( As published in TED mag@zine in 2017/09)
We all know of companies building extraordinary loudspeakers, the ones we are dreaming to have in our music room. But this distinction is seldom going to a loudspeaker designer. I had the chance to ask questions to Andrew Jones, star designer behind the ELAC America loudspeakers, about the ELAC Adante, his new loudspeaker range he premiered earlier this year. We also did a quick retrospect of his career as well as discussing his entire ELAC product range with of course, a bit more emphasis on the Adante model.
MD: What’s the first speakers you ever purchased for yourself?
AJ: The first speakers I purchased for myself as in impoverished schoolboy are too much of an embarrassment to even mention! The first speaker to have a lasting impression on me was the Quad ESL57. I heard it at university from a friend I made on my Physics course and I was hooked. I subsequently purchased my own pair that I own to this day, along with a fully refurbished pair.
MD: What made you go into the music and loudspeakers industry?
AJ: I’ve always been a geek / nerd, interested in science. At some point, my twin brother and I became interested in electronics and via that, in sound and Hi-Fi. By our early teens, we were hooked. For some unknown reason, my interest began to focus on loudspeakers, and that was that. It guided my choices through school and university, and the passion has never left me. I was very fortunate to have joined KEF and to be mentored by Laurie Fincham [Laurie Finchman has been the second chief engineer at KEF, successor of the co-founder Raymond Cooke, co-inventor of the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) technology in audio]. I learned so much during my time there that has stood me in good stead ever since.
MD: Most people believe loudspeaker drivers are « solved » with great past designs galore. Creating new designs – isn’t that somewhat radical?
AJ: It’s surprising how simple speaker drivers seem, yet how complex they are to design properly. The foundations were set long ago, but still there is lots of room for improvement. I’m fortunate that I have always worked for companies that have the capability of designing and building their own drivers, so this gives me particular advantages over simply purchasing off the shelf drivers.
MD: How did people listening habits changed from the 20th to the 21st century, how are loudspeakers coping and adapting, and where are we heading? – I know, a book could probably be written on that topic.
AJ: Yes…, so you’ll have to wait for my book…lol
MD: A quick rundown on what you explored in your past « company lives ». Obviously, there’s the elephant in the room: the TAD Reference while at Pioneer.
AJ: TAD was a great experience. A chance to explore exotic materials and technologies to establish a reference of what was possible in sound reproduction to use as a basis for all future designs. That immersion in ultra high end serves as a basis for all my subsequent design choices.
MD: There seems to be a pattern of successful smaller speakers throughout your career: for example, KEF’s Uni-Q technology for tweeters; Infinity’s Overture 1; Pioneer’s SP-PK52FS ranges including the critically acclaimed SP-BS22-LR bookshelf. And all these products were a success as well. How do you tackle the challenge of making something lesser sound bigger?
AJ: It’s certainly true that prior to TAD, I had always designed smaller speakers. This though was more to do with the categories I was designing for as well as the price points. Big speakers come with bigger price points. However looking back, I do seem to have done a lot to maximise bass performance from smaller speakers, either actively with the Infinity’s Prelude and Overture series, or passively with the Pioneer’s and now the ELAC speakers.
I think it’s because of the sound signature I am looking to obtain. So many speakers seem to lack impact and warmth, leading to a sterility of sound that draws your attention initially, but ultimately takes you out of the music. It’s also sadly driven by specifications: the apparent desire to show higher sensitivity in the belief that this is an important selling feature. In practice, it’s of little importance particularly when you have to limit bass extension in order to achieve high sensitivity, a poor trade-off in my mind.
MD: And then you became vice president of engineering for ELAC America. What made you notice that ELAC might be a good fit for you in the first place?
AJ: I’d always been aware of ELAC to a greater or lesser extent. They came more to the forefront when I would see them at Munich, especially when they developed the crystal woofer. It intrigued me. It was clear they were interested in innovation, and their build quality was up with the best. When I was approached with an interest in working together, it seemed like a great fit, especially with the opportunity to expand the business into product categories that were outside of their traditional areas but ripe for exploring, such as entry level affordable products.
