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The ultimate guide to onboard audio

10 August 2021• Written by Steve May

From huge installations to invisible speakers, technology is transforming audio at sea. The future is immersive and unobtrusive - and it sounds glorious, says Steve May

From invisible loudspeakers to personal auditoriums, bold design and radical new technologies are changing what’s possible when it comes to audio at sea. Integrators and yacht builders are increasingly pushing the sonic envelope, much to the delight of owners.

With onboard space a precious commodity, accommodating loudspeakers has been a long-standing challenge. But what if you’re no longer constrained by the trappings of traditional speaker design? What if technology made loudspeakers, to all intents and purposes, invisible?

Cloud 9 uses Revolution Acoustics’ SSP6 Multiducers to provide surround sound around the pool
Courtesy of CRN

A leading specialist in invisible loudspeakers is Amina Technologies. The company, based in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, has become a world leader in discreet speaker technology. Unlike conventional enclosures, Amina’s speaker panels are designed to be covered and hidden from view. Vibrational Panel Technology (VPT) can be plastered or panelled over, leaving no trace of a sound system – just the curious realisation that stereo sound appears to be emanating, crisp and sharp, from a wall or decorative feature.

An early beneficiary of this technology was 35.5-metre Lunar, built by Conrad Shipyard in Poland. Its stylish interiors offer no hint of a pervasive audio system. The boat has been fitted with a dozen Amina Invisible Loudspeakers by Estonian integrator Betria OU. They’re deployed across three zones and provide hi-fi and surround sound without any obvious visual intrusion. When used in residential properties, Amina’s speakers are hidden from view by a two-millimetre skim of plaster, but VPT also works under leather or wood veneer, making it perfect for a marine fit-out. The panels used in Lunar are light, 200 millimetres wide and just 40 millimetres deep, and there’s no back box required. Instead, so-called exciters create hundreds of tiny vibrations – a similar principle, the brand says, to how an acoustic guitar works.

On board, the master suite features a full surround-sound installation, although you would never know that from its appearance. There are three front speakers, mounted in the ceiling and covered in Alcantara faux leather, and at the rear there are compact cluster units built into the bedhead and veneered over as part of the wall and headboard finish. Similarly, the boat’s saloon aft has a surround sound system comprising five “invisible” panels fitted into the ceiling, again behind Alcantara leather. The sound appears to be coming from an in-wall position.

Speaker panels are discreetly fitted on board Conrad Shipyards’ 35m Lunar
Courtesy of Focal-Naim

A VPT speaker’s frequency range is typically 100Hz to 20kHz, which means it will deliver crisp, clear treble and a rich mid-range, but won’t drop deep for punchy bass. This makes it fine for in-cabin entertainment or whole-yacht background audio, but what if you want a fully immersive audio experience, with 360-degree sound and butt-wobbling bass... that also doubles as luxury seating? L-Acoustics Creations has created just that with its Island, an innovative hybrid of high-end furniture and even higher-end electronics. 

This amazing 24-channel audio installation-cum-sofa encircles you with sound as you sink into its cushions. The circular structure features a frontal zone semicircle of 13 speakers, and a rear zone formed of five more. Two subwoofers beneath the seat handle everything below 80Hz, while four additional speakers deliver height-channel sounds from above. Because of the close proximity of the seat to the audio system, the sound pressure level seems immense. There’s a kilowatt of power going to each channel, which means 140dB of high-res audio at close quarters. The experience of it is like nothing else.

“One of the major benefits of Island is that it’s completely self-contained,” explains Nick Fichte from L-Acoustics Creations. “Often with yacht interiors, it can be difficult to house loudspeakers due to design constraints, but with Island they are all built in. We’ve recently been looking at a project where the client wanted a sizable LED screen, a Samsung Wall, for watching movies at night. Island is perfect for this as you don’t have to worry about where to place loudspeakers. With it in front of the display, the audio is in exactly the right place.” And, just for fun, the entire Island rotates. If you want to enjoy the view of the Caribbean or the Med during the day, that’s not a problem – just spin it round and take in the view.

L-Acoustics Creations’ Island offers an immersive acoustic experience with speakers built into the seating structure.
Courtesy of L-Acoustics Creations

The Island isn’t just a cinema experience, though. It also supports L-Acoustics’ L-ISA sound format, which offers 24 channels of uncompressed 24-bit 96kHz hi-res audio, delivered via proprietary “Bubbles”. “Yacht owners and their guests are renowned for appreciating the finer things in life,” says Fichte. “So Island includes a Bubble Deck, which allows playback of custom-created audio content in a 23.1 audio standard known as BluSpace.”

To play the recordings available in this native L-ISA Bubble format, you place the corresponding Bubble (which looks a bit like a snow globe) on the player behind the seat. The Bubble then glows and the music plays with astonishing clarity. What’s actually happening is that a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip inside the Bubble unlocks and plays the recording that’s saved on a connected hard drive. It’s a heck of a theatrical party trick.

