Spatial Audio: What You Don’t Hear

Spatial Audio: What You Don’t Hear

By Dave Michels May 12, 2014 Leave a Comment
Dave Michels JPG
Spatial Audio: What You Don’t Hear by Dave Michels

Audio conferencing. What more can be said that isn’t boring? No one wants to talk about conferencing, but that’s not to say no one is talking on conferences. Audio conferencing usage continues to grow. I conferencing, there’s three types:  audio, web, and video - the first is what Dad did, and the second two have sizzle. Dolby thinks sizzle is something best heard.

Audio conferencing hasn’t seen a lot of progress over the past few decades. On the equipment side, the big break-through came from saucers with dynamic noise filters. Polycom popularized the high-end saucer with its SoundStation Conference phones in the early 1990s. It delivered exceptional audio, over a standard 3k analog connection.

About 10 years ago the nature of conferencing changed from rooms to people. The next big break-through was replacing PIN codes with caller-ID (though unfortunately PIN codes remain popular). The obvious upgrade in conferencing should be wideband audio, but that’s also still an exception thanks to the narrow-band PSTN. Some public services support wideband such as ZipDX (supports HD audio and connections via SIP URI) and UberConference (supports WebRTC).  [Related: Hear Dave Frankel from ZipDX on this UCStrategies Podcast]

Dolby, and a few others, think that the next big conferencing improvement will be spatial audio. Here, each participant gets a unique “space” during the call. On most audio calls, you have to determine the speaker based on the sound of their voice - with spatial audio you get a location as well. This is made possible with a stereo headset.

Most telephone headsets are single-ear - known as monaural. Two ear headphones are known as binaural - which is not the same as stereo. For the majority of the past 100 years, telephones were monaural, so the best we could do is two ears of the same audio path. The benefit was less distracting background noise.

With USB devices and IP networks, telephone audio can now be in stereo. Dolby takes advantage of stereo, much like it does in game and movie soundtracks, and provides spatial improvements. Dolby can complement on-screen motion with advanced audio techniques - you will be believe a plan can fly. The conference attendee only has one microphone, so the stereo magic occurs on the bridge - each “port” has a unique spatial location on the bridge.

Today, this magical bridge is Dolby technology as a service. It is currently exclusively available from BT. For the full spatial experience, participants use a Dolby client (desktop or mobile) and stereo headsets. If that’s not feasible, regular phones work too - at least for everyone else. The caller on the regular phone won’t experience the spatial effect.

Spatial audio is neat, and if you are willing to wear two-ear headsets (more reasonable on mobile devices), then you are all set. I doubt that most are willing to change their headsets for this feature. However, Dolby is on to something with far more sizzle than spatial audio.

The Dolby technology brings new levels of sound control to audio conferences - it is very effective at noise cancellation, and also at picking up the soft spoken. This is the first solution I’ve seen (er heard) that can overcome otherwise debilitating background noise. I tried it on a mobile device in a very noisy environment - the participants could hear me fine. You know those guys that guide jets on the ground that are always wearing what looks like big headphones - I bet they are on a Dolby powered conference call.


Dolby recently got into the hardware business with a new new tabletop conference unit. It also requires the back-end Dolby-powered service for maximum effect. What’s truly impressive about it is its ability to hear. Most conference phones work well as long as you speak clearly to it - but people in the room can hear much more. For example, when someone writes-on/talks-to the whiteboard, only the folks in the room can hear it. The Dolby saucer provides a near in-room audio experience.

The power of spatial audio is more than 3D sound. The potential killer features are really in hearing the soft stuff and not hearing the loud stuff.

Dave Michels, TalkingPointz



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