The underlying physics and the design of loudspeakers that radiate sound through the bending vibrations of elastic panels, here referred to generically as flat-panel loudspeakers, are reviewed in this paper. The form factor, reduced weight, and aesthetic appeal of flat-panel speakers have made them a topic of interest for more than 90 years, but these advantages have been overshadowed by acoustical shortcomings, specifically the uneven frequency response and directivity in comparison to conventional cone-radiator loudspeakers. Fundamentally, the design challenges of flat-panel speakers arise from the intrinsically large number of mechanical degrees of freedom of a panel radiator. A number of methods have been explored to compensate for the acoustical shortcomings of flat-panel speakers, such as employing inverse filters, equalization, canceling mechanical resonances with actuator arrays, and modifying the panel material, shape, structure, and boundary conditions. Such methods have been used in various combinations to achieve significant audio performance improvements, and carefully designed flat-panel loudspeakers have been rated in blind listening tests as competitive with some prosumer-grade conventional loudspeakers. This review presents a brief historical account of the evolution of flat-panel loudspeakers and summarizes the essential physics and design methodologies that have been developed to optimize their fidelity and directional response.
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