Home Theater Theory: Speaker Directionality and Its Effect on Sound Quality

One aspect of sound performance that is often overlooked is the effect directionality has on sound performance for people sitting outside of the “sweet spot”. At your desk, you can make sure your speakers are always pointing at you. In a room with one seat, you can obviously point all of the speakers at the listener. But most of us listening to audio in our homes have rooms with multiple listeners, and that makes directional effects important to understand. Also, directional effects determine the strength of reflections, always a problem for speakers indoors. The topic of directional effects in the propagation of waves is something that has been both an academic and professional interest of mine, I hope this article sheds a bit of light on how this theory applies to home theater.

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If You Care About Audio Quality, Reconsider Purchasing A Soundbar

The primary home audio product today is the soundbar, in its various incarnations. They offer superior sound to the sound built into your TV at a relatively low price, with low complexity and a high convenience and aestheic factor. The problem with soundbars is one of compromise. At every turn, audio quality is compromised for price, convenience, simplicity and size. With any design, something has to give, there are no perfect solutions, and when it comes to budget soundbar, the compromise is audio quality. Lets take a look at some of the benefits of a soundbar, and examine how they affect audio quality. From there, we’ll look at some alternatives to soundbars depending on what you’re looking for. If, after reading this, you still want a soundbar, I’ve provided a set of recommendations.

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Micca MB42X Review

Micca MB42X Bookshelf Speakers with 4-Inch Carbon Fiber Woofer and Silk Dome Tweeter, Black – $89.99

When someone first gets into audio, they are often looking for an affordable, small speaker that doesn’t compromise on performance. The Micca MB42X fills that role admirably. If you’re looking to buy a pair of speakers for under $100, these are your best bet.  Speakers like these sound much better than any soundbar in the same price range. You really will be getting a big step up in performance versus what you get from a typical soundbar.

These speakers are significantly smaller than the Dayton B652 and Dayton B652 AIR, and also offer a flatter frequency response, but with less bass. All-in-all these speakers are really nice at their price point.

I found these speakers enjoyable to listen to when I tested them. They did a nice job with music and voices. They seem to have been designed to handle the typical movie soundtrack and dialog quite well. It shows a real synergy between the marketing and engineering teams in my opinion. A speaker that costs $90 can only do so much. By focusing on a specific problem: making the speaker sound as good as possible on a typical TV show or non-action film soundtrack, they deliver a speaker which is quite good for most of the population and use cases. This isn’t going to be the centerpiece of an exquisite music listening setup, no $90 pair of speakers would be, and the designers didn’t try to make it for that role, to their credit.

My main complaint while listening to them is they are begging to be paired with a subwoofer to give you something even better. This is hardly surprising. They’ve got 4.5″ drivers so physics dictates they won’t have good bass. That said, if you want to get the most out of these, buy a subwoofer. This one should do the trick.

Even when you upgrade your speakers later, these are the kind of speakers you will always find a place for in your house. You’ll use them in other rooms, for parties, your workshop, even with your computer. They are incredibly flexible, and unless you plan on using them for an outdoor event or in a large hall, they will satisfy your needs.

The biggest marketing point to these speakers is they have a well made crossover circuit inside. The Micca MB42 does not, and costs less than half the price. The circuit is a big deal. Dayton Audio’s B452, B652 and B652-Air have very minimal crossovers. A crossover is a circuit that splits the sound and sends part to the tweeter and part to the woofer. The MB42X properly splits the signal between the two which accounts for much of the cost of the speaker, as well as the reason behind its higher quality sound than the Dayton speakers.

To reiterate, these are fairly small speakers, less than 6 inches wide, so they should find a place wherever they are needed. You can put them on their side and underneath a TV, and that should work pretty well.

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Dayton T652 Review (Updated 6/24/2015)

Dayton Audio T652 Dual 6-1/2″ 2-Way Tower Speaker Pair – $118.50+$9.95 shipping

The last set of Dayton’s I’ll be reviewing for a bit are the oddball of the family. While the B652-AIR fixed the treble issues with the B652s, the T652 takes the B652 design and turns it into a tower. It is louder, and extends deeper, though at a steep cost in size and price. The T652 sounds big, fills up a room, and is in no way worse than the B652.

However, the problem with the T652 is I have trouble deciding when I would recommend them. The B652’s are probably already pushing the limit of what someone who just wants some speakers for the living room are willing to accept size wise. And at $120+, there are much better choices for quality.

That leaves the segment of people considering these to just people who are putting together dedicated home theaters on a severe budget. In a big home theater room, towers are usually the best choice for your front stereo pair, as these speakers do the heavy lifting, and you want them to be loud and cover a wide range of frequencies.  The next tier in tower speakers are more than twice the price, but still only $260. I’ll be reviewing these soon. The thing is, if you’re investing enough in your home entertainment to dedicate a space big enough to warrant towers, you probably don’t want to be buying speakers that are just the minimum passable speaker. You want something that sounds impressive. So while the T652 has a market segment all to itself, I’m not really sure who is in that market.

One last point about these speakers before we look at measurements is that while I’ve talked about how they are bigger than most people would want in a non-dedicated room, they are also not tall enough to use without a stand. I put 6″ risers underneath these to listen to. It’s obviously not a big deal, but it is a consideration.

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Interpreting My Measurements

Measurements are an important part of any speaker review. They give us something to talk about besides my own subjective opinions of sound quality. They help to verify with some degree of confidence that my ears aren’t lying to me, and they allow a quantification of speaker performance. Of course, they are also very hard to do. Not only do you need the appropriate gear, you need the appropriate software and appropriate room to do it all correctly. Right now, I have none of those things. I do have a good microphone, and a room which is acoustically “not horrible”. There are bookshelves in three corners,  a desk in the other, curtains on three walls and an open door on the other. The ceiling has a fan and the floor is carpeted. The loudest reflections and standing waves are pretty mitigated here.  There are plenty of room nulls as you will see, but they do not distract from understanding the sound of a particular speaker at the level of nuance we deal with here. However, in order to make sure the direct path from the speaker dominates by enough, I keep the microphone 2 meters away from the speaker.  Software, on the other hand, is something I can take care of. By education and profession, designing the types of software a procedures to generate these kinds of measurements is second nature to me. If some of that went over your head don’t worry, I’m just trying to say I’m doing the best I can with a difficult problem.

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