Mission improbable

February 15, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

Yesterday I mentioned the reason all loudspeakers are colored and veiled. They have mass to move.

We don’t know how to move mass without affect—no matter how thin or light it is.

There have been several attempts at building massless speakers, like the Hill Plamatronics, though it included a conventional, heavy mass woofer.

One of my readers reminded me of our friend, Nelson Pass (Threshold and Pass Labs), and his attempt at a full range massless loudspeaker. Check out Nelson in a suit!

Nelson Pass massless speaker

I don’t know the history of this. But it certainly never made it to store shelves and, even if it had, anything generating sound with ions also makes ozone, a gas not good to breathe in excess.

Which begs the question, if there was a massless speaker would it be without veils and added color? The answer would be no. The air itself has mass, and whatever means used to move that mass will impart a sonic thumbprint.

Colorations are part of the listening experience.

The trick is to find the ones most pleasing to you.

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24 comments on “Mission improbable”

      1. Hi Paul, cool article but one statement struck me curious. Where you say if there was a massless speaker there would be added color due to mass of air and whatever means used to move air. Isn’t the air mass approximately the same as when the instruments move the air so therefore air mass should color no more then than when moved by instruments? Hope I made myself question clear, thanks Marc Brown

        1. Great question and yes, you’re right. That’s exactly what happens from the source too – as well as the energy and hysteresis involved in the air moving your eardrum. The entire process is colored by these limitations – which is fine because they contribute to what we recognize as the “sound” of something.

  1. Hallo Paul,

    Nelson’s looking cool, isn’t he?
    Looking at the loudspeaker I suppose it should have been sounding rather transparent.
    Well I think I would choose the loudspeaker with the fewest degree of colorations. This one should please me most.


  2. Not to dredge up past posts, but….

    A while back we had the nice debate over what was the most important component in a system. My opinion, which I stated a while back, is the speakers. The last 2 posts are a bit of insight into why I think that’s so. The design of most “fogging” element of the system is going to have the greatest potential for sonic differences.

  3. I’ve been trying to understand what your point is Paul since you brought it up yesterday. For an expert opinion, ask an expert. And one important expert who learned and shared something about this was Sir Isaac Newton. He said; “a body in motion tends to stay in motion, a body at rest tends to stay at rest.” And so the concepts of inertia and inertial mass were born. To express his ideas with scientific precision, he had to invent a new kind of mathematics called calculus. (Leibnitz, a German mathematician invented the same mathematics independently at about the same time and we still use Liebnitz’s notation and symbols.)

    So, woofers, tweeters, and air all have inertial mass. The more of it there is, the more energy and time it takes to get it to change speed and course. For woofers to work, they have to move a lot of air and therefore tend to have more inertial mass. Tweeters less so, in fact the opposite. The time between the application of voltage to the voice coil or membrane that’s going to move and its response to it is called the group delay. By making tweeters lighter, the difference in group delay between the woofer and tweeter increases. If they play the same frequencies at different times they will create interference patterns that will add and subtract in different areas of space altering frequency response. Sorry, you can’t ignore space, this problem is directly tied to it. The first crude efforts at overcoming this problem in the 1970s was to move the tweeter further away than the woofer. Crossover networks were devised to retard the signal to the tweeter. Now we have a much more precise method, a trick called digital delay and multi amplification to match them in time. So if they operate at the same time and have flat frequency response while their crossover networks match them seamlessly you will get a perfect speaker, right? WRONG! This goes to the heart of how audiophiles and manufacturers of audio equipment see the problem of high fidelity. Take every element from the CD player or phonograph cartridge through the preamplifier, amplifier, loudspeakers, wires, even the listening room, perfect them and get the to work perfectly together and they will deliver perfect results. Right? WRONG!

    People here like analogies so here’s an example of wrong logic. Hitch the strongest fastest horse you have to a wagon and it will go fast. Hitch more of them together and they will form a team where each horse does only a small part of the work so that they will go faster. 4 of them, 10 of them, a hundred of them, a thousand of them and they will travel very fast. WRONG! They can’t travel faster than the slowest of them. A Volkswagon Beetle with its put-put engine could easily go much faster.

