CES 2017 – Thoughts in the perspective of a professional audio practitioner

CES 2017 has many up and rising technology trends this year, with a significant amount of attention invested in autonomous car technologies, mixed realities (augmented/virtual) and the Internet of things devices. These progressions made sense to me, as they are introductions to compliment our existing technological infrastructures to alleviate our already hectic lifestyles.

CES 2017, credit CES 

With a magnitude of new products and technologies launched within a few days, it is easy for one to feel lost or even not knowing what to get excited about. In this article, I will be sharing a few developments by manufacturers in consumer audio that interests me and what I feel may influence the general audio markets (professional / consumer). 

Audio Technica DSR9BT: Goodbye DAC!

There are numerous practices by audio manufacturers to improve their signal to noise ratio (SNR) in their products. From compacting an internal amplifier with high headroom to utilising better quality cables, Audio Technica has an intriguing approach to retain high SNR in their new Wireless Bluetooth Headphone.

"Truly" Digital Headphone, Audio Technical DSR9BT, credit Audio Technica

Conventional Signal Chain

The conventional signal chain of many existing headphones employs a digital to analog converter (DAC) early in the signal chain stage to amplify the audio signal to have the appropriate amplitude to drive the speaker components. Compressors and filters are commonly used to help improve signal integrity (e.g. signal gain compensation after transmission).

As previously mentioned in one of my articles (Investing in your audio system), any form of signal conversions, regardless of whether is it analog to digital (ADC) or digital to analog (DAC), these conversions will inherently produce unwanted noises (components tolerance) and decrease overall signal integrity. With a lower level of signal integrity, system fidelity will be affected.

The newly launched Audio Technica headphone has introduced a new technology that allows digital signals to transduce directly from speaker components. Conventionally, signals of analog nature are needed to operate the speaker components. However, Audio Technica’s Pure Digital Drive System allows the speakers to response to a digital signal without the necessity of any form of conversion beforehand. Do take note that the reproduction of sound at the end point is still analog.

How does Pure Digital Drive System improve SNR?

As compared to its analog counterpart, the digital signal has a discrete characteristic (1s and 0s), which in turn enable the signal to be robust against signal deterioration and also prevent signal distortions with lesser conversion stage along the signal chain. In my opinion, this is one of the most pragmatic approaches in the consumer market that have real potential to improve upon to help retain SNR and high system fidelity.

Upscaling any audio source into high resolution

It appears that there is a trend in CES 2017 where many consumer audio products are aimed to support high-resolution audio. Samsung has announced a new proprietary digital audio upscaling technology, Ultra-high Quality (UHQ) sound to “enhance” any audio format into a high-resolution format of 32 bits (bit depth). The sampling rate is yet to be confirmed, but speculation of 192KHz is expected.

Samsung h7 Wireless Speaker, credit Samsung

Will the upscale audio signal be true to its original format?

This can be an interesting development if Samsung has managed to development a upscaling protocol that is faithful to its original audio source. Existing upscaling technologies have always been biased towards pitch alteration. This is one of the digital artefacts created when a digital signal is over-sampled or under-sampled.

“Enhancing” Audio Quality

Audio Enhancement is not a simple processing of up-sampling the audio source. In musical terms, sound enhancement can be referred to as the improvement to the musical components concerning spectrum characteristics (e.g. clarity) or spatial imaging (e.g. “wideness” perspective of the audio source), etc. This additional information requires additional data, which is not innate in the source. Therefore, Samsung would have to develop a technology that is intelligent enough to study the musical characteristic of the song and melodically enhance various components to complement the overall experience.

LG SJ9 Soundbar Speaker: The first 4K speaker?

The LG SJ9 Soundbar Speaker System has incorporated a 320W system featuring two speakers that can either be used as a pair of front of house speakers (home setup) or delayed surround speakers. The soundbar has also incorporated the support for Dolby Atmos, an industry format that is commonly used in the film industry.

SJ9 Soundbar Speaker System, credit Gadget360

Who are they marketing to?

Looking at the features and design of this product, it is quite clear that LG is trying to target this product to movie lovers, home party enthusiast or even casual listener. The system can be configured up till a 5.1 setup to allow user to have a comprehensive immersion experience of listening to the system

A feature that raises eyebrows

The feature that gets discussed a lot in this particular product in CES 2017 is the 4K audio resolution format the system can support. This market term is derived mathematically from the bit rates of the stream audio signal. The system support 24 bits (bit depth) @ 96KHz (sampling rate), with a two-channel of audio, the stream would equate to 96000 (sampling rate) x 24 (bit depth) x 2 (two channels e.g. L-R) = 4,608,000bps≈ 4,000kbps, hence the term 4K resolution audio.

To give credit, this marketing term has worked its way through the sea of commotion in CES 2017. However, the format 24 bits @ 96KHz is not new at all. Most entry-level audio interfaces such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 were supporting this format year ago with now having the support up till 192KHz. As discussed earlier, having high-resolution audio does not necessarily define the good quality sound, the acoustics of the environment will determine the second half of the overall experience. A more comprehensively designed system should include some form of acoustic alteration system through digital signal processing (DSP) where different profiles can accurately tune or control to benefit the most out of high-resolution audio.

On a more serious note

New LG Wallpaper TV, credit The Future Tech

Although the SJ9 was marketed inconjuncture with the new wallpaper TV from LG (4K resolution), the term 4K should not be used in audio as that constitute the amount of pixels generated per frame (pixel count). In contrast, audio signal does not involve any form of pixel generation (at least at this very moment), and manufacturers should uphold existing standards that have been rigorously tested for the use of the audio protocol. Marketing terminology such as 4K sound can bring welcomed attention to your product, and I support that. However, if these new terms are not elaborated on precisely should not be encouraged as it will cause many confusions, resulting in a more challenging environment for a casual consumer to purchase a product that truly suits his/her home setup.