What loudspeakers and audio transformers do have in common

Or: WTF is “group delay”?

Imagine a group of people visiting an exhibition having a guided tour. One might expect that the group reaches the exhibitions exit as a whole but in reality there might be a part of that group just lagging behind a little bit actually (e.g. just taking their time).

Speaking in terms of frequency response within audio systems now, this sort of delay is refered to as “group delay”, measured in seconds. And if parts of the frequency range do not reach a listeners ear within the very same time this group delay is being refered to as not being constant anymore.

A flat frequency response does not tell anything about this phenomena and group delay must always be measured separately. Just for reference, delays above 1-4ms (depending on the actual frequency) can actually be perceived by human hearing.

This always turned out to be a real issue in loudspeaker design in general because certain audio events can not perceived as a single event in time anymore but are spread across a certain window of time. The root cause for this anomaly typically lies in electrical components like frequency splitters, amplifiers or filter circuits in general but also physical loudspeaker construction patterns like bass reflex ports or transmission line designs.

Especially the latter ones actually do change the group delay for the lower frequency department very prominently which can be seen as a design flaw but on the other hand lots of hifi enthusiast actually do like this low end behaviour which is able to deliver a very round and full bass experience even within a quite small speaker design. In such cases, one can measure more than 20ms group delay within the frequency content below 100Hz and I’ve seen plots from real designs featuring 70ms at 40Hz which is huge.

Such speaker designs should be avoided in mixing or mastering situation where precision and accuracy is required. It’s also one of the reasons why we can still find single driver speaker designs as primary or additional monitoring options in the studios around the world. They have a constant group delay by design and do not mess around with some frequency parts while just leaving some others intact.

As mentioned before, also several analog circuit designs are able to distort the constant group delay and we can see very typical low end group delay shifts within audio transformer coupled circuit designs. Interestingly, even mastering engineers are utilizing such devices – whether to be found in a compressor, EQ or tape machine – in their analog mastering chain.