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As everyone adjusts to the pandemic challenges and a stay-at-home routine, here at KCK Media we've been looking at how we can contribute by helping everyone learn, stay connected, and be entertained. We've already offered free digital access to all our print subscribers, and we are offering 12 free issues with any 1-year digital subscription purchase, but we thought we should take it one step further. So, we've decided to offer our publications - Circuit Cellar and audioXpress - to everyone for free for the next 3 issues, and we are making the May, June, and July issues available in a dedicated digital subscription viewing platform. Read. Learn. Build. And perhaps discover a new passion. Get access here .   Read More

Industry & Product News
miniDSP Introduces SHD Power Integrated DSP-Powered Amplifier and New ambiMIK-1 Ambisonic Microphone
The creative minds at miniDSP are not stopping, and now that the COVID-19 situation has calmed down in China and production is back, the company is resuming its hectic release schedule and announced two new products available for pre-order on the company's webshop. The first will please anyone involved in spatial audio and content production and is a fully integrated First Order Ambisonic (FOA) microphone. The second will please those still forced to stay at home, and is the SHD Power, a 120 W per channel low-distortion power amplifier with Dirac Live room correction.    Read More  

Sonos Introduces Arc Premium Smart Soundbar and Updated Sonos Sub and Sonos Five
Sonos has introduced Sonos Arc, a premium smart soundbar for home theater with full integration in the Sonos wireless home audio eco-system and support for personal voice assistants. The new large-size soundbar builds on Sonos' experience in designing systems for home theater, with a solution featuring support for Dolby Atmos that is able to process audio according to content type, generating immersive sound and improving dialogue. The California company has also announced some surprise updates to existing home speakers .    Read More

Radial Engineering Introduces HDI Studio-Grade Direct Box and Preamplifier
Described as Radial's biggest product announcement in years (certainly since the company's acquisition in January 2018) the HDI, Radial's new flagship DI Box is now shipping. Shown in a prototype form at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention in New York in 2019, and officially announced at NAMM 2020 in January, the HDI is the answer to a question Radial put to in-house engineer "Hutch" Hutchinson: "If you could design any type of DI box you wanted, what would it look and sound like?"    Read More  

AMS Neve Introduces 1073OPX 8-Channel Microphone Preamplifier and Recording Interface
To mark the 50th anniversary of the legendary Neve 1073 classic microphone preamp, AMS Neve announced the 1073OPX, a new Octal Microphone/Line/Instrument Preamplifier that is designed to meet the needs of the modern studio environment. Originally, the preamp was used in all channels of the Neve A88 console at Wessex Sound Studios in London. Installed in 1970, the Neve 1073 is one the most admired microphone preamplifier circuits, and also one of the most emulated. Now, AMS Neve created an eight-channel version with optional integration features .    Read More  

Genelec RAW Loudspeakers to Help AES Fundraising Initiative
Following the introduction of the special RAW aluminum color finish, Genelec is set to donate a percentage of every sale of its new RAW loudspeaker range to the Audio Engineering Society (AES), for the remainder of this year. Additionally, Genelec will be funding 10 one-year AES memberships for those individuals whose lives have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Genelec's special RAW aluminum color finish is available on a selection of the most popular models in its Studio, AV, and Home Audio ranges .    Read More  

AAC Technologies Opens New MEMS Microphone Design Center in Scotland
Expanding its commitment to invest in the build-out of a worldwide network of R&D centers that advance the technologies critical to the performance of smartphones and other mobile devices, AAC Technologies Holdings Inc., announced the opening of a MEMS microphone center in Edinburgh, Scotland. The new facility, focused on the design of next-generation microphone system-level solutions, joins a growing worldwide network of R&D centers located in China, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the United States .    Read More

