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Nov 14 2014

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The Digital SPEAKER Processor – by Ancient Audio

One of the most amazing and unusual stands that I had a chance to visit during this year’s AudioShow 2014 was the one prepared by the Polish company named Ancient Audio.

A Speaker Processor …

That is what I learned upon entering the room.

A speaker processor?

I start to scratch my head, perplexed, and start to wonder …  What the Hell is a “Speaker Processor”?

What is this ?

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What does it DO ??

So, I simply ask these questions to the presenter, Mr. Jarek Waszczyszyn himself, who was delivering the presentation about this solution in person, telling us what it is all about.

I go and ask: “Is it a graphic equalizer or something ?”
“What is so special in a graphic equalizer ??”

Well, no, it is not a graphical equalizer.

So what ***IS*** It?
And since it is a processor, where do you apply it?
Surely not into the speaker cabinet itself?
So where?
Into the amplifier?
Into a pre-amplifier?

What is the difference between such a “processor” and a plain stupid “graphical equalizer”, which is also perfectly capable of making improvements to the frequency characteristics of a given frequency spectrum, a device that is know since multiple years, and available in high abundance?

Besides, there is yet one other issue. I personally associate a “graphical corrector” or “equalizer” with “Lower-End”, and not “Hi-End”.

So, in essence, I was very intrigued by this … Thing.

The MORE so, that right next to it, I suddenly noticed, to my amazement, an aging Marantz CD player of a Millenium long gone and past, from a bygone era, and what’s more, the SPEAKERS – some Spendor’s, which also seemed to resemble makes of some … ANCIENT and bygone era.

Frankly speaking, if somebody would have told me that he has seen such a setup whilst visiting the *2014* AudioShow fair, I would laugh in his face and simply not believe him.

The set up looked truly like an ancient and less than average rack, based on very “normal”, popular speakers. To make a long story short:  nothing extraordinary.

But if this were indeed nothing in the extraordinary, then:
a). Why am I writing this article about it, and
b). Why is it the subject of a presentation during an Audio SHOW ?

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The reason that I am writing this text is because that my jaw gaped open and literally fell down to the ground from sheer astonishment, as soon as I heard the difference.

Processing – Activated …. Jaw gaping.
Processing – Deactivated … Return to blunt reality.

I still sort of do not comprehend how it was at all possible.

As the saying goes: “Not everything is what it seems to be”.

Yes, I have experienced a cognitive dissonance.
My cognitive dissonance appeared each time, when the Speaker Processor was activated.

Then, when the music played, my eyes tell me, “QUIT, leave, Enough” !
In contrast, my ears tell me, “Sit down on your butt and LISTEN.  And try to Understand”.

So what is actually going on? THIS sound, such a BIG SOUND, definitely can not originate … it just simply CAN – NOT … originate from these here ordinary, if not substandard speakers. It is technically impossible and defies the laws of physics.

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I even looked around the venue, in search of a hidden woofer. I looked at these popular speakers in plain disbelief and keep thinking to myself:  ” …This is simply impossible. These speakers are defying the basic limitations of audio, of acoustics, of physics and technical limitations that are inherent to their less than a big-time-budget design… ”

Keeping in mind what I see in front of me, it is simply physically IMPOSSIBLE.

Is it my eyes that are lying, or my ears? With great disbelief I rose myself from the chair and stepped closer. Very close. Very, very suspiciously I looked into the drivers of these seemingly aging Spendor speakers (which turned out, in the end, not to be as old as I expected them to be). Is the sound coming really out of THEM?  Or maybe some other hidden set is playing? Kind of like “Hidden behind the Curtain?

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Well, that would make little sense at all. During the last couple of years I was urgently trying to “raise” yet another curtain, yet another veil, that is still covering the sound of my audio system. The “Invisible Veil” that casts a shadow and separates us from the “True Sound”.

But wait.  There is a much bigger problem at stake here.

A philosophical problem.

A mainstream Dilemma: Is it not the case that it is the SPEAKER system that is supposed to “ADAPT” itself to the almost perfect and “transparent nature” of the amplifier and the rest of the entire audio path,  and not vice-versa?  After all, the whole industry is doing exactly that. It is implementing a highly transparent audio path.  The speakers should adapt and comply. Adapt to systems with a frequency spectrum that is as flat as a table – from near-DC to almost radio frequencies.

Here, however, it is my impression that the strategy of the Polish company, Ancient Audio, is exactly the opposite. It is trying to “adjust the audio path” in such a manner so that the AUDIO PATH complies and adapts itself to the less than perfect nature and to the limitations of the Speakers themselves.

Totally awry. Placed on it’s head. At least with respect to what the rest of the whole industry is doing.

But think about it.
Think again.
When you come to think about it – it makes perfect sense.

