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Studio-quality sound enters the living room

Feel the noise

Tech companies used to focus on packing more tunes in less space. Now, as Jennifer Brown discovers, they are working out how to re-create the immediacy of live performance in your own home

Tech companies used to focus on packing more tunes in less space. Now, as Jennifer Brown discovers, they are working out how to re-create the immediacy of live performance in your own home

Jennifer Brown | December 14th 2017

For the last 30 years, music-technology companies have had three primary goals: clarity, portability and abundance. CDs offered a crisp sound that was a vast improvement on tape, a medium prone to decomposition. Large numbers of songs could be stored with ease as MP3 files, allowing a lifetime of tunes to be carried around on an iPod. Smartphones effortlessly duplicate these capabilities, and streaming services mean that virtually any song in the world can be summoned with a tap of a screen.

These benefits were bought at a cost. Digitising music files stripped away the fuzz and scratch of vinyl, but it also disposed of the rich, honeyed tones that gave records so much character. As these files became ever more compacted, complexity was discarded to save space.

A number of companies have been wrestling with the problem of audio quality for years, but they have reached the mainstream only recently, as tech and car companies have seized upon high-grade audio as a way of differentiating their products and diversifying revenue streams. Streaming platforms like Tidal, Deezer and 7digital are translating their entire catalogues into music files that play at studio quality. Mobile-phone manufacturers and luxury-car companies are enthusiastically seeking new ways to improve their speakers. Two major technical challenges need to be faced: how to create digital files that can be heard as full-bodied music; and how to compensate for the distortions created after sound is released into the world, where it wraps itself around people and slithers behind furniture.

Nowadays, most audio files are CD quality, which means that each second comprises 44,100 snapshots of sound stuck together. This is generally considered sufficient to capture all the sounds within the human hearing range of 20HZ to 20kHZ, but music aficionados disagree. They reckon that even if the ear can’t catch them, higher and lower frequencies add texture to a song. It’s similar to the airy feel we often associate with vinyl, according to Steve Sells of Naim Audio, a British hi-fi manufacturer. A higher sampling rate also benefits those below the age of 20, who can generally detect sounds much higher than 20kHZ.

Spencer Chrislu of MQA, a British audio-technology company, believes that focusing on frequency obscures a more fundamental problem. Digital sampling crushes bands of frequency together, causing them to blur. Filters can be applied to the audio signal to rectify this but these create distortions of their own, such as an unnatural ringing to which human ears are particularly sensitive. MQA has developed a unique filtering technique that, when applied to a file, silences those bells. They have also developed a method of fitting all the elements of a studio performance onto a CD-sized file.

Richard Baxendale, studio manager at Universal Music Publishing, reckons the average listener will struggle to tell the difference between a hi-res track and an MQA one but the ability to retain studio quality without compromising size is nevertheless impressive. Listening to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album in MQA on Audeze LCD-3 headphones (which come in at just shy of $2,000) was like standing in the studio, watching Queen Bee perform live.

Dirac, a research firm based in Sweden, has found a way to prevent distortions to sound in the wild. Its algorithm analyses how a device sounds in a particular space, such as the home, and compares the results to the perfect acoustic environment: a sound-proofed studio. The music signal can then be adjusted to compensate for deficiencies in the speaker and the environment. The company’s Panorama technology is equally impressive. Mobile phones play music that is thin and insipid, as their speakers are too close together to pump out tracks in stereo (where the positioning of two speakers to the left and the right of the listener creates the sensation of surround sound). Dirac’s technology seeks to replicate the effect by manipulating the sound from the left speaker so that it arrives at the right ear slightly later than the left, tricking the brain into thinking that it comes from much farther away. This creates the illusion of wrap-around sound.

Mathias Johansson, Dirac’s CEO, says that ten years ago they felt like “we were standing at the barricades and no one was really paying attention”, but now they are struggling to meet demand. Bentley and Rolls-Royce use Dirac to exploit the potential of their cars’ reverberant interiors, but mobile is the company’s biggest market. They recently joined up with Chinese mobile manufacturers such as Xiaomi, Huawei and OPPO Electronics to optimise their speakers. Infinix, a popular smartphone brand in Africa, is the first to embed Dirac’s own technology into its devices.

Digital systems also struggle to achieve sound quality at volume. Devialet, a leading acoustics firm in France, solves this through a hybrid technology that combines the quality of a class-A amplifier, whose large analogue signals are powered by a continuous current, with the efficiency of a class-D amplifier, in which a current that alternates between on and off pushes out a digital signal in a series of bursts. It succeeds in generating very loud volumes from diminutive speakers. When I tested their Phantom Gold speaker, my body shook as though I was at the front of a festival crowd. A less bass-heavy song offered a gentler experience. The price of one of these is steep – £1,390 ($1,830) – but a recent partnership with Sky in the United Kingdom and Ireland, which will see Devialet’s technology embedded into Skybox surround-sound speakers, shows that the demand for quality extends beyond high-end products.

Getting customers to care is one of the biggest hurdles that many of these companies will face. Better sound quality remains a hard sell, because people find it tough to imagine how much their listening experience might be improved. Comparing two sounds is the best way, but that’s not always possible. Listening booths that allow people to test products, like those Devialet provides, will lure those seeking premium goods. But, in time, mobile shops will see the virtue of demonstrating their improved speakers and the mass market will appreciate the glories of pitch-perfect sound. Just remember, you heard it here first.

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