The way we listen to music has changed dramatically in the last 15 years -- earbuds instead of headphones, digital tracks instead of cuts on vinyl. But the basic design of an audio speaker, says Eric Sunda of Orange County Speaker, is the same as it was a century ago.
Occupying a low, white 8,000-square-foot building in Garden Grove, the Sunda family business -- OCS for short -- operates on hundreds of ailing speakers a year. They're sent or brought from all parts of the country, and the senders include theaters, DJs, casinos, cruise ships, theme parks and heavy-metal guitarists. The pros' equipment tends to arrive with parts blackened, melted and blown -- the consequence of pumping enough volume to rock wide-open spaces. But the Sundas -- Eric, his brother Bryan and their parents, Gary and Sharon -- estimate that at least half of their customers are home music listeners with well-cared-for speakers beginning to show the inevitable deterioration of age. For some the desire to repair rather than replace is driven by economics or environmental concerns. For others, the models have been part of their living room and listening experience so long, they're like family.
The workroom at OCS looks like the setting for a geometry project. There are stacks of paper cones and bins of copper-wrapped cylinders graded by size. Eric says the technology "isn't that complicated." Perhaps not, if like him you've grown up knowing the difference between a woofer and tweeter. The former, he explains, are speakers that produce bass tones while the latter twitter the treble. The names, at least, make perfect sense.
Inside the speaker cabinet, about five elements are required to turn the information coming from a digital music player, compact disc or vinyl LP into the room-filling sounds of Van Halen, Van Morrison or Van Cliburn. (Six, if you count the glue that holds the parts together.) "You have to move air to move sound," Sunda says.
The cylinders, called voice coils, are the first step, and the delicately ridged cones the last in a process that translates electrical impulses into specific physical vibrations. These are the sound waves that the ear registers as a foghorn or a tenor sax. The slower the vibration, or frequency, the lower the note. When the motion is impeded -- one common cause is a tear in the paper cone -- the music suffers. When the voice coil fails, the music stops.
Even if the speaker is decades old and the brand no longer made, OCS probably can repair a damaged cone or replace a coil. Prices range from under $50 to six times that depending on the size and maker. Another frequent source of trouble is the edging that surrounds the cone. Made of foam, it typically begins to harden and crumble after a decade or two. First a dry rattle emerges from one or both speakers. Aggravated by bass notes, the rattle becomes a bark. That edging also can be replaced.
Why go to the trouble of fixing a pair of 25-year-old Advents when you could just buy something new? To Gary Sunda, Eric's father, the answer is clear: Most new speakers are designed for movie watching and video-game playing, not music listening. Home theater speakers, he says, "have a lot of sizzle in the high range and boom in the bass. But the voice range is in the middle." So is the piano's. Without speakers arranged to concentrate on those mid-range frequencies, you miss a lot of melodic detail.
Dressed in matching Orange County Speaker shirts, the four Sundas look a bit like a band, which is fitting. The story of their company is entwined with the history of rock 'n' roll. Gary bought the then-tiny business in 1968, when free-form FM and concept albums were mushrooming. He already had a business fixing guitar amplifiers, and the impetus for that venture came from his membership in the Vara-tones, an early 1960s surf band. (He played bass.)
Gary's twin interests in music and electronics led him in the 1970s to Irvine-based Randall Amplifiers, where he designed equipment for rock bands including Journey. Sharon took over the speaker repair work with the help of one assistant. The boys were toddlers at the time; now they do most of the day-to-day running of the company, which employs nine.
Boomer passion for all sorts of rock fueled a market for well-made, volume-tolerant speakers that were precise and affordable. Many brands, such as Acoustic Research and Rogersound Labs, were American-made. Today, Sharon says, models comparable to ones that sold for $200 in the 1980s go for 10 times that price. No wonder customers gloat on the OCS website about vintage speakers they've picked up at thrift shops. Typical cost? Under $50 -- including the price of repair.
The website, Bryan says, was the younger Sundas' first major contribution to the business. The site went up in 1996, the Internet's early days, and has helped them take the company nationwide. One of their most popular mail-order products is a cone re-edging kit. For $29.95 (for two speakers), it allows people to replace the decrepit foam edging that's turning smooth-voiced India.Arie into gravelly Leonard Cohen. The company ships 20 to 25 kits a day. The process is simple enough that calls from defeated do-it-yourselfers come in only about once a month.
What music do the Sundas listen to? It depends on the purpose. For pleasure, Gary and Sharon embark on blues cruises. Bryan and Eric prefer alternative rock. If you're testing a speaker, though, Gary recommends something with solo piano and vocals. "If they sound right to you," he says, "you know you're getting a faithful reproduction."
By all means try this test at home. In stereo speakers, unlike in humans, the aging process can be reversed.