How does an audio manufacturer whose loudspeakers are distributed in more than 70 countries, and that has hundreds of employees, a 220,000-square-foot factory, and a history that dates back to 1983, go more or less relatively unnoticed by North America’s audio press? That was something that I and other audio writers from the US and Canada were wondering about when, early last May, we visited Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (DALI), in Nørager, Denmark. Actually, the fact that DALI isn’t as well known on this side of the Atlantic as some think it should be was the main reason we were there -- DALI’s US distributor, Canada’s Lenbrook Industries, had invited us all to Nørager to get to know the brand better.
DALI was founded in 1983 by Peter Lyngdorf as the house brand of speakers for his chain of Hi-Fi Klubben hi-fi retail stores, which he’d founded in 1980. (Hi-Fi Klubben still exists today, with stores in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands.) We were told that DALI, “born in the back office of Hi-Fi Klubben,” moved to Nørager in 1986 to build and occupy their first factory. Since then, they’ve expanded their plant four times.
Lyngdorf still owns Hi-Fi Klubben, DALI, and other audio companies -- such as Steinway Lyngdorf, a collaboration with the great piano maker; and his latest brainchild, Purifi, which is about to release a new breed of class-D amplifier that Lyngdorf says outperforms any amplifier topology ever made -- and there may be other companies I don’t know about.
Thomas Knudsen (left) and Lars Worre
Lyngdorf is not involved in the daily operations of running DALI. That would be CEO Lars Worre. Although Thomas Knudsen, DALI’s export manager, was the primary guide for our tour of the factory, Worre spent as much time as he could with us. As you’ll read below, his contributions made the experience even more worthwhile.
In my years as a hi-fi journalist, I’ve tried hard to visit the factories of as many audio manufacturers as possible, to learn how they do things, which helps me better understand how their products work, and what makes them sound as they do.
The moment I stepped off the bus in Nørager, I was shocked to see so huge a facility -- DALI has 220,000 square feet of space -- in a place so sparsely populated. Nørager has a population of just over 1100, and the DALI factory is on the outskirts, surrounded mostly by farmland.
Until this visit, the two speaker makers that had most impressed me in terms of the size of their factories and the nature of their operations were Paradigm (in Mississauga, Ontario) and Dynaudio (in Skanderborg, Denmark). In both plants virtually everything required to produce a high-quality product is done: R&D; the manufacture of drivers, crossovers, and cabinets; and assembly and testing. These are one-stop shops.
With a factory of similar size and capabilities, DALI is in the same league. Nor is the Nørager facility DALI’s only plant -- they own another in China, run by a Danish team managing some 150 employees. There they produce grilles, crossovers, and far more speakers than the Danish factory. (The Chinese plant makes DALI’s least-expensive models.) We journalists were told that of the total of 250,000 loudspeakers made by DALI in 2018, just over 200,000 were made in China.
The main part of the Nørager factory building dates back to the early 1980s, and it doesn’t look all that modern throughout, though some areas have been updated and look more contemporary. DALI’s new sound room, for example, isn’t what you’d see at a typical hi-fi factory -- it looks more like a modern store, with multiple systems set up that they demonstrated for us. But in typical Scandinavian style, all areas of the factory -- whether devoted to offices, manufacturing and assembly, or warehousing -- looked well appointed, extremely well organized, and very well maintained.
It wasn’t only the size of DALI’s Nørager plant that took me aback -- I was impressed by the people working there. I met skilled factory workers, capable designers, an innovative and aggressive marketing team, and, of course, Lars Worre. It’s often assumed that CEOs are all business, and think only of the bottom line. But when Worre met with us, he seemed mostly to want to talk about DALI’s loudspeakers, down to nitty-gritty details that usually concern only the engineers.
In fact, Worre is the reason this article wasn’t written until almost six months after my return from Denmark. He spoke in such deep detail about DALI’s speaker technologies that I decided that, before writing anything about my visit, I wanted to get back home to listen to and measure at least one of DALI’s passive speakers, to find out if what he’d told me was true. That model ended up being the Opticon 8, which Diego Estan reviews for SoundStage! Access this month. (Gordon Brockhouse had reviewed the DALI Callisto 2 C for SoundStage! Simplifi in November 2018, but as that’s a fully active speaker and thus somewhat incompatible with our current measurement regimen, we didn’t measure it, and so had no data to refer to.)
