Midwest Audiofest, which took place July 10 and 11 in Springboro, Ohio, has become something of a Sturgis for do-it-yourself speaker builders. The event, hosted by online audio distributor Parts Express, features the Speaker Design Competition, in addition to a car audio competition, an audio swap meet, and an open-house sale at Parts Express HQ. I happened to be in the area during a recent road trip, so I decided to peek in on the competition to get an idea of where the state of the DIY speaker art lies.
It's a timely question because DIY speaker building has become radically easier over the last few years. With so much design information available online, inexpensive design software such as WinSpeakerz, and low-cost measurement packages such as Room EQ Wizard and OmniMic now available, anyone with a little bit of technical competence and a lot of patience can now build a high-performance speaker of their own design. Or, as I learned from looking over this year's entries, they can build charming, wacky creations that make any mass-produced speaker seem bland by comparison.
The Speaker Design Competition took place in a large ballet studio, an environment that the organizers acknowledge isn't acoustically ideal; however, with several dozen pairs of speakers to evaluate plus about 70 audience members and a table of three judges to accommodate, some compromises had to be made. The judges were: Vance Dickason, author of the Loudspeaker Design Cookbook and editor of Voice Coil magazine; Peter Noerbaek, founder of high-end loudspeaker company PBN Audio; and Jerry McNutt, product design manager for Eminence Speaker.
Each pair of speakers was set up by its designer, with its listening level set using pink noise and an OmniMic set to read sound-pressure level. Three one-minute snippets of music were played through each speaker. I was there for the under-$200 category; for that one, the musical selections were Louis Armstrong's recording of "What a Wonderful World," Brian Setzer's recording of "Mack the Kniife," and Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle's recording of "What's New?" After the music was played, the designer got up to give some background on the design and materials, explain the choice of drivers, and describe the technical details, such as crossover points and slopes, port tuning, etc.
Even though I was all the way in the back of the room, where I heard almost entirely ambient sound and almost no direct sound from the speakers, I could tell that several of them reflected of a solid knowledge of audio engineering. The ones that didn't sound as good usually balanced their so-so performance with a great deal of creative imagination. I was happy to note no common theme: I saw two-way designs, three-ways, and one-ways, with dome tweeters, ribbon tweeters, ring-radiator tweeters, horn tweeters, or no tweeter at all. In some cases, the workmanship put most of what you'd see at a big audio show to shame. Several models were built from laminated hardwoods, machined into curvaceous (and quite rigid) shapes using CNC equipment. I even saw one with a cabinet made from 3D-printed plastic.
One of my personal favorites, speaker #21 (shown above), was a gorgeous D'Appolito-type (woofer-tweeter-woofer) design built from hardwood salvaged from an old farmhouse. Even though its six drivers cost less than $200 total, I thought it delivered an impressively neutral and dynamic sound. "Nice low crossover point," I thought when I heard it, reacting to its wide dispersion and open sound that reminded me of my Revel Performa3 F206 tower speakers. (I later found out the crossover point was 2.3 kilohertz, just a hair higher than the one in my F206s.) This surprised me. Based on what I've seen from a lot of upstart speaker companies, I expected a lot of these DIY speakers wouldn't reflect so much design savvy. I was sad to learn later that it didn't win, but of course I couldn't hear the speakers anywhere near as well as the judges could.
Top prize in each of the four categories was a $250 Parts Express gift certificate, a trophy, and a one-year subscription to audioXpress magazine. For a full description of the contest and a complete list of winners, check out the Speaker Design Competition web page. If you're interested in testing your skills against those of the nation's top DIY speaker designers, next year's competition is on July 9.
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