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A U D I O...

P A P E R

HOW TO DESIGN A SPEAKER

by Steve Deckert
March 2000

There is a good reason why most speakers sound like


speakers. It's because most designers follow a specific
sequence of mistakes that lead to mediocre sounding
results.
Let's face it, if you're going to design a do-it-yourself speaker the first and obvious
problem is going to be getting the woofer(s) and the cabinet tuned for flat extended
frequency response. Some will choose a cabinet and then model different drivers in it,
some will select a woofer and then model different cabinets for it. Both will then design
the crossover based on the published specs of the drivers, choosing the best looking
spot for the crossover frequencies and then design a network to these predetermined
ideals.

They will then order the parts and assemble it. Some will be amazed at the best
sounding speaker they've heard, some will be a little unhappy and start tweaking the
design. This procedure for speaker design is a recipe for mediocrity. Anyone can do it,
almost everyone falls into the trap. To reiterate, you can't design your speaker based
on published specs. Some of them are usually never accurate, and others too complex
to mean anything in your specific situation.

For example, considering polar dispersion plots of tweeters and midrange drivers as
you decide what type of crossover and so on is futile. Drivers all have signatures that
defy known specifications, but are in fact the sum of those specifications. You may
have all known data from NASA grade test gear on a particular driver, but no accurate
way to compile that data in your mind so as to hear what the driver will actually sound
like. You actually have to listen to it.

Listening to it is the only accurate way to draw a subjective description of it's sound or
signature. And of course the front baffle size, shape, material and angle will also
change the signature of drivers, especially midranges and tweeters. So even if you
have the drivers in your hand and have listened to several frequency sweeps, the
signature you determine the driver to have is false because it's not yet in the cabinet.
Once you have the driver in the cabinet, the new signature you determine the driver to
have is also false because you haven't installed any crossover components yet.
Suppose you installed a cap on the tweeter, and determine the drivers new signature,
you still have no idea what the final signature will be because you haven't added the
midrange, or woofer. Any drivers and crossover components you add to the circuit will
effect every other part of the circuit in the way the current and frequencies divide. So
in the end, all the math in the world will not predict accurately how a speaker will
sound, and if it will image or not. Although if followed will get you close, but also
become a limiting factor of how far you can go.

Added to these variables, as you try to first determine the signatures of each driver, is
the room acoustics which will effect the perceived result by at least some 40%. And
I've almost forgotten to make it clear that the proper way to design a speaker is by
identifying the individual signatures of each component and combining them in a way
that is complementary. This can only be done by human ears. A tweeter that has a
signature you've determined to be a little sharp on the very top end may be less than
ideal when measured against itself, however suppose your midrange drivers is a little
bloomed out and overly warm sounding. Depending on the overlap and slope of your
crossover, the two can create complementing signatures and actually sound great.

The way to design a mediocre speaker is to use all the math you can and model
everything from the crossover to the cabinet to create a perfect result.

If you want a great sounding speaker, you can't design one this way, for several
reasons. The first is that published specs on drivers are never accurate. You will have
to pick the drivers with somewhat of a casual attitude and then buy them. Once you
have them, you'll have to measure them yourself and see exactly what the specs
actually are. Be prepared to repeat this process. That means you may be setting some
of the drivers you've purchased on the shelf and purchasing new or different ones
hoping for better luck.

Some basic steps are as follows:

Once you have the drivers in your hands, and after you've measured the Thiel&Small
parameters of at least the woofers, you are ready to start designing a crossover. Now
that you can plainly see the discrepancies between the published specs and actual
measured specs, you can be glad you haven't built the crossovers yet. The first step in
designing a crossover is becoming familiar with the characteristics and signatures of
each driver. To do this, you simply hold it in your left hand and using a frequency
generator, start sweeping the frequencies to extremes of each drivers bandwidth and
LISTEN.

You will be listening for smoothness of frequency response. Use your ears, not
measurement equipment because the signature of each driver will be superimposed on
the frequency response yielding unique sonic results that can't be seen in computer
modeled or measured plots.

For example, on the woofer, you will find it's FS just by feeling and looking at the
woofer while you sweep it. As you sweep, pay close attention to the sound. Sweep
very slowly and hunt for peaks and noises. This process should be documented on a
piece of paper by listing the results. For example:

30Hz ~ 300 Hz - very nice

300Hz ~ 600Hz - good

600Hz ~ 2300Hz -good

This means that around 300Hz there was a change, either a peak, or a noise of some
kind. Another one at 600Hz and a noticeable roll off after 2300Hz. Do the same test on
your other drivers (mids and tweeters). Circle the Zone of response that had the
sweetest sound. When you find a peak or noise, play with the driver by squeezing it,
angling it, shaking it, tapping on it, anything you can do without damaging it. The
objective simply to see if anything you do changes the characteristics of the peak or
noise. This process usually leads to tweaking the drivers before they're ever installed
in the cabinet. For example:

Most stamped frame speaker frames resonate or ring at certain frequencies that
depending on size and mass hover between 200Hz and 1200Hz. Adding damping to
the frame can reduce or eliminate these types of frequency response glitches.

