Bigger better?

March 26, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Bigger speakers seem to have the edge when it comes to judging a system, yet some of the best sound I have heard comes from smaller speaker systems. I am not sure that was always the case.

Back in the “day” there weren’t many well respected small speakers because the amplifiers of those early days hadn’t much power to drive them. If you wanted reasonable bass from a small wattage amplifier it was necessary to ease the load on the woofer which meant increasing the cabinet size. We got used to the idea that big boxes make big sound and little ones follow their namesake too.

From my recollection, it wasn’t until the 60s with the introduction of the AR-3 and then the early to mid-1970s with the Rogers LS35A, coupled with the simultaneous rise of higher power tube and solid-state amplifiers, that smaller speakers started gaining traction.

Many music lovers had a hunger for good sound without the bulk and intrusion of big boxes and welcomed the idea of smaller bookshelf-sized speakers into their homes, though that didn’t seem to be the case with hifi enthusiasts. Speaker manufacturers kept at the bigger box models and filled the shelves of stereo outlets with the likes of the Infinity SM series, JBL, Altec, Wharfedale, Quadraflex, and during the crazy days of the 70s a flood of Japanese big box speakers I can’t even remember.

All this bit of truncated history to say that the idea of big box sound has been ingrained in many of us and perhaps it’s time to reconsider our long-held beliefs. With the advent of high powered amplifiers, it is now possible to get whatever sound we wish in (nearly) any sized cabinet we want.

Tomorrow we relive a few more memories.

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29 comments on “Bigger better?”

  1. I guess the majority of buyers of hifi-systems always had opted for small (bookshelf) speakers – allowing the best (optical) integration in the living room. Even the majority of speakers integrated in stereo consoles featured speakers much smaller than today’s floorstanders. And do not forget the many desktop speakers emerging with the rise of desktop computers. I assume that no buyer of these speakers ever was motivated to buy a test and set-up CD you discussed yesterday. 😉 Do they all torture themselves with bad sound? The biggest technological progress is shown by today’s active desktop speakers with sophisticated DSP! What about a factor “sound quality per cubic inches?

  2. I am not quite sure of what Paul is advocating. Take for instance, his coming line of speakers i.e. what Nudell called IRS Killers. Will his biggest IRS Killer speaker not better than the smaller models?

  3. In the late 70’s I transferred colleges and chose to room with my older brother, a newly minted teacher. That first weekend we went straight to a dealer to pool our resources on a system. We heard the biggest Klipschorns, which would have blown our budget. We settled on DCM TimeWindows and Yamaha separates. The next weekend I went on the blind date he had been trying to make happen. Those electronics are long gone, but the girl? Married 38 years this summer.

    Now I enjoy Vince Bruzzese’s bookshelf creations from Montreal with a powered sub.
    Speaking of reminiscing, I am really looking forward to getting Paul’s book. Hey, it only took Harper Lee 24 years to publish her loose account of her childhood events, so Paul-take your time.

    1. “[I]t is now possible to get whatever sound we wish in (nearly) any sized cabinet we want” does not ring true to me with regard to soundstage scale, height and grandeur. Achieving soundstage scale, height and grandeur requires, to my ears, tall loudspeakers, such as Infinity IRS V, Genesis Technologies Prime, Gryphon Pendragon, Gryphon Kodo, Rockport Arrakis, Von Schweikert Ultra 11, Evolution Acoustics MM7, Magnepan 20.7, etc.

  4. In the UK in the period 1965-76 I was not aware of the AR3. Whether this was through ignorance or a lack of market penetration over here I do not know. I was a resolute ‘big box’ man. My experience was that it wasn’t until the 80’s that small speaker design became scientific and the units, whilst remaining inadequate, stopped being intolerable. I still favour large speakers; finding the sound of a large driver gently driven preferable to that of a small one pushed hard. However if big floorstanders are impractical then modern small speakers augmented by a sub can give a satisfactory experience.

  5. it should be remembered that the LS3/5a was designed by the BBC to meed their need for a small, portable monitor suitable for outside broadcasts. Much of that output was speech, not music. It was not designed as a full range monitor. It was supremely accurate and proved that you can happily listen to music without much information below about 55Hz. Larger studio monitors designed at the same time were active with 50w Quad amps.

    Lots of cheap power from solid state amplification made high sensitivity speakers largely irrelevant, due to their cost as well as their size.

