Many AV consumers don't know that it's now possible to hide in-wall or in-ceiling speakers in ways that they literally cannot be seen but definitely can be heard. Sonance, a leader in architectural speakers design, bought a company called Sound Advance about 10 years ago to delve into this edgy new world of speakers, and today the company has a full line of speakers in its Invisible Series that range from small speakers that augment sound in residential rooms or commercial locations to larger, more full-range hidden speakers. This review is about Sonance's IS4 invisible in-ceiling speaker, which is on the larger side of the spectrum of invisible speakers. Priced at $1,600 per pair, these transducers are designed to compete more with today's modern in-wall speakers that have traditional grills.
The Sonance IS4 speakers are transducers that vibrate while being covered by any number of surfaces, such as skim coat (like drywall), wallpaper, and wood. This genre of speaker tends to not work as well behind materials like plaster and cement, as those materials are too rigid to function effectively. The Sonance IS4 speakers are designed to be transducers (technically all speakers are transducers) that vibrate in a way that uses the surface on top of them to help them make sound. This might sound crazy; but, believe it or not, it works...and works pretty well.
The cosmetic advantage of these speakers is obvious to the eye, as they help reduce what architects call "wall (or ceiling) acne"--thus reducing the number of fixtures on the ceiling. The question is, how do they sound? I will get to that in just a second...
My Sonance IS4 speakers are installed in my dining-room ceiling. My installation firm, Simply Home Entertainment, is getting more and more requests for speakers with this invisible look, especially in more modern homes. My home's décor is modern, as it's a 1950s "mid-Century" property that's been redone to 2015 standards. There are slick, Crestron-controlled LED cans in the ceiling, but there's no sign of speakers. My Crestron "SWAMP receiver" feeds easily 10-plus zones of music throughout my home via a very cool interface on an Apple iPad. Simply select "music", the zone (in this case "dining room"), and set the volume. Choose a source--mainly, my Autonomic Mirage server playing Pandora, Tidal, Sirius-XM, and Internet Radio--and you are ready to rock.
Before you are ready to dial in your system, your general contractor or AV installer likely will install a placeholder in the studs where the speakers will go. This helps other trades not mess around with your installation. Once your GC is closer to installing drywall, your AV contractor will come back and install the speakers in their locations. There are detailed instructions on the front of the speaker about how to install it correctly.
One important warning is to make sure that your installer selects the correct impedance, as the speakers come with two options: one for stereo use and another much higher impedance for installations of speakers in series. You do NOT want that option if you are using them in stereo like I am, and fixing it is messy and costly--unlike a traditional in-wall where you could just pop off the grill. In the case of installed "invisible" speakers, they are behind a material like skim coat that is a total pain to repair, so you want to be extra-sure you get it right.
Speaking of after-installation worries, the Sonance IS4 comes with a very serious protection circuit. If somebody (think: house guest, teenage kid, etc.) is blasting your invisible speakers too hard, they will shut down long before they fail and won't come back online until their internal parts have cooled down to reasonable temperatures. Simply put, nobody wants these speakers installed if they are going to blow up behind your wall, as that's a higher standard of cost and grief than blowing up traditional in-wall speakers. Thankfully, Sonance thought of this problem ahead of time.
While I am not sure I endorse this type of installation, Sonance says that some of its clients use IS4s behind small furniture, art, and other physical barriers to make stealth sound. For my tastes, I'd rather have background sound coming from the ceiling, but I understand that, especially in Europe, such installations might be physically impossible.
Okay, this is where I need you to keep an open mind. Comparing Sonance IS4s with my Focal Diablo Utopias on Classé electronics in the adjoining room is an unfair fight. What is a fair fight is comparing the Sonance IS4s in my dining-room ceiling with $900/pair, eight-inch round Sonance VP86 speakers in my adjacent kitchen. Both rooms have high ceilings boasting Sonance speakers. Both are fed the same sources, use the same amps, and can be matched for levels. I was able to flip back and forth using the Crestron iPad app (which requires professional programming and a lot of it, but it's worth every penny) so that I could jump from one room to another.
I listened to a lot of classical guitar tracks via Pandora on the IS4s at levels that were appropriate for a dining room, and the speakers were capable performers. To take that genre and apply it to a more specific, more well-known track at higher resolution, I sought "Spanish Caravan" from The Doors' Waiting for the Sun album. Robby Krieger's acoustic guitar had pop that one might not expect from a speaker covered in skim coat. Jim Morrison's voice sounded suitably rich and baritone. When Krieger's electric guitar slides into the track, it is a welcome addition to an increasingly rich mix. The overall balance on this classic track made for a highly enjoyable musical experience.
