Advanced Cabinet Materials Versus Wood

Ron Resnick

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In another thread about the high-end audio industry Lee wrote:

Look at loudspeakers…Wilson cabinets just don’t vibrate due to phenolic materials that must be cut with a diamond bit on a CNC machine. We did not have any of that 50 years ago.

I find loudspeakers to be the most interesting component, and so I find this topic to be interesting. (I started a new thread because I did not want to pursue on the other thread a topic not directly related to the subject of that thread.)

For audiophiles who like the sound of vintage loudspeakers with wood cabinets the technological advancement of cabinets which do not vibrate will have little impact. Does the wood in a wood cabinet contribute beneficially to the "liveliness" of the sound of these speakers which some people like?

Audiophiles who like speaker cabinets of phenolic resin materials like the "quietness" of such cabinets. Conversely, aficionados of vintage speakers made of wood might find cabinets made with advanced materials to sound "overdamped" or "lifeless."

If maximum vibration damping is an unambiguous goal why hasn't Magnepan developed a frame structure made of phenolic resin or Corian or something which is much more rigid than the wood frame structure? Does the wood frame structure contribute benefically to the sound of those panel speakers?* My guess is that the sound from a vibration-free Magnepan structure would appeal to some audiophiles ("greater resolution and transparency" and "blacker background") but not to others ("less natural resonance and energy" and "clinical-sounding").

As is so often the case, personal, subjective sonic preference drives component preference -- and, therefore, technology preference.

* It is much more expensive to fabricate cabinets with phenolic resin than with wood. The answer may be simply that Wendell does not believe there is a viable market for a more expensive version of current Magnepan speakers.
 
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oldhvymec

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Being a new guy, I would like to say 50 years ago to present, I've seen some weird materials used for speaker housings. Concrete, laminated compressed materials (HDF), @Corian, Aluminum, and some very hard woods have been used in my builds. I built one pair out of "Spruce". Talk about alive....:) I was 25 or so..

They use to cast the original Infinity Infinitesimal out of alu/mag. I still have 2 pairs. That is a well dampened cabinet. They don't warp or grow barnacles. I like the sound of cast or materials like grout with fiberglass and epoxy, "Fluffed". It's not to heavy and can set much like @Corian. I've rubber lined bass bins twice. Plywood & rubber lined. Great for quiet cabinets, but heavy.

Regards
 
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Sampajanna

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Personally, I much prefer the look of wood. I do not know enough to comment too much on the SQ, but I have heard fabulous sounding speakers made of wood and of modern materials. I wonder, though, since many instruments are made of wood, sometimes very specific wood. And this is done for a reason. My speakers are MDF with wood veneer. Not sure if that qualifies as “wood” but they sound great. I am a huge fan of all they make For many reasons including appearance, but mostly SQ.
 

HughP3

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i have read that Harbeth designs their speakers with cabinet resonances in mind. i have not heard them but they have quite a following. on maggies i remember reading that Wendell felt the additional cost of a more hi tech frame would hurt the cost to performance mix that makes Maggies a special manufacturer in the hi end world. Aslyvox on the flip side would appear to be the very hi tech design approach you mentioned. there are many speakers that sound very very good that do not reley on perfectly inert cabinet design, our own Gryphons for instance. again we hear differently so there cannot be single threaded solution
 

howiebrou

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The Audio Note UK speakers (Snell) are a good example of where a resonant cabinet is part of the design. I think it works very well.
 

bonzo75

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There are many speakers with wood part of the sound. Tannoys, theater horns. On the other hand planars have less baffle. The wood used, how inert it is, it's all part of the sound. IIRC Mike's EA use birch wood.

Often the modern materials used in cones might actually be killing the sound. Or maybe it helps and the drivers suck. To really do a like for like you need the same drivers and design and change material from wood to phenolic or so, and you will need to do that with a successful wood design speaker and a successful phenolic design speaker.

What I disagree with is when people tout characteristics of modern material in isolation and then immediately conclude it must be leading to good sound when used in hifi just because it is inert. Similarly wood can also lead to negative colors due to resonance, it is all about balancing
 

Ron Resnick

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Thank you, gentlemen! These are great comments!
 

Gregm

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For audiophiles who like the sound of vintage loudspeakers with wood cabinets the technological advancement of cabinets which do not vibrate will have little impact. Does the wood in a wood cabinet contribute beneficially to the "liveliness" of the sound of these speakers which some people like?