    PMC, which originated from the BBC, has for the last 30 years benefitted from a their non-compromise proprietary 15″ radial bass driver. It had been fundamental to their success in both professional and consumer markets. It’s a huge thing and requires huge rigid cabinets. It really is not consumer-friendly. It is quite easy to drive. However, over the last 5 years they have evolved their professional range to use a 10” Carbon Fibre/Nomex piston driver. It is smaller, faster and generally better. The Fenestria is the first consumer product with it and uses 4 such drivers, reduced to 6.5″ diameter, in a very attractive and streamline design. It has taken about 10 years of research to get to that point.

    There may be other companies doing similar things, but it is an example of how it is probably more down to innovative driver technology, as cheap power has been available for years.

        1. As explained, the Rogers LS3/5a were made by Swisstone. Rogers could not afford to make the LS3/5a, so he sold out and designed some further speakers and amplifiers for Swisstone, before setting up again on his own and making the JR 149, hugely popular and the ones I had for years. There are still plenty available.

          “Jim Rogers, who set up J R Loudspeakers Ltd after the collapse of Rogers Audio, released the JR149 in 1977 using the same drive units as the LS3/5A in a cylindrical aluminium cabinet. A review of the JR149 in the May 1977 Hi-Fi News and Record Review found that the “general quality was very comparable” to the LS3/5A”

          The Rogers/LS35a was first advertised by Thomas Heinitz, a leading dealer for many brands that I knew well, under the banner “THE MIGHTY ATOM” in March 1975, saying:

          “About three years ago we welcomed a new generation of Monitor loudspeakers based on the work of BBC engineers-speakers whose performance set a new standard of truthfulness among moving-coil systems and of which the Spendor BC1 has proved especially popular. This advance sparked off other, splendid designs-such as the KEF 104 and, in the higher price bracket, the Gale GS401A and the Spendor BC3 – but the newest arrival in this field, the Rogers/BBC Monitor LS/5A, represents what seems to us quite sensational progress in a somewhat unexpected direction.

          For here, at last, is a loudspeaker of the very highest class whose diminutive size should endear it to those who have, in the past, looked askance at sizeable enclosures apt to loom large in the average lounge. At a cost of £119 (plus VAT) per pair, the LS3/5A may not seem a cheap speaker at first glance, but we regard its performance as unequalled at its price, regardless of size. Come and listen to it at our studio: we think you will be as amazed by this ‘mighty atom’ as we were when first we heard it – a reaction shared by every recent visitor to Moscow Road.”

          The JR149 arrived in September 1977, with a bass unit in 1978 and a Mk2 in 1981.

          There were always problems with the LS3/5a drivers, which degrade, and I have no idea why anyone buys the replicas still being built, I think by Falcon Acoustics, and they are expensive as well.

    1. We have PMC too, and it’s amazing how small they are for what they do… but that is because they are transmission line speakers…

      I wonder if you could achieve the same effect with ported or sealed cabinets (with a relatively small size)… Perhaps is what Paul said (as I understand it), could it be achieved through amplifier power?

  6. Most of the small speakers I’ve heard don’t seem to have that sense of scale that larger speakers (properly driven) appear to have. Reminds me of a small capacity motorcycle reving away to reach the ton while a large cubic capacity bike gets there with ease. Just my feelings…

    1. The “tiniest” speakers (drivers) are found in headphones They give you the best resolution of fine details and a great soundstage – especially with dummy head recordings and sophisticated crossfeed. Size doesn’t matter if it comes to sound quality! But for pure “loudness” in ballroom sized listening rooms size might help (but not for planar speakers).

  7. Comparisons are odious, but there is nothing to replace the performance of a real full-range speaker system.

    I remember a propaganda of the Paradigma speakers, in one of the specialized magazines that they served and used, to sell audio equipment, in which they held without frills: that there are times when you just want to listen to music and for that a small monitor with pedestal, it was ideal, this could perhaps be based when you only want to listen to a duo or trio of strings (which according to some authors is pure music)

    I disagree with this criterion, a system of speakers of true extended range, allows to have a palpable illusion of the majesty of a symphonic material, no matter how complex it may be, whether it has been composed by Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky or a spectacular concert or symphony of Rochberg, which in a pocket speaker, one has to have a marvelous imagination to get an idea of ​​how it should sound. The greatest dislike is through this last option, when one attends the great concert hall.

    Figuratively speaking, the great dichotomy consists of the number of instruments of a symphony orchestra and the two small drivers of a minimonitor. The things little or nothing improve adding one or two sobwoofers.

    The best way to be satisfied with a minimonitor, is never attending a live concert not amplified, or a great symphony.

    1. “The best way to be satisfied with a minimonitor, is never attending a live concert not amplified, or a great symphony”
      Well said Audiomano, my thoughts exactly.

