Diffraction and Standing Waves

The Sound

Sound, a ubiquitous pressure wave, carries information and shapes our auditory experience.

However, its journey from source to ear is not always a straight line.

Two fundamental concepts, diffraction and standing waves, play a crucial role in understanding how sound interacts with its environment and ultimately affects sound reproduction.


When sound waves encounter an obstacle or a narrow opening, a phenomenon called diffraction occurs. Here, the wavefront, the edge of the wave carrying the disturbance, doesn’t simply stop. Instead, it bends around the obstacle, constantly striving to maintain a 90-degree angle with the encountered profile. This characteristic allows sound to travel around corners, through gaps, and even diffracted through small openings, shaping its overall propagation pattern.

The concept of maintaining a 90-degree angle is crucial as seen in Wavefront Propagation article. As the wavefront bends, different sections travel slightly different distances. However, the speed of sound remains constant throughout the entire wavefront. This interplay between the bending wavefront and the constant speed of sound is what governs the overall behavior of diffracted waves.

Examples of Diffraction

Baffle Step and Edge Diffraction

When a horn or sound source mounts onto a flat surface (baffle), a sudden change in geometry disrupts the wavefront. This discontinuity creates two key effects:

Note: While baffle step introduces a dip in sound pressure, the overall surface area of the baffle can still contribute to a gain in radiated sound energy compared to a point source. Baffle Step article explores this phenomenon in more detail.

Standing Waves

In contrast to diffraction, standing waves occur when a wave reflects off a boundary and interferes with itself. The reflected wave can either add up (constructive interference) or cancel out (destructive interference) with the incoming wave, creating specific points of vibration and stillness. Standing waves are less relevant within the horn itself, but they can come into at the exit

Exit of the Horn

At the horn’s exit, the expanding geometry might not perfectly support a single, propagating wave. If the horn isn’t properly designed, this can lead to the formation of standing waves near the exit. These standing waves can cause an uneven distribution of sound pressure, resulting in:

Note: Mid-range Narrowing and Beaming article goes deep in these two concepts.

Understanding Wave Behavior: Diffraction vs. Standing Waves

It’s important to clarify that diffraction doesn’t actually break the wavefront into separate pieces. Instead, the wavefront itself bends and spreads as it encounters obstacles or openings. Imagine a perfect wavefront like a straight line of dominoes standing upright. When the dominoes encounter a curved wall, they topple over in a curved pattern, mimicking how the wavefront adapts to the new geometry.

In contrast, standing waves arise from the interaction between an original wave and its reflection. The reflected wave can superimpose on the original, creating regions where the peaks (crests) and troughs (valleys) reinforce each other (constructive interference) or cancel each other out (destructive interference). These regions of reinforcement and cancellation create a stationary pattern of vibration, hence the term “standing wave.” The wavefront itself, however, remains intact.

Coloration and Wave Interactions

Diffraction and standing waves, while interesting phenomena, can introduce unwanted colorations to the sound. These wave interactions can emphasize or weaken certain frequencies, leading to an uneven and distorted representation of the original sound.

For instance, diffraction around obstacles or improper horn design can bend the wavefront around obstacles, sometimes even partially destroying it, leading to frequency-dependent dips and uneven high-frequency response.

Similarly, standing waves can introduce peaks and nulls in the listening area, boosting or canceling specific frequencies.

These effects can manifest as a thin or bright sound lacking body, or an overly harsh and emphasized high-frequency range.

By understanding these wave interactions, we can design audio systems that minimize coloration for a more accurate sound reproduction.