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dbx Soundfield 100 speakers

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

dbx Soundfield 100 speakers: Realism at a reasonable price

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1987, The Syracuse Newspapers

It may surprise some readers to learn that loudspeakers are not necessarily supposed to sound good. They are supposed to sound accurate - and therein lies a tale.

The sonic image projected by a pair of good-sounding loudspeakers may have at least two serious deficiencies. It may be shallow, lacking the kind of depth you hear at a live concert. This can happen no matter where the listener sits.

Or the sound may be realistic only at the cost of a sonic straightjacket, which forces the listener to sit in one spot to get the correct sound. This so-called "sweet spot" is usually centered between the speakers.

Both faults are common in otherwise fine speakers - so common, in fact, that many hi-fi fans have come to accept them as necessary evils. But they are not necessary at all. Proof of this was offered last year by dbx with the introduction of its top-of-the line Soundfield speakers, which were engineered to create a near-perfect stereo illusion anywhere in the room.

The illusion was so strong it was sometimes shocking. But equally unnerving was the price: a firm $3,000 a pair for the Model One (which is now the Model 1A). Most audiophiles would be willing to give up some realism if they were faced with the prospect of going without eating for a year.

To ease the crunch, dbx has come up with what may be the least expensive alternative to its flagship speakers. At $900 a pair, the latest loudspeakers give up very little to their larger siblings, and sound gorgeous in the process.

Like the Model 1A, the Soundfield 100 system sports multiple speaker drivers aimed both toward and away from the listener. The enclosure is unusually shaped, with no parallel sides (except the top and bottom - but they're not sides anyway!). A large woofer, a midrange driver and a tiny tweeter are arrayed on the largest vertical face.

These three speaker elements in each unit of the Model 100 are situated so that they are aimed mostly at the other loudspeaker. At first this seems crazy; speakers should be aimed at the listener, not at each other - right?

Wrong, according to the computer-aided research and development that went into the making of the Soundfield line. By aiming the main speaker elements at a "crossfire" angle, anyone seated outside the typical listening area - far off to the left, for example - will be in the line of fire of the right speaker, even though that listener is actually closer to the left speaker.

It's one of those ideas that make perfect sense as soon as you give it some thought. The two unequal factors cancel out, and no matter where you are in the room, the stereo image is realistic.

The penalty for this something-for-almost-nothing approach (or something for one-third the price of something else) is relatively minor. Power handling is reduced, although mostly at very low frequencies, and the smaller Soundfields won't play the bottom octave of bass with the shuddering authority of the big models. (The 1A's bass output is chest-whumping; the 100's is foot-stomping.)

In appearance, the model 100 is much different from the 1A. Whereas the 1A looks like a Wendy's trash can, even to the extent of being the same size as a trash receptacle, the 100 has a trendy Stanley Kubrik appearance. It could have been used for the monolith in "2001." All sides are finished in good-quality veneer, and the speaker grills snap off easily. (I took them off all the time I had the Soundfield 100 speakers, since the speakers look better with them off.)

Although it is not possible to judge some speakers as more suitable for jazz or rock than symphonic music - after all, the primary criterion is accuracy and realism, not a distinctive "sound" - I noticed that the Soundfield 100, like the 1A, added considerable pleasure to the enjoyment of small-group performances, possibly because it seemed plausible that a jazz trio could, indeed, be performing in my living room; I have never felt that way about a symphony orchestra!

If you would like more information, contact dbx inc., 71 Chapel Street, Newton, MA 02195. You can call dbx at (617) 964-3210.

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