It’s a question I hear nearly every day: “Why build audio speakers out of wood?” Even after all this time, I still feel a twinge of surprise that the question is ever raised at all. Geez, where do I begin?
If you want audio speakers to faithfully reproduce the music you love, then wood is the way to go. The world’s finest musical instruments are made of wood. That’s a tradition that goes back tens of thousands of years and continues today. If you want to hear music the way that the artist intended it to be heard, wood is the medium that most perfectly achieves that worthy goal. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of speaker manufacturers don’t use this fantastic legacy material, opting instead to slap together speakers out of MDF. Why? Follow the money.
MDF: “It’s the Asbestos of the 90’s!”
MDF is an acronym for “medium-density fiberboard” and it’s been a popular material for mass-manufacturers of cheap-ass speakers since the 1980’s ‘cuz baby, it’s cheap! MDF is basically just sawdust mixed with urea-formaldehyde.
Another good question! It’s a plastic made from combining – wait for it – urea and formaldehyde. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)
Seriously, though, what is it?
Urea is a plastic resinous glue and the principle nitrogen-containing substance in animal urine. Formaldehyde is a toxic compound heavily used in the manufacturing industry, and a known human carcinogen. So, when you think of MDF, think: toxic animal urine.(Note to the MDF industry: this slogan is currently available for your use.)
Fun Fact/Inconvenient Truth!
MDF has been found to off-gas volatile organic compounds for months after manufacture and those gases have been found to be a significant threat to human health. As a matter of fact, movements to have it banned have been building since the early 90’s, with the deputy secretary of The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union stating that, “MDF is the asbestos of the Nineties. It is carcinogenic. It causes lesions. It damages the eyes, the skin, the lungs and the heart. It is vile and pernicious.” But – hey! – it’s cheap, remember? So, if you’re a product manufacturer and you really want to crank things out as fast and as cheap as possible, MDF is the way to go. If you’re a music lover or, well, a human, then you might want to look elsewhere.
The Tonewood Alternative
Wood is an incredible engineering material. The American Journal of Botany states, “The unique and desirable spectrum of physical and mechanical properties of wood that so far can only in exceptional cases truly be matched by manmade materials…” The author goes on to state that wood is “the material of choice” for musical instruments even today.
Why wood? Visually, there is no more beautiful or varied natural material in all the world. When it comes to music, the faster sound propagates through a medium, the better, and wood has a very high sound propagation speed. High sound propagation speed means high definition sound. What’s more, sound propagates through wood at diverse speeds due to variations in the grain resulting in superior frequency response. Together with the S:One’s unique triangular design, this also eliminates the problem of standing waves that typically plague box-shaped speakers made out of MDF.
While wood is a hierarchically structured composite and therefore constructed like MDF at the cellular level, the similarities end there. Unlike MDF, wood is both aesthetically and acoustically beautiful. Wood is stable, has a far longer lifespan than MDF and, if cared for properly, can last for generations. When MDF is thrown away, the toxic chemicals in it can leach into the soil and potentially contaminate groundwater. In the event that solid wood is ever discarded, it can be easily recycled, or safely returned to the earth rather than adding to the ever-swelling landfills or despoiling the seas.
Why Ask Why?
Look, I could bend your ear with technical explanations and historical precedent all day but what it really comes down to is how the tonewoods communicate sound. There is a depth, a clarity, an authenticity to music reproduced by tonewood speakers that simply cannot be matched by cheap, manmade materials. Their innate vibrancy – their intrinsic living quality – connects me to my music like nothing else.
Why wood? A better question would be why build audio speakers out of anything else?