Laurence DickieFrom the invention of Bowers & Wilkins’ famous Matrix enclosure system to the development and design of the British company's inspiring Nautilus loudspeaker -- a groundbreaking icon of industrial design that looks as fresh today as it did nearly 20 years ago -- loudspeaker designer Laurence Dickie has assembled an enviable portfolio of innovation, and established a reputation for pushing the performance envelope with creative solutions. In 2001, following an introduction by Robert Trunz, former president of B&W, Dickie joined forces with Philip Guttentag to form Vivid Audio. The first Vivid loudspeaker models, the B1 and K1, were introduced in 2004, and continue to form the core of the company’s Oval series. These and all subsequent Vivid Audio speakers are notable in part for having been designed, from drivers to enclosures, entirely in-house, and manufactured at Vivid Audio’s factory in South Africa.

It was a few years before Vivid Audio appeared on my own radar screen, but I awoke with a bang in January 2008, when Vivid unveiled its Giya line at that year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Since that debut of the Giya G1, I’ve followed the company with ever-increasing interest. After extensive exposure to their products at audio shows, and at the home of Vivid’s North American distributer, Philip O’Hanlon, my fascination with their speakers reached an apex when I found out that Doug Schneider, founder and publisher of the SoundStage! Network, was reviewing and testing the Giya G2. As he wrote in his review, Doug had never experienced a finer speaker in his reference system -- and when the Giya G2 was measured in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council, it set new benchmarks in several categories.

Informed by all that, last January I sat down in Vivid Audio’s suite at the Mirage Hotel, in Las Vegas, during the 2012 CES, to speak with Laurence Dickie about his history and design philosophies and their implementation at Vivid Audio. Philip Guttentag and Philip O’Hanlon, also present, each occasionally joined in, but ultimately it was Prof. Dickie who conducted what amounted to a master class in loudspeaker design philosophy.

Giya G3The Giya G3 at CES 2012 in Las Vegas

Peter Roth: What were the foundational experiences that led you to the world of high-fidelity reproduction of music and, specifically, the design of speaker systems and their components?

Laurence Dickie: I was brought up in a musical household. My mother was a musician who played piano, and in her family was a variety of musicians. But my father was always keen on reproduced music, so I was a Quad/Tannoy baby. I was brought up with a Tannoy York Corner loudspeaker with a 15" dual-concentric [driver] and a Quad II valve amplifier. My dad progressed to stereo with a pair of Lancasters in about 1967, I guess. But it was always really very much part of the environment, and there was always music. That was the foundation. I was also always interested in science, particularly applied science, which ultimately becomes engineering. So it was fairly inevitable I would be interested in the operation of the equipment my dad was so keen on, and the hobbyist aspect of it. Although, in all fairness, once my dad got a system he was happy with, then he would just listen to music. He wasn’t one for constantly fiddling. Once he had such a system, that was it for many, many years. The music was first and foremost. I’ve never forgotten that.

In my teens I began building amplifiers and loudspeakers. When I went to university, I studied electronics but carried on building loudspeakers as a hobby. I found, in the end, that loudspeakers are the most interesting part of the chain because there are so many disciplines: material science, physics, electroacoustics, and psychoacoustics, to name but a few. Clearly, there is a design angle, one I have particularly taken to heart and which is a very important part of the overall package. Loudspeakers remain, to me, most interesting.

PR: How would you describe what you are attempting to do -- your ideal, your philosophy of sound reproduction in domestic spaces?

LD: Ultimately, what I try to do is to give people pleasure -- essentially, to create something that allows people to sit there and listen to music in a way they find most emotional, in a manner that transports them to the place they wish to be. That is what it is all about to me -- the listening experience.

My belief is the loudspeaker should disappear and the person will be transported to the original performance. I do tend toward the goal of transparency. One analogy I often use is we are effectively providing a window to the performance, and our task is to make that window as clear and colorless as possible. I want the listener to be unaware of its presence so they really are transported to the place they want to be, which is usually right there with the musicians.

I also appreciate that, in the world of reproduced sound, there is plenty of room for adding character. There will be styles of music, listener preferences, and combinations of equipment that are not necessarily neutral, but that go together. Some people like rock music with a bit of an edge. And that’s fine. I appreciate it, and in fact I sometimes like that edge as well. I’m not blind to it. Sometimes it’s nice to just stand in front of a stack of paper cones that add a bit of color, some horns that add a bit of shout, a little bit of beaming. It’s an involving experience and it’s fun. But with Vivid Audio, we seek to provide something that disappears as much as possible. But I do completely appreciate the point of a loudspeaker that is part of the performance instead of a clear window. I also work for a professional sound company in the UK that makes horn loudspeakers, which I would not deny have a healthy bit of character. They are great fun. You go and enjoy a club night or a loud band, and it is part of the experience -- not neutral, but great fun.