  8. There are some really good mini speakers out there. Even Subwoofers that come in a small box like the Sunfire Carver Signature Sub with dual 12″ woofers one of which is a passive radiator. The magnet on the sub is enormous, I think weighs around 30 pounds. It has a 2700 watt amplifier built in and this is all in a 13″ x 13 ” box which weighs 57 lbs. Carver claims it’s the equivalent of having several 15″ woofers mounted in a cabinet the size of a small refrigerator. PSB also makes some great compact subs and some larger ones as well. Velodyne makes decent subs in smaller boxes as well as some monster 18″ subs in large boxes. I own both great sounding floor standing speakers and great sounding mini speakers. Why limit yourself to one or the other unless you only have one room in your home?

    The Rogers LS35A was a big breakthrough in smaller sized speakers. The Celestion SL6 was a huge breakthrough, Also NHT Super One and Super Zero. KEF, Acoustic Energy AE1, Dynaudio, Elac, ProAc, B&W and many others make some very nice sounding compact speakers. Some as low as 300 a pair and others several thousands of dollars. You can get a nice sounding small speaker without breaking the bank. A more recent speaker the Monitor Audio Silver 100 received some rave reviews. The Brits make very good smaller sized speakers that image wonderfully. The need to be on very heavy metal speaker stands filled with sand or lead shot to sound their best. If you can integrate a good subwoofer you do have sound that can compete with the floor standers. Even without a subwoofer they do very well. If you want to go old vintage try a pair of EPI 100’s pre 1982 to see how well speakers were made when the manufacturer hand made all of their drivers and used no crossover except a simple capacitor to remove the bass from the tweeter.

    Still a great pair of floor standers remain king in my opinion. But with small speakers you just don’t have to sacrifice much anymore due to some great technological advances in small speaker design and some great sounding small subs you can tuck away out of sight. I own both floor standing speakers and many bookshelf speakers and subwoofers. Newer and vintage. They all sound great. You can enjoy the benefits of both in different rooms or choose one over the other for your main listening room without sacrificing too much. If fact you might prefer smaller speakers that tend to image better. A can’t lose decision.

  9. You got a big room? You want to hear a six foot musician playing in your room? Fine. Big speakers. You sit relatively far back from big speakers to get a good perspective that way.

    Small room space? Or, desktop audiophile?

    You want to be able feel like you are sitting back in a concert hall where you can hold up your thumb between your eye and the performance. Like an artist does with his thumb for perspective for a painting. Then, those six foot artists appear only as tall as half your thumb. Try it when you are in a concert next time. The orchestra members are tiny from where you sit.

    The real secret with small speakers. Listen up close, and having other speakers behind you playing through a good digital time delay. Then you (when done right) you are in a concert hall. Not loud. Just in a concert hall. You can talk to the person next to you like in a concert hall. Not so when you are sitting before big speakers with six foot tall performers right in front of you. Digital time delay also smooths out the bass in the room when done right. I would place the bigger speakers in the back. Irony, but true. Most of the sound in a concert hall comes for behind and around you. The bass smooths out nicely. The front speakers do not need lots of bass that way.

  10. When Paul uses the generic label “Big Box Speakers”, I believe he inadvertently lumps together big cabinets and big drivers.

    The phrase “There is no substitute for cubic inches” used to apply to both race engines and audio speakers. And just as forced induction and digital engine controls have facilitated high horsepower from small displacements, inexpensive high power amplification and DSP has facilitated good bass response, stage depth from small cabinets.

    Still, big woofer drivers sound better to my ears, especially when placed in a large room. It sounds cliche, but big +15” woofers sound more live and acoustic, while smaller woofers sound forced. And while I have never played with DSP, I have never felt I needed it with large floor standing speakers. But I plan to experiment soon with DSP in my large room equipped with only book shelf size speakers and a sub.

    So maybe the new phrase should be “There is no substitute for square inches “.

  11. I believe you meant Quadraflex as a speaker brand, not Quadraphonic. As Quadraflex was a house brand of the regional retailer Pacific Stereo it may not be known by many of your readers.

    All of the Pacific house brands (Quadraflex, Calibre, Concept and Transaudio) were the brainchild of Richard Schram who went on to found Parasound.

  12. The laws of physics cannot be changed. At a live performance great amount of air is moved. To approximate it the speaker too must be able to move a lot of air. Since the listening rooms are much smaller than live event venues speakers moving a lot of air suffice. Small speakers just cannot move enough air to approximate live performance even if driven very hard. They can sound very good but just cannot produce the size and impact of the big speakers. Of course if the listening space is small then one is stuck with a very nice sounding small speaker with comparatively lilliputian sound. The quality of sound is not in question. It is the realistic size and impact that separates a poor facsimile from a really good one.