    In 1974 I focused my attention on sound itself, sound reaching my ears. Why? Because this is what I hear, not amplifiers, not wires, not the sound that comes out of a loudspeaker but the sound that reaches my ears. And suddenly I realized that perfecting audio equipment was solving the wrong problem. And so I lost interest in that realizing that unless I understood and addressed the real problem, I would never get to the real goal. And so while the audiophiles and manufacturers have beaten these horses until they are so dead that they can’t get any deader, rather than try to perfect these components and figure out how to assemble them to work in some sort of synergy, I worked on how to use them to manipulate sound that reaches my ears. That as they say is a horse of a different feather. And so, the actual equipment as seen from the audiophile point of view which includes the audiophile engineers who design, build, and sell them had become far less relevant as to their differences and only important as to how well their functions were used to achieve my own goal. Sorry guys, I’ve had a forty-three year head start and it doesn’t seem to me that the gap is narrowing. Anyway, I’ve beaten my own horse pretty much to death also. Time to move on to other problems. But its still fun watching other people still trying to kill that dead horse. Dick Burwen has a 20 kiloton (I mean kilowatt) sound system. It’s the atomic bomb of home hi fi audio.

  4. Forgetting about mass-less speakers for the moment, and certainly OT, if ONLY we had that kind of audio review magazine back. No advertising, no financial bias to say one product was better than another. Just an honest opinion by someone interested in advancing the high end. If ONLY!!!

    Back to your regularly scheduled programming !!!

    1. On this subject there was a letter to the editor in just this month’s issue on the subject of financial bias regarding reviews. The editor again pointed out this is absolutely not true, and proceeded to list the many products from manufacturers they review over and over again (PS Audio being one) from companies that never advertise in their magazine.

      They do admit to a certain bias I think, in that reviewers who have historically liked XXX manufacturer get to review the newest XXX manufacturer’s offerings. As to who gets reviewed, they admitted that often they will get interested in something at an audio show and then reach out for a review sample. Unlike Consumer Reports, who purchase all the products they test in the market rather than rely on manufacturer’s generosity in providing samples, the magazines will only review products that get provided to them gratis from what I gather.

      This is the full extent of my knowledge on the subject, grin, only gleaned from observations.

      1. I have no doubt that some reviewers are not biased by who advertises in their magazines. BUT, certain reviewers (IMO) are clearly biased by which manufacture will give them “permanent loaners” of uber expensive equipment. And change their opinion on what is best more frequently than most folks change underwear. The name J. Valin immediately pops into my head.

        Enough of this subject.

  5. To start off topic :
    Today I learned the funny English word “gratis” (never before heard/read English people using that word).
    So not only a common Dutch word (where it comes from).
    Back to audio :
    “The trick is to find the ones most pleasing to you”
    As far as I’m concerned, all there is to it. Not only with speakers.
    That’s the most important thing I learned after decades of chasing “the audiophile truth” (which does not exist.

    1. jb4, I am glad I could add to your vocabulary today!! I have certainly learned some interesting words on this site as well, some I might well use and others I probably never will. “tesserae” was the latest one from the post on the 13th.

      As for audio, I am 100% in agreement that the task is to find the ones most pleasing to me. For this reason, I subscribe to the “good enough” school of thought with my components. I know mine are not the best, far from it, but they are good enough for my use and my enjoyment and while I spend some time reading about the ultra high-end components, I do not find myself longing for them in the slightest. I have never felt the need to spend a lot of money for a small incremental boost in performance that I may or may not even hear. Just my opinion, I know others are different in this regard.

      Happy listening!!

    2. “Audiophile truth” is what the mixing or mastering engineer heard in his studio via his studio monitors. The sound in our listening rooms remains unpredictable for the master of sound.

      1. I see what you mean.
        But what I meant with “truth” is the sound directly from instruments and voices.
        But over the years I began to realize we’ll never have that sound in our listening room with our speakers, amps etc.
        Not in the least because of all the manipulating of the original signal by the mixing and mastering engineers. So we get the sound THEY like.
        And then distortion added by our own stereo systems and listening rooms.
        That’s why I stopped chasing Mission Impossible and began to buy what I like.
        Not necessarily always “the best” from an audiophile point of view.