PR: It sounds like Vivid is working to reproduce all types of music in all types of typical rooms in the most neutral way possible. In short, Vivid is on the opposite side of the fence from the tweak end of the hobby, which is tailored for a particular sound.

LD: Absolutely! There is a danger, whenever you try to tailor to a particular sound, that it won’t work for anyone else. I would strive to be at the opposite end of tweaky, simply because there is a danger at the tweaky end. I’m not denying that some tweaks work, but we don’t always know why. And as an engineer, that not knowing is very, very difficult to work with. If you can’t actually nail a rational, causal explanation for what is going on, it makes progress very difficult. So I tend to stay away from that. I like to know why I’m doing something. I can give you a reason for every aspect of what goes on in a Vivid Audio loudspeaker.

PR: Were there any "eureka" moments that led to your present philosophy? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

LD: I guess my biggest eureka moment (although probably distributed across a few days) was when I realized that soft-cone midrange [drivers] were not the answer. Bearing in mind the company I was working for at the time, it was certainly cutting across the grain. It was the point at which I fully grasped that high-end audio requires drivers that work in a manner free of spurious resonance, reflection, and breakup: drivers that behave as pistonic diaphragms. And, by the way, there are plenty of ways of doing it. Look, we’ve chosen to go for moving-coil transducers, but I can completely appreciate that ribbons, air-motion transformers, electrostatics, and horns as well -- when done properly -- actually are all potentially transducers which are free of resonance and reflection. But the one thing I realized -- running cones into breakup -- while it may have a pleasant character, it is just not neutral. That was the point where I had to slam my fist on the table. I had to make a departure. I guess that was quite important, and actually defines everything I’ve done since.

Laurence Dickie at CES 2011Laurence Dickie at CES 2011 in Las Vegas

PR: I read somewhere that, after developing the B&W Nautilus, you felt a lack of "challenge" in the consumer marketplace, which led you to develop drivers for the professional and sound-reinforcement spaces.

LD: There was an element of a lack of challenge, although I’m sure I could have made challenges. Certainly a good one would have been to get the same performance at a fraction of the cost, or to develop a three-way system as good as a four-way. But really, [it was] just an interest in transferring my evolving philosophy into a different sphere, namely, the professional field. I was seeing a lot of bands at the time and enjoying live music. But an awful lot of those live performances, I felt, were blighted by the quality of the systems they were played through. I felt at the time, "Hang on, I can probably do something here. As long as I maintain my philosophy and go into a different area, I think I should be able to really contribute something." It seemed like a real challenge, and it looked like a lot of fun as well.

PR: Vivid is now almost a decade old. From your perspective, beyond Vivid and looking at the entire industry, has the past decade been a period of honest advancements in loudspeaker design, or has it been mostly marketing hype?

LD: It continues to evolve. There is no question there are incremental improvements happening all over the place. But I don’t feel I can point to any big jumps over the last ten years.

PR: It does seem there has been more of a concentration on, or at least more attention paid to, driver technology -- though a cynic might say that some companies simply make small modifications to OEM drivers and then claim that they’ve "custom-designed" them.

LD: There is certainly a lot of that going around.

PR: Nonetheless, it does seem as if a lot more companies are now making their own drivers -- just as so many watch companies are now building their own base movements. On the one hand, I wonder why a company like Scan-Speak, with all their driver-engineering resources, shouldn’t be able to do it, yet I realize that, throughout history, it’s not design by committee but individual designers who make advances.

LD: Specifically, we can do things with our drivers that someone like Scan-Speak wouldn’t consider because it doesn’t make sense for their goals. We apply a stiffening element to our domes by hand. It is a process other manufactures would balk at because they want robots to assemble all their drivers. Someday, someone will develop a robot that can do everything we want.

PR: I guess you’re identifying the difference between a corporate attitude and the perfectionism that drives the high end. The former tries to do well enough to meet the spec by using less or doing it cheaper. The high-end perspective, by contrast, attempts to make it better regardless of cost or inefficiency.

LD: Yes. In a very much analogous way, when I went off on my own, the first thing I did was to concentrate on the magnetic structure of the two dome drivers, the D50 and D26, and to concentrate the flux into the gap to maximize the efficiencies, particularly of the 26mm tweeter. Whereas, I am sure, had I been working in a different environment, the question would have been "How can you reduce the amount of magnetic material used to achieve the same performance?"

Philip Guttentag: On the commercial side, the costing side of what Dic does, we never limit him. We don’t say, "You have only x dollars" to do something. We literally throw money at something until it is solved. It may not be the best commercial model, but it is what we do. It is literally a no-compromise engineering philosophy. We have yet to make money, because we reinvest everything back into our research and development.

