Kevin Voecks: Loudspeakers, Crossovers, & Rooms

Since he joined Snell Acoustics in the mid-1980s, Kevin Voecks, their chief designer (footnote 1), has been involved in the design or redesign of the entire Snell line, from the minor revision of the Type A/III (incorporation of a new tweeter), to the complete redesign of the Type C (now the CIII). Snell Acoustics is located in Massachusetts, and although Kevin spends a good deal of time there or at the measurement and analysis facilities of the Canadian National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, he does a great deal of his conceptual and preliminary design work, as well as his listening, in Los Angeles, where he makes his home. I visited him there last summer to gather a little insight into his background and loudspeaker design philosophy. I started by asking Kevin when had he first become interested in loudspeaker design...

Kevin Voecks: I had a hi-fi store in the Boston area, and it was really obvious that the big problem in hi-fi was the speakers. We had all the esoteric models and brands, but they all sounded completely different from each other—all of them had obvious problems that related to the speakers, that clearly weren't somewhere else in the system.

Thomas J. Norton: You started actually working on the designs of speakers when you were operating the store?

Voecks: Exactly. Then I sold the store in order to do speaker research full-time. I spent a year just doing basic research, because every time I would get going again in some direction, it would be obvious that the assumptions that everything was based on were wrong. The more you'd look at it the more you'd realize that everybody was following assumptions that were often not right.

Norton: The first loudspeakers you designed included the original Symdex Sigma?

Voecks: That wasn't the first speaker. The first one was a big speaker that never saw the light of day. We went to a CES [with it], but that was about it. In the meantime I'd come up with the Sigma. That was an era when a little, high-quality speaker was very attractive and very popular. The LS3/5a was out, and everyone liked it. About that time the Tangent loudspeakers came out, which were also popular.

Norton: Was it shortly after that that you went from Symdex to Mirage? I know Symdex went through a period when they virtually disappeared.

Voecks: What had happened was that there was a company in Canada, called Inception Audio at that time, importing Tangent from England. They had done a really great job of importing, to the extent that Tangent couldn't keep up production, got in over its head, and was about ready to go out of business due both to their success, ironically, in the Canadian market, and to poor management. About that time KEF suddenly went out of the OEM driver market (footnote 2) and [Tangent] had been using KEF drivers. Suddenly [Inception] couldn't get product...So in a crash design situation—in about a month—we did the whole [original Mirage] line, with available Audax drivers that were quite similar, actually, to the KEFs.

Norton: Were you involved in the design of the Mirage 750?

Voecks: I did all the Mirages, from the beginning. The 750 wasn't done during the "crash" period—it was done at a more sane rate.

Norton: And then you began working with Snell?

Voecks: About four and a half to five years ago. What happened was that Peter Snell had died. Everyone was, of course, terribly shocked by that, because there was no indication that was going to happen. Ironically, he had just been dealing with the people who were about to really finance the company for the first time, after it had struggled along for years after its formation in 1976. My store was the only Snell dealer for the first couple of years of production, and we had an exclusive as long as we sold all of them that were made.

To digress, Peter Snell had come into the store with the prototype Type As. When you have a store, people are always coming in with some terrible home-brew speaker they want you to listen to. So we listened to the As, kind of condescending the whole time, having all these esoteric things all around. But after listening to it, we said "You're right, this is the world's best speaker"—and suddenly started acting a little nicer. I was a good friend of Peter's for many years and knew how incredibly dedicated he was to the company and to the ideals of good sound. He had this concept that everyone in the world ought to be able to buy a Snell speaker.

At the beginning Mirage was nice enough to let me work part-time for them and part-time for Snell—so there was a transition period for them, and also so that Snell could afford me at that point in time.

Norton: Since you joined Snell, you've designed, or redesigned, most of their line.

Voecks: The only exception being the Type A/III—it's only had a very minor update.

Norton: The A's the longest-running model in the line now?

Voecks: That's right. It's gone through various versions. It's interesting that, in my Mirage days, we would always look for a reference speaker—we were trying to design the best thing for the money, we weren't trying to design the most expensive, world's best speaker—and we kept going back to Type As. We actually owned every version of the Type A along the line because we kept believing that it was the right choice. So when I went to work for Snell, I didn't have to change my sonic viewpoint in the least.

Norton: You started the design for the Mirage M-1, which was finished up by Ian Paisley, I believe. You envisioned the original concept, and they polished it, though it has been changed considerably.

Voecks: I would say far more than polished. There were some very significant questions that related to how a bidirectional speaker ought to perform, whether it's dipole or bipole, and I don't think they had been carefully addressed by any company in the past. So they spent a huge amount of time in the anechoic chamber at the National Research Council solving those problems.

Norton: People don't realize how long a gestation period it can take for a loudspeaker to get into production from the time it's originally conceived. The M-1's gestation may be longer than typical, though—we're talking five years here?

Voecks: That's way longer than typical. Certainly it could have been faster than that, but it does take quite a bit of time. The tools that have come along to speed it up have also made it possible to make a much better product.

Footnote 1: Since 1997, Kevin has been director of engineering at Revel Loudspeakers.

Footnote 2: As a supplier of raw drivers to other loudspeaker system manufacturers.