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Local audiophile builds his own speakers

Dec 29, 2023

Instead of buying expensive high-quality speakers, electrical engineer and owner of Sound Science Neal Van Berg decided to roll up his sleeves and build his own.

Two pairs of giant, distinguishable speakers stand among the mounds of audio equipment in Sound Science CAT (Custom Audio and Theater), a home theater and stereo equipment store in Taos that opened in 2018. The huge speakers point toward a couch in the middle of the room, where customers can sit and sample their sound, which Van Berg says is so exceptional, it makes listeners feel as though they are in the same room where the musicians are playing. Van Berg describes this as a “soundstage.”

“For many people, just hearing the music and the words is enough,” he said. “For other people, it’s not; it’s got to sound real. And many people are in pursuit of the most realistic performance they can get in front of them at their home. That’s what I shoot for here ... Not only do I want to hear great tone, but I also want it to paint a picture in my mind’s eye of where all the performers are.”

According to the inventor, a very good stereo system will create a three-dimensional sound space, but great speakers are just one aspect of that. To create this sound space, he sought to build speakers that have “smooth frequency response without exotic cabinetry” as well as detailed bass.

The speakers themselves are composed of two woofers (loudspeakers designed to produce low frequencies), while a smaller device sits atop the open-back cabinet. This device, a Heil Air Motion Transformer (AMT), is just 6 inches tall, but uses a condensed 4-foot electromagnetic ribbon to produce sound. Coupled with the woofers, the entire unit can go from 800 hertz (sound wave cycles per second) to 20,000 hertz, meaning, Van Berg added, that it can cover nearly the full frequency range of the human ear.

The speakers stand out thanks to the unique shape of the wooden cabinet: two octagons stacked atop one another that house the woofers. According to Van Berg, by not housing the speakers in the typically rectangular cabinet, there isn’t any sound energy trapped inside that would otherwise interfere with the speakers. It also minimizes waste, Van Berg added.

With a high-frequency range and an affinity for bass, a question of the speakers’ durability comes to mind. When asked how long they could play at a high volume, Van Berg confidently replied “indefinitely.” While he understands that eternity is an exaggeration, he still strives to create long-lasting devices that can take a beating, he added, after blasting Nine-Inch Nails from his custom speakers.

Interest in sound

Van Berg, a self-proclaimed audiophile, said he became interested in audio when he was 16 years old. Back then, he recalled, when he needed better equipment, he would either trade for it or attempt to build it himself.

However, his progression into audiophilia began with his first pair of quality speakers.

“I used to own a pair of electrostatic speakers, which are nearly massless mylar drivers, and they covered the full frequency range of about 30 cycles up to 20,000,” Van Berg said. “Very fast, very detailed, the best bass I ever heard, but they didn’t play particularly loud, so that was a handicap. Doing research on the internet, I learned that I could get a similar kind of response from a typical cone woofer by not enclosing the back.”

Van Berg notes his influence from Siegfried Linkwitz, who was a pioneer of open-back speakers. By studying Linkwitz’s work, van Berg was able to understand what he needed in order to create his speakers: different drivers. Those, mixed with the modern technology the Heil AMT provides, allowed his speakers to become what they are today.

Speaker iterations

The current model available to sample at Sound Science is his third prototype. The first incarnation was a 7-foot design with 16 speakers. Its parabolic shape stabilized the sound waves and shot them forward in a straight line until they hit something and then scattered. According to Van Berg, if the sound waves were directed at someone’s head, upon impact, it would sound the same as if the listener were wearing headphones, no matter the distance.

The second prototype is closer to the current design, but it existed in a simple wooden frame. This version allowed Van Berg to tinker with the functionality before worrying about aesthetics. Once he was satisfied with the sound the speakers were producing in the wooden frame, he went on to design the cabinet.

“I bet I spent over a year anguishing over which components I should buy because it all costs money, and those are not inexpensive components,” Van Berg said. “I wanted to be careful I did it right.”

An additional prototype is presented in the store, but instead of the wooden frame, it uses a metal one. This version, according to Van Berg, was more difficult to assemble than the wooden frame, however, the functionality is very similar, he said.

The speakers are not the first pieces of audio equipment Van Berg has invented. Around 15 years ago, he and a former college roommate of his created the Music Vault, the first commercially available PC-based server that could play music at any sample rate — from mp3 files to 292,000 samples per second at 24 bits. It can even play direct stream digital, which is a single bit at about 3 million samples per second.

When visiting Sound Science in the colder months, customers might notice a copper sphere next to Van Berg’s turntable. This is another Van Berg original. The sphere is attached to the building’s electrical ground and, when touched, drains all static from the individual’s body. This makes sure that static electricity is not transferred to his vinyl records, which means they collect less dust.

Lifelong inventor

Van Berg’s inventing days go beyond audio.

An almost lifelong diabetic, he recalls one of his earlier inventions. When he was young, he used to overfill his insulin bottles with air so it was easier to extract. However, he added, if you dropped the air-filled bottle onto a hard surface, it would explode. His friends at the time invited him on a camping trip, and he was nervous about his bottle of insulin perishing and being unable to return to civilization.

“At that time, I had a roommate who was a scuba diver,” Van Berg said, “and I was eyeing his scuba suit. He took me to a woman that custom-made his suits. I took to her a bottle of insulin and had her custom-make a prophylactic for it. I was able to drop it from a very high distance, and the suit material would absorb the impact and not break. I called those… Insulators.”

The opaque “Insulators” even came in different colors so that diabetics who took more than one type of insulin would be able to differentiate them.

“That’s why people invent things: to solve a problem that isn’t solved,” Van Berg said. “In the case of my speakers, the real problem is that to get speakers that sound as good as [them], you’re looking at approximately $40,000 or more, and I consider that a big problem.”

Van Berg hopes to sell these speakers on a wide scale within the next year. However, he added, as a one-man operation, it’s a slow process. He plans on showing the speakers at audio conventions. Once for sale, he aims to sell them for $10,000 a pair.

Sound Science CAT is located at 208c Paseo del Cañon and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The store closes at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

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