Sony is introducing new soundbars that offer superior audio and are easy to use.
Dolby is bringing Atmos to speakers, televisions, laptops and even smartphones.
The penchant for audio among consumers is also gaining momentum.
If you recently bought a new television, you’d have observed something very peculiar with modern home entertainment. For one, the television has slimmed itself to less than your smartphone, if not thinner, and audio quality doesn’t match up to those on old CRT TVs. While going portable was the industry’s call in the ’80s and ’90s, slim and thin is the rule of the day.
This obsession with slim and thin has now hit that part of entertainment which we held really close: audio. Whether you’re watching a late night soap opera focussed on the intensive equations between women in a household, or action scenes with doors being broken down as effortlessly as carrots, it’s the audio that gets your emotions high. Good old Bollywood is no different. The baritone voice over by the Shahenshah of Bollywood, aka Amitabh Bachchan or the engrossing BBC series narrated by Sir David Attenborough or Hollywood’s very own Morgan Freeman. It’s the audio that travels faster than the beam of light from the screen.
Through the evolution of technology, sound has largely been underrated. But its potential to give you goosebumps or scare the wits out of you is much more than the use of words and visuals. In reality though, sound engineering has been losing its prime. Even neglected in modern design and convenience. The television at my home, for instance, is great with a thin and slim design, fits into the wall, and offers one click access to streaming services. But then when I unwind to watch While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles, there is something amiss. I simply don’t resonate with the ingenuity of Eric Clapton and George Harrison’s guitar composition.
I don’t really get to connect with the song, the way I would, if it was played on some analog sound machine. Yes, it is true that sound is being sidelined for modern convenience and eye catching design but the industry is not going to go down without giving a fight. Every industry has had its own change agents and in India, the change agents (or the audio connoisseurs) are those who help engineers create sound and make machines that playback sound. “Audio is quite underrated as far as consumer electronics space is concerned. Our main objective to take audio experience to the next level,” says Vijay Singh Jaswal, Category Head Audio and Mobile, Sony India Pvt. Ltd.
Along with Ashim Mathur, Senior Director Marketing, Emerging Markets at, Dolby Laboratories, Jaswal wants to change the way Indian consumer experience music at their homes. Sony is the largest audio equipment manufacturer in India but its engineers believe that customers don’t often get the audio experience they deserve with their newest devices.
“We believe that consumers are not getting quality audio experience from their home entertainment devices. Quality Audio, according to us, is an area where consumers experience the sound, the way it was intended to be by its creators. Right now, consumers are experiencing a much more scaled down version of audio,” Jaswal adds.
Soundbars to the rescue
I still remember the early days of audio experience at my home. I brought a bunch of speakers and a subwoofer from Lamington Road, a popular marketplace in Mumbai and spent few hours wiring them together for an immersive audio experience. The popular trend has been to place four speakers at four corner of the living room with a subwoofer placed right below the TV set. Both Vijay Singh Jaswal and Ashim Mathur believe that this experience has restricted customers from jumping to modern audio devices like soundbar.
Soundbar, as the name suggests, is a bar-shaped horizontal device with speakers built-in for an experience that rivals the 2.1 channel or 5.1 channel system from the past. The USP of soundbars is that they offer the experience of a traditional 2.1 channel or 5.1 channel or 7.1 channel experience without the hassle of installing multiple speakers at different corners of your home and hard-wiring them together for a seamless experience. In fact, soundbars are such a viable alternative that Blaupunkt, a German equipments manufacturer, recently launched TVs with built-in soundbars in India.
Most TVs sold in the market right now offer two speakers with 20W output at maximum and the engineering so dismal that even regular television viewing becomes unpleasant after a point. Jaswal notes that “Once you experience audio on a 5.1 channel or 7.1 channel soundbar then you will not go back to traditional sound system.”
The easiest way to explain this disparity between the sound we experience on our devices versus what it was intended to be, is by looking at content. For most part of this decade, we watched content in Standard Definition on our televisions but rise of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu has led to production of more content in Full HD and 4K and now, even satellite channels offer HD subscription. There is a gap in audio production and experience and both Sony and Dolby say that they are working to address that gap.