Studio Six Digital Discounts AudioTools App, Test Microphones, and Interfaces
Studio Six Digital, designers of the popular AudioTools test and measurement system for the Apple iOS operating system, has discounted the AudioTools app by 50%, and the full suite of in-app upgrades by 30%. Now, they are also offering reduced pricing on all of its iOS and USB test and measurement microphones and audio interfaces to accommodate work-from-home technicians who have been displaced from their labs during the COVID-19 lockdown .    Read More  

Editor's Desk
J. Martins

Communications and Working Remotely
Consumer and Office Convergence in the Reopening
With the world now facing its seventh or tenth week of lockdown - depending where you are in the world - and while countries, cities, and companies start to look at how they can return to some form of normality in order not to disrupt business any longer, it is already becoming clear that, from confinement to reopening, we will have to face a transition period with its own set of communication challenges.

Even for those companies that are able to reopen part of their manufacturing or logistic operations, the dilemma remains of who should be called back from home, and who should continue to shelter and work remotely. And when that is decided, there's also the need to engage with suppliers and clients, many of which have also not yet reopened operations, forcing companies to keep communication routines that support the largest number of communication channels as possible.

Also, now that we have finally established a steady flow of webinars, special online events, and production of education content to be shared on our websites and social media channels, do we consider stopping that strategy all together? And yet, with people finally being able to move between home and office - and listening again to their favorite podcasts while driving - that routine becomes much harder to sustain.

When everyone was forced to temporarily abandon workplaces and shelter at home, communications and collaboration changed forever. Skype (not Microsoft Teams) is Microsoft's service star best positioned to compete in the post-COVID-19 landscape.

The cabin fever is now starting to give way to the realization that this was a temporary reality - and that after all that planning of what to do with all the time at home - we finally realize we didn't do half of the things we should have done. What is finally left of the experience is the fact that a lot more people are now able to work and communicate virtually - and the realization that some jobs are actually viable with WFH. 

When everyone was forced to temporarily abandon workplaces and shelter at home, we changed communications and collaboration forever. And now companies and people will try to build on that experience - and try to avoid all the poor audio and video quality issues they experienced in the lockdown. Some will just quickly go to the office and grab that meeting-room soundbar with a built-in camera to take home, others will just order new headphones with ANC, while many will buy a new Apple MacBook and dump the old laptop that suffered an "accidental" soup spill all over the keyboard. 

With the new challenges of coordinating office and remote collaborations under the new conditions, one thing is certain: We are going to keep the software and services that worked well for us during the previous 10 weeks and we will expect those vendors to keep the same level of features. If anything can go back to the "premium" paid subscription level, as before, it better be because the audio quality and reliability is going to be excellent.

I predict a "back to work" shopping-craze, as companies, rethink their strategies, equipment and services, adapting around the remote collaboration and communication environment. Remember those laptops that the sales team always carried and never worked at home because they were infested with virus? The team is all going to get new iPads, and the company is not even going to pay for it!

Give Me Better Audio
As discussed in my previous editorial, we can say there was a time before and after Skype. When Skype reached critical mass (at the end of 2010, there were more than 660 million worldwide users), people wondered why their Skype-to-Skype calls sounded so much better than what they were used to on the phone. One of Skype's early codecs was iSAC ( internet Speech Audio Codec ), an adaptive wideband audio codec that allowed twice the frequency bandwidth of standard phone calls, and added mechanisms to compensate for the delay, jitter, and packet loss challenges of IP networks. The transition to SILK allowed another dramatic improvement, offering even better performance under variable conditions, and very high quality in ideal conditions (and the reason why Skype communications where quickly adopted even for broadcast contributions - not surprisingly, most of the guest calls we see on TV these days are supported by dedicated Skype hardware on the receiving side, with direct IP connections and even balanced analog outputs).

The integration of high-quality live Skype video calls for talk shows, entertainment shows, radio, and other live video conferencing events is now established thanks to dedicated systems, such as this Quicklink Skype TX (more solutions available from NewTek, Riedel, etc.,) designed in partnership with the Microsoft Skype team, and which also includes a video call management system.

