Review: Swan IW8R in-wall loudspeakers

11Fresh out of the factory, before the documentation has even been printed or the RRP decided, Stephen Dawson had a chance to spend some time with the Swan IW8R in-wall loudspeakers.

The Swan IW8R architectural speakers are big installation speakers, ready to go into your wall. Well, not necessarily any old wall. The cut out (an MDF template is included in the box of each) is 396mm wide by 946mm tall, and a depth of 145mm from the front of the wall is needed. That’s close enough to 6”, which is deeper than many wall cavities.

There’s a reason for this. One is that the speaker comes with its own enclosure, a heavy sealed box. And there’s a deeper reason for that (if I can guess at the designers’ motivations). Delivering it in its own box gets rid of many of the variables associated with installation speakers. You don’t know the compliance – the inverse of rigidity – of the wall material to which it is to be affixed. That affects the sound. You don’t know the volume of air in the cavity and how well it is sealed in. That affects the sound.

And of course, wall dust, wood splinters, creepy crawlies and what not might enter the workings of the speaker, which also affects the sound.

A box turns those unknowns into knowns.

No doubt there are spaces you can install the speakers in an existing structure – particularly in brick veneer homes against an outer wall. But Swan kind of expects new construction. From its installation guide: “It is preferable to build studwork to suit the speakers in advance of wall construction.”

We’ll return to installation shortly, but first …

Drivers

Here things are very, very different indeed from the norm for installation speakers. Again, I have little documentation (the only paperwork in the box was the installation guide), so I’m going on measurements and experience.

These are three-way speakers. Each has a hefty 8” – 200mm – woofer. That’s a big driver for a cabinet with a smallish interior volume. Especially one that’s sealed (also known as “acoustic suspension” or “infinite baffle”). But it only needs look after the bass because there’s a separate 140-ish-mm cone midrange driver. The midrange has a fixed phase plug.

None of that is remarkable, really. What is remarkable is the high frequency handling. Each speaker has three tweeters. At the centre is a 25mm dome tweeter, while perhaps 50mm to the left is a ribbon tweeter, with another 50mm to the right of the dome.

I’ve never seen an arrangement like this before. One Australian brand produces a popular line of high quality floorstanders with two dome tweeters, firing at different angles into the room to increase dispersion. I’m guessing that’s part of the plan with these speakers because, being installation models, angling the speakers themselves is not an option.

A word about ribbon tweeters, which Swan called “Isodynamic”. Like a conventional speaker driver, they use a diaphragm which moves back and forth. But instead of the coil being around a cylindrical former, it’s “planar” coil sitting right on the back of the diaphragm. An extremely strong magnetic field is established around the coil. The light weight of the diaphragm helps the tweeter to be very responsive to high frequencies, while its shape (usually a rectangle with the long sides orientated vertically) tends to reduce the dispersion of high frequencies in the up and down angles (where they are largely wasted), while spreading them widely from side to side.

Normally you’d use just one. Having them side by side could, in theory, introduce a degree of constructive and destructive interference, resulting in what’s called “lobing”, which is variations of intensity as you go side to side. This naïve interpretation is likely upset be the inclusion of the third – dome – tweeter. Between the three of them there’d be a relatively chaotic interaction, eliminating simple interference patterns.

Above this collection of tweeters is a switch. This is labelled “Tweeter +3dB” and “Tweeter -3dB”. Initially I took that to be the regular trim switch often provided with installation speakers. But later I discovered it has a very different purpose (even if the end result is in fact plus or minus 3dB). What it does is switch the ribbon tweeters on and off: -3dB for off, +3dB for on.

That gives you a choice of how you want the system to sound. Although whether anyone would purchase speakers with ribbon tweeters and then not switch them on seems unlikely.

Installation

Interestingly, Swan seems to envisage the speakers being installed with the woofer at the top and the tweeters at the bottom. At least, that’s how it’s pictured on the box and in the installation guide. If you’re doing that, you’re going to be placing it up high on the wall.

I note the model number is IW8R. Pictured on the box (not the final packaging, I’m told, but this seems relevant) is also the Swan IW8. This looks to be identical to the IW8R in every way, except doubled, with a six tweeters at in the centre, a midrange both about and below this cluster, and a woofer both above and below all of the other drivers. Front speaker, for which the IW8R speakers are intended to act as surrounds? Perhaps.