Another genre that I have been using via Pandora and Internet radio is classic jazz, so I took to Tidal to dial in John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" from the My Favorite Things album (deluxe edition). Coltrane's melodies floated nicely in the air above my dining room table, while the musical bed--complete with bass and piano--was enjoyable and coherent. Coltrane's sax was 10 to 15 percent more vibrant in the kitchen using the VP86 eight-inch round in-ceiling speakers that have nothing covering them. To my ears, the bass was similar between the two pairs. At realistically low listening levels for a specialty speaker like this, the IS4s offered a meaningful musical experience compared with other in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. It was only when I moved to critically loud volumes that the differences became evident.
On "You Shook Me All Night Long" from AC-DC's Back in Black (CD quality via Tidal), the vocals were more resolved than you might expect. Compared with the traditional in-ceiling VP86 speakers, the IS4's handling of the snare drum was more muted or muffled. The bass, at higher volumes, was punchy but not super deep. Angus' guitar solo was realistic and solid in the midrange frequencies.
On "When Doves Cry" from The Hits (The B-sides) via Tidal, the vocals were perfectly suitable for an in-ceiling speaker. Neither the VP86 nor the IS4s images like a traditional pair of speakers on a different plane, but there was no question that the intonation of Prince's voice was as I expected it to be. The drums again had a bit of thinness on the snare, but the keyboard trickery was crystal clear in a dynamic mix.
On a more modern, dynamic track, the IS4s came to life--specifically, "My Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" by Thievery Corporation featuring David Byrne. The rifty guitar chops popped out of the mix, yet the multi-track vocal overdubs were clear, articulate, and accurate. It took awhile to get to the rhythm segue; but, when the song did get there, the bass and dynamics were pretty good. I could go for a subwoofer for a more audiophile presentation, but then again this is a pair of speakers in the dining room. Rarely, will they ever be turned up this loudly. Even during a party, the mix would be between the speakers in a number of zones. Nevertheless, this was an impressive-sounding track from a pair of speakers covered in skim coat and hiding between the studs in the ceiling of my house.
The complexity and cost of installing invisible speakers are higher than that of traditional in-wall speakers, and the advantage is purely aesthetic. If you don't care how your in-wall or in-ceiling speakers look, there are frame-less speakers that cost less and sound better.
Sonically, invisible speakers just aren't going to sound as good as traditional in-wall speakers, nor should that be your expectation. They are an application-specific product designed for looks first and performance second--with that in mind, their performance met my expectation.
Make sure you have these speakers installed correctly the first time because, if you goof them up (remember the impedance issue?), fixing the mistake is costly, messy, and angering. Hiring an experienced dealer for such an installation is not the worst idea that I've ever heard. In my case, I made sure my trusted drywall contractor also had experience with these Sonance IS4 speakers. He had recently installed 17 pairs in an ocean-front modern home on Billionaire's Beach in Malibu, so my installation was flawless--just be forewarned to do your installation due diligence first.
Comparison and Competition
There are lots of traditional in-wall speakers to compare with the Sonance IS4, but the traditional eight-inch Sonance, frame-less in-ceiling speakers seemed like the most relevant.
In the world of invisible speakers, there are options from Snap AV, Stealth Acoustics, Amina, and Nakymatone. Snap AV is likely the only company with the mainstream reach comparable to Sonance. Considering the nature of the installations, I wasn't able to easily get an active demo of the above brands, but I hope to hear them in a month or so at CEDIA 2015, even if it's in an open, tradeshow environment.
You have to keep an open mind about a product like Sonance's IS4. These speakers are not designed for audiophile listening, but they could be used as a bargaining chip with the wifey-poo to get away with a multi-speaker Atmos installation in your main theater. Always be closing, right?
The performance of the Sonance IS4 is better than you would expect. I'd put it within 80 percent of the VP86 speaker. Both have suitable but not life-changing bass. The VP86 is more open on the high end, but the IS4 wasn't as limited as you might expect. Mids on the Sonance IS4 were pretty damn strong, which is what the installers that I talked to like most about the product. Could you justify a subwoofer? Depending on the installation, it would be nice; but then again, you need to find a place to hide one, unless it too is going into the wall, which is an option.
In terms of my value and performance ratings, I compared the IS4 more with the Sonance VP86 speaker than with the other invisible speakers, as the other brands are pretty much impossible to get a live demonstration of here in West Los Angeles--and I'd say invisible speakers are a somewhat new and emerging category. I will comment after CEDIA 2015 if I get a chance to hear any of the other competitors in any meaningful way at the show.
We've worked hard to make my dining room a place that has a specific, modern, finished look, and removing the in-ceiling speakers from view makes for a less-cluttered décor. For me, that makes the Sonance IS4 worth the time, money, and effort to install it. Knowing what I know now after testing these speakers, I might have used more pairs in rooms like the master bathroom, bedroom, and home office--I like them that much.