The ideal loudspeaker transducer would have zero mass, respond infinitely quickly to any signal, be perfectly damped, have no distortion and be perfectly linear. Until now, the technology that best exemplifies those characteristics is electrostatic. Introduced almost 60 years ago, electrostatic headphones have remained the choice of discerning listeners who demand the highest audio quality. Now, a revolutionary new electrostatic transducer, derived from the world of ultrasonics, has been developed in the UK by Warwick Acoustics. The patented High-Precision Electrostatic Laminate (HPEL) audio transducer ushers in a new paradigm in the field of electrostatic drivers, and the Sonoma M1 is the first headphone system in the world to use it.
A conventional electrostatic transducer consists of a thin membrane (coated with a conductive material) between two electrically conducting metal grids. There is a small gap between the membrane and grids. The membrane is kept at a high DC potential relative to the grids, and the audio signal is applied across the grids. This results in the membrane moving in response to the audio signal thus creating sound. Clearly, in order for the sound to propagate through the grid/membrane ‘sandwich’, the grids have to be perforated in some way.
In contrast, the HPEL uses a thin (15 μm – less than the thickness of a human hair), flexible laminated film for the ‘front’ grid. The laminate is affixed to the open (cell) structure of an insulating spacer (made of Formex™), and the film is very accurately machine-tensioned in the x-y plane. In this way, small ‘drum-skins’ are created by the cells. A stainless steel mesh forms the ‘back’ grid. When the audio signal is superimposed on a 1350 V DC bias voltage, the ‘drum-skins’ formed by the flexible ‘front’ grid vibrate, producing sound. Unlike a traditional electrostatic panel, the sound you hear from a HPEL does not pass through a grid! To take full advantage of this feature, everything has been done in the design of the M1 to keep the areas in front of and behind the transducer as clear as possible so as not to impede the sound waves.
Thanks to a proprietary Finite-Element Analysis software package, Warwick Acoustics is able to fine tune the characteristics of the ‘drum-skins’ such that they have different resonant frequencies. Each cell is acoustically independent, but driven in parallel. As a result, the sound from each cell combines in acoustic space, but the independent resonances average out, avoiding any large resonant peak in the audio band (as can happen with a single driver area).
The thin, light laminate material ensures an extended frequency response, with the panel remaining linear to over 60 kHz. The HPEL has unmatched transient performance, and its surface area has been maximised to deliver a full frequency response. Additionally, due to the fact that it is produced with modern automated manufacturing techniques, the HPEL delivers unprecedented consistency and matching between transducers (< ±0.8 dB difference between left and right channels). The simplicity of its design also enables exceptional durability and reliability.
Naturally, such a light, thin transducer is susceptible to bending, etc., so the panel is encased in a special, super-rigid, high glass-fill polycarbonate ‘cassette’ which allows the transducer to perform optimally.