The Guru speaks: Ken Kantor

Speaker Guru Questions

Bio: One of the first graduate student pioneers to emerge from MIT's Media Technology program in 1981, Ken Kantor has enjoyed a celebrated career as an technologist, entrepreneur and designer for the consumer electronics and broadcast technology industries.

1. Without giving the standard "weakest link" answer, how important would you rate speakers as component?
Microphones and loudspeakers are both types of electroacoustic transducers, and so have a huge impact on the signal. Speakers are, by far, the most sonically influential component that most listeners have control over.

2. How have speakers changed in the past 25 years?
Speakers have not evolved nearly as quickly as other aspects of the modern sound reproduction chain. Much of what has changed in the world of speakers is the improvement of modelling and measurement tools.

3. Do we have to spend a lot on woofers and tweeters to get good sound?
Of course not. A good cook can create a nice meal from basic ingredients. You don't need to step up to very expensive woofers and tweeters until you want to push the push the performance envelope a step, or two, farther.

4. What are the top three design parameters you use? (or the top three things you worry about most)
A good speaker design is holistic, and cannot yet be reduced to formula. Needless to say, however, good axial response, good power response and proper time domain response are necessities. It's just that I worry about more than three top things.

5. Do you design on measurement or sound?
One can design a good speaker by ear alone, or a fair one by measurement alone. But, using them together, you get farther, faster.

6. What to you think is that "special something" is that makes some speakers sound so good?
I believe there are two ways to go for greatness: either you make a speaker that does a fantastic job balancing out weaknesses and strengths, or you try and do a few things really superbly and the rest adequately. If you can do either, you will find fans. The better a speaker is, the more it can do both: balance and precision.

7. What are your speaker audition strong points and weak points, i.e., what problems do you find most difficult to pick up in listening tests?
If you can't hear it, it isn't a problem, no? (Thermal power handling aside.) Listening tests can reveal almost everything. What measurements do is pin down exactly where the problems are, and suggest fixes.

8. Do you have a theory on crossovers or use whatever seems to work?
100% depends on the situation. What are the goals for the particular system? Power handling? Wide listening window, etc, etc.

9. Do we overstress the bottom octave and area above 20K Hz?
We overstress everything in this business, don't we? The bottom octave can occasionally be pretty cool. Response over 20 KHz is really pretty meaningless.

10. What one piece of advice would you give every new speaker builder?
Practice yields better results than surfing.

11. When you get cornered at a party by a speaker builder, what is the question they ask most often?
"Do you mind telling me that I am a forgotten audio genius? Again?"

12. Will we ever find the Holy Grail in sound reproduction?
Hopefully, we will find more than one, since "reproduction" is context dependent, both on source and receiver.

13. So, which is it, tubes or SS?
Tubes for my guitar. Solid state for my stereo. Not even close.

14. What does the future hold for speaker design?
Big question. There are many directions that need, and will see, improvement. From a physical acoustics perspective, today's best technology does a pretty good job moving air accurately. The weaker link is between recording methods and reproduction methods. Unless these two ends of the chain are considered together, it is impossible to reliably deliver a good listening experience, no matter how sophisticated the speaker itself is.

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Copyright Ken Kantor, 2005