Audiophiles who like speaker cabinets of phenolic resin materials like the "quietness" of such cabinets. Conversely, aficionados of vintage speakers made of wood might find cabinets made with advanced materials to sound "overdamped" or "lifeless."
Having spoken with a few diy speaker designers and one professional about speaker design, trends, etc, it transpires that the cabinet materials used are more a matter of choice and desired sound, than material availability. After all, many matls (aluminium?) have been around for a while now. Reportedly, drive units cost is also a major consideration. As is the easy availability of design software which which did not exist 50-70 years ago.

Vintage hi-end speakers used the enclosure in the voicing; more modern designs try to eliminate the enclosure from the voicing of the speaker.
Top vintage designs often used treated paper Alnico units which, subjectively speaking, can be magical: the sound is warm (i.e. as if no frequency stood out from the rest), the dynamics astonishing, and I don't remember missing any details. In this respect, I understand why there is such a following for them: it's not really nostalgia for vintage sound -- the sound is very good.
The ultra clear, no-detail-lost, minimum linear & non-linear distortion, controlled dispersion, and a sense of speed (i.e. stiff bass & pronounced upper register) etc is the more "contemporary" approach.

I suppose that the point I am trying to make is that touting the use of phenolic, or similarly inert matl cabinets, seems to be more a matter of marketing trendy than mind boggling. Ultimately it is a design choice, just like using thin wood chosen in order to produce harmonics at specific frequencies. The rest of the materials used follow suit.
 

tima

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Magico went from birch to aluminum to carbon fiber. The latter two with lots of internal bracing. Vaguely recalling the thread where we discussed if they had a house sound, some, iirc felt they did not. The Magico Mini is easily their most beautiful, imo.

Wilson has stayed with their X-material - specifically designed for speakers cabinets - a dense composite of mineral polymers, carbon, and cellulose bonded under extremely high pressure - that combines rigidity and damping to yield a narrow band of monotonic resonance. They created variations (W-material, S-Material) that fill specific functional needs in parts of their speakers.

Haven't some of the planar types - maggies, sound labs - seen metal aftermarket bracing structures?

Sonus Faber plays somewhat off the luthier/instrument theme - there is a notion some carry about the relationship between wood speakers and wood music instruments. Different woods and shapes with wood do have an influence on instrument tone and pitch. Spruce top and maple back for cellos. My clarinet is African Blackwood, I think, though I call it ebony. Wood certainly is a traditional material in the face of material sciences advance. Never seen a wood trumpet.

MDF with veneer is very common/popular - exotic outer skins make for eye catching appeal. High-density coated fibre board works well for some. Wrt vintage, its the cabinets where the value is, wood, technique, glues, etc. and where 'repairs' or dyi can mess things up because the former are lost. Drivers can be replaced, the cabinets not so easily.

If maximum vibration damping is an unambiguous goal ...

I don't know if it is that simple given that everything vibrates. Maybe more about resonance control or using resonance. As bonzo says, a matter of balance. Cost is definitely a factor - I suspect few can go to the lengths of development that we see from Magico or Wilson. Material synergy is easy to say, I suppose it has meaning.
 

RCanelas

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It's always good to remember: from the moment we stick an oscillating mass attached to something, that something will vibrate and present resonances somewhere. There is no thing as a practically inert loudspeaker structure, no matter the material, configuration or dampening scheme.

That said, you can design accounting for resonances in the audio band or go all out trying to push them out of the audio band (either up or down). We have here in this thread examples of two (keep them in, push them up). Magico, Wilson and other large loudspeaker manufacturers have converged on the 'push them up' idea, and for that wood becomes a difficult material to work with, simply due to the internal dampening of the material, that keeps the resonances at a lower register than needed to structurally move them up and out of the audio band. I'm glad they find the market to push for the use of expensive materials that allow this.

As for the sonic traits of these materials, we have some clues: the stiffer you go on the enclosure the less harmonic content from boundary excitation you'll get. For a 'stiff' enclosure typically a drier, cleaner and leaner sound (all other things being equal...) would be the expected result. At some point in this move up in stiffness, before we manage to push everything out of the audible band, we'd get most resonant energy in the higher registers, making the presentation harsher and unbalanced (again, all other things being equal...). At the lowest possible stiffness (without becoming an instrument instead of a loudspeaker) on a wooden enclosure, you'd get harmonics all over, with an exponential decay distribution in the spectrum. 'Warm sound'. Using other materials with less internal dampening, the distribution is not necessarily exponential decay, some are more linear, resulting in more pronounced higher harmonics. 'This sucks sound' would be by guess.
 

