Planar love affair – Interview with John Meyer

April 8, in Features

The story of planar speakers and the man who still loves them

Long before I had the pleasure of coming in contact with John Meyer I was exposed to his work. It was on a Scandinavian audio show in one of the rooms that I first spotted this black pillars mounted on top of a smaller stand loudspeaker. Although the memory has faded regarding the rest of the room and associated equipment, that first impression is still lingering in my mind. Having spent major part of the day listening to conventional tweeter constructions it was a liberating experience to hear these line source ribbons. There was no shrieking, spitting our beaming. The resolution was stunning, but what surprised me was the dynamics of the ribbon. Once I started investigating I found that numerous magazines had found the ribbons to be an outstanding performer. But what impressed me most was Johns mild and humble nature (must be a genetic heritage by his Norwegian ancestors). He was not what one may call an audio bible pounding, self made prophet. With a mild and humble approach John explained in a logical and systematic fashion his design philosophy. All of it backed by solid foundation in physics and acoustics. Hope that you also will find this interview inspiring as I did.

Many audiophiles and music lovers around the world are familiar
with your products, and they would be interested to know more about the person that designs these radically different looking speakers. Could you tell us about your background and how all of this started?

John Meyer: The long story is on our site as “Planars and the Man Who Loved Them”. As the title implies, I was smitten by planar speakers (Dayton Wright electrostatics) the first time I heard them. Later on I worked with the Strathearn Ribbons which delivered much the same magic. The Streathearn was vastly more practical but practicality and reliability were extremely limited in early planars.

I determined that I would make something more practical while improving on some aspects of the performance (dispersion and dynamics) and preserving the transparency, openness and detail which allow planars to be so absolutely musical under ideal circumstances.

I had been designing loudspeakers in school and doing it part time in the early 70’s with full time design work in the late ’70s and early ’80s. My company was the first in North America to come out with flat aluminum honeycomb diaphragm speakers (Coherence by Soma) and the results were good enough to lock the idea of planar drivers in my head as the best solution. “Cone smear” became something I couldn’t stand to listen to.

The experience of doing the flat diaphragm drivers was enough to convince me that I could do a Ribbon driver and development work started in the mid ’80s. I wanted to address the shortcomings of the current planar designs while taking performance to a new level as well. Development of a line source is problematic due to measurement difficulties. For that reason as well as room placement issues, as well as my reluctance to cavity load the diaphragm, I determined a narrow mono-pole Ribbon with the diaphragm right at the front of the magnet structure was the only way to go.

By the early ’90s the radical mono-polar Ribbon was a fact and Newform Research was up and stumbling into the collapse of the high end audio industry. Perfectly terrible timing but the integrity of the design and the move to factory direct sales allowed us to continue and grow from miniscule to tiny. If our sales explosion of the past 2 years continues, we will be small by the end of 2001.

HFR: When you decided to design loudspeakers, you must have gone trough most of the known systems of propagation. What made you choose the ribbon concept at the end?

John: Low mass, 100% driven diaphragm area, line source for a better interface with the room, high resistive impedance without transformers or notch filters, large surface area for high dynamics, heat and humidity resistant and narrow for ease of consistent manufacture and Quality Control.

HFR: Most ribbons that where available in the past had low efficiency and temperature problems. How did you resolve that problem?

John: We went with a very powerful and unique magnet structure and we went with narrow diaphragms of Kapton which gives us extreme stability under heat and humidity.

HFR: Many of the larger ribbons are dipoles, why did you decide upon mono-pole?

John: Mono-pole simply works better in most people’s rooms. It is less demanding and theoretically it will produce greater soundstage focus since there will be not be back waves floating around. Also, we got lucky with the move to home theatre as this format pretty well demands mono-pole speakers. Also, as I mentioned, we wanted to be able to really dial in the design’s performance and measurement of a dipole and the handoff to bass driver are extremely problematic.

Lastly, if you have a dipole, the diaphragm pretty well has to be in the middle of the magnet structure which means we could not achieve our dispersion targets. We were out to create an exceptionally low diffraction and wide dispersion series of loudspeakers.

HFR: What is the reason for not using push pull construction as done by some manufacturers?

John: I have had people mention this before and some feel you can’t have control over the diaphragm unless you are pushing and pulling the diaphragm. This is true, but you don’t need magnets in front and behind for this. You only need to have the diaphragm in a stable magnetic field. Since movement of the diaphragm is so limited in our designs, this can easily be achieved with a focused magnetic field generated from the rear.

