Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 



Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.

Column #12

Why Are All Speakers Black?

Question: Our TV only has a single antenna input, and the internal speakers are weak. We aren’t ready to replace it yet, but we bought a DVD player, and we have a VCR, but we can’t hook them up to the TV. Based on your recommendation, we bought a Kenwood HTB-504… but it doesn’t work for us. When we got it home we discovered that it’s too big for our small den, which is not primarily used as a home theater (it’s the kids playroom). Even if we could deal with size of the Kenwood speakers, the black color stands out too much against the white walls. Also, I really don’t want to spend too much money!?

AskAvi responds: (November, 2001. Revised late November 2001)

Your needs are not unique. Clearly, many people want speakers that blend into the décor. Bose has sold tiny, white speakers for years – in fact, they are the #1 speaker brand in the U.S. Despite their success, I have found only two other systems available in white (from Polk, and Cambridge Soundworks). Panasonic, KLH, and Sony have some products in silver, primarily home-theater-in-a-box systems. High end speakers often like to pretend that they're big pieces of decorative furniture by wrapping themselves in wood veneer or glossy laquer, and Bang and Olufsen makes components that look like art deco pieces. But there aren't many speakers that don't call attention to themselves in one way or another. This begs the question:

Why are all speakers black?

Here are some typical industry responses:

We’re focused on the best sound, power handling, and “reducing standing waves.”

Well… I hope they don’t plan on being too successful, then. How products will actually be used should be an integral part of product design. Many consumers want their system to blend into the room.

Bose sells a lot of speakers because of “marketing,” not good products. They spend a lot of money on magazine ads.

The definition of marketing is figuring out what your customers want and delivering it. Advertising is just communicating back to your customers that you’re listening.

Our colors are carefully considered. We make serious products, and we use colors like black, or “gear” colors like silver, aluminum, or platinum.

This could be one of two things: a misunderstanding of who the customer is, or an American-Japanese cultural mismatch. The assumption that the color speaks to the purpose assumes that the purchaser is focused on the purpose, not the use, of the product. Studies (and common sense) have shown that in general, men tend to obsess on specifications, women focus on getting things done. The black speaker phenomenon basically assumes a single man is the target buyer – and that’s simply not the case in the majority of purchases for small home theater speaker systems. It’s also possible that in techno-loving Japan (where most of this stuff is designed), it’s OK for the technology to clash with the drapes because they’re so darn proud of the technology. I’m not sure that’s true even in Japan, but it certainly isn’t the case here.

If the customer wants the speaker to disappear, use an in-wall.

Despite the generally poor economy, the custom installation market is booming, and there are plenty of choices if you are willing to hire someone to rip open your walls and permanently install speakers there. But in-walls involve their own compromises, and this approach isn't appropriate for everyone.

Solving the problem at hand

OK, back to your problem. Let’s take this step by step. Upgrading your TV to something with more modern inputs would give you big gains in picture quality. Since you don’t want to do that, you’ll need a receiver-based system to switch all the video (your antenna, your VCR, and your DVD player). The video output of the receiver then needs to feed an RF modulator (available at Radio Shack) to connect to the TV. I’ve looked, and I can’t find any receiver-based HTIB systems with small white speakers – the only thing close is an integrated system from Bose which is remarkably easy to use, but also somewhat overpriced and inflexible. So we’ll have to assemble a system ourselves.

The Kenwood system you originally bought is based on an excellent low-cost receiver; it’s also available separately, so let’s start with that (Kenwood VR507; $299). I could also recommend similarly priced receivers from Onkyo or Yamaha, but I won’t – stick with the Kenwood – it’s a tremendous value.

Next, we need a set of subwoofer/satellite speakers – in white. In Column 5 (The Dark Side of Successful Product Marketing: Bose), I said that if your needs match Bose’s design goals, they can be a good value. Well, the shoe fits: your priority is on size and color, not absolute sound quality, and Bose has a system for you – the AM6II ($550). For another $100, Polk offers a better sounding system (the RM6000). To match the Bose sound quality at a much lower price, try Cambridge Soundworks New Ensemble III ($300 at Hifi.com). A budget option would be Cambridge Soundworks Ensemble IV ($200), but the subwoofer is not powered, and may lack the punch of the “III.” If silver is close enough to white for your needs, Sony has two offerings: the SA-VE525 ($400), and the SA-VE325 ($300).


With just a few speaker systems to choose from that offer small white satellites, this recommendation was fairly easy:


For the best sound quality, combine the Kenwood receiver and Polk speakers. For $950 you’ll have a flexible system that meets all your needs and sounds quite good.

bulletFor best bang for buck, combine the Kenwood receiver and Cambridge Soundworks New Ensemble III. For $600, you’re only $100 over the original HTIB price. If you must economize, go with the Ensemble IV instead, and consider upgrading the subwoofer at some point in the future.


Column 12 Follow Up

One reader wrote in to comment on Column 12 (11/12/01): Why Are All Speakers Black?, noting that Paradigm has several bookshelf models you can order in a number of finishes, including white.  I have confirmed this on their web site; I have also auditioned Paradigm speakers at retailers over the years; at each price point they tend to offer solid value.

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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart