No ordinary little speaker…

QA2625-Concept20_WhiteI’ve been loaned an interesting and inexpensive pair of small passive hi-fi speakers recently and I’ve spent some time using them in the context of both casual listening and for more music production oriented monitoring. They’re worth I think a few paragraphs of description and analysis.

The speaker in question is the Q-Acoustics Concept 20. Q-Acoustics arrived on the hi-fi scene a decade or so ago and although the company has little of the speaker engineering heritage of, say, a KEF or a Bowers & Wilkins, it immediately drew upon the expertise of a bunch of people who do. In particular, Q-Acoustics employs electro-acoustics design consultant Karl-Heinz Fink. Karl-Heinz and his colleagues have forged a particularly successful speaker electro-acoustics consultancy (https://www.fink-audio.net) over the past 30 years and have been responsible for rather more than perhaps a fair share of notable hi-fi speaker designs. In more recent times Fink consulting has become a manufacturer in its own right with a couple of innovative high-end speaker marketed under the Finkteam brand (https://www.finkteam.com).

Back on the Q-Acoustic Concept 20, at first sight, the speaker is nothing remarkable with just its extended depth dimension indicating perhaps something out of the ordinary. Otherwise, it’s a simple, compact, rear port-loaded, two-way, stand-mount design with a thermo-plastic diaphragm 125mm bass/mid driver and a 25mm soft dome tweeter. The Concept 20 however incorporates two hidden features that mark it out as unusual. Firstly, it has a mechanically decoupled tweeter, and secondly, it incorporates an unorthodox, low-resonance cabinet construction.

I first became aware of decoupled tweeters on Naim Audio speaker designs of the 1980s, and on niche UK based manufacturer Roksan’s first speaker (the Darius of 1986). Since then, Mission and Bowers & Wilkins at least have occasionally employed the idea. There’s probably numerous examples of unintentionally decoupled tweeters too: speakers on which the tweeter mounting screws have loosened over the years, or perhaps were never tight in the first place.

At the heart of the decoupling idea is that when a tweeter is rigidly attached to the cabinet it will be “shaken” by the the bass and mid drivers exciting the cabinet panels. Doing the maths illustrates the potential significance: if music has a dynamic range of say, 60dB, that represents ratio of 1000:1. So if a tweeter dome moves, say 0.5mm at 0dB, it’s displacement at -60dB is in the order of 0.0005mm, or five ten-thousandths of a millimetre. That’s a very, very small distance and can be comparable to the movement of panel vibrations. Two things will result if the tweeter is shaken about by movement of the cabinet panels. Firstly, the shaking effectively raises the high-frequency noise-floor of the speaker, which may mask low-level detail in the audio signal. And secondly, if the shaking is particularly strong at specific frequencies as a result of a discrete panel resonances, raised levels of high-frequency intermodulation distortion* will result.

concept20
A cut-away of the Concept 20shows the “Gelcore” in green.

The second hidden feature of the Concept 20 is its cabinet construction technique. Q-Acoustic call the technique “Gelcore” and it comprises a cabinet constructed from two layers of MDF that trap a layer of non-setting mastic. The correct technical term for this style of sandwich panel is, “constrained layer damping” and it can be highly successful at suppressing flat panel resonance. Wrap the side panel of a Concept 20 with a knuckle and a notably dead thunk results. And the reason I wrote at the top of the post that the extended cabinet depth of the Concept 20 points to something unusual is that the Gelcore technique probably steals internal cabinet volume, so the depth is extended to compensate. Going to such lengths to stop cabinet panels playing along with the music and adding their own character is decidedly unusual on a relatively inexpensive speaker and it speaks highly of the design intent behind the Concept 20. The same could be said of the decoupled tweeter.

The result of the Concepts 20 tweeter decoupling and Gelcore cabinet, along with the Fink touch for selecting drivers and voicing systems, is a remarkably capable and engaging little speaker that’s as at home just playing records as it is in the music production nearfield monitor role.

* Intermodulation distortion results when two audio signals modulate each other. Imagine a tweeter playing a 2kHz tone. If a cabinet resonance simultaneously accelerates the tweeter body backwards and forwards at, say, 200Hz, the tweeter output will feature “side bands” at 2kHz + 200Hz (2.2kHz) and 2kHz – 200Hz (1.8kHz). Intermodulation is a particularly insidious distortion because it bears no harmonic relation to the input signal. As a result it can be audible at relatively low levels.