The Opticon 8 ($3299/pair USD) is the top model in DALI’s Opticon line, their middle series of passive speakers. Above the Opticons are the Epicon and Rubicon models, below them the Oberons and Spektors. And because the Opticon 8 includes all the DALI tech Worre had told us about, it seemed as good a place as any to start.
Lars Worre told us that, in all of their loudspeakers, DALI pays particular attention to transient response -- i.e., how quickly a speaker reproduces a sound from an audio signal, and then how quickly it stops reproducing that sound when the signal itself ceases. In fact, to achieve close-to-perfect transient response, they’re willing to sacrifice frequency-response neutrality. When I asked Worre how far they’re willing to deviate from strict neutrality, he said, “Not that much,” but didn’t elaborate. Instead, he said, we should measure one of their speakers and find out for ourselves.
One way DALI optimizes transient response, Worre said, is through the use of low-loss materials for the driver diaphragms, which we were shown being made in the factory. As Diego describes in his review, DALI uses a mix of paper and wood fibers to create very light, stiff, nonresonant midrange and woofer cones that can be driven -- that is, accelerated, moved, and halted -- very quickly by the driver’s motor system, without continuing to produce spurious soundwaves once the soundwaves that legitimately represent the audio signal have been reproduced. They also employ what Worre called a “non-textbook” way of tuning their ports, to achieve a much slower, second-order rolloff in the bass than the fourth-order rolloff typically seen in bass-reflex speakers. This not only lets the driver reproduce lower-frequency bass, but also results in less group delay.
But, as Worre said, the degree of FR neutrality tossed out the window is “not that much” -- the DALI designers want their speakers to have broad, even dispersion, to make possible a wider range of speaker positions in a room and, more important, a wider soundstage that can be enjoyed across multiple listening seats instead of a single central sweet spot. To accomplish this, they design their speakers so that their on-axis response (i.e., the sound produced directly in front of the drivers) closely resembles their responses off the axes (i.e., to the speaker’s sides), mostly by choosing crossover frequencies that ensure the fewest possible on- and off-axis discontinuities as driver hands off to driver. These goals of broad dispersion and the widest soundstage possible are also why DALI recommends that their speakers be positioned firing straight ahead, with no toe-in.
In many of their speakers, including the Opticon 8, DALI also uses what they call a Hybrid Tweeter module: a soft-dome tweeter combined with a magnetostat planar-ribbon tweeter. The ribbon improves the speaker’s off-axis high-frequency response because its dispersion is still wide at very high frequencies, while the dome’s dispersion narrows with rising frequency. The crossover’s management of the dome and ribbon is unusual: The ribbon kicks in between 13 and 16kHz, depending on the model, and its output doesn’t begin to roll off until about 30kHz. The dome is left to play to its upper limit, of about 20kHz, before it begins to roll off. Because the two tweeters’ outputs overlap at the top of the audioband, the Hybrid Tweeter is a 1.5-way design.
“Does that overlap cause comb-filtering problems?” I asked Worre. I knew that comb filtering often occurs when drivers’ outputs begin to destructively interfere with each other.
His reply was simple and straightforward: “No.”
Fair enough. I knew that would be easy to test with some simple frequency-response sweeps, which readily show comb-filtering effects as a series of grass-like spikes and dips.
Next, what every manufacturer wants to reduce: distortion. DALI attacks this by using a proprietary material for the driver pole-pieces that they call Soft Magnetic Compound (SMC):
. . . SMC [is] a coated magnet granule that can be shaped into any form needed. SMC is a material with many advantages. It eliminates the modulations of the flux in the magnet gap when current, which is running through the voice coil windings, generates new “competing” flux in the magnet gap.
Furthermore, it eliminates the frequency dependency of the electrical and magnetic properties of irons parts. Actually, SMC offers exactly the right physical properties; very high magnetic conductivity and very low electrical conductivity (approximately 1/10,000’s iron), which gives a dramatic reduction in the unwanted distortion caused by mechanical loss in the magnet system -- a reduction dramatic enough that it is clearly measurable and indeed audible.