For me, this gap became even more evident when I visited an electronics retail store at Bhandup, a suburb in Mumbai. This store has been the place where my family bought most home electronics, be it TV, refrigerator or washing machine. This year, when we went to look for a new television, it was immediately clear that the store owner wanted us to buy a speaker as well. “The sound is on this TV is not optimal for your home viewing experience,” the store owner told my Dad, pointing at one of the TVs on display.
“This festive season, we are offering discount to customers when they buy TV and soundbar together,” Jaswal said when I raised this retail experience. “The audio industry still works on word of mouth and the real trigger for consumers is when they experience the products at a retail store. We want to spread the awareness that “Sound is important” and that TV experience is not complete without quality sound experience. We are the and the soundbar market has more than doubled in the past year,” he added.
The Promise of Dolby Atmos
Sony and most other audio equipment makers offer a choice between 2.1 channel and 5.1 channel audio systems but Dolby is pitching Atmos as the next level of audio experience. While most audio devices tend to playback sound in a single plane, Dolby Atmos adds additional speakers to steer audio in additional plane. Consider it like having audio from both horizontal and vertical plane inside your home.
With a Dolby Atmos-enabled Soundbar like Sony’s HT-ST5000, the audio feels like being projected at you, rather than coming from a speaker located at a particular angle. The promise of Atmos, when it debuted in 2012, was built on the principle of beam steering, which is very much identical to the process of steering light in a particular direction. Once the beam is steered, the audio gets reflected from any hard surface and offers an immersive experience.
The Atmos audio does not really come handy in every scenario but it shows its magic when you watch movies like Interstellar, Martian or Lost In Space on Netflix. With Atmos, you can listen to that vertical take-off of a space vehicle, like you are there at the launch station. During a demo, Dolby engineers played video of a Chevrolet Corvette doing at a 100mph run and what really stood out is that, I felt as if that engine noise was being played right into my ears. In another demo, the sound of a Boeing 747 takeoff was played and I did not look up for that feel of vertical audio. It seemed to be happening right in front of my eyes.
“Dolby Atmos, as a technology, has not changed much from when it was introduced in 2016. However, the market has expanded and the pricing of new Atmos-enabled speakers is based on what consumers would pay for the experience,” Ashim Mathur explains. “Atmos started with Cinema but it came down to other devices like TV and mobile within few quarters. Content creators have also started supporting Atmos.”
“We are working with Dolby to introduce new soundbars, whether they are Atmos enabled or 5.1 channel at each price point. Atmos is the next level of audio engineering but right now, consumers don’t even experience 5.1 surround sound and are content with stereo (left and right channel) sound experience,” Jaswal adds.
The future of audio
At IFA 2018, the most common element were all kinds of devices with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant built in. These digital assistants are coming to these powerful speakers as well. With our source of content moving from traditional TV to streaming services, the devices need to be just as smart as possible. A soundbar connected to your large television may not be limited to just playing back whatever is on the TV.
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The future of audio is being envisioned as one where you could walk into your living room and say, “Alexa, play Today’s Top Hits” and the digital assistant should begin playing the audio from Spotify on your soundbar. “In future, the combination of smart TV and smart audio peripheral is set to expand further. These segments are converging and our primary function is to bring those convenience without compromising on audio quality,” Jaswal told BGR India.
Can Sony and Dolby deliver better audio?
For years, our expectation for an ideal entertainment experience has been set around cinema. “When we walk into a cinema, our expectation is set – big screen, big audio, better AC and popcorn – and there is a huge amount of opportunity for us to bring that experience to home,” says Ashim Mathur. “We want to bridge the gap between whatever is available and what consumers don’t know that they could get from their audio experience.”
“We are working very closely with consumers need and our products have been specifically made and tuned for Indian customers. Our audio engineers have studied how Indian consumers experience their home entertainment and have tuned them for local taste. Going forward, the price point should also get more accessible for most consumers in the country,” said Jaswal.
Both Dolby and Sony are on a quest to change how Indians perceive audio and experience it at home. The single goal of these tech giants is to help consumers experience the audio the way it was meant to experienced by its creators. We are not there yet but the efforts seem to be paying dividends. With these soundbars getting cheaper and accessible, there is a possibility that next time, you will walk out of a store with not just your new TV but also a soundbar. I certainly did.