But as we’ll see, there’s no reason to think of them as anything other than fully competent front speakers as well. You can certainly install them the right way up so that the tweeters are placed more or less at ear level.

These are not designed to be invisible installations. The surround stands up to 30mm forwards of the wall into which they are installed. It’s bevelled down to only a few millimetres near the edges. In the centre is a removable cloth grille which can be placed either way up, facilitating your choice of orientation.

Two bars of wood with pre-drilled holes are provided with each speaker. These go into the cavity behind the speaker and screws are provided to secure the speaker to these through the wall.

Do install carefully. As nearly as I could weigh them, they came in at around 25 kilograms each. These are very, very heavy speakers.

There are four screw contacts on the back, with room for decent gauge cable. They can be bi-wired it seems.

12

Listening

I did not install them in wall cavities, but placed them as closely to the rear walls as I could manage. So they probably failed to achieve quite the bass reinforcement that they would achieve when more or less coincident with the wall.

That said, they still managed to do quite a respectable job on that front. Normally you’d be installing them in a system with a sub to handle the really deep stuff, and indeed I used my subwoofer for much of the time, along with the new Yamaha Aventage RX-A3070 (150 watts per channel) home theatre receiver to EQ them into the room for movie viewing.

In that role, they did the job extremely well. There were no limitations at all, and as expected, the receiver’s DSP had all the speakers singing the same tune.

But I did my critical listening with the A3070 switched to “Pure Direct” mode. No sub. No DSP. That’s how you find out whether a loudspeaker provides the baseline performance one wants.

And this speaker most certainly did. Indeed, they did not sound at all like installation speakers. They sounded most like very high quality bookshelf speakers, with a seriously impressive midrange and treble. There was a superb airiness about the sound, a light deftness and agility in handling.  The tambourine and cymbals in “Dara Factor One” from Weather Report’s 1982 self titled album danced around, yet had the bite of reality in them. The deep and strong bass was strong rather than deep. It was well delivered, in balance, down to around fifty or so hertz, and clearly faded away below that.

Remember, the internal volume of these speakers would be similar to that of a decent sized bookshelf speaker. That said, there was good heft from the jazz kick drum. I found myself turning up the speakers a long, long way. They could take it, and they just sounded better and better as the level went up. And the sound was so clean, they didn’t sound as loud as they actually were.

Moving over to Laura Marling’s album Once I Was an Eagle, her vocal style in which she pushes the system (microphone diaphragm itself, or perhaps preamp) near to overload was fully and faithfully conveyed by these speakers, while providing excellent detail on her guitar. The acoustic drum work had fine presence.

You might think with all those tweeters, treble might be a bit overdone, or mushed up, or variable depending on position. In fact, it was gorgeous, and most certainly not overdone. Indeed, with the ribbons switched out, the treble was still nice enough, but perhaps just a little too recessed. With the ribbons switched in, the treble lifted at little, while still remaining controlled, the image broadened somewhat and lightly touched cymbals became that much more tangible.

It occurred to me to fire up a digital SPL meter and try something loud. “Take the Power Back” from Rage Against the Machine served nicely there. I wound it up, and up, and up. With the receiver showing -2dB on the volume control, and the sound pounding my body, a the meter indicated peaks above 103 decibels. Yet, the music remained clean and controlled.

I remained intrigued by the tweeter array, so I did some quick measurements of the them by dint of shoving the measurement microphone as close as I could get it in front of the dome of one, then one of its ribbons. It looks like the dome had a low pass filter around 3000 hertz or so, with the treble falling away rapidly below 2500 hertz. The output was almost perfectly flat from 3000 hertz up to 17,000, and then it started rising to peak at plus 9dB at 25kHz. Above that it dropped rapidly, although that might have been assisted by the response of the microphone falling away too.

Measuring the ribbon presented more of a problem because it’s larger, so there’s more opportunity for out-of-phase interference when measured up close. So I’ll ignore a couple of swings likely caused by that. It seemed to have a fairly sharp low pass filter at 4700 hertz. I guess that makes this a 3.5 way speaker rather than 3 way. The output was maintained to 21,000  hertz, and fell away rapidly beyond that.

Conclusion

If you have 145 mm of depth into which to install them, the Swan IW8R installation speakers are going to dazzle in the role, whether music delivered with purity, or processed home theatre signals.

As for me, I’d kind of like Swan to design proper standalone cabinets for this driver complement. I think the market would love them in that form as well.

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