The Home Audio Industry Takes a Big Leap Forward: Multi-room, Garden Sounds, and Pitch-Perfect Raindrops

November 11, 2016

This year I returned to home audio after over a decade working in other industries and I was shocked to find that very little had changed since I’d been away. Generally speaking, progress has been relatively slow. In the 90s there was almost no home install and people tried their best to create a good listening environment, sometimes with a good result, sometimes not. But last month I discovered a very different picture of progress. I attended the CEDIA expo for home technology in Dallas and it was undeniable that technology is finally catching up with the imaginations of the people. Here are a few examples:

– Multi-room listening and controlling. Bang & Olufsen was out with this early on, even in the 80s, but it was complicated and limited because of technology limitations. Today such limitations don’t exist. With an extremely powerful computer in everyone’s hand, the possibilities are vast. Everything can be controlled from the smartphone. People have automated systems for controlling curtains, lights, alarms, movies, and any kind of audio. Even if some things are high-tech, they are accessible and affordable for most people in the developed world.

– Garden sounds that would make most living rooms feel embarrassed when it comes to sound quality. Subwoofers that are submersed underground, and all kinds of hide-able speakers and amplifiers, not to mention TV screens. As a dedicated outdoors person, I’m always happy to see people spend money and time on their gardens.

– TV systems and home cinemas (especially the ones with Dirac Live) that probably sound better than real movie theaters. From affordable ARCAM, to higher price ranges with Datasat and Theta Digital. Creating listening experiences in a quickly assembled demo-room, with no particular sound improvements, is suddenly possible. I had a chat with Jeff Hipps, the CTO of ATI, one of the major vendors in high end amplifiers. He declared, “Nowadays I won’t even listen inside a demo room at an exhibition or trade-show if they don’t have Dirac in the room, and yes you can quote me on that.” Thanks Jeff.

Gaming. Not just a simple PC or game console, but real car/plane/boat simulation as well. But I must say, this sort of contraption requires not only a huge space but a hefty wallet too.

There are, of course, some things that haven’t changed in the industry at all over the years. There are still vendors that sell cables, feet to tuck under amplifiers, magnets that change the current, and other things which have no measurable impact on sound at all. But those things will always be there because, after all, we are still in a market where feelings, not only science, matter.

Speaking of feelings, I must end with an experience I had at the Headquarters of ARCAM the other week. I got to demo Dolby Atmos in a showroom they had there. What was played was basic rain, heavy rain, but still rain. I sat and listened with my colleague Jakob Ågren and it was like sitting in a movie theater listening to rain in a movie. Ok, it was surrounding us, but it was still movie rain. But then they turned on Dirac Live in the amplifier, and suddenly I was no longer sitting in a movie theater listening to rain. I was outside, under the umbrella, experiencing every single drop—on the car next to me, the ground, and so on. It was that feeling of rain drops which every person with decent hearing can perceive. I forgot about the technology behind the curtain and the extremely expensive cables. Just then, I was simply standing out in the rain.

– Niklas Thorin, General Manager BU High Performance at Dirac Research

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