201205 dickie munich09Laurence Dickie and the Giya G1 at High End 2009 in Munich

PR: Since you like to think outside the box, where do you see opportunities for greater realism and the other characteristics of sound reproduction occurring in the next decade?

LD: In general, while it’s a bit of a long shot, I see wavefield synthesis as the very long-term goal. And hey, we [at Vivid Audio] are absolutely not involved in wavefield synthesis. This is a massive thing, which will be the province of companies with huge DSP resources. At the moment it is universities, like the University of Delft, and there is a group in Switzerland doing it. You surround yourself with 1000 tiny drivers and re-create the actual waveform. With wavefield synthesis, you can actually create a virtual sound source, which is in front of the loudspeaker.

That two-channel stereo works at all is frankly unbelievable. And indeed, there are some who would say that the whole thing about two-channel stereo is the suspension of disbelief. But it does work remarkably well. I understand that limitation, and we work within that framework. It is the state of the art at the moment. We cannot unilaterally change that. While I’m there, I have to say our work with transducer design would be entirely applicable to wavefield synthesis. We could put 1024 D26 tweeters and 512 D50 mid drivers around the listener to create an extremely realistic wavefield. That would be nice. It is really academic at the moment, but the results are remarkable.

The other point relates to how recordings will be made in such an environment, which will be really interesting. When you look at the recording of music, what will probably happen is, rather than recording a complete wavefield from a live environment, in fact it will all be synthesized. You will anechoically record the instruments and then insert them into an acoustic environment which is either synthesized within the machine, or which is itself an impulse response that has been analyzed and recorded. But you will effectively put the recording of the instrument within a synthesized environment and then re-create the wavefield. It’s a hell of a thing. It’s a massive change from what we do at the moment. I don’t think ten years is nearly enough time.

PR: What you are describing is somewhat akin to the movie environment, where everything is manipulated, created within a standardized "Directors Guild" environment.

LD: We are always biting at the tails of the movie people. But there are philosophies and differences between movies and music reproduction. There are some experiments I did many years ago, with my colleague Dr. Peter Fryer. We experimented by putting a loudspeaker at the focus of a parabolic dish -- they were 2m satellite dishes -- and really beaming the sound at the listener in incredibly tight pattern control. What we found was, in some ways it was like listening through a pair of headphones, and it’s a result I’ve kept at the back of my mind ever since. It was quite disconcerting to listen to a recording of acoustic music through this system, but when you watched a movie, it was incredible.

Now that was an extreme example, but ever since, I have maintained that a loudspeaker with a tight pattern control -- these tend to be large-area or horn designs -- is excellent for home theater, but not necessarily for listening to music, where, on the contrary, loudspeakers that create a broad soundfield, like ours, interact with the acoustic of the room. The point is, loudspeakers with a narrow pattern tend to beam the sound at your ears, so the direct-to-reflected ratio is rather high; whereas [with] a speaker with a broad dispersion pattern, like ours, or an omnidirectional speaker, you get a much smaller difference. The room is very much a part of the overall experience, but that actually is quite comfortable. If you are sitting there with your eyes open, listening to a string quartet, it is nice to feel that string quartet could be in the room with you. For this to happen, you need to engage the room acoustic.

When you are watching a movie, you want to get totally carried away. You don’t want the room to be involved. This is why theaters tend to have very dead acoustics. Re-creating movie sound has different requirements than playing music, which is possibly why home theater has been a bit of a distraction to high-end audio, although it is shaking out now. People are realizing there is no point in having five mediocre loudspeakers that are adequate for your home theater if listening to music is important to you. You really do need to get those two fine loudspeakers. Having said all that, I do have a lot of room for three channels. That center speaker -- having three identical speakers and a proper three-channel recording -- can take away some of the ambiguity that results from the two-channel image.

PR: If you were independently wealthy -- let’s say, with over $100 million in the bank -- and you wanted to create the most extreme, perfect speaker system without regard to cost of construction or the time and cost of development, what would the result look like?

LD: A phased array of horns driven from beryllium domes or ribbon diaphragms, each about 50mm square, covering the walls of the room. It will take a bit more than $100 million, actually. I’m not sure, since there is so much experimentation to do. Wall-to-wall, 50mm-square air-motion transformers might work. I would have to employ somebody from Delft University to get to work real quick on that one. Yeah, I’d like to do that.

Any billionaire out there who wants to commission such a wavefield-synthesis playback system should contact Laurence Dickie directly. Everyone else can look forward to Part Two of this interview, to appear on Ultra Audio on July 1. There we’ll specifically discuss Vivid Audio, its choices in development and design, and the recent introduction of the Giya G3 loudspeaker, a review pair of which will be delivered to me later this year.

. . . Peter Roth

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