The folks at Sound Advance Systems in Santa Ana say their "invisible" speakers are the best thing in consumer electronics since the woofer met the tweeter.
The speakers, which are only three inches thick, can be disguised as paintings or built into a wall or ceiling. Aimed at the audiophile, they are what the 44-employee company hopes will set it apart from hundreds of other speaker manufacturers around the world.
"We believe speakers should be heard and not seen," said Mark Tyson, vice president of marketing for Sound Advance Systems, a subsidiary of Bertagni Electronic Sound Transducers International Corp. in Santa Ana.
They can be concealed in ceilings or walls by covering them with ceiling tiles, wallpaper or paint without a noticeable reduction of sound quality, Tyson said. Standard rectangular speakers, by comparison, are bulky, boxy and often unattractive, he said, describing his company's product as "the ultimate in aesthetics."
Earlier generations of the company's flat speakers have been installed in the White House, the palace of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, the Hard Rock Cafe in New York, the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point and the Hollywood Bowl.
The high-profile installations prompted opera singer Placido Domingo to invest in the company and join its board of directors several years ago.
The latest model has been installed in Rolling Stone magazine's New York headquarters.
Starting at $1,245 a pair, the speakers are aimed at the high end of the audiophile market. They are designed to appeal to architects and interior designers, who can incorporate them into their own plans.
"We could make the product more accessible to consumers, but the market on the high end is such a large, untapped opportunity, we are targeting it first," Tyson said.
Flat speakers offer some advantages over standard conical speakers, which disperse sound in a specific direction, said Ivan Berger, technical editor for Audio magazine in New York. Flat speakers are wider and disperse sound in "omni-directional" waves.
By doing so, the speakers eliminate the "sweet spot" where a person must sit to hear the best speaker sound in a room, said Alejandro Bertagni, vice president of engineering at Sound Advance Systems and a son of the company's late founder, Jose Juan Bertagni.
The company introduced the Sound Advance II system in June at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, and it was selected as one of the most innovative products at the show.
Not everyone is sold on flat speakers, Berger said, noting that stereo experts are notoriously subjective about what sounds best.
"Flat speakers have advantages and disadvantages," Berger said. "There is no free lunch in speaker design. Give me a speaker, and I can find you a room where another speaker will sound better."
In response, Bertagni said: "It's sort of like tasting wine. Some people will like one kind of sound, others will like another."
Bertagni said the newest speakers are the latest version of a patented technology that he and his father pioneered over two decades. There are competitors, such as Magna Pan, a flat-speaker maker in White Bear Lake, Minn.
"We have some models in the design stage that try to balance the concerns of the audiophile and the concerns of the interior decorator," said Wendell Diller, marketing manager for Magna Pan.
Instead of reproducing sound by passing it through a cone-shaped structure, the flat speaker produces sound by sending an electrical signal through a copper-wire coil, which produces a magnetic field that causes vibrations. The coil is attached to the back of a specially fabricated, plastic-foam diaphragm in the shape of an oval.
The diaphragm bends like an archer's bow and vibrates back and forth to produce a wide range of pitches, depending on which part of the diaphragm is struck by the coil. The sound emanates from the entire surface of the diaphragm. When that surface is painted over, the paint itself becomes part of the speaker's vibrating surface, Bertagni said.
Sound Advance makes the speakers at its 45,000-square-foot headquarters in Santa Ana.
The Bertagni family started manufacturing flat speakers in 1970 in Buenos Aires. Jose Juan Bertagni moved his family from Argentina to California in 1975 and continued making speakers, mostly for office buildings. The elder Bertagni died earlier this year.
During the past six months, the company's new president, Donald J. Taffi, launched Sound Advance Systems to take advantage of the home electronics market.
In South Korea, a distributor is selling the speakers covered with original silk screen paintings. In the future, Bertagni said, he hopes that the speakers can be reduced to a thickness of about 1.5 inches.
The private company does not disclose specific sales or profit figures. Taffi does say that he expects annual revenue, which he puts in the "several-million-dollar range," to increase by 150% for 1992. Within three years, he said, the company hopes to reach $25 million in annual sales.
Tyson acknowledges that there are drawbacks to having invisible speakers. In the past, he said, owners have accidentally pounded nails into them, not knowing exactly where they were installed in the walls.
Tyson said an overlay is now included within the packaging to make sure the speakers' location is marked during installation. After a room is painted or papered, a compass can be used to determine the speaker's exact placement, he said, and "we provide the compass."