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Towering Simplicity: Joey Roth’s Steel Speaker
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Designer and tea connoisseur, Joey Roth is back with a new audio solution, the Steel Speaker, a monolithic slab of metal and maple wood engineered to diffuse sound down and outward in all directions using a wooden sphere. The wireless omnidirectional speaker’s outward sculptural identity belies the complex hidden engineered soul within. We asked Joey about the concept and process behind his omnidirectional speaker:

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Made in Oregon with American made steel, aluminum, and maple, the vertically oriented speaker houses a Bluetooth antenna within the sphere, an ingenious combination of aesthetic and function.

Obviously a focal point, apart from the aesthetic, could you tell us how you came to the conclusion of the hardwood ball shape for diffusing sound? Did you go through various geometric options before deciding on the sphere?

I started experimenting with cone shapes, with straight, concave and convex cross sections. I found that the more convex the cone was, the better it sounded (and measured). Eventually the cone became so convex that it started to resemble a ball, so I went with it.

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Noting your previous ceramic speaker design, are there elements/solutions in this speaker that are directly the product of what you learned from designing those first speakers (and amp)?

The Steel Speaker is a culmination of everything I’ve learned about audio engineering since launching the Ceramic Speakers back in 2010. The Steel Speaker is a mass-loaded transmission line, which is a type of enclosure that takes advantage of quarter-wave harmonics to extend the bass response. It is a rewarding speaker design, but it is complicated to get right. Thanks to advances in simulation software and my growing understanding of speaker design, the Steel Speaker was possible.

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I also learned that there were a number of features that could be subtracted from a system like the Ceramic Speakers, which is fairly minimalist already in the world of audio, while retaining or even enhancing the product’s functionality and meaning. For example, integrating a mono amplifier designed specifically for the driver allows both a more uncluttered design and more control over the interaction between amp and driver. Similarly, leaving out a potentiometer and on/ off switch in favor of an amp with extremely low quiescent current and an RCA plug that allows interaction with a pre-amp simplified and clarified both the industrial design and circuit.

Joey Roth: "Sketches are the translation point between my thoughts and CAD. I use them not only to work out the form, but also to design the circuits, packaging and the eventual art direction. Putting all aspects of the product on large pages from the beginning keeps it coherent throughout the process. These are an abstract overlay of the circuit concept onto the form, and where I experiment and work out the internal layout and consider different finish options."

Joey Roth: “Sketches are the translation point between my thoughts and CAD. I use them not only to work out the form, but also to design the circuits, packaging and the eventual art direction. Putting all aspects of the product on large pages from the beginning keeps it coherent throughout the process. These are an abstract overlay of the circuit concept onto the form, and where I experiment and work out the internal layout and consider different finish options.”

Finally, I designed the Steel Speaker to be manufactured locally in small quantities. I plan to never hold more than a few week’s inventory. This allows a greater level of build quality and investment of margin that would have gone to warehousing back into the product.

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These are omnidirectional and appear to be designed as a solo solution. Were they also designed to work in stereo mode?

Yes, that’s part of their design. Each speaker has a single RCA input on the base which allows it to connect to one channel of an RCA source or passive pre-amp. This means that two Steel Speakers can connect to a line level source in a stereo configuration. I’m working on a passive pre-amp with volume control and multiple source inputs that will complement the design of the Steel Speaker. This should be out in mid 2016. For now, two Steel Speakers can be used with most RCA sources and pre-amps on the market.

Mounting the amplifier to the inner brace/ divider.

Mounting the amplifier to the inner brace/ divider.

Connecting the power cords from the amp to the DC barrel jack in the base.

Connecting the power cords from the amp to the DC barrel jack in the base.

Connecting speaker cable to the driver that will lead to the amp.

Connecting speaker cable to the driver that will lead to the amp.

Sliding the extruded piece over the internal assembly once everything is connected.

Sliding the extruded piece over the internal assembly once everything is connected.

Fastening the lid to the internal brace.

Fastening the lid to the internal brace.

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The hardwood ball (d) diffuses sound from the front of the driver in all directions. It also houses the Bluetooth antenna, since it is the only part of the Steel Speaker that does not block RF.

Favorite audio speakers you currently own or simply admire that provided inspiration in the design of your Steel Speakers?

I love the Zigmahornet design. It is an earlier transmission line with a unique sound, and I love the elongated proportions. The Duevel Planets are the only other commercial omnidirectional design that uses sphere diffusers, that I’m aware of. I haven’t heard them, but the reviews are positive. While I also haven’t heard them, the Brines Acoustics transmission line speakers were influential from an engineering perspective.

Thanks to Joey Roth for his photos, sketches, and insight about this convergence of engineering and beautiful design. The Steel Speaker is available now for pre-order in raw and graphite for $450 via JoeyRoth.com.

Gregory Han is Tech Editor of Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at gregoryhan.com.