Floorstanding loudspeaker, the Grande Utopia EM Evo
Courtesy of Focal-Naim

While the Island is a relatively compact sound solution, some yacht owners prefer to go supersize. Dynamiq’s flagship GTT 135 Stefania features a dedicated beach club area with Bowers & Wilkins sound design, while Heesen’s 50-metre Crazy Me has an upper deck that can double as a full-sized disco. The pool transforms into a dance floor, while custom California Audio Technology speakers pump out the tunes from the bulwarks. And why stop there? “Boat owners are increasingly using the helipad area on their yacht support vessels as a giant dance floor, with a full-blown sound system,” says Fichte. Damen Yachting threw a party on the back of one of its support vessels at the Monaco Yacht show in 2019, he says. “They hired a DJ, with a full outdoor club sound system.”

Far-sighted high-end audio brands have been quick to see the potential of migrating their expertise from sofa to sundeck. Leading the way is French hi-fi specialist Focal, who along with British stablemate Naim (the two companies merged back in 2011), have had a partnership with Princess Yachts since 2017, providing bespoke audio options. But that, it seems, was just the start. More recently the company has been working in the background on a major research and development project, which has led to the launch of a dedicated yachting division. Heading up the operation is Eric de Saintdo. “Our engineering teams have developed a new range of premium Marine products,” he says. “At the end of June, we opened a new showroom in Cannes, dedicated to yacht owners, designers, architects, shipbuilders and brokers. It’s a showcase for all our marine products, for indoor and outdoor use; fully integrated, home cinema… the only limit is your imagination.”

Naim Audio supplies Princess Yachts with an advanced all-in-one audio system called Uniti
Focal Naim

Few things are as close to perfection as a custom-made yacht, enthuses de Saintdo. “Yachts embody excellence, and excellence is also a core value at Focal and Naim. That makes yachts and Focal-Naim a perfect match,” he says. The hi-fi group certainly has an enviable track record when it comes to specialist audio. “Our brands have forged several exceptional partnerships, particularly in the automotive sector, around prestige brands such as Bentley, as well as visionary concept cars from Pininfarina and Delage.” De Saintdo adds that the company is exploring the potential for a similar range of marine partnerships. “High-end and bespoke systems delivering acoustic excellence are of interest for many yacht owners and would be a real plus for shipbuilders.”

There are several comparisons to be drawn between marine and automotive audio applications, he says. “Noise control is very important in yachting, and even if shipyards are doing well to control background noise, these challenging spaces need perfect control of sound radiation, directivity and spectrum homogeneity.” Also, environmental conditions can sometimes be extreme for speakers at sea. “From excessive heat to UV radiation and mechanical shocks, it all requires design experience and production expertise to deliver products that excel in these situations,” he adds.

"The main purpose of these yachts is 'to enjoy life'"
Courtesy of Focal-Naim

When it comes to innovations in sound, de Saintdo says engineers and electronics technicians have “worked tirelessly for the past two years on the research and development” of new marine products. Applications demand a very high Sound Pressure Level (SPL) and total reliability. “The first challenge was to find the best way to use the technologies we developed for our flagship loudspeaker, the Focal Grande Utopia [which currently retails for £170,000],” he says. The result was named the 1000 Series, composed of speaker drivers and subwoofer with a pure Beryllium tweeter, touted as the ultimate material to deliver crystal-clear treble. Ten times more expensive than gold, it’s safe to say it’s an ultra-high-end option.

“We are investing heavily to bring optimised versions of our top technologies into the yachting industry,” says de Saintdo. “For context, we own more than 40 existing patents and filed five new ones in 2020. The potential for high-end audio on superyachts is a very promising market. We believe owners could all benefit from new sound solutions when building a yacht.”

The “Bubble Deck”, by which the Island system is controlled, is the only visible technological part of the design
Courtesy of L-Acoustics Creations

So what trends are driving marine audio? Maurizio Minossi, CEO of Italian AV/IT system integration company Videoworks, is a discerning music enthusiast with “good British stereo speakers at home, and a premium sound option” in his car. Good sound clearly matters to Minossi. He reports that the trend in the industry is for high-pressure external sound with a low aesthetic impact, typically coupled to one or two internal zones offering top-quality performance, such as a cinema or listening room, complete with proper passive acoustic treatment.

As an IT specialist, Minossi says the biggest innovations have come through new infrastructure technologies, particularly Dante, the audio-over-IP solution that allows uncompressed high-quality audio to be distributed by standard Ethernet cable. “To have internal ship sound distribution with Dante technology is to have potentially top-quality [sound] everywhere, without the risk of the  ship systems’ noise degrading the sound quality when distributed. But whatever innovation we  can come up with, quality must be combined with installation compatibility, maintenance and water and salt proofing,” adds Minossi. “While the main efforts of manufacturers are towards great music in external areas, integrators are focusing more on an acoustic design, with specific CADs such as EASE [Enhanced Acoustic Simulator for Engineers].”

None of the dozen Amina Technologies speaker panels on Lunar are visible

When asked to reveal recent projects that showcase high-quality marine audio, the Videoworks CEO points to two recent high-budget examples: “The first was a 100-metre-plus [yacht] with a full Dante system on a Cisco professional network, and California Audio Technology speakers in external areas. The second was a 60-metre-plus project with a very specific live sound distribution system by Allen & Heath, and a pool disco area with concealed Martin Audio speakers,” he says. “We were under a lot of pressure, but we were very happy with the final results.”

"The main purpose of these yachts is 'to enjoy life'", Minossi adds, “so having a great dance area or cinema under the stars on the sundeck is definitely a luxury experience!”

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