Balance is Critical: Speaker Designers and their Philosophies on Sound

On Sunday afternoon, the last day of the Newport Beach Show, Peter Roth of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (seated second from right) moderated a panel of loudspeaker designers, including (from left): John DeVore (DeVore Fidelity), Kevin Malmgren (Evolution Acoustics), Yoav Geva (YG Acoustics), and Albert Von Schweikert (Von Schweikert Audio). Thanks to Peter’s excellent questions and the panel’s forthright answers, it was a fun and fascinating session—and one of my favorite events of the show.

The session started with a discussion from Albert Von Schweikert, who, after introducing himself, asked audience members to provide their ideas of “the perfect loudspeaker.” The answers were uniformly good, if predictable, and included attributes such as: flat frequency response; low distortion; the best possible sound with the greatest range of music; the best possible sound in the greatest number of rooms; and the ubiquitous, yet vague, “musicality.”

My answer would have been that perfection in loudspeaker design doesn’t exist, and that a loudspeaker is nothing by itself, but must work in relation to other components within a system. The “best” component is the one that most readily sends us from the listening room and into the record shop in search of more music, and/or the one that most easily allows us to forget that it’s even there, prompting us to focus entirely on the music.

Von Schweikert commented that all of the answers were excellent. “But,” he continued, “if the goals [of speaker designers] are the same, why do speakers all sound different?”

This question proved the perfect launching pad for Roth’s discussion with the panel. He started by asking each designer about his background, focusing specifically on the designers’ relationship with music. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that each panelist noted a strong bond with music, thanks largely to their families. Both live and recorded music played major roles in their early childhood, and all of the panelists grew up with music in their homes: John DeVore comes from a family of musicians—his mom being a concert pianist in a chamber ensemble, DeVore had ample opportunities to hear live music in his home! When the time came for him and his sister to pick instruments, DeVore selected trumpet, which soon relegated him to a far corner of the household. Later in life, he picked up rock drumming, which, again, quickly became a solitary endeavor.

For his part, Kevin Malmgren played trombone. His father was interested in music and engineering, and would go to concerts, record the performances, and play them back at home. This fascinated Malmgren and directly led to his interest in hi-fi.

Yoav Geva, too, came from a musical family: His dad was a bassist, his mom a guitarist, and his brother a professional opera singer. A defining moment in Geva’s early adulthood came when he decided that his modest stereo was not good enough. His father, being an audiophile, encouraged Geva to put together a better system and bought him all the books and materials necessary to build his own loudspeakers. We might say that YG Acoustics was born then, when Yoav was just 16 years old.

Albert Von Schweikert played violin at an early age, and, when he was 12 years old, became interested in guitar after hearing Elvis Presley on the radio. Little known fact about Von Schweikert: He was a member of the Sonny & Cher Band and also played lead guitar for Neil Diamond!

Peter Roth then asked the panel about their academic studies. John DeVore, a fine arts major, quipped, “I went to art school and started building loudspeakers because you can get credit for doing pretty much anything in art school.” Perhaps more important to DeVore’s career, however, was his on-the-job education at Stereo Exchange, the acclaimed NYC hi-fi dealership.

Interestingly, Yoav Geva studied signal processing while in the Israeli military. He noticed that much of what he learned in the military could be applied to audio engineering, and decided to use his knowledge to build a more advance loudspeaker. Kevin Malmgren studied a wide range of seemingly disparate disciplines, but said that they all contribute to his current work in speaker design.

Finally, Roth concluded the session by referring to page 132 of the June 2012 Stereophile (“Manufacturers’ Comments”), where speaker designer Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio writes:

Soundsmith’s Peter Ledermann once shared with me a cautionary tale from his first days working with the legendary Rudy Bozak as a speaker engineer: “There are 10 things you may hope to accomplish in your next design,” Mr. Bozak told the fledging engineer, “but you’re only going to get to do three of them. Pick the right ones.”

Roth then asked the panel to list their top three design criteria—a question which turned out to be uniformly difficult to answer. None of the panelists seemed at all eager to compromise anything, but instead insisted on striving for a careful balance of all parameters. When pressed, Geva listed natural tonality, good transient response, and durability as his three foremost priorities, while Malmgren, after much deliberation, admitted a reluctant willingness to sacrifice cosmetics for structural integrity. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant,” Malmgren started to apologize… “You don’t sound arrogant at all,” DeVore chimed in, “because I totally agree with you.”

DeVore continued: “If I was going to pick just one thing, it would be all 10, because balance is absolutely critical.”

And, so we wind up where we began: “If the goals of speaker designers are the same, why do speakers all sound so different?”

Could it be that the question is misguided? Is it possible that speakers sound more alike than different? For now, the question remains open. Nevertheless, Sunday’s discussion with John DeVore, Kevin Malmgren, Yoav Geva, and Albert Von Schweikert exemplifies the overall atmosphere of T.H.E. Show Newport—provocative, engaging, fascinating, and fun—and perhaps reminds us that we have more in common with one another than we realize.

proth's picture

Thank you Stephen for such a fantastic write up.  You obviously take very good notes!  In fact, I think you had *almost* as much fun attending as I did moderating.  Too bad you missed my 21st Century Speaker Design panel on Saturday with Richard Vandersteen, Andrew Jones and Kevin Voecks.  All of my panelists were gracious with their time and in sharing their thoughts so willingly.  I can't wait till next year.  - Pete -

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Once again I am envious of those who attended this years Newport Beach Show. Kudos to Peter Roth for guiding an interesting conversation. What an opportunity, to get some personal insight from such luminaries of the audio speaker industry. Nice coverage Stephen.

Happy Listener!