MD: Let’s talk about your aptly named Debut range. Can you give some details on that series? So many choices!
AJ: The rational behind the Debut series was to design high performance yet very affordable loudspeakers. Loudspeakers that would surprise the listener with their capabilities. It expanded upon what I had started at Pioneer.
We launched by initially showing just the B5 loudspeaker model to shock people with what it could do, but the product plan called for three sizes of bookshelf loudspeakers, two sizes of matching floor standing loudspeakers, a center channel, an Atmos topper and three subwoofers. Although most of these were planned for similar production launch dates, some of them were a little delayed due the the enormity of the task!
The floor standing loudspeakers are, as I like to say, the party speakers. They have all the sound characteristics of the bookshelves, but they play louder and give more impactful bass. They work well in larger rooms.
The bookshelves louspeakers have extended bass but are constrained in comparison by how loud they will play, but are still capable of surprising people as we continually demonstrate at shows!
In the context of a home theater system, bass extension is not an issue because of the use of a dedicated subwoofer, but mid-bass impact is still better from the tower if you have the space and budget.
MD: It was clearly meant for home theatre, however the Elac Debut B5 won the Absolute Sound Product of 2015, it has gotten rave (nearly bonkers) reviews by everyone in the audiophile world. The design seems simple enough, how come they aren’t « mere » bookshelves? As well, your speaker designs typically go through a dramatic phase of change in their warm-up period. Why yours more than others?
AJ: I would argue that they were not clearly meant for home theater. I never design primarily for this, as I think a lot of the properties that are required for home theater are common with music reproduction. Lets take dialogue for example. In music, being able to clearly hear the vocals, hear the emotional phrasing of the voice, the slight breaths that reveal the softness of the song or the build up that is coming, all of these add to the emotional involvement in the music. In movies, vocal clarity and naturalness is vital to the ability to understand the dialogue, and not to have to keep rewinding and saying « what did they just say? ». Also, music is a critical part of a movie. It sets the mood of the scene, and the mood for the next scene. Movies without music are a very unfulfilling experience.
As for rave reviews, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the response to the loudspeakers. We tapped into a vein for the need for high performing affordable loudspeakers. In my defense, I have only seen a couple of lukewarm reviews. Either that or my subconscious memory has suppressed the agony of them.
Besides, I don’t pretend to please everyone. Trying to do that is the path of second guessing yourself into mediocrity. If it’s a reviewer that doesn’t like the loudspeaker, all I ask is that they describe well what it does and what it doesn’t do so that the readers can decide for themselves whether it meets their own goals.
I do see lots of listeners reporting extended break-in time requirements for these loudspeakers. I’m not clear why, whether it’s a real change in the speakers or whether it’s a settling in by the listener to the capabilities of what the loudspeakers can do compared to other designs at these price points.
MD: What about pleasing people crazy enough to move loudspeakers by the millimeters, purchase dozens of supposedly identical lamps to try to find a perfect match, and even add new mains, fully separated from their usual home’s electricity. Would I try to please my crowd, I believe I’d run in the opposite direction screaming and flaying hands
AJ: As I have said before, designing to please a myriad of different customers, second guessing what they might want, could drive one crazy. I don’t do that. That’s not to say that I ignore constructive critique. That goes in and circles around in the back of my mind and certainly informs some of my choices, but it’s not an active process. I design what I think is right. I’ve been lucky in that the companies I worked for did not try to tell me what « sound » I should be seeking.
As for the obsessive optimisation of one’s own system, if that’s what it takes to be happy, have at it. When it comes to a lot of the tweak aspects of system building, I have to be aware of these, aware of: if and how well they might work, and then evaluate some of them in light of how I would choose to develop a product for production. Is it sensible and cost effective tweak compared to the many choices I have from a design point of view in optimizing the performance?
MD: The Debut series was focusing on apparent simplicity while keeping the devil in the details and in the execution; then the Uni-Fi series seems to be taking the opposite approach by keeping everything complex right in front of us. Please explain the design philosophy differences between the two series?
