Invisible Speaker Installation

Installing speakers in New York City for almost two decades has taught us a lot.

The challenge is in producing clean, high quality sound in every corner, while working with often very limited space… To allow home owners to immerse themselves in music, without blasting out their neighbors.

We’ve landed on a few best practices over the years…

 Core Principals

Technically you don’t make music sound better. You remove the flaws in its reproduction. The best speakers honor the source of the music by reproducing it accurately, without interference, and in great detail.

Interference is caused by poor speaker engineering (cheap cabinets, poor crossover topology), or poor installation (wrong back box, poor placement.) Interference can also impact the cables that connect your components. It can even permeate the flow of electricity that powers them. The right hardware needs to be installed thoughfully to ensure the best sound.

Detail requires sharpness at all frequencies. While the higher frequencies in music can be recreated using small drivers, the low end requires much more mass, physically. That physically large bass needs to be stored somewhere. This is the biggest challenge with in-ceiling and invisible speakers.

Our Standard

We believe in a minimum level of materials for any in-ceiling or invisible speaker installation. The planning and cost to install them are the same. Cutting cost on the hardware itself is ill-advised and ends up spoiling the entire experience.

While a project like this doesn’t require audiophile-level speakers, the speakers need to reproduce music in sharp detail and with a very low noise floor, even at high volume. This level of speaker performance, when tuned to the room it’s in, will deliver immersive and omnipresent music that still allows guests to converse comfortably.

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Invisible Speakers

People often ask us whether the thin layer of material covering the diaphragm of an invisible speaker causes inferior sound quality. Then answer is no… but it does cost more money to accomplish the same sound quality as an exposed grille or small-aperture speaker.

This is primarily due to the high precision needed to install invisible speakers, which need to be hung perfectly in line with a perfectly installed dropped ceiling (with a level five drywall finish.) The diaphragm should only be covered by 1/8″ joint compound, and the slightest tilt will cause more build-up on one side than the other, impacting performance.

Of course, the benefit of invisible speakers is not having to look at them. They also allow more flexibility on location, since it won’t be noticed if they are not perfectly in line with your ceiling lights.

We’ve listened to every invisible speaker on the market. Our preferred brand is Stealth Acoustics, both for its incredibly high performance and for its compact size. Stealth can fit into a 3″ dropped ceiling while many others require 6″, which in New York City is often an issue.

Small Aperture Speakers

Small aperture speakers are a great middle-ground between aesthetics and performance. Unlike the large gaudy grilles of previous in-wall units, small aperture speakers house the bulk of the hardware out of sight, exposing only a small round or square hole the size of your ceiling lights. They can be trimmed or trimless. A subwoofer can even be hidden several feet away and connected to a small aperture via a tube.

We’ve listened to them all, and for small aperture, our preferred brand is James Loudspeaker. Capable of fitting into small stud bays, James is able to pack staggeringly high-performance audio into a cleverly designed backbox, showing only a 3″ or 4″ grille (in an attractive array of styles.)

Wiring

Whatever your music sources may be, your speakers will need to be wired reliably, and in a fashion that allows for separate zoning and whole-home listening. Meticulous planning and wiring is needed to ensure that the right flexibility of control is enabled before the walls and ceiling get closed up. This is one of the key factors that prevents in-ceiling speakers from being a DIY project.

Tuning

No two rooms are the same. Some are covered in hard surfaces like glass and concrete, while others are filled with soft surfaces like drapes and carpet. Sound will bounce and land differently in two different rooms. Fortunately, amplifiers with digital signal processing (DSP) let you curve the sound coming from them, correcting for the acoustics of the room.

Tuning is a key part of our in-wall and in-ceiling speaker installations. In a brighter room we lower the brightness of a speaker’s output to compensate. In an overly plush room, we can reduce certain frequencies and increase others to end up with a more natural sound.

It is also important to place the speakers strategically, remembering two rules:

  1. Avoid reflection points. Having in-ceiling speakers close to walls causes the sound reflecting to cancel out direct sound, creating phase issues.
  2. Volume sounds half as loud every three feet. Blanket speakers accordingly for even sound.

 

Outdoor Audio

Blanketing of sound is even more important outdoors, as (a) people tend to move around and (b) neighbors will be more sensitive to higher volumes.

The days of the rock speaker are over. It’s a horrible rock and it’s a horrible speaker. Similarly, the bolting of speakers onto the outside walls of your home is not exactly the aesthetic most of our clients are aiming for. Fortunately, there are several more elegant options – from hiding a speaker in a soffit, to placing it in the toe kicks of your stairway.

Our approach is to spread out several small aperture speakers pointing back toward the house. These speakers look like landscape lighting (the bass can be buried and expressed via a periscope), and are weather-proof-water-proof and UV-proof.