Of course, the Microsoft acquisition didn't help Skype a lot. Microsoft first discontinued its Windows Live Messenger for Skype, and later replaced Lync with Skype for Business. The strategy between Skype for Business and the "standard" Skype software was never clear to anyone. And in nearly 10 years, Microsoft has not done much to improve the software (well, maybe a little more than it did with Windows...). Even today, Microsoft continues to confuse everyone with Microsoft Teams. Meanwhile, competition multiplied in the desktop and mobile space, starting earlier with Apple's FaceTime.

The introduction of FaceTime with the iPhone 4, in 2010, was effectively the next big revolution in communications, introducing the world to mobile "video chat" - a new concept that was seen by many as effectively "taking Skype mobile." And the audio quality in FaceTime was great not only because of the typical superior hardware/software integration of Apple's devices, but also because FaceTime introduced the world to the next big thing in audio codecs: AAC-ELD.

This was part of the AAC family of codecs from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS. Since 2007, the MPEG-4 AAC-Low Delay codec had already been used by Cisco to transmit audio in the Cisco TelePresence meeting solution. The Fraunhofer codec was praised at the time for providing "a realistic sound image through several channels of full-bandwidth, music-quality audio, with the low-latency delay needed for interactive conversations." The AAC-LD was an evolution of the AAC codecs used in the Apple iPod and digital television services, and satellite radio. It offered a similar audio quality to music codecs with coding delays of only 20 ms instead of 100 ms or more.

The AAC communication codec family was later expanded with the AAC-ELD and AAC-ELDv2 codecs, allowing for maximum speech and sound quality, raising the audio quality for any communication application and defining a new standard for high-quality audio in video conferencing systems, such as Apple FaceTime. Thanks to the native integration of AAC-ELD in iOS, Mac OS, and Android, app developers and service providers could easily build communication apps with support for the full audio frequency range.

Today's IP communication software (web conferencing) evolved from the early technologies pioneered by Skype and Fraunhofer IIS, and offer an extremely high quality level, under ideal conditions - allowing us to feel like we are in the same room as the person we are talking to. Frequently, the lack of ideal conditions is not so much the connection, but the end-point interfaces, as previously mentioned. Full hardware, software, and built-in audio processing integration allows a trouble free experience, sometimes even over unreliable Wi-Fi hotel networks.

Apple has developed an integrated hardware and software solution optimized for videoconferencing that rivals really expensive corporate systems. Problems, when they exist, result from one of the other endpoints, where there is no audio integration, and no signal processing causing low intelligibility and frequent cuts (echos and delays are very uncommon now, but they still can occur - Skype has built-in echo cancellation.) No doubt, the importance of having a fully integrated audio processing chain is crucial.

Actually, that's what happens when people use simply smartphones for VoIP in a broadband network. The audio quality can be surprisingly good - a huge contrast with what we experience normally on "regular" phone calls. And the audio problems people experience are 80% the result of bad acoustics, surrounding noise, and people using the devices in speakerphone mode (the speaker distortion is far higher than the transmission distortion).

The meeting room scene in the photo will probably not happen any time soon, but all the Sennheiser TeamConnect Audio Conferencing wireless solutions are a great starting point for organizations in the near future.

Many dedicated, "professional" systems that we also have - and which were not being used much during the shelter-at-home days - are certainly all more integrated, and yet many still suffer from audio quality problems. Many require users to manually calibrate the connected peripherals. And without the hardware/software integration there's no chance of optimizing any quality parameters, except on the actual audio transmission flow, where all is about compensation.

Videoconference and meeting software, such as the now very popular Zoom, typically target business applications and it seemed a good idea to "certify" hardware devices - hence, they created a Zoom Certified program. But this just means that the devices receiving certification "have been tested with the software." Only in certain cases, such as for Zoom Rooms and Zoom Phone services, are certified IP