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It is the SPEAKER system that is the WEAKEST link of any and all audio systems. It is much easier for the other elements of the signal path to accommodate and correct, adapt and make “forward-feed” provisions for the limitations and weaknesses of the speaker, than for the speaker system, which is subject to various limiting technical dilemmas, to adapt itself, after the fact and in real-time, to the flat frequency response and the ideal nature of the mainstream top-of-the-line audio systems.

In essence, this is what it is all about. The system forward-adapting itself to the speakers, and not vice versa, as in the traditional approach, where it is expected that the non-perfect speakers shall adapt instantaneously to the rapid signal changes, in real-time.

But it is a bit more complicated than that.  A slightly longer story, so let me stand down and allow this information to flow straight from the source, i.e. from Mr. Jarek Waszczyszyn of Ancient Audio (see citations at the end of the article).

For this is no ordinary “Equalizer”. Nor a simple sound processor. This is something bigger, offering a lot more. At least that is what my ears are telling me when they get in conflict with the pictures from my eyes. Indeed, within this inverted concept of “adapting” the audio path to a particular model of speakers and to a particular physical listening room (!), along with the compensation of any and all hidden deficiencies within such a system … when I came to think about it a bit longer, I came to the conclusion that …

IT MAKES SENSE!

Why?

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The Speaker has always been, is, and probably shall yet for a long time stay as one of the weakest elements of each audio system.

It has drivers. Sometimes quite a few of them. The drivers have membranes. And those tend to bend because they are not perfectly rigid. They also have a certain mass, and therefore are subject to certain inertia, rendering them “slow” to sudden changes of speed of movement and of direction. Membranes are (almost) always made of some “material”, and such material always has some weight.  Moreover, the membranes are suspended on suspension systems. Such suspension systems have certain limiting properties, such as elasticity, attenuation, physical limits as to the maximum possible deflection, etc, etc.

Then, to make matters even worse, some totally flaky phase relations come into play. These phase errors develop within the signal that passes through the speaker’s crossover.

But there is even more to it. Each speaker has some inductance. Each speaker, within which a membrane, has a coil that is associated with the membrane and hence the coil moves as well. But this coil moves within a magnetic field. Therefore, each speaker becomes an electrical GENERATOR.  YES! indeed. Speakers produce electricity!  Like a small miniature power plant. The speaker produces its own Electro-Motive-Force, and this voltage / current is opposed to the signal being applied to the speaker terminals.

One could say: Big Deal!  My amplifier has a damping factor equalling bazillion, so the EMF can NOT change the instantaneous values of the current coming out of my amplifier.

In essence, that is true.  But you forgot something along the way. There is a cross-over. There are forks and intersections. And within the cross-over, the signal splits into various parallel paths. So if the EMF can’t change the current flow from the amplifier, It shall seek for its next best victim, prey or quarry. If it is the woofer speaker acting as the source of the EMF spike, then guess what.  This spike shall not be routed to the amplifier output, but most probably to the mid-driver and the tweeter-driver networks, via the intersections and splitting forks of the cross-over assembly, shedding havoc in the workings of those networks.

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Additionally there is also the problem of the compression of the air by the rear side of the driver’s membrane, in the direction “to the interior” of the speaker cabinet. The air inside the speaker is a medium upon which a sound pressure wave propagates. A wave carries energy. Such a wave bounces off the inner walls of the enclosure. It creates standing waves and local resonances within the walls of the cabinet. Such generated resonances cause the enclosure to vibrate, creating additional unwanted sound and colorations to the listening experience. There is also the problem of the compressed air that is situated just under the nose of the membrane. The nose that covers the central part of the membrane, upon the radial axis of the driver.

Not to mention the enclosure itself, the materials from which it is made of, its rigidity. The enclosure obviously also has some self-resonances of it’s own, and more often than not, under certain conditions, rudely falls into excited vibrations.

Completely not to mention the lousy acoustics of the room, the physical listening venue, which may be your bedroom, your living room, a conference room or a concert hall. Whatever.

A venue, which, in the absence of damping surfaces – can also be an important hazard that compromises the quality of the resulting sound and adds yet new challenges, on its own right, to the overall puzzle.

Choose your poison:  the effects of a deep well, a church, a cave, … you know what I mean.

In a word: real mayhem.

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Designing a loudspeaker is not a simple matter. The design of loudspeakers involves making choices. Contradictory requirements and technical constraints apply. You can not have it all.

In improving one particular technical parameter, you inevitably are bound to compromise some other technical parameter.

Given the choice: to design a decent loudspeaker or to design a decent amplifier, a lot of my DIY friend would come to the conclusion that it is much “easier” to design a well-sounding amplifier, and that it is much more difficult to design a “reasonably well-sounding” set of speakers.

