the obvious out of the way - all soundbars are convenience products. They are a stopgap measure which sits between your TV’s built-in speakers and dedicated bookshelf or tower speakers. Even the best soundbar out there can’t touch the performance of a well-designed and correctly set up dedicated separate speaker system. At the same time soundbars look unobtrusive in your room and some are good enough to really put you in the movie. In this article we’ve come up with 5 tips to make sure you choose the right soundbar for your needs.

Size matters

Big rooms require big speakers; there's no way around it. When choosing a soundbar, think about the size of your room - is it bigger than the average living room? If so, get a big and powerful soundbar. Despite claiming to do so, most soundbars usually are too small to have considerable bass output, so keep an eye on subwoofer outputs - always better to have one and not use it than being left without. A sub will considerably enhance your movie experience, especially if the room is larger than usual.

When talking about power, don’t get too caught up in comparing watts. For background sounds, only a fraction of a watt is needed and louder stuff will be limited by the quality of speaker components and enclosure size. Anything above 100W of peak power is good enough. And if you add a subwoofer, you can make life easier for any soundbar as bass is where most watts are needed.

It’s also worth thinking about the size of your listening spot. Is it a single seat or a large sofa? Wider sound bars generally have a better stereo image and throw a more spacious sound for a larger audience. If your TV size allows it, go for wider soundbars, as they create more immersive soundscapes.

Sound quality costs money

Despite all of our advances in material technology and acoustics research, good sounding audio still costs good money. While there is plenty of snake oil in audio, quality devices where objective performance is paramount like studio monitors still are costly. Consistently manufacturing great sounding transducers has never been cheap which is why high end soundbars cost a pretty penny.

Usually the price-performance sweet-spot is around 400$ with soundbars. Going higher will likely yield marginal gains. Larger and louder soundbars will cost more, however most of the time you’ll be paying extra for the brand name. Other times aesthetics will cost more as things like veneering cost more as it’s more laborious than vinyl wrapping or injection molding plastic in large volumes.

One method to beat the price vs. performance game is speaker calibration by electronics. It takes a bit more time, however allows for drastically better sound quality even from consumer grade loudspeakers. It’s about throwing tech vs. throwing money at a problem. The method largely comes from studio audio as the best sound quality there means making money from finished projects.

Set your priorities

TV, movies or music? It’s good to have it all, but a more targeted purchase will serve you better. While all kinds of material benefit from good sound, generally systems tuned towards movie watching will have higher maximum volume at the expense of sound quality.

When buying a soundbar for movies you either want a soundbar that comes with a subwoofer or one with subwoofer or LFE output. Movies more than music have low frequency content, so a sub will make an appreciable difference. The second thing to factor in for a movie-centric soundbar is the center channel. For home cinema dialog intelligibility is very important and most of it is passed through the center channel. A well-made stereo soundbar will create a sense that there’s a center channel through magic of imaging, however in a multi-channel soundbar the center will do much of the heavy lifting.

If great sounding music is what you want, then sound quality is paramount. Music relies mostly on faithful mid frequency playback, so without getting that right you might as well give up. Getting a soundbar from a company that has a great track record in traditional speakers is a good idea. They probably have the basics down and can translate their expertise into soundbars. Just keep in mind that established brands will happily let you overpay for their rich pedigree. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth it.

Two channels are enough

Historically home cinema has had the tendency to swell up channel quantity. Older folks might remember quadraphonic sound which doubles up stereo to fully envelop the listener in soundstage. Then came the extra center channel to make dialog playback more clear. Some soundbars brag about supporting numerous channels, but let’s find out how true that can be.

Construction-wise a sound bar is two speakers joined together with an enclosure. Therefore two channel playback is perfectly fine. Some lower end offerings can house a single channel speaker setup and will only play mono, they’re usable for casual TV watching, but not much more. A soundbar can also house a third center speaker as it sits between the side L and R channels. But what about Dolby ATMOS and multichannel setups?

Some soundbars will have ceiling firing speakers to mimic elevation channels, however those are no substitute for ceiling mounted speakers. Surround channels in the back? To emulate them digital trickery is used. A series of echo and delay processing can trick your ears into thinking that sound isn’t coming from the front. But does it really work? The most politically correct answer would be “it depends”. It’s a neat trick, but in the end it’s a stereo setup lying to your ears. 

Double check your connections

So you have the best soundbar there is - but how do you get it to play something? That’s right - you need to connect your TV or receiver to it. Whilst wires seem so 20th century, they’re still the go-to way of sending audio from one device to another. Let’s look at the most popular connections.

With modern hi-rez home cinema came the abundant HDMI connection. It’s commonly used to send digital audio and video to your TV screen. With HDMI ARC you can send audio from your smart TV to an audio device like the aforementioned soundbar. ARC stands for “audio return channel” and it carries the most common types of audio data. It’s a great way of connecting a TV to a soundbar.