HFR: It seems that with your ribbons form follows function. Would you mind to elaborate on why they look like they do, e.g. which parameters and aspects dictated the final form of the “chimney like pillars”?

John: We made the Ribbon structure as narrow as possible for the smallest acoustic profile and minimal baffle bounce. When we were finished with that we beveled the edges so diffraction was minimized as well. Basically our design is “the anti-horn” as the baffle moves back from the diaphragm. Our feeling is that minimal baffle bounce and diffraction allow the speakers to disappear and are critical to the creation of the broad and consistent horizontal dispersion necessary for excellent soundstage depth and focus.

Some people may say they look like stove pipes but being more modern, I maintain they look like large cellular phones. Almost 20% of women actually like them while 30% will tolerate them as being not as ugly and dominating as the massive panels they have been subjected to in the past. The last 50% won’t tolerate them in a main shared room.

HFR: The larger ribbons designed by you have a line source characteristics. What is according to you the main advantage with line source?

John: A line source allows a columnar dispersion pattern in a room – broad horizontal dispersion and narrow vertical dispersion. This mates the best with a conventional room since it minimizes vertical reflections which are quite degrading to soundstage coherence.

HFR: One of the main (and often the only) criticisms of hybrid constructions is the lack of integration between the ribbon and the bas driver due to different nature of propagation. How have you resolved this problem?

John: Small, extremely high quality mid-basses (ScanSpeak) and a very low crossover point combined with fairly elevated driver positions to reduce floor loading.

HFR: The vertical dispersion of the ribbons is very limited, why?

John: The dispersion of any driver is a function of diaphragm diameter and wavelength. The bigger a driver is and the smaller the wavelength, the more it is going to beam. Our diaphragms are 3/4″ wide and 15″ long. Horizontally they radiate like a 3/4″ dome and vertically they radiate like a 15″ woofer. We created the R45 so that even if you stand up your ears are within the vertical coverage of the Ribbons. Some people like to get up and walk around while listening (a surprising 20%) while vertical coverage is not such a big issue with the 80% who remain seated while critically listening.

HFR: Drivers and the ribbons used in your loudspeakers are very costly, yet the pricing of the speakers does not reflect that. How have you managed that?

John: I eat oatmeal 3 time a day! (laughter) Plus, we have very low overhead, we sell directly and have extremely few returns and failures.

HFR: You have decided to distribute factory direct. Apart from the obvious advantage of lower price for the customer, what where the other considerations?

John: The customer gets their answers straight from the factory and it is much easier to clarify your options this way. When you are buying speakers you have never heard before, you have to be pretty confident in what you are doing.

HFR: The general view is that your speakers perform on par with the best and most costly constructions out there, yet we never see them on the advertising pages. Would you not like to reach a even wider group of potential customers?

John: Advertising is extremely expensive. Print ads, shows, reviews mean that you have to have a dealer base to generate the volume to support that overhead. But the market is not big enough to support high cost selling in the long term. Show me a company which spends a huge amount to get a high profile in this industry and I will show you a company which won’t be here in 2 years. I am sure everyone can name 5 examples. Ours are specialist designs and people who can understand them will end up finding us.

HFR: As you know there is a lot of discussion going on regarding formats and the future of audio. What are your thoughts in this regard? Is there a future for two channel audio?

John: Home theater is a blast but I think everyone will come back to music as it is the most satisfying in the long run. Whether this will be 2 channel or 11 channel, I don’t know. Two channel is all you need for deep emotional involvement but this industry may not find logic profitable.

HFR: In what direction is your design and development work heading? In your articles you are speaking of the dawn of direct digital chain and of the different levels of implementation. Could you explain what you mean by that and how this is to be done according to you?

John: You can read more on the Digital Chain on our site under Hot Audio Trends and in our Update No 3.0, (and 4.0 that is coming soon), but basically keeping the signal in the digital domain until it gets into the middle of the digital amp 2 feet from the drivers is the most ideal way to proceed. It minimizes transmission and conversion errors and allows processing (DSP crossover and later room correction) to be done with no degradation to the signal. In other words; it makes the fewest mistakes and it will get better in cheaper just like everything else in the digital domain.

This will still be a world of tastes and tinkering for the audiophile but the fidelity bar is going to be raised dramatically starting in a year from now.

Thanks for your time!

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