[Note: This post was originally titled "Audio Fallacy: "Speaker stands don't affect your music." It has been revised and republished to include further developments.] -- JR
I’ve made a shocking, happy discovery about speaker stands that I’d like to share. As may be expected, I've listened to speakers placed on desks, tables, bookshelves, etc., and also commercial, dedicated speaker stands. I never previously considered whether the base my speakers sit on could affect their sound. I would have said speakers sound like they sound wherever they sit. Not any more.
I should have realized something was up when years ago an audio dealer suggested I fill the hollow tubes in the plain-Jane metal stands he sold me with lead shot. I assumed adding weight was just to lower the center of balance so the arrangement would be more stable.
More recently, I was eager to get music going immediately on my new Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers as I set up my present audio lab. So I placed these speakers on a pair of dining chairs while I focused my attention on connecting the computer audio source -- an iPad 3 as music server. When fired up, the new rig sounded great, just as the speakers did on a desk previously.
Soon I turned my attention to finding something more appropriate than chairs. As luck would have it, some loose, clean cinder blocks were available. I thought, "Why not revisit some college student decor until a nice set of stands can be ordered." So I brought in 4 clean concrete blocks and arranged them as stands with one lying down and one standing on end (to form an "L") on each side of the front wall. The A5+ speakers overhang slightly but they are not a bad fit and the blocks put them at about the same height as my ears when I sit in the sweet spot. The blocks’ open-frame structure and concrete material are weighty but without resonant chambers.
What a pleasant surprise when I played music again. I couldn't believe my ears. So I moved the speakers back to the chairs and listened again. Yes, the block stands really did sound better. I went back and forth, playing several different music selections. It was obvious the music is far more detailed and accurate, and the soundstage larger and much more three-dimensional, when the speakers are supported by the massive cinder blocks. Of course, my Inner Engineer felt compelled to understand and explain how massive grounding could produce such a stunning performance difference. Once you think it through it makes perfect sense.
I believe the key lies in the mechanical dynamics of loudspeakers. Most are electromagnetic thrust motors driven by highly variable analog power waveforms. It stands to reason anything that anchors the enclosure, and therefore the speaker frames, motionless in space, affects how accurately the speaker cone travel can track the power waveform. The more accurate this tracking, the more the sonic reproduction resembles the original music that was recorded.
Avoidance of parasitic motion loss is the same principle that drives speaker designers to make the enclosures rigid. Allowing a speaker enclosure to wiggle robs some of the driver cone travel, blurring detail, and this negatively affects musical detail. This is why more massive grounding actually improves musical fidelity. Ideally, we want 100% of the power signal transduced into sound with none lost to rounding off the directional cone transitions.
Well, “Duh.” No wonder savvy music lovers are filling the hollow bases of their floor-standers with ballast -- usually sand. Those who listen to studio monitors also need to achieve that grounding in their stands.
After listening to better-sounding music delivered from the cinder blocks for a few months, I was ready to get some decent looking yet massive speaker stands. For an idea of what's out there, I searched the web for images and found droves of flimsy, massless, twiggy designs that look stylish beside an audio rack but are highly suspect as massive bases for an electromechanical thrust motor at any audible volume and frequency.
My disappointment rapidly became a new resolve. No way would I accept designer stands that favored only visual styling at to the detriment of musical fidelity. A good designer with the right goals can certainly improve on the cinder block aesthetic and still ground a set of speaker boxes well. But obviously, not by just buying something in a furniture catalog.
Thus a new iHi-Fi design project was born. This is not be the first time I embarked on a product design effort out of frustration. The time for a good speaker stand is now because what I find offered is either flimsy or ugly or both. Let’s do massive, gorgeous, and affordable to satisfy everyone concerned. The iHi-Fi Masiv speaker stands were conceived. I’ll offer them for sale after checking out the prototypes and setting up production.
This design went well. The concept is simple enough but just painting the cinder blocks won't do. We want massive yet aesthetic speaker stands at least as handsome as admirable floor-standing speaker designs. They also must be relatively inexpensive to manufacture and ship and easy to assemble. I created an arrangement of materials and features that meets all these requirements.
The Masiv stands are a sturdy yet handsome combination of contrasting wood plinths and metal uprights. These pedestals are highly manufacturable from available, environmentally responsible materials. They have sizable hollow cavities that reduce shipping weight yet can be filled with heavy, loose material (like clean sand, glass beads, or lead shot mixed with sand 50/50) obtained at destinations. The CAD model is complete.
The original Masiv model will ship as either as a knockdown (a la Ikea) or fully assembled, customer's choice. Either way, the end user is will obtain and pour in the fill materials after they unpack the stands. Other options include two colors -- black anodized or matte silver aluminum -- with standard bamboo composite or a choice among several exotic woods for the base and speaker plinth.
During this development, I also discovered the critical importance of vibration control. Inside the speaker, the driver frame is mounted to a baffle, or bulkhead. As music pours out, the movement also creates vibration that travels outward through the structures that are connected to the bulkhead. This flows down through the stands, into the floor and outward through the room. It finds its way through whatever your audio components sit on and into the circuit components, where it plays havoc with the finer points of musical reproduction.
The structure borne vibration also reflects back into the speakers as reverberation. In addition to this structure path, the music travels through air and also impinges your entire audio system, including the speakers, as mechanical feedback. The degrading effects of all this vibration on an audio system usually become part of your system's performance baseline. When the vibration paths are interrupted with good damping techniques, something seemingly magical happens.
Suddenly everything you play sounds better, clearer, more sharply focused, and more realistic. Your system gains broad-based improvement in every aspect of audio performance we listen for. I won't bend your ear with the usual litany of audiophile jargon that everyone has heard enough. Simply put, across the board, your music sounds a lot more like the original performance.
So the new Masiv speaker stand design includes proven anti-vibration measures at two or more points in the structure. I also found out Blu-tack is not a good damping material though it does stick your speakers to the stands. So I selected a more effective damping material that adheres the speakers to the stands safely with a removable adhesive. This approach providides the dual benefits of massive grounding plus acoustic damping.
The standard wood is carbonized stranded bamboo composite, which is stable, pretty, and rather massive. The plinth is supported above the base by anodized, tempered aluminum extrusions that match the usual standard color choices for components. The height is nominally 27 inches. The plinth and base can match any speaker's proportions. All these parameters are variable. You'll be able to get this stand fully custom, also in sets of more than two, with your set matched for multi-speaker installations. Want marble for the base and plinth? Your family coat of arms? No problem.
The design is complete and one custom version has been completed. After I check out this first pair, I'll announce the product debut here on the iHi-Fi Blog and I'll report on developments along the way.
In the meantime, if you have studio monitor speakers, why not give some thought to how you might improve your audio system's sound by simply using massive stands? Concrete blocks are cheap and widely available for testing. If you have floor-standers but you've been procrastinating the sand fill, get that done and I predict you'll be pleased with results.
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