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The Eleventh Annual Interactive Music Conference
brainstorming graphic

Group Report: Making the Configuration and Utilization of Audio Systems Much Easier

Participants: A.K.A. "Balloonatics"

Steve Pitzel, Intel

Steve Rowe, Microsoft
Rod Goldhammer, Analog Devices Whit Hutson, IDT
Dan Bogard, IDT Joe Fitzgerald, Akustica
Doug Peeler, Dell Glenn Reinhardt, IDT
with special appearances by:  
David Roach, Optimal Sound Marcus Ryle, Line6
  Facilitator: Linda Law; Project BBQ

Problem Statement Summary:

It is difficult for the average consumer to enjoy a high quality audio experience. There are technology and complexity barriers which impede the consumer’s ability to properly configure his/her system. Our goal is to make configuration and utilization of an audio system much easier.

Brief Statement of the Solution:

There is no silver bullet. The items which make audio difficult to experience correctly are myriad and their solutions diverse. We identified several scenarios where consumers are likely to be affected by a sub-optimal audio experience and defined a set of technologies which could be utilized to simplify and enhance the configuration and enjoyment of the resulting sound.

Primary Areas Identified:

    1. Great Movie Watching Experience
      a.  In home stationary speakers
      b.  Embedded speakers
      c.  Headphones
    2. Communications Experience with embedded microphones and speakers

Other Areas Identified for Further Exploration:

    1. Great Portable Music
    2. Laptop
    3. Earbuds
    4. Great Party Music
    5. Music Collaboration
    6. General High Quality Listening Experience at home – connection to artist
    7. Karaoke
    8. Listening in Noisy Environment
    9. Quality Inter-op experience with Multiple Audio Devices
    10. Car Audio

Great sounding movie experience (“at home” speakers)

This experience is about watching movies in the typical living room scenario. The speakers are fixed in their location. They may move at times when someone rearranges the room but they will remain fixed for the duration of the movie and are not expected to be repositioned often. When they are, some new calibration should be done to bring the system back to optimal condition. Most of the features here apply to the music listening experience using a fixed installation as well.


 Jacks L
 Wires T
 Routing T
 Speaker Placement T
 Room Acoustics  
 No Standards  
      a. Speaker quality metric  
      b. Speaker placement L
      c. Power/loudness  

(L = low-hanging fruit, T = top problems)

The solution might look like this:

The sources might be an HD-DVD player, a cable box, a satellite radio receiver, or similar equipment. The control box is the processing unit which would handle surround processing, 3D rendering, room compensation, etc. The pre-amp is a crossbar which decides which distributes the sound. The amp may or may not be collocated with the control box and the pre-amp. It was suggested that the amp may be collocated with the speakers which may themselves be connected to the system by a digital channel such as wireless or Ethernet.

The prevailing opinion was that items located near each other should be connected by a single cable (USB? 1394? Proprietary?) and that items located remotely not require a physical connection. It is important that all parts of the system—including the speakers—be able to communicate in a bidirectional manner with the control box.

The system would contain microphones which could be used for automated room correction algorithms. The data from the microphones would be fed back into the control box for round-trip analysis.

Future directions could include removing the use of multiple speakers and the introduction of a single sound projector with passive reflectors scattered throughout the listening environment.

Embedded Speakers Movie Experience

This is the experience of watching a movie on a laptop computer or perhaps a portable DVD player. The speakers will be small and in a fixed enclosure. The environment will be constantly varying and generally an acoustical nightmare. The problems in this domain are not about configuration but rather compensation.


1)  Speakers T
      a. Fidelity  
      b. Efficiency  
2)  Enclosure T
3)  Variable Environment T
4)  Limited Power Supply T
5)  No standards  
      a. speaker quality metric  
      b. power/loudness  
6)  No “crappy speaker” compensation
7)  Mechanical vibrations  
8)  System noise  

(T = top problems)

The solution envisioned looks like this:

The audio sources are digital audio files, DVDs, etc. which are fed through a software sound processing system and later to a DAC and out to the speakers. The stream will be conditioned for the environment and to compensate for the lower quality of the speakers compared to a fixed installation. It is important for there to be a high quality microphone in the system which can give feedback to the stream conditioner so that the compensation routines can be dynamic in nature.

