How Designers are Changing Sound - Design Bureau

How Designers are Changing Sound

Monday, July 26th, 2010

When sound designer Chris Kallai and his team at Sonos, a California-based digital speaker company, set out to create the S5 Zone Player, they had two things in mind. The first, to simplify the home stereo. The second, to make the sound system controllable by the iPhone.

Before the S5 was introduced, the company’s innovative high end units needed to be connected to an existing home stereo system, meaning additional wires, connections, time and frustration. The design team strategized about how to solve these problems, and decided to create a standalone unit that required nothing more than an Internet connection. In a design strategy akin to putting together a ship in a bottle, they created the Sonos S5. The small unit contained a Wi-Fi platform, on-board CPU with 333 MHz processor, 5-channel amplifier and five sound drivers (two tweeters, two mid-range, and subwoofer)—all inside one sleek unit measuring just 8.5 x 14.4 x 4.8 inches. Described by Kallai as the industry’s “first software driven speaker,” the S5 employs industry-leading technology that preserves the digital sound signal from the source of the audio (an iPod) through to the listener’s ear.

By keeping the content 100 percent digital throughout the transmission process, the S5 completely preserves the sound quality from the original source.

To make good on the second part of their challenge, Sonos created an app for the iPhone that allowed the listener to change the sound of the S5 unit from the palm of the user’s hand. Technically speaking, the S5 allows the listener to select a channel in which to stream their content using Sonos’ iPhone app. After the user downloads it, a digital signal is then sent via a wireless connection to the S5 and is immediately split into five digital streams using on-board software (two high, two mid, and one low). These five streams then send the sound from the S5’s internal CPU to a 5-channel digital amplifier before being transmitted through the internal sound drivers, and voila—the resulting sound is digital music to the listener’s ear.

Unlike other digital music players, the S5 preserves the content’s digital signal all the way through the audio food chain. Basically, an iPod initially transmits the audio signal as analog, converts it to digital and finally back to analog before the listener hears a sound. This back-and-forth process ultimately causes the sound to lose some of its integrity. But by keeping the content 100 percent digital throughout the transmission process, the S5 completely preserves the sound quality from the original source. And those sources are numerous—a user can stream content from his or her iPod, iTunes library, an external hard drive via audio input, or from any number of Sonos’s music partners: Rhapsody, Deezer, Last.fm, Napster, Pandora, and SIRIUS. The S5 also supports a spectrum of file types, from lossy mp3s and Windows Media files to lossless FLAC and WAV files.

For his part, Kallai believes that Sonos is at the forefront of utilizing software technology to shape the future of sound for the digital age. “The amount of control you have with software is amazing; it is control and engineering you just can’t do with hardware because there is not enough flexibility to make all this happen,” he says of the S5’s analog speaker predecessors. “But by using software, anything you can dream up you can make a reality.”

KLIPSCH: THE ANALOG COUNTERPOINT

Analog speaker designer Klipsch is fully aware of the impact new technology developements like Wi-Fi and digital signal processing will have on the home audio market. But they’re taking their time in figuring out how to approach the situation. “We want to do premium sound and create a product we can be proud of, from industrial design to acoustics to marketing,” says Glen Fuller, director of the company’s Indianapolis-based industrial design team. “We try to be current and put together a package that is the right size, shape and form and will give our acoustic guys what they need to be able to design great product.”

However, senior acoustic engineer Kerry Geist acknowledges the difficulties involved with designing analog products for a rapidly evolving marketplace. “Wireless is the perfect example of [market uncertainty]: there are so many competing designs out there and none of them are compatible, and at the same time, you don’t really know what the overall influence is going to be on the industry; some of them have better market penetration, some are more affordable than others, and none of them are compatible. The challenge to us is finding the credible technologies that actually have a future to them, and not something that is a good idea today, but has no future. That’s the battle we fight.”

The team at Klipsch isn’t being naive; they do realize that digital technology does ultimately represents the future of sound. It’s just a matter of what their next move will be and how they will make their products stand out. “The computer is becoming the hub to stream media throughout the house, and I think that will be the place everything will go,” says Fuller. “People still want good audio, so we need to keep abreast of new technologies.”

By Stewart Kuhlo

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