Audio Gets Rounded Corners

Jan. 18, 2006

By Dan Daley

Architecture is simply fashion with bricks. Trends may not change with the seasons, but they do change fast enough so that we’re hard-pressed to find an era that lasts long enough to develop a name. “Postmodern” may have to do for a long time to come as a catchall rubric.

The reason for this rapid change in movements is technology. Since the notion of technology became a daily force in life, the gear has tended to lead the trends rather than follow them. Through the 1990s, a certain smugness compelled many designs to put the engines of technology front and center: An audiophile would place the rack in the center of the room, and retail design reverted back to a loft-based industrial motv?f, with exposed tubing and wires.

The trend in audio has now gone the other way: Technology triumphs when it’s not seen, when its integration into a physical space is transparent even as its presence is felt more emphatically than ever before.

Two types of products greatly enable this trend for sound: One is in speaker design and the other is in the wire that gets the signal to the speakers. Sound Advance, recently acquired by Sonance, took the notion of inwall speakers one step further and made them underwall speakers, a kind of subcutaneous transducer. The resonators and drivers are micro-thin, allowing the speakers to disappear into the wall, able to be covered with a 1/8-inch skim coat of drywall “mud” and then painted or sculpted over.

Upscale retail has embraced the concept precisely, because the technology can fulfill its purpose without making demands on the space’s aesthetics. Taking the notion that you can never be too rich or too thin to heart, the speakers have been designed into locations such as Dolce & Gabbana, Luis Vuitton, Prada, Armani, and Chanel boutiques in Milan, Paris, New York, Beverly Hills, and St. Moritz.

As long as wireless remains subject to RF interference, hardwiring will remain the signal distribution methodology of choice. But getting a signal to invisible speakers requires invisible wires. I saw Flatwire Solutions’ response to that at the last CEDIA show. Not to be confused with computer ribbon wiring, though it looks a lot like it, Flatwire refashions round cabling like a cartoon: Imagine conventional 3-D cable under a steamroller that squashes the conductor and insulator components into a horizontal plane next to each other (the formal term for this configuration is “coplanar”), rather than the latter encircling the former. Instead of pulling cable through walls, wiring can now be applied to the wall, and, like the Sonance speakers, mudded, painted, and sculpted over.

Interestingly, it also leverages some neat physics to reduce the “skin effect” - the tendency of alternating current to flow at or near the surface of a wire and that reduces the effective gauge of the wire.

“These days, architecture is all about getting the technology out of sight,” observes Ken Login, managing partner at Flatwire Solutions. At the same time, it’s also about getting the technology into the space in spades. I got a kick out of Sonance’s latest gadget, one that seems directly descended from the hidden speakers: an inwall iPod dock. Imagine a retail or conference space being transformed and personalized simply by putting one’s personal soundtrack into a wired wall sconce. Would it make one more receptive to buying something or agreeing to something? When questions like that are posed, it makes the issue of integrating audio into a physical space take on greater proportions. But then, architecture has always had a psychological component.

The trend should also further commingle the functions of architect and acoustician. The wide dispersion characteristics of turning a wall into a speaker could affect the quality of the program material. Putting paging systems into the New York City subway system 70 years ago was a wonderful idea, but to this day no one knows what’s being said through them.

Both of these concepts will almost certainly be taken further. The iPod is now an AV device, and picture and video data will likely join audio in displays that integrate with, rather than dominate, the interior aesthetic. Flatwire says they have developed a flattened solution for 110-volt AC transmission. However, while they say it has already met UL standards, it runs afoul of NEC regulations that stipulate that current-bearing wiring on the exterior of any surface must be left exposed, which defeats its architecturally artistic function. NEC codes are revised every 3 years and Flatwire is lobbying to have its technology excepted.

There are other recent technologies that push this envelope further, including transducers that attach directly to walls and windows, turning any reasonably resonant surface into a speaker. How new technology is advancing the means of integrating audio into the physical infrastructure of a building will change how architects envision and approach spaces. Staying abreast of a torrent of new technologies might prove to be the biggest challenge of all.

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