Technology Integration: Audio

Jan. 1, 2009

Evolving Audio Integrates Performance within Architecture

This year has brought progress in the area of artfully designed, high-performance buildings. As building design and system performance become more closely aligned, audio and acoustical manufacturers have responded with new products that address the needs of both the architect and the audiovisual (AV) designer.

"The greater ability to integrate audio components into the architecture without compromising performance is the biggest trend so far," says Steve Haas, founder and president of acoustical consulting firm SH Acoustics LLC, Milford, CT. "For presentation and playback systems, the ability varies depending on the project, but there are numerous manufacturers trying to make speakers that essentially disappear into the architecture."

Particularly with ceiling speakers, manufacturers have designed "lipless" speakers with minimal protrusion from the ceiling. "Regular ceiling speakers can be very noticeable especially in large expanses. Now, there are special back boxes and frames that are flush with drywall," says Haas, noting a sightline is not disrupted.

In addition, performance characteristics have improved for small, lightweight panel speakers. Previously, this product category suffered from uneven performance quality, but recent technology advancements (such as ultrasound technology and digital signal processing) have netted better results. To address the need for various finishes, some panel speakers can also be painted or plastered and achieve very good sound quality.

"The number of loudspeaker manufacturers has grown dramatically, especially for in-wall speakers," says Mark Gillis, principal and the professional who oversees AV and acoustical projects at The Sextant Group, a Pittsburgh-based multi-disciplinary technology firm. "Technology and performance have improved, as well as the finishes available. Finishes are important in the corporate AV market in order to minimize the impact of the technology on the architecture."

Haas agrees that acoustics and material finishes are parallel concerns. "The architect is interested in the control of sound without making the space look ugly. As a result, acoustical manufacturers have responded with more aesthetically pleasing wood-and-plaster finishes. There are products, like micro porous plaster on an acoustic core, that look smooth, seamless, and not like panels once they are installed. They can be custom colored or curved."

Acoustical treatments have moved beyond ceiling clouds and wall panels. Gillis adds, "Acoustical manufacturers have created acoustical concrete block that looks like concrete, but behaves like an acoustical treatment. Our firm just specified it in a church project for an expansive multi-purpose room with fantastic results."

The trend of using different materials has also extended to creating sound from the architecture of a building. "We have a technique where we use custom audio drivers on certain surfaces that provide a localization of sound; for example, an image or a wall graphic that seemingly radiates sound," says Haas. "The downside is that, as products get more aesthetically pleasing, the price goes up. In order to tame a large room, the amount of acoustical treatment is not cheap."

The overall benefit is that sound systems and sound control have become more prevalent in certain building types (such as conference rooms and educational facilities), and the rising number of audio technology choices benefits the relationship between architect and sound system designer. Furthermore, cutting-edge audio technology in use today will play a greater role in the design of future buildings. "We can create a simulation of a room's acoustical characteristics that puts people in the sound field," explains Haas.

Gillis also notes that acoustical modeling of such larger spaces as stadiums and arenas are becoming the norm. "Architects are realizing that good sound at every seat is just as important as having good sightlines."

This column was provided by Fairfax, VA-based InfoComm Intl., the trade association representing the professional audiovisual industry. For more information about how architects can work with audiovisual professionals, visit

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