But where was I ?

Ah, yes.

Back to the latest product as presented by Ancient Audio. The Digital Speaker Processor.

This is a special microcomputer chip (a signal processor) which is a cornerstone for an advanced processor, working entirely within the digital signal domain and processing the signal even BEFORE it enters the DAC.

This is an equalizer of sorts, but not so much of just the frequency. It’s functions also encompass a much broader range of phenomena. It takes care of advanced, pre-mediated, feed-forward corrections of any and all deficiencies and limitations of speaker design, which is represented, within the chip, as a precise mathematical model, taking into consideration (amongst others):

  • phase shift,
  • impulse response,
  • resonance,
  • loss of coherency ( a time lag as a function of the various different sub-bands of frequencies),
  • and many other aspects of the build and imperfections of the speaker (and listening room) at hand.

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Having said all that, what does Ancient Audio have to say about it ?

Let’s allow Jarek Waszczyszyn himself do the talking.  It is he who knows what it is all about.

“… Despite of almost 100 years of development, large financial outlays, substantial Research and Development of both mainstream, as well as of exotic technologies, the speaker and speaker systems remain as the weakest elements of any audio path.

Commercial companies are trying, since 40 years, to improve the sound of their systems by the use of digital processing of audio signals. There are presently many such devices on the market today, albeit with one common denominator: They simply do not stand up to their promisses.

The classic method of digital correction within a speaker system is a retroactive one. It is based on measurements of transfer characteristics. Then, based upon such transfer graphs, a digital “reverse” image of the transfer characteristic is applied to the signal, in a vain hope of compensating for imperfections within speaker. But such an approach is inherently flawed.

They try to find the medicine for the symptoms, or the visible results of the errors, but not a medicine for the root cause of the errors.

They do not penetrate into the essence of the problem. By being “result oriented” – they merely scratch the surface of the problem, in a flimsy approach so as to “neutralize the effects”.

The Polish Company Ancient Audio has taken a different approach and has solved the problem in a different way. The basis for this approach is a unique, complex mathematical model of the speaker. It takes into account all the little details, like the membrane material, its size, geometry, mass, spatial considerations, such as volume, size, dimensions, the reflections of sound waves from the inner walls, the crossover and its imperfections, the bass-reflex resonator, and a bucket-full of other parameters. The model describes the CAUSE of the imperfections of loudspeakers, and not merely just the visible EFFECTS.

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The execution of the implications of such a model (or to be more precise, a feed forward adjustment of the signal so as to make advance-notice adjustment of the speakers imperfections, that would shortly FOLLOW), the execution of any and all software procedures that make the necessary adjustments to the signal, are carried out by a special proprietary chip – The Digital Speaker Processor “P-3 MK I’, which has been recently developed by Ancient Audio.

This processor, by itself, shall obviously not sing. It works only within the digital signal domain. Additionally, it must have a DAC and an ADC, a power supply, a control unit, some housing, sockets, etc.  But it remains a fact of life that it is in essence the heart of the P-3 device.

P-3 is a versatile pre-amplifier, equipped with a Digital Speaker Processor. The device is capable of significantly improving the sound within any audio system, introducing feed-forward corrections to the signal, as appropriate for a given model of speakers. The device connects to the source a s a regular preamplifier, through connectors, such as line level RCA or balanced XLR.

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The P-3 D is a prepped up version of the former. It is additionally equipped with digital input modules: S/PDIF and USB. Hence, you can use it as a D/A converter. Digital signals are sent directly to the processor, without intermediate D / A and A / C conversion. A simpler signal path results in  less distortions to the signal, so the overall sound quality is even higher.

Every such device has a built-in database. A list of settings representing various mathematical models for a maximum of 250 different types of speaker sets.

However, in order to achieve the best possible results, it is advisable to set the particular model parameters and program them according to a particular system, to be used in a particular room, the final listening venue.

Thus, it is the preference of Ancient Audio to measure the customers system, the customers venue, at the customers home or target location, and then set the final parameters, program them into the chip as a separate database entry.

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The P-3 Digital Speaker Processor is an innovative and unique method of applying special modeling algorithms to a speaker system. All of the signal processing takes place within the digital domain, prior to the digital signal reaching the DAC, where it is converted into an analog signal, subject to further amplification.

A speaker is a complex electromechanical subsystem, comprised of one or more drivers. Each such driver, or transducer, be it bass, mid, or treble, exhibits specific attributes, such as the size of the diaphragm, the material of which the diaphragm is made of, a specific diaphragm mass, size, and rigidity.

The speaker enclosure, as a whole, is also a complex subsystem, produced out of various possible materials, with a specific volume, dimensions and proportions, angles, equipped with various possible types of damping, exhibiting diverse self-resonances and various other attributes.