If you're using dome tweeters and or midranges, you will have to install them in the
cabinet and sweep them again. Expect large changes in frequency response based on
the interactions of the baffle refraction's. The surface material, i.e.. wood, felt, can
largely effect the signature of the dome drivers as well. Remember that signatures are
not found in specs, polar response plots, or transient response tests. There is no way
to tell from specs the sonic changes that occur between fabric domes and silk, poly,
titanium, or phenolic domes.

From drawing notes on paper you can tell the sensitivity of each driver in relation to
each other simply by selecting frequencies that overlap and swapping drivers. For
example, the midrange may well go up to 10K and the tweeter may well drop down to
2K, so setting the frequency generator around 5K and A/B the mid and tweeter will tell
you which one is louder. The armature trained ear can hear 3dB increments, so if you
can tell one is louder, the gain was at least 3dB.

Draw yourself a crude response plot on your paper for each driver and as we said,
circle the areas that sounded best. This will help you determine where the best
crossover frequencies would ideally be. Once you've come up with a plan based on the
real data you just measured with your ears taking into account both efficiency and
signature, you can rough in a crossover network. Remember, the midrange and
tweeter have a large overlap, and both can play the same frequencies, so in the area
of overlap, which one has the most pleasant signature? A question only your ears can
answer, and one that must be answered before designing the crossover.

Designing the crossover can be a successful experience provided you keep it simple, at
least at first. Using your calculator or computer select the components for either a 6 or
12 dB network that approximately will hit the ideal crossover points you want. If your
speaker is for high power applications use the 12dB networks, but if your using lower
power amps and higher efficiency speakers you have the option of using either one.
When your caps and coils arrive, start with the woofer by installing it in the cabinet
and sweeping it several times. Now how smooth has the response become, what
changes have taken place. If you like to measure things, you may be amazed at how
the impedance curve changes once you have the woofer in the cabinet. Playing with
temporarily sealed openings in the cabinet will make radical changes in the the
impedance curve, as will the final tuning. Assuming your network is either 6 or 12 dB
you will have a coil for the woofer. Once you are satisfied that the woofer is tuned to
the cabinet you should sweep it several times with the inductor and without. Notice the
signature of the woofer changes completely with an inductor in the circuit. If it makes
it sound worse and you have unusually flat response you can and should consider
throwing it away.

The following must be done with music, not test tones.

In most systems the mids and tweeters are higher sensitivity than woofers and will
need to be padded. This can get complicated with a calculator so you're best bet is to
assemble a variety of caps and ceramic resistors, and using alligator clips and test
leads, clip together the 6 or 12 dB network that you purchased the parts for and hook
up the speaker. Play it a low levels and use this first sound as a starting point. With
respect to the polarity of the woofer, the midrange and tweeter (other drivers) can be
either in phase or out of phase by 180 degrees. If you have more than one driver such
as a midrange and tweeter, you should experiment with changing the polarity of each
one at a time and listening to what happens. You will notice large shifts in frequency
response and presence. The various combinations possible by doing this can yield
either a forward or laid back sound. The reason this happens is timing, or phase angle.
The phase angle of a speaker changes with frequency, and in the case of the woofer,
effected dramatically by box design and tuning frequency.

Remember, at this point you have what looks like a pile of spaghetti on the floor and
it's better if you do not know which way is theoretically correct as far as polarity goes.
Just listen. Once you have determined which polarity combination sounds best it is
time to start balancing the output of each driver in reference to the woofer. This
usually involves padding or shifting of crossover points or both and can be quickly
accomplished with a variety of 1 ohm to 10 ohm ceramic resistors. The resistors
should be used in series with the drivers. (That's mids and highs only - not the
woofer(s) This process should be done while listening to the speaker and simply
involves swapping out values until you find something you like. Remember that
padding a driver changes it's impedance and that means your pre-calculated crossover
points will also change. This could be good or bad, so it's nice to have a variety of
capacitor values to swap in and out of the circuit as well.

This process can take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days and when
finished, you'll have a really scary pile of test leads and parts connected together in
front of your speaker. It may have been difficult to keep track of the circuit as you
swap parts in and out, and that's okay. In fact if the audio gods favor you, you will find
that when you try to draw the schematic you'll discover that you hooked things up
wrong or at least differently then planned. If this happens and the sound is good, you
can smile in the knowledge that you're probably on to something.

This brief paper is just an attempt to deprogram do-it-yourself speaker designers.


Remember your ears are more expensive than the best test gear, and work better.
The reason we favor this design process is because the actual number of real variables
is overwhelming. Things like Signatures and coloration's in drivers will change your
subjective interpretation of frequency response. A good example is the way a poly
dustcap can superimpose a dryness in the midrange that is often missinterpreted as
better transient response.

For more in depth information about this technique, you can visit the web page where
using this process I design a do-it-yourself speaker that you can build and compare
with other speakers to demonstrate the results. In fact, if you truly want to graduate
to a level of understanding that yields superior results, try this: Design your crossover
before you buy your drivers, like you normally would, based on the published specs
and other people's comments. Then put it in a drawer somewhere and proceed with
the above technique until your finished. When you build the second speaker, install
your pre-designed crossover and compare the results. You should find the experience
enlightening and if successful a little embarrassing.

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