Interview Series #1: With Peter Selby of Home-Speaker.Net
We welcome Peter Selby of audio speaker specialist site home-speaker.net to begin our expert interview series aimed at broadening your audio horizons.
Home-speaker.net is home of the EbenLee Audio Cube and Cube2 speakers, taking on and out-performing the Goliath's of the speaker world such as BOSE and Thiel. He also gives some great insider tips on setting up your own high-end home cinema room for best results. Peter also lets us know his personal choice in headphones... Lend an ear and read on to enjoy our interview.
Peter, tell us what first got you interested in producing high end bespoke speakers?
My friend Greg bought a B&K system when we were in our early 20s. That was my first experience with something that was remotely high end. It had a 'tone' and clarity that I wasn't accustomed to hearing. I liked it and wanted to get a system of my own. But I got pretty intense in finding the right set of components that would bring the satisfaction I was looking for.
After owning many different systems and speakers I ended up with a Thiel speaker system that kept me happy for a number of years until I felt that I could do better building speakers on my own.
As background, I had Thiel 7.2's, and I've had two sets of 2.3's. I've heard the new 3.7's also quite nice. The newer 3.7's are better than any of the models I had. Some other Thiel speakers
are also are worth a closer look.
Tell me a bit about the development process you went through to make the EbenLee Audio Cube 2 speakers?
The Mini Cube Speakers (surround sound speakers)started off only as an experiment. It was really just a small project that I built for my wife. I went a little overboard on the design of course, which is my claim to fame; and was quite surprised by the quality of sound they put out.
I designed several versions before settling on the speakers that are sold on our site. Their sound quality is actually quite surprising.
Selling the speaker on a retail level was my friend's idea (John Stefan). He convinced me to go into business with him building these speakers. We are working on many other designs right now that will be added over the coming years.
Most of these are speaker ideas that have been rattling around in my head for the last 5 years, I'm finally getting a chance to see if they will work out the way I think they will. John has a shop and builds them; I just design, talk to customers and do speaker prototyping.
Is there anything in the market that matches the Cube or Cube 2 for performance?
Our closest competitor would be the Anthony Gallo Nucleus micro monitors. They are about twice as expensive as the Mini's though. At first, we thought that we would be competing with small cubes like the Bose Acoustimass Speaker System (Black)
. But it turns out that wasn't the case. The Mini Cubes are in a different league altogether from the Bose products.
The EbenLee Audio speakers generally look pretty compact and tidy compared to some others we have seen. What do you think is the optimum set up for an average size family lounge in terms of number and type of speaker?
If you only want to listen to music for pleasure or background music then a 2.1 (2 stereo speakers plus subwoofer) is the way to go. If movies are part of your entertainment needs then a 5.1 or 7.1 systems are best. Our speakers are capable of very lifelike imaging and sound staging so in reality a 5.1 system is really more than enough. I don't usually recommend 7.1 surround sound systems unless you have a very large room.
Have you developed anything suitable for smaller rooms such as bedrooms?
The Mini Cubes would also work great in a bedroom. Using only 2 channels plus a subwoofer would be more than enough to play louder than you would ever need.
We have some much larger speakers coming to market that will be more 'high end' and larger, multi way speakers for HiFi enthusiast. These will also be active crossover units but larger and much more complex and better for large rooms and those with less limited budgets than the Mini Cubes.
You emphasize the 'keep it simple' philosophy on home-speaker.net and say there are 'no secrets' to great speaker design. Do you see Active Speaker technology as the way forward for the general consumer even though this is currently not really supported by manufacturers ~ is there anything I could do to get the results from this technology but at an affordable price?
This is a great question. I do feel active is the only way to go at least in regards to high end audio.
There will always be a place for cheap speaker systems and passive technology. But in the last few years speaker technology has really made some important strides. And I'm talking about speaker driver technology specifically.
Now you can get a speaker like the Mini Cube's or Mini Cube2's and countless other brands that offer good or even great performance. None of these speakers really use a crossover at all. Some have some filters to tame response issues, but they all are one driver speakers for the most part. They are all intended to be used with a subwoofer.
And here is where people get a little confused; the receiver or surround processor does the speaker crossover function (even on the Mini Cubes).
So there is still a crossover, but it is done on an active level within the receiver, at line level. This is where voltages are very low and you don't have gross distortion created by passive units. Passive circuits limit bandwidth by converting current into heat. This is the best way to keep costs low and still offer all the benefits of active crossover circuits.
So, it's still a crossover; but it's a better crossover, and placed in the signal chain where it makes the most sense, which is in front of the power amplifiers. The Mini Cubes are engineered this way. To make the most of what common everyday components are capable of, and you can use the receiver you own now to use them. You can take a very basic surround receiver, add a some satellites, a subwoofer (either ours or another brand) and the system will work very well.
The speaker industry is highly competitive but for high end manufacturers some of their products seem to have been produced with a philosophy of 'cost no object' with prices to match ~ is there a simple way to get this high-end quality without the expense?
Unfortunately, I don't think this is possible, at least in the conventional sense. My website was built primarily for the DIY crowd, (initially) so I'll be the first to admit that for some courageous folks, you can do much better for far less money than retail HiFi.
However, what I've found is that many enthusiasts don’t have the means or even the desire to build their own systems. It's not that they couldn't do it if they gave themselves the time to study. But, most wouldn't if they could. Not all of us are cut out to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or whatever.
So what I've found is that my customers are looking for something different. They aren't real pleased with the direction of the high end audio market. The prices have gone into the stratosphere and many of the products still aren't that great to be honest. So I set out to provide a place that anyone could learn to build their speaker DIY, and if they don't want to do that, at least they are knowledgeable about what went into the product they bought (if they bought from us).