6 thoughts on “No ordinary little speaker…

  1. Hi Phil!
    I like reading your reviews on sos and on this blog. They offer an insight on speaker designs that is very hard to find.
    In this article I have seen you are touching briefly on intermodulation. Would you consider writing an article on that, covering how intermodulation might effect speakers like our beloved KEF LS50? It is a very unsual but interesting topic..

    Thanks and best regards
    Mauro

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mauro. Thanks for your feedback on the blog and SoS reviews. It’s good to know my efforts are appreciated. I’ll certainly have a think about something on intermodulation, although it’d be a blog post rather than an SoS piece I think. It’d be rather too niche for SoS. Thanks again. Phil

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      1. Hi Phil
        I have been reading reviews from audiosciencereview on amplifiers.

        i was wondering why measurements of intermodulation/multitone tests and thd are not present in speaker reviews. We ask a lot to amps but how much is lost in the last eletrical component?

        Thanks
        Mauro

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      2. Hi Mauro,

        I guess there’s two fundamental reasons why technical measurements are not often included in speaker reviews (there’s a few laudable exceptions). Firstly, when the “subjective” review style began to become the norm in the 1980s, objective, technical reviewing fell out of fashion. The change was reinforced by magazine publishers realising that little or no technical expertise was required from review writers, which meant that the pool of writers became larger, and their copy consequently became cheaper. The writing also perhaps became more entertaining for the reader (who wants dry facts when you can have amusing opinion?), so it was a win-win for the publishers.

        Secondly, serious objective technical speaker reviewing not only needs a pretty good degree of electro-acoustic expertise, it also requires expensive equipment and a very large, empty and quiet space. There’s very rarely the budget available within a speaker review project to make either of those things feasible. Similarly, the freelance rate likely to be on offer to the writer precludes them spending any more time or resources than are absolutely necessary on the review. Those who can both write well and have the equipment and expertise necessary to undertake objective speaker reviews are unlikely to find the fee on offer particularly attractive.

        It’s all pretty disappointing I guess, but we live now in a world where words and opinions are perhaps too cheap.

        Cheers
        Phil

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      3. From a reader point of view that loves technicalities, I would like to reassure you that in mixed reviews I skip all the opinions and jump to measurements, technical insights, comparisons with reference speakers.. but I have to admit that sometimes reading about experiences on components that are new to me is entertaining.

        Speaking of measurements, I would like to see just once the thd and multitone tests of a reference speaker and a good one to understand how speakers score on those field compared to amps.

        Or maybe I am just trying to find a way to justify behind technical reasons the purchase of a new amp for my KEF LS50s and dismiss my mid-range Marantz AVR amplification😄

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  2. Hi Phil and readers,

    I have come across some interesting considerations on the diyaudio forum from Andrew Jones and I thought that might have been interesting:

    “Back in the days when I was at KEF and we were developing the Uni-Q drivers, we also questioned the audibility of any fm or am distortion due to the moving cone.
    AM comes from the change in loading of the waveguide upon the tweeter as the cone moves forward or backward. If you measure the tweeter frequency response for different positions of the cone you do see changes in the frequency response of the tweeter, both in shape and sensitivity. This contributes to the AM.
    The fact that the cone is moving due to the bass signals does give rise to some doppler […] We also measure the Quad ESL63 as a reference point. Being a full range diaphragm, this should have the highest levels of doppler.
    The level of sidebands were lower but not greatly so. From this we made a simple conclusion. If the ESL sounds as good as it obviously does, with these levels of doppler, then it is a distortion mechanism we do not have to worry too much about!!
    Of course this still leaves the issues of AM. The clear solution to this is to minimize cone displacement.
    A two way based coax speaker system is the most difficult to engineer. Not only does the cone move a long way, but the half-roll surround that is neccessary for such displacement wreaks havock on the diffraction of the tweeter wavefront on axis. That is one reason why co-axials should always be listenened to around 10-15 deg off-axis. […]
    Limiting the bandwidth of the driver to around 200 or 300Hz, in a three way system, greatly diminishes all these negative effects, and allows one to design a surround that does not mess up the diffraction, so that even on axis the response is good.
    This is the approach I have used ever since.”

    In another post:
    “[…] KEF seem to have a good handle these days on getting a smooth response from their two way drivers (LS50 for example) with good surround design and good transition into the cone, but that does not solve the issue of large cone displacement.”

    Hey Phil…great articles on SoS! I enjoy them a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

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