  13. >>>>Simply stated, yes, bigger is better. There is no replacement for displacement.<<<<

    That may seem that way until you hear a concert hall coming from your room with small speakers in the front. I witnessed to this years ago. I worked for a high end shop in the 70's. We were one of the few shops to carry the Audio Pulse time delay unit. Very expensive for its day.
    One day the owner's son was fiddling in a listening room with the doors shut. He popped his head out and invited us salesmen in for a listen. He was playing a live album. As I stood there I felt as if I were back in the Fillmore East. It was a concert hall with a perspective of sitting mid hall. Impressive to say the least.
    Then, he asked us of which of the many speakers in front of us were the ones being used for the demo. Keep in mind, we had a pair of rare, hand-built, full range, Koss electrostatics which normally gave a huge sound… We all guessed one speaker after the other. Each time we heard,"no."

    Finally, the owners son flipped off the rear speakers. The sound shrunk down to one small point in front of our ears. Guess what? He laughed out loud when he showed us. The front speakers playing? Were those famous "little" David speakers! Tiny things. But, only a moment earlier we had been standing in a huge concert hall! The bigness comes from having rear speakers with good bass and an upper range roll off. You do not want great hi frequency speakers in the back. That would make it sound like you were listening in a big fish tank. Audio Pulse recommended to one of our salesmen that we even disconnect the tweeters for the rear speakers.
    We do not know what we are missing.

  14. The speakers that first blew Paul away was the JBL Hartsfields

    http://www.audioheritage.org/html/profiles/jbl/hartsfield.htm

    These large corner horns were JBL’s answer to Klipschorn. Klipsch use cheap inexpensive drivers. JBL made some of the highest quality drivers in the business at the time. When it came to horns the corner horn was a clever idea but to get a lot of bass bigger is better. Klipsch used the ingenious method of folding the horn back and forth on itself to reduce the size and then using the walls of the room as an extension of the horn.

    It seems the horn speaker was invented by Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T at the time. Here is either the earliest one or one of them. Notice it is being driven by the very low powered 300 B vacuum tube, I think also a Western Electric invention still popular today among low power tube fans.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFX392pNeiA&t=242s

    (BTW, if you like Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy the recording to get is Heifetz. )

    So these large speakers were invented for the talkies, the movie industry when sound was added and you had to fill up a large room with a large audience with a very low powered amplifier. The horn is efficient because it effectively couples the high impedance of the air at the throat of the horn to the low impedance of the room. It is the mechanical analog of an impedance matching transformer. Bass reflex boxes were also popular but they had to be big. Infinite baffle speakers can produce very deep bass but they need either an enormous enclosure or a separating wall. Often they were installed in the doors of closets.

    Edgar Villchur came along in the mid 1950s. He was not a scientist or engineer he was an educator who taught at Columbia University I think. Henry Kloss was one of his students. He formed Acoustic research and built the first and still one of the best acoustic suspension speakers. He took it to a large manufacturer who said it wouldn’t work. He never said who that was but a lot of people think it was Rudy Bozak. The Acoustic suspension speaker isn’t small because they want it to be, it’s small because it has to be. The air trapped inside the box must provide enough pressure both positive and negative to supply the restoring force to the cone. Villchur himself didn’t fully understand why it worked but that hardly matters. It took me 25 years after I had the mental tools to apply them to figure it out. Frankly I hadn’t given in much thought in the interim.

    In the mid 1950s, engineers from the NY Audio Society which became AES took 4 AR speaker systems and 4 150 watt Western Electric amplifiers to Riverside Church on the upper west side of Manhattan. They conducted a live versus recorded experiment playing the speakers against an Aeolian Skinner pipe organ. Suddenly the AR 12″ speaker became the bass reproducer that was the reference standard. it was so accurate medical schools used it to teach students what different heart sounds sounded like. With the invention of the dome midrange and dome tweeter a few years later, A 3 way wide dispersion full range system AR3 was born. There’s one on display in the Smithsonian institution as an example of excellence in American engineering. The speaker quickly became a reference standard for many people.

    My own experience with it was very disappointing. It invariably had a muted muffled sound. In experiments comparing AR3 with KLH Model 17, a speaker Kloss built that cost 1/3 the price the AR3 won easily at very low frequencies but from there on up it was KLH all the way. Yet I attended two live versus recorded demos AR conducted at trade shows and the speakers sounded remarkably accurate. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out why it performed so well at the demos and so poorly everywhere else. AR improved on this design with a number of models until the final iteration of it by Ken Kantor in the Model AR303 probably sometime in the mid to late 1980s. At one point in the mid 1960s AR had one third of all high fi component speakers sold in the United States, a feat that has never been equaled.