AJ: I would not say that the Debut was focussing on apparent simplicity. The focus was on the best performance at a low price point. This dictated the use of a regular two-way separated driver solution. The trick was to engineer this to work as well as possible by examining the cost structure, determining how to best spend the money and seeing how I could maximize performance while adding almost no cost other than development time. Hence the emphasis on choosing cone and surround profile, tweeter soft dome shape, magnet optimization etc.
When it came to developing the Uni-Fi series, I had more money to play with. We examined the market for speakers at this price point and found that nearly all solutions were an enhancement of the configurations available at the lower price point, ie: two-way speaker but with better looking and performing cabinet, drivers and crossover.
I wanted to break out of this pattern. Being an advocate for concentric drivers, I wanted to incorporate that technology, but preferably in a three-way configuration. A two-way system has more compromises involved with the concentric driver due to the large driver excursions involved, but of course is a lot cheaper to implement.
MD: And then, there’s the more complex crossover to match…
AJ: The downside when considering this for a loudspeaker that we wish to be affordable is cost and complexity. The cabinet is more complex, there is now a dedicated bass driver, and the crossover is considerably more complex and costly. However, I do like the idea of a challenge. (That is to say, I like the idea of a challenge, but sometimes not so much the reality).
We were not initially sure that it would be possible, and it did take a lot of effort to optimize the design, but perseverance (and heartburn) paid off.
I mentioned the downside of a considerably more complex crossover. By downside, I am simply referring to the design process and the cost, not the desirability. There are those engineers that believe a crossover should be as simple as possible, and a speaker should be either a single full range driver or at best a two-way. I am not one of those! In fact, I am on record as stating the best two-way is a three-way loudspeaker.
The requirements of producing full range sound at suitably high sound levels with good directivity control are simply way beyond the capability of so-called ‘full-range’ drivers.
It becomes easier with a two-way, but not with an oversimplified crossover. The difficulty with a three-way loudspeaker is obtaining good integration of the drivers and therefore knowing how to design networks as they get necessarily more complex. I have no fear of this, as I was fortunate to have access to very good computer optimization techniques back in my days at KEF, and indeed my postgraduate research prior to that was in new techniques in computer-aided crossover network design.
So, the Uni-Fi series became a reality. We somehow achieved our goal! Curiously, on paper, the specs do not seem dramatically different to the Debut series: same sensitivity and similar bass extension. This however is simply a function of physics – bass extension, efficiency and box size are all linked. Pick any two and the third is a given. This applies equally to both loudspeakers. Beyond that, there are clear measured differences that give clues to the quality differences between the loudspeakers.
MD: The Uni-Fi series seemed to be more slanted towards the audiophile market than the Debut series, which seemed to be a direct continuation from the Pioneer’s SP-PK52FS range; yet this year, you introduced the Adante series, a beautifully sounding hybrid between the TAD loudspeakers of lore and last year’s Uni-Fi series. And what about the Closed box concept?
AJ: It’s tempting to suppose that the Uni-Fi loudspeakers are more slanted towards the audiophile. I would not quite put it that way. It’s slanted towards higher performance while still being generally affordable. That’s been my aim all along as I joined ELAC: design much more affordable speakers.
Now when it came to the Adante range, I wanted to extend this approach into entry-level high end loudspeakers. So yes, we can say they are slanted towards the audiophile.
Regarding the question of Closed box, they may look from cursory examination to be Closed box but they are considerably more complex than this. (I seem to condemn myself to complexity… and more heartburn…)
I call the bass loading technique a variant of the inter-port coupled cavity, sometimes referred to as series tuned bandpass. It’s not a new idea (what is in speakers!). The technique was first published, I think, in around 1954! [One can, as well, think of the Reference Series by KEF, the 107/2 model which used a similar technique in the years 1990, a loudspeaker system which integrated an active equalizer, the KEF Kube.] What is different is getting it to work well in a purely passive system with the bandwidth that I needed, with a passive radiator as the external coupling device, with the required sensitivity and with an impedance that doesn’t go crazy.