Finally, DALI designs their speakers to have a flat impedance, in the belief that this will make them easier loads for power amplifiers, and thus make possible a wider range of compatible amps, as well as better sound with amps that don’t like a wildly fluctuating impedance.
Testing the technology
We were able to corroborate most of Lars Worre’s claims through Diego Estan’s listening impressions and our independent measurements of the Opticon 8 in the lab of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC).
The Opticon 8’s impedance remained mainly between 4 and 9 ohms from 100Hz to 20kHz, with no sharp increases or decreases. Below 100Hz, more significant increases are visible around 55 and 20Hz, as a result of the ports’ tunings, but the highest points were still under 15 ohms -- with many speakers, the peaks go much higher. It’s not the flattest impedance curve we’ve seen of all the speakers we’ve measured, but it’s flatter than most. No competently designed amplifier, tubed or solid-state, should have difficulty driving the Opticon 8.
Bass response is difficult to measure, even in an anechoic chamber. Low-frequency soundwaves are so long that you need a very large space in which to measure them accurately. Also, when a ported speaker is measured from the front in an anechoic chamber, the full contribution of its rear port(s) isn’t captured by the measurement microphone. Still, our measurements tell us something about the Opticon 8’s bass response: Throughout the various frequency-response measurements, on and off axis, the rolloff in the bass does seem to be slower than in a typical ported speaker. There’s also usable output down to 20Hz, which is very low in a chamber setting. Likewise, when Diego measured the Opticon 8 in his room, he found strong output down to 22Hz, -3dB. This seems to support Worre’s claims of slower bass rolloff.
Frequency response: 0, 15, 30 degrees
The various frequency-response charts for the Opticon 8 also show no comb-filtering effects at the top of the audioband, where the outputs of the ribbon and dome tweeters overlap. In all of our charts, the responses look as smooth as those for a typical dome or ribbon tweeter acting alone. Furthermore, the FR charts show that the on- and off-axis curves are very similar, from directly on axis all the way to 75° off axis, supporting DALI’s claim of broad, even dispersion. This was also supported by Diego’s listening impressions; in his review, he stated that the Opticon 8s provided “a very wide soundstage with a commensurately broad sweet spot that more than one person can simultaneously enjoy.”
Total harmonic distortion (THD) is something we’re lucky to be able to measure very accurately above 80-100Hz -- the NRC’s anechoic chamber is a super-quiet environment. Below 80-100Hz, THD measurements are not as accurate because of limitations in the chamber’s size. The Opticon 8’s “Total harmonic distortion + noise” chart shows that, at a sound-pressure level of 90dB at a distance of 2m (equivalent to 96dB at 1m), THD, for the most part, stays below 1% (-40dB) for all frequencies above 80Hz. That’s low. Centered around 800Hz, the THD increases to about 3.2% (-30dB), but that’s still low, and it doesn’t appear to be the result of flux modulation. DALI’s use of SMC seems to be of benefit.
Total harmonic distortion + noise
Finally, if DALI is sacrificing FR linearity for faster transient response, in the Opticon 8 the sacrifice is, as Worre said, “not that much.” From about 40Hz to 20kHz, the Opticon 8’s on-axis FR remains within ±3dB. This is a pretty neutral speaker.
For a while, Dynaudio used the slogan “Danes Don’t Lie.” From what we can tell from Lars Worre’s claims and our tests, it’s true.
Unknown no longer
My trip to Denmark to visit DALI was an informative one, but the question of why DALI flew so long under North American radar remains a mystery -- and none of the audio journalists on that junket knew why. But now that so many of us have visited the DALI factory and reported on what we saw, heard, and learned there, I suspect they won’t remain unknown here much longer.
As for SoundStage!, I see our reviews of DALI’s Callisto 2 C and Opticon 8 speakers as only the beginning. Knowing what I now know about DALI, you can be sure that we’ll review more of their products in the coming months and years on all of our sites. DALI -- another great Danish speaker company that deserves our attention.
. . . Doug Schneider