Gregm

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Let's not forget higher efficiency and larger sizes of vintage speakres. High efficiency & larger cone size => less movement for the same dB output & less distortion.
Which probably required less stress on the cabinet -- inert or otherwise.
 

bonzo75

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Having spoken with a few diy speaker designers and one professional about speaker design, trends, etc, it transpires that the cabinet materials used are more a matter of choice and desired sound, than material availability. After all, many matls (aluminium?) have been around for a while now. Reportedly, drive units cost is also a major consideration. As is the easy availability of design software which which did not exist 50-70 years ago.

Vintage hi-end speakers used the enclosure in the voicing; more modern designs try to eliminate the enclosure from the voicing of the speaker.
Top vintage designs often used treated paper Alnico units which, subjectively speaking, can be magical: the sound is warm (i.e. as if no frequency stood out from the rest), the dynamics astonishing, and I don't remember missing any details. In this respect, I understand why there is such a following for them: it's not really nostalgia for vintage sound -- the sound is very good.
The ultra clear, no-detail-lost, minimum linear & non-linear distortion, controlled dispersion, and a sense of speed (i.e. stiff bass & pronounced upper register) etc is the more "contemporary" approach.

I suppose that the point I am trying to make is that touting the use of phenolic, or similarly inert matl cabinets, seems to be more a matter of marketing trendy than mind boggling. Ultimately it is a design choice, just like using thin wood chosen in order to produce harmonics at specific frequencies. The rest of the materials used follow suit.
Let's not forget higher efficiency and larger sizes of vintage speakres. High efficiency & larger cone size => less movement for the same dB output & less distortion.
Which probably required less stress on the cabinet -- inert or otherwise.

Great posts.
 
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XV-1

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The Audio Note UK speakers (Snell) are a good example of where a resonant cabinet is part of the design. I think it works very well.

As long as you have corners to put rhem into :cool:
 

bonzo75

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As long as you have corners to put rhem into :cool:

they work fine back to the wall outside corners. In fact even better. Whether someone likes them or not is another point. They certainly are great for WAR and for getting living room space
 

sbnx

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Cost is definitely a factor - I suspect few can go to the lengths of development that we see from Magico or Wilson. Material synergy is easy to say, I suppose it has meaning.

From RCanelas: "There is no thing as a practically inert loudspeaker structure, no matter the material, configuration or dampening scheme."

I think the only company/speaker to reach the peak of cabinet design in terms of absolute resonance control is the Rockport Lyra. Andy put an exclamation point on that, dared anyone to do better, dropped the mic and walked off. To @RCanelas point, there is nothing "practical" about the Lyra cabinet.
 

PeterA

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I’ve changed the backs of my speaker cabinets three times. The first was a thin layer of paint over sheet rock covering resonating construction cavities. The second was like the first with a second layer of unpainted sheet rock to add mass to the sides. The third is oil paint over horsehair plaster over wooden lathe. Combined with the different room dimensions, each sounded different.

I have large wooden vintage corner horns with rear loaded folded horns which are open in back and use the room's walls as the flair of the LF horn. The corner of the room becomes part of the speaker. The wall construction, therefore, is important to the sound of the speaker. These speakers are 60 years old. It is safe to assume that construction in England where and when these were designed was more substantial than the typical 2 X 4 or 2 X 6 frame construction covered in 1/2" or 3/4" sheetrock. The construction of my house built in 1790 is described above. The speaker's drivers are extremely efficient and horn loaded so there is very little driver surface movement. Cabinet materials surely matter, but the critical factor is implementation of the design and the designer’s sensibilities. Through a mix of experience, materials, and taste, he creates the sound he wants from his speakers.

I think it is absolutely not the case that the marching forward of technology and materials science inevitably results in better speaker performance. Inert cabinets aren’t always better. It depends on the overall design and implementation of the speaker. Cabinet materials are only one factor in the overall sound of the speaker. The designer works with the materials he chooses to create the sound he wants. Cost and aesthetics also likely play a major role.

Nice thread topic Ron.

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GSOphile

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Acora Acoustics seems to have made a fine impression at the recent Florida show with their granite 2.5-way SRC-2's.
 
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