The biggest improvement in this scenario comes from better speakers. They need to be made of quality materials but also designed in an acoustically-intelligent manner. They need to be efficient, enclosed so as to not leak, and placed in intelligent locations.

It is also desirable that the power state of the machine influence the utilization of the speakers. When running on battery power, it is not possible to drive the speakers hard because of the increased drain and shortened playing time. Most laptops today are designed to minimize battery draw from the speakers. However, when the machine is plugged into the wall, this assumption is no longer controlling. Power is readily available and should be used to drive the speakers to louder volumes.

It is also our recommendation that the acoustic qualities of the speakers be made available to the sound processing system so that the sound can be conditioned specifically for the speakers in that particular machine.

Movie Experience Utilizing Headphones

This experience is one where the user is watching a movie while wearing headphones. The location could be at home or on the road. It should be noted that headphones here means quality over-the-ear headphones, not the ear buds common to portable music playback.


1)  Jacks L
      a. Improve robustness  
      b. Improve electrical performance  
      c. Not going to ¼” jack  
2)  Limited Power Supply  
3)  Efficiency T
      a. power supply  
      b. safety regulations  
4)  Wires L
5)  Variable environment of device T
6)  Variability of amplifiers T

(L = low-hanging fruit, T = top problems)

The solution might look like this:

The big improvements here come from the bidirectional path from the headphones back to the audio processing system. The headphones should contain a (digital) microphone which can provide environmental information back to the processing system. Environmental information such as position and orientation could also be sent back. The specific sound characteristics of the headphones could also be provided. Based on this information, the stream could be conditioned to compensate for any sub-optimal acoustic properties of the speakers in the headphones. The microphone allows the processing system to compensate for the environment through sound cancellation or even simply amplifying parts of the signal likely to be lost in a noisy environment.

It was noted that the headphones, once associated with some processing power like that available in a modern PC, could be made to work well with a hearing aid. Alternatively, they could be utilized in lieu of a hearing aid if the condition of the listener’s ears were made available to the system.

There are many places in the world where laws are being passed restricting what can and cannot be done in headphones. Manufacturers must take this into account in their designs.

Voice Communications w/embedded mics and speakers

This scenario is one of trying to communicate to others using the microphones and speakers built into a laptop computer. More and more users are using their computers to communicate not just via e-mail and IM but also via voice. Today this experience is often suboptimal. Background noise, poor quality microphones, etc. make the quality of the communications low. Many of the techniques described here apply to other communication scenarios. Voice recognition also shares many similarities with this problem space.


1)  Speakers T
      a. nonlinearity is a problem  
2)  Mics  
      a. no microphone L
      b. poorly implemented  
         i. desired signal path for Microphone  
      c. location  
3)  Low level analog signals L
4)  Gain matching  
5)  Environmental SNR T
      a. Filtering Room Noise  
6)  Poor voice recognition  
7)  O/S support L

(L = low-hanging fruit, T = top problems)

It was decided that there were 3 major areas of change:

    1. Cheap speakers often have nonlinear characteristics which makes acoustic echo cancellation difficult. Higher quality speakers and providing the processing system information about the speakers can help to improve the situation.
    2. Poor microphones make a high quality experience nearly impossible. Placing higher quality microphones in laptops is the first step. The second is utilizing digital microphones to remove the long analog signal path between the microphone and the ADC. The third step is the incorporation of array microphones so that the acoustic echo cancellation routines can better triangulate the interesting sounds and more easily ignore environmental noise.
    3. Better OS support could be provided to allow for more complex sound stream conditioning, more accurate positional data on array microphones, and better automatic gain control on microphones. It was also noted that there are a variety of analog and digital gains which can be adjusted for microphones and that getting them properly configured is a daunting challenge for most users. This is an area where improved software could make a marked difference.

section 5

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select a section:
1. Introduction  2. Speakers  3. Executive Summary  
4. Ensuring that PC Audio Editing/Rendering Plug-ins and Processors Always Work
5. Making the Configuration and Utilization of Audio Systems Much Easier
6. To DRM or Not To DRM?
7. A Consumer-friendly Quantifiable Metric for Audio Systems
8. Improving the PC Sound Alert Experience
9. A Prescription for Quality Audio
10. Facilitating Remote Jam Sessions
11. Providing a High Level of Mixing Aesthetics in Interactive Audio and Games

12. Schedule & Sponsors