Lots of burning of the midnight oil! [The passive membrane system is a false speaker whose purpose is to resonate with the frequency of the internal speakers. It is a Closed system, but analog compared to the open Bass Reflex, the later using a vent to get out the low frequencies once amplification by the loudspeaker cabinet. Open systems are less predictable and reduce transients. The problem of passive membrane systems is usually an increased delay before the output of the low frequency .]
So, what exactly is this technique? In very simple functional terms, it is a natural bandpass loading technique. Acoustically, the bass system rolls off at both low and high frequencies. Why is this desirable? Because in any three-way system, the bass driver rolls of naturally at low frequencies but has an extended high frequency response that has to be curtailed by the crossover network in order to blend it to the midrange driver, requiring a relatively complex network.
Bandpass loading achieves this naturally, but at the expense of a considerably more complex process to design and fabricate, requiring both more physical prototypes to be built but also a very good predictive computer model of the physical behaviour of the system to be developed.
In construction, the simplest way to envision the design is to imagine taking a conventional front vented loudspeaker, and putting an additional box over the front of the driver and vents, that is connected to the outside world by means of a special light weight passive radiator. This is the only visible driver: the real bass driver is hidden away inside the cabinet.
A further benefit is the high frequency roll-off that gives us the bandpass characteristic is formed acoustically after the bass driver and vents, by virtue of the second enclosure air stiffness and the passive radiator mass. Being after the driver, then some of the driver distortion components are filtered off, as are vent noises, so the driver sounds cleaner.
Additionally, there is a further reduction in driver excursion compared to the vented box, allowing the system to play a little louder.
The overall efficiency is slightly higher than a pure vented box system; so along with a bigger cabinet, I am able to get a little better bass extension and trade this for going back to a 6 ohm system impedance.
MD: What’s the impact of adding loudspeakers stands instead of keeping to the Bookshelf ideology?
AJ: Talking of a bigger cabinet, these are substantial cabinets for the price point. Particularly, for the stand-mount type. I can no longer keep calling it a bookshelf! It is a stand-mount or monitor and so, requires a dedicated stand. We did this simply to get the performance level we were targeting, presuming that the customer for this class of loudspeaker is going to put the speaker on stands out in the room.
MD: If I wanted to bring it into a full home theatre system…
AJ: One could view the Adante as the Uni-Fi on steroids. In fact, if funds or space are limited, one could conceivably mix and match between Uni-Fi and Adante in a multi-channel system. As they are all three-way systems, the phase responses are similar enough to allow for good sound field recreation. I would not extend this to the Debut range however, as the match between the three-way and two way phase responses will not be as good.
Within the Adante range, we are also introducing a dedicated subwoofer: two 12-inch force cancelling woofers [closely the same as the KEF R400b] with 1200W of amplification. Just as with our Debut subwoofers, this has inbuilt room EQ controlled via an app, with an additional five bands of parametric EQ for precise tailoring. These are capable of prodigious output but can still be used in multiples to get better room matching. After all the EQ can only do so much: the best in-room performance with subwoofers is always obtained with multiple subs.
MD: What are your thoughts on the Concentro loudspeakers which were designed to celebrate the 90th anniversary of ELAC? In 10 years’ time, you will probably still be in charge at ELAC and will most probably be designing their 100th anniversary loudspeakers. Have you started daydreaming about them yet?
AJ: As for the future, Concentro marks the beginning of a new era, the bridge between the past and the future. It celebrates the best of the past technologies for which ELAC is famous, albeit with the latest refinements of those technologies, along with an eye to the future. We have lots of ideas we are exploring. I am flattered you think I’m young enough to still have 10 years of work ahead of me! I must say that a 100th anniversary model is such a tempting prospect that it could keep me from retirement (well, that and a lack of skill in investment for retirement).
Thank you so very much for your time and your openness in answering our questions. Best of luck in all your future endeavours although your recent past efforts and success are indeed highly regarded!
Please note this article’s question and answer order have been very slightly edited for better readability.