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DSP at CES, And Other Audio Trends

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is not an easy hang.

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is not an easy hang. Its vast layout and overly broad perspective requires a real plan. One reporter from chose to cover the show while tripping on acid, while several others preferred to tweet about “the dumbest stuff” they saw.

This year, I took a “micro” approach, diving deeper with a handful of technology gems that could add some sparkle to our tiny niche of the CE business. Two of my most intriguing discoveries were audio demos from Harman and Dirac Research, each involving a novel approach to digital signal processing (DSP).

In Harman’s minimalist suite in the Hard Rock Hotel sat two fairly large, hour-glass-shaped Lexicon SL-1 tower speakers (about five feet high, including a two-foot stand) in staggered positions, 20 feet away from multiple seats that were placed in intentional disarray. Each SL-1, I learned, is a fully active, self-contained collection of 32 loudspeakers (12 tweeters, 16 midrange, four woofers), 22 channels of amplification delivering 125W of power, and DSP, controlled via a mobile device.

The idea is to use the SoundSteer beam-forming array to select the location and size of your listening sweet spot via an app. I was handed a tablet and could move and resize the sweet spot with the touch of my finger. I adjusted the size of the sweet spot for an intimate focus, then went wide with an omnidirectional setting. The speakers sounded great, and the sweetspot beaming technique was quite effective in removing the shackles of a traditional two-channel setup. When Harman likely moves beyond “concept” to production units, I see the SL-1 speakers as a way to re-invent the Lexicon brand and appeal to wealthy clients that want great audio without a rack full of gear.

The other notable demo was in the Venetian audio suites by room correction experts, Dirac Research. Looking for a way to broaden his brand’s reach into areas such as production studios and virtual reality environments, CEO Mathias Johanssen showed a “virtual HiFi system.” The system corrects the unnatural, overly localized audio inherent in headphones, by positioning a phantom image in front of the listener, where it remains as the point source, even when the listener rotates his or her head. The sound opens up as if you’re listening to speakers, rather than from headphones. As part of the demo, I took off the phones, which triggered near-field monitors in front of me to pick up the signal. The difference between the speakers and the headphones was indecipherable. It sounded pretty great and could be a boon for VR companies looking to create experiences even closer to the real thing. Dr. Johansson credits the company’s 15 years of experience in room acoustics optimization, in addition to the improvement of sound for speakers and earphones of all types, with giving Dirac an edge in the VR audio world..

Admittedly, sometimes prototypes don’t pan out, but I felt that these gems were shining examples that CES isn’t so bad, when you know where to look.