        1. I fully agree. Beside these artificially mixed and mastered sounds from singers and instruments recorded in different rooms with different microphones there are recording techniques for getting the true sound at the best place in a concert hall. A dummy head is a simple first approach. In the end speakers have to beam the sound to your ears creating there the recorded sound field. Crosstalk cancellation is a must. Ralph Glasgal has documented this in a most comprehensive way: http://www.ambiohonics.org

          The Berlin Philharmonics recently released a direc-to-disc record having used only a single pair of microphones!

  6. Re: “Which begs the question….” Your friendly grammar Nazi here. It didn’t beg the question. (This is one of my pet peeves; the misuse of that expression begs to be driven out of common usage.) 😉

    I remember attending a Nelson Pass seminar at Sound by Singer on Lexington back around 1981 or ’82. He was wonderfully entertaining, and talked about the speaker he was working on. I was shocked to read sometime later that his demo of the ion speaker at a CES ended with Pass being hospitalized due to long-term exposure to ozone. Apparently being cooped up in the small CES room with the speaker playing constantly was the last straw for his lungs.

    “Nelson Pass developed and demonstrated a Full-Range Glow-Discharge Plasma speaker called the Ion cloud panel, constructed of ~30 sections of tungsten wire from photocopy machines, in a clear acrylic case. The speaker drew so much juice the power at the 1982 CES convention went down with loud musical passages, though many report hearing the clearest, most realistic and fast performance from any speaker ever. It didn’t even require a crossover, yet Nelson Pass was hospitalized and in recovery for more than a year from ozone exposure while developing and testing it, and the idea was shelved permanently. No other speaker in history is more interesting in my opinion, and there is no other I personally wish to hear more than this one. Nelson Pass states ‘It took several kilowatts to get any sound out of it, but it was the most physically and sonically transparent loudspeaker I’ve ever run across. That is to say, you could see right through it, and it sounded like it wasn’t there. It was quite remarkable in that regard.'”


  7. Hello Paul & Friends,
    Let’s not forget the magnificent
    Apogee Acoustics full range ribbon speaker called The Full Range , aka “The Apogee”which was released in 1982.
    Talk about speed, transparency,
    soundstage , the speaker’s “ability” to disappear, frequency response (no subwoofers required) I’ve heard nothing better since. I sold my Wilson WAMM’s after I heard The Divas (1988) play with the Late great Jason Bloom running the demonstration.
    Let’s not forget the other founder, Leo Spiegel.
    Greatest speaker company ever.

    1. I heard them a few times and I can only agree with you BobC.
      Definitely one of my favorites of all time. Wonderful sound indeed.
      Too big for my room alas, and a little too expensive for me at the time.
      And, if my memory serves me well, they needed a LOT OF power and I didn’t have a very powerful amp back then.

  8. Hi Paul and Friends,
    Driver mass is the problem that power can not solve when a rim shot is make, a symbol is struck, a piano is kicked. Rapped acceleration and deceleration will show through because of Newton’s first law.

  9. Just maybe… We actually will prefer what we are hearing after the speakers transform it? I remember hearing live bands perform, and thinking to myself…”why does the record always sound better?” And, being a musician… I found the playback of what was just recorded to sound more pleasing than what actually took place in the room.

    I believe in some cases, engineers love the challenge of perfecting something more than what is actually reaped from its success. Recorded music and an actual live performance are two different art forms. Its like looking at excellent black and white photos of places taking on a pleasant new life, producing a new “mood” because of the alteration of the actual event. Such photos becomes art to muse over, rather than what we feel when taking a glance at the actual object that had been photographed. How many have wanted to visit a place because of a photo? And when you got there? You wonder what happened? So, learn to find ways to enjoy your audio system by tweaking it to sound the way you want it to sound. There is too much audio PC and legalism out there that demands we listen as we are told to by some who worked themselves up to positions of authority. Some of the strongest resistance I have received concerning forum debates involving audio, was because to puritanical goose stepping to the latest requirement. Reproduced music is reproduced. We do not do time travel to the actual event. Learn and study audio… and then TWEAK to get what you like.

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