All such attributes, which in essence constitute a combined system of serious compromises and limitations, grouped together, constitute the weakest link in any audio system:

the speaker.

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But now, all such limiting attributes of any speaker system, or individual driver, can be modeled in real time, so that the audio signal may be modified in a manner so as to take such imperfections into account and correct them in advance, neutralize them, prior that such signal is fed into the less than perfect speakers.

Even the self resonances of the speaker enclosure itself, its bass response of its enclosure, be it a closed box, a bass reflex, an open baffle, horn, or whatever other combination, the specific tuning of the crossover filters, with their specific crossover amplitudes and phases – all of these attributes and limitations can now be controlled and corrected for.

Such imperfections may be rendered almost null and void.  Almost nonexistent.

Even the acoustics of the target listening venue itself, be it a living room, or a conference room, or even a concert hall, may now be mathematically modeled and corrected for, their imperfections digitally neutralized, whilst preparing the ultimate, forward-feed corrected audio signal to be provided to the speaker terminals.

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Such an innovative approach dramatically improves the quality of the sound of any audio system. The Digital Speaker Processor may be used both in the context of ultra-high-end equipment, Hi-Fi equipment, but even also with very cheap, mainstream audio and video components, where it enables reception of sound, at a level of quality which is unprecedented and which would normally be impossible to obtain, given the technical limitations of such audio system, whatever type or class it may be.

This comes to be especially true in the context of inexpensive systems, where low technology speakers may be used, as a form of cost optimization, whereby such cost savings dramatically impede the sound quality of such systems.

But there is more to The Digital Speaker Processor than just smoothing out the imperfections of the speaker, which constitutes the de facto weakest element of the whole chain of devices that comprise a complete end-to-end audio system. Such systems, which undergo the Digital Speaker Processor correction, simply sound BETTER. They sound much more natural, sincere, authentic, as in comparison to traditional mainstream (uncorrected) audio solutions and systems.

The Digital Speaker Processor makes it now possible to circumvent the imperfections of your weakest link in the audio chain.

The core of the Digital Speaker Processor is the Digital Speaker Processor CHIP, the details of which are subject to technological proprietary know-how of Ancient Audio.  Suffice to say, it is a microcomputer type device, with it’s own software, a chip that is capable of real time, high resolution signal processing, with 64 bit precision accuracy.

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Main features, In a nutshell:

  • A highly innovative and unique P-3 Speaker Processor Chip
  • 32 bit word processing, with 64 bits of precision
  • Incredible improvement of the quality of sound, in terms of naturalness, bass, focus, stereo imaging – all the traits that true audiophiles are looking for
  • Increased “space”, excellent feel of the venue and its ambiance, very good reproduction of fine details, excellent stereo imaging.
  • Creation of a big and undistorted sound, of unprecedented quality, but a sound which physically originates from small speaker enclosures
  • Not demanding in terms of the source, amplifier, or cables
  • With great potential for drastic improvements of room acoustics. Specific fine tuning and optimising for the use within a very specific, target venue – this is a special service that is also offered by Ancient Acoustics.
  • Improves A/D and D/A processing
  • Over 250 pre-programmed speaker settings will be available in the standard chip.
  • Easy upgrade of the Processor chip and/or preprogrammed speaker type settings
  • Built in Preamplifier Function: both 2x RCA and 1x XLR analog inputs
  • RCA and XLR outputs
  • S/PDIF input , with a separate Master Clock connection (P-3 D)
  • USB 1.0 or 2.0 module (P-3 D)
  • Dimensions ( W x H x D ) : 220 x 110 x 370 mm
  • Weight : 10 kg
  • Retail Price: 10 000 EUR;  P-3 D: ** call **

 

Technical Specification:

  • Analog Inputs: 2 x RCA, 1x XLR
  • Analog Outputs: RCA, XLR
  • Max input level: 2.5 Vrms RCA, XLR 5 Vrms
  • Max Output levels: 4 Vrms RCA, XLR 8 Vrms
  • Up to 250 different settings for speaker sets
  • Cooperation with any type of speaker: full range, multipath (tube, ribbon, elektrostat, etc.)
  • Digital Inputs (P-3 D): S/PDIF, USB
  • Solid chassis made of brass, steel, and aluminum
  • Stable Granite base
  • Simple upgrades by exchanging the processor
  • Audiophile-Grade capacitors, the V-CAP’s
  • Dimensions (l x W x H): 370 x 220 x 110 mm
  • Weight:  very appropriate.
  • Finish: lead and silver or gold knobs

… “

And finally:

Dear Mr. Jarek, thank you once again on my own behalf, as well as on behalf of my growing number of faithful readers, for sending me the full package of information pertaining to this exciting technology and for bringing us up to speed on these issues.

Regards,
Ziggy.

 

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