The THX Steerable Line Array: The speaker of the future?

THX engineers are working on a very different way to put sound in a room.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Exposing the drivers in the THX Steerable Line Array speaker (they are normally hidden) THX

THX, born out of the George Lucas/Star Wars legacy, has stayed true to its roots while developing new audio technologies to improve the home entertainment experience.

Last week I spoke with Laurie Fincham, senior vice president of THX to discuss the company's Steerable Line Array technology. He told me THX wanted to create a new type of speaker that could focus sound beams to specific areas in a room. I've heard those sorts of claims before, but Mr. Fincham assured me that this system was designed to a very high standard. The Steerable Line Array speaker prototype was first presented and demonstrated in January at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

When I first heard about this new technology I thought it was in some way similar to Yamaha's Digital Sound Projector soundbars that create a full surround experience from one speaker. Fincham quickly pointed out how the two systems, which both use sound "beams" are very different. First, while Yamaha's system is basically a single-speaker that creates surround sound by bouncing sound beams off the room's walls, the Steerable Line Array doesn't require walls to work, and the THX system covers bass, midrange, and treble frequencies. The Yamaha is midrange and treble only. The Steerable Line Array can place the sound anywhere in the room and maintain the sound quality wherever the listeners are in the room. The Steerable Line Array can also generate multiple "sweet spots" that can be very narrow or very wide, so a number of people in the room can have the same audio experience, regardless of their positions in the room.

The Steerable Line Array prototype uses 60 metal dome tweeters and 32 3.5-inch drivers, and each driver has its own dedicated 100-watt analog amplifier. Right, that's 92 amplifiers developing a total of 9,200 watts! No wonder THX's engineers designed the amps to run cool. They're extremely thin; the modular 24-channel amp is just 8 inches wide and 20 inches long. The amplifiers run off specially designed lithium ion phosphate batteries. But the 80-inch-wide Steerable Line Array is a no-compromise, high-end audio system. Production Steerable Line Arrays could be much smaller or larger systems; the prototype was designed as a starting point to show what's possible with the technology.

The Steerable Line Array, on the left, can beam sound to specific groups of listeners THX

At the CES demo the Steerable Line Array's drivers and technology were invisible; the 92 drivers were hidden behind a narrow slot that could be placed under a flat-screen TV. THX isn't about to get into the speaker business; it designed the Steerable Line Array in the hope that speaker manufacturers will license the technology. I didn't hear the speaker at CES, but I'm hoping THX brings the prototype to New York this year. THX has yet to announce any specifics about availability or estimates of what a Steerable Line Array would sell for.

Watch THX's video to learn more about the Steerable Line Array speaker.