    The internal volume of the AR1 type and its later descendants is 1.75 cubic feet. It is filled with mineral wool or fiberglass. This displaces some of the air, in fact a lot of it. Its actual purpose is to force the speaker to push and pull air between the fibers which creates and aerodynamic drag controlling the damping. This velocity related frictional loss is one of three elements of Newton’s second law of motion applied to forced oscillation. The other two are the spring constant which is mostly controlled by the air pressure difference between the inside and outside of the box and the moving mass. By this principle it is possible to tune any size speaker to any desired low frequency response but the down side is low efficiency. Also constrained is the maximum loudness it will play at which is controlled by the effective diameter of the cone and its maximum excursion just as with a piston and by the maximum electrical power it will handle. The effective cone diameter for an AR 12″ woofer is 8″. The sound radiated from the back of the speaker is trapped in the box and unusable unlike a ported bass reflex or transmission line design.

    It is desired to have the tweeter at ear level. One method is to raise the box off the floor. The other is to make the enclosure tall enough to get the woofer near the bottom where it couples best with the room and the tweeter high enough.

    One day I intend to experiment with very large surface array loudspeakers as their radiating pattern is different from point sources and line sources. I’ll configure it so that it can be operated monopole, dipole, or bipole. As you add more speakers each one does less work and in aggregate a small fraction of the overall output of the system and maximum loudness of each one is small compared to the aggregate. This should keep distortion low. I’ll see if the special sound of flat panel speakers like electrostatics is due to their inherent design or because they are large surface arrays that can be duplicated with dynamic speakers.

  15. Interesting to hear, from Paul and all the comments…

    I had a pair of Rogers LS7t’s speakers when they came out, placed on damped metal stands – started by Jim Rogers with creative design later by Richard Ross. These lasted me a decade and more with my growing eclectic tastes from guitar and drum groups like early Beatles, Dire Straits, male and female singers from various size groups, modern folk like Clannad and the Cranberries, Carole King, Bowie, Kate Bush, Susan Vega… Synthesiser is also heavily included like, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Rick Wakeman, OMD and many others. Classical gets a look in, from Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi even Orff… from the small quartet to full orchestra.

    The Rogers and other British speakers were typically driven by high end ‘ish’ Japanese amplifiers from Yamaha and then Denon. For me and my music, this was a good mix – the Amps maybe a bit bright, being mixed with the mellow near full range speakers.

    When my interests also moved into AV, with 5.1 surround sound, I couldn’t have separate rooms, however, I could make sure the stereo speaker pair were good. Monitor Audio for me, currently an oldish Silver Floor Standing 3-way. With my British room of around 11 by 15 foot room with all thick brick or stone walls and some carpeting this works well for me. Paul probably won’t like it, but I even prefer 5.1 SACD mixes that I’m proud to own. Even with good CD stereo I typically use all 6.0.2 largish MA speakers with ‘light touch’ DSP room setup – yep, still no sub Paul. The MA stereo pair may only go down to 30Hz, but it’s a sound I like – well controlled and full stereo bass – they are rear ported and inside weighted at the bottom. One of ‘my’ bass test tracks is Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours, the start and ending is a rich deep well controlled bass, or should be. A marvellous sound with the echoes of her voice.

    So, am I interested in Paul’s AN-3’s and DSP powered bass end with sub… oh yes 🙂
    Will I be able to afford them in the U.K. when $5000 USA speakers sell for £10,000, probably not 🙁
    But you never know… if I go back to work or save up my pension, just maybe…

    Certainly looking forward to new DSD recordings, DSD files if not SACDs please.

  16. Sorry to weigh in late in the day and this is off topic, but meets the “better” part.

    I did Apple’s new 12 point whatever update on my phone today after watching their big event last night about all of their updated services and had occasion to stream some Bluetooth from the phone to my car on the way home and was shocked at how much better I thought the music sounded. Crisper and cleaner than I recall. I tried it on a Bluetooth speaker I have at home and got the same impression.

    Of course Apple never publishes exactly what is in all of their updates but I am wondering if they tweaked something either with the Bluetooth protocol or with the way the phone DAC or software renders the files? Anybody else notice this or is it my imagination?

      1. Hmmmm maybe something to this. I was reading about BT 5.0 and its potential effect on audio (bandwidth and higher resolution files), and how the iPhone 8 (which I have) supports BT 5. I will continue to investigate! Thanks for pointing this out.

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