SPDIF or optical cable is another great option of sending audio to a soundbar. The cables are pretty affordable, don’t carry electrical noise and don’t cause ground loops which plague many systems. Just be sure to switch the right format in your TV, so the soundbar can sing along its tune. Analog audio cables are also a sure-shot way of getting sound from a TV, however most soundbars are digital devices and an extra stage of analog-to-digital conversion might not yield the best audio quality. Try it out yourself and use what works best for you, just make sure the soundbar you choose has options for multiple connections.

Soundbars and smart speakers are some of the more recent offerings in the speaker department. It’s largely the need for a convenient sound reproduction device that has birthed the soundbar. Back in the old days CRT and projection TV’s were large enough by themselves to house a decent sound system. Nowadays especially with the advent of OLED screens, their thickness has shrunk considerably which means bad news for the built in sound system. You can’t cheat physics - speakers need enclosures with some internal volume to play nice and loud. Most of the time the sound that comes even from very high quality OLED or LCD screen built-in speakers is very much not in-line with the picture quality. For those, not having space for a dedicated speaker system, the soundbar is a nice option to get respectable sound from an unobtrusive piece of equipment. In this article we’ll look at the main ingredients which make up the average and above-average soundbar.

The box

Or the “enclosure”, as acoustic engineers call it. Oftentimes with speakers it’s more important to know the characteristics of the box than what’s in it. Throughout the ages the most common material for speaker box building has always been wood of some kind. While timber is pretty decent both structurally and acoustically, it’s prone to warping when exposed to the environment and it’s costly to source and process.

Just like most electronics these days, many soundbars, especially in the budget segment are made from plastic. While plastics themselves can be used for speaker enclosures with good success, thin plastic walls will resonate audibly. You can check a speaker enclosure by knocking on it - a good enclosure should feel hard, sturdy and the decay of the knock should be very short. Most soundbars will do badly in the knock test due to an enclosure that resonates and thus muddles up sound with unwanted coloration.

A good compromise is treated wood materials like MDF and particle board. They’re cheaper than pure timber, hold up better to environmental changes and are easy to process with machining. Our Klear LAYLA soundbar uses an MDF enclosure to both battle resonances and to look nice. This material can be machined in many shapes that are both eye and ear friendly.

The speakers

Most speakers use the same principle to make sound - a coil submerged into a permanent magnetic field moves due to changes in electric current it conducts. The coil is then connected to a speaker membrane which couples the vibrations better to the surrounding air. All of this moving structure is suspended, so it can only move back and forth, without wobbling sideways. While a single loudspeaker driver can be designed to play almost the whole audible spectrum of sound, it’s usually better to use dedicated speakers for high and low frequencies. Some lower quality soundbars use so-called full-range drivers, however they never are truly full range and project high frequencies in a very narrow angle.

As most soundbars are convenience driven audio products, they don’t exactly use the best drivers out there. Lower end offerings make do with a couple of low quality full range drivers. They’re ok for casual TV watching, however to have any resemblance to quality sound a soundbar needs dedicated tweeters and woofers. The light dome diaphragm of a tweeter does two things that help tremendously - allow reproducing higher pitched sounds and radiates them in a wider angle, so the optimum listening position can be larger.

The LAYLA uses a high quality tweeter for each channel and the low frequencies are handed over to top mounted woofers. For lower frequencies directivity doesn’t matter as much, so top mounting is used to save precious space on the front baffle. The low end is augmented by passive radiators - speaker cones which resonate due to powered drivers moving. Such a solution is usually reserved for higher quality offerings as most use ports to increase the bass response. Passive radiators behave much better at higher SPL’s and don’t have the characteristic chuffing sound that plagues many speakers.

The electronics

A powered speaker like a soundbar needs at least three electronic ingredients to play sound - the amp, the filter and the input board. Amplification has come a long way since the advent of speakers and nowadays class-D amps can be made both tiny and powerful. A 100W amp can be made as small as a thumb nail and they will even sound pretty decently, provided the implementation is done smartly.

The input board takes whatever you feed into the soundbar and converts it so that the amp can amplify the signal. Our take is that burdening a speaker with software bells and whistles is a sure way to make it obsolete faster. Therefore LAYLA just has the fundamentals so you can connect your TV or play music through Bluetooth from your phone. Keep the smarts in your TV, so your soundbar can freely serve you up quality tunes even for decades to come.

Electronics which run filters usually do two things - they divide up high and low frequency sounds so they reach their respective drivers and filters also try to correct the tonal response intrinsic to the loudspeaker driver and enclosure ensemble. Depending on how well it’s designed, a filtering circuit can make or break any loudspeaker including a soundbar. The filtering circuit used in the LAYLA soundbar uses real world measurement data to correct the final tonal response for impeccable timbre. Each unit that leaves the factory goes through our lab for a tune-up, so they’re all performing beyond their natural capabilities once they reach our clients. The method is usually reserved for higher end studio speakers, however we decided that you deserve to hear what near perfection sounds like.

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