You are keen to support hifi enthusiasts by providing subwoofer box DIY plans and for other setups too, so people can achieve the highest quality audio experience possible at home without the expense of 'statement' products from the stores. What would you say are the key benefits of the 'build it yourself' speaker route?
The benefits of build DIY speakers is about the learning experience, finding out that you can do it yourself, and saving a lot of money at the same time. Of course, you will need some things to accomplish this, most important is patience and the tools necessary, as well as the place and time to do the work. The rest can be learned.
Have you any products in development that you can tell us about?
On the site there is talk of an Ebenlee Audio Subwoofer (ELA2 Sub) which promises to produce a monster sound in a compact box size of only 15" x 15" x 19" – this is a strong construction choice using layered Birch and heroic internal bracing. That’s an extremely inert cabinet rivaling the best from JL Audio and Velodyne. That must be satisfying to manufacture a bespoke unit like that and be able to bring it to market at an affordable price. Were there any real hurdles to overcome to get the quality you wanted with this product?
Well, we haven't enjoyed the huge success of either of those two companies yet, so I can't say we are on equal ground.
I do however believe that we can compete on a product level, so time will tell if we get the chance to compete head to head with them. I imagine it will take some years before we get there.
Some of the many customer testimonials for the EbenLee Audio Cube speakers make a superb upgrade that really do justice to the HDTV technology available today. It seems a clever buy to realize the potential of an HDTV. Do you think the Cube speakers need much 'run in' time for them to produce their best sound?
Most speaker suspension systems take between 10 hours and 50 hours to sound their best. The Minis are no exception to this. They are a mechanical system with a suspension, depending on the materials used in the speaker it can take longer than that, but we feel running them for at least 20 hours produces very good results.
You offer some really good tips on home-speaker.net about how to reduce in system and in room distortion ~ is there just one thing I could do to simply overcome this issue with my home cinema speaker setup?
The easiest thing to do is measure your room using some type of measurement system.
Only measure the main speakers at first, then move them and measure again. Plot your findings on a sheet of graph paper or record into a computer program like Excel or equivalent. As you move the speakers around and measure, you will start to get a feel for what is happening.
There will be certain modes that are predominant. But depending on the speaker locations, you can limit the peaks and nulls in the response. When you've found the flattest location you may need to readjust the bass levels or tone controls on the receiver.
Adjust them slightly until both measurements and your ear tell you a compromise has been reached. Then settle in and listen for a while. This process can take several hours, so most people don't bother to do it, but its very worthwhile.
A good place to start is usually the main speakers being 1/3 into the room from the front wall if possible. And 1/3 the room width from the side walls too. If you can't place them here, just get as close to this as possible and start measuring.
Finally, sometimes listening to home cinema has to be done discretely, like at 2am on a weekday! What is your preferred choice of headphone for home listening?
Yes, headphones certainly have their place. I use them quite a bit for online gaming (which I don't seem to have time for anymore) and when the kids are studying in the room.
I use the Shure SE535
for now. I would really like to have a set of Grado Professional Series PS1000
or Sennheiser HD800's but that's probably out of the question until I can buy my wife a new concert grand. My speaker habit is the last vice I can hold onto until she gets that new piano. :)
Do you think there is a headphone for portable players that produces similar sound quality to the best speakers available?
I don't know about this. I'm guessing the limiting factor would not be the headphone but the source component. They transmit sound to our ear in different ways obviously. Both use a transducer and the same basic components but the difference is the space between the speaker cone and your ear canal.
Headphones are capable of sounding very transparent and can offer something that no stereo system can... clarity, accuracy, etc. And vice versa; a stereo system can produce a 'you are there' presentation in your room, where headphones don't seem able to do this.
So I'm going to go on a bit of a rant about that if I may...
Most consumers would think that you are referring to the iPod and a set of headphones. If so, then I doubt it... To produce a really good sound takes great components. There are a number of things going for the headphone, low playback levels = lower distortion, less crossover distortion issues, absence of room boundary problems, limiting of external noises, etc. But there are also some things going for the stereo speakers too.
The one thing that plagues a stereo speaker also allows it to produce a believable sound, and that is producing a real sound in a real room. It's the one thing that can make or break the whole thing, but can also create the illusion that you have real musicians in your room or your room has been transported to the venue where it was recorded. I think this can only be done with very high quality equipment.
I don't mean the most expensive; but well thought out and designed equipment that does what it does almost perfectly. So headphones are going to be limited by the same criteria I believe. You need to feed them a very pure, transparent signal in order to sound their best. In some ways the effects are even more obvious because you don't have the room clouding the picture. You may not get the benefit of playing the speaker in a real space, as the headphones sound more like the music is playing in 'your head' alone. But the quality of source, amplification, and transducer quality would make all the difference in the world to making the musical event sound 'real'.
There are three iPods in our house, and I realize that there are other types of players available that may be better. But the iPod is the most popular on the market and I don't think it really gets the music right. I think this is similar to the Bose situation... You have a company with a huge advertising budget, how do you compete with that? Say you start a company making headphone amps; how are you going to compete with Apple on the basis of offering a product that beats the iPod? You can't. You can only offer a higher quality product to a select few customers that understand your craft and are looking for the type of quality you are willing to build. I think that leaves you and me in a unique position.
We can help to educate the consumer about what they are missing. Not to slam other products, but to help them understand that the world does not revolve around the iPod and Bose; and more importantly that those products are not the best that is available.
So that's my hope; that sites like your headphone site and my speaker site will bring about some much needed education on the subject of personal home entertainment. I hope that it's an education that produces a lifelong journey that results in a person having a more meaningful enjoyment of this wonderful God given gift... music!
Guest interview with Peter Selby owner/editor of Home Speaker.net ~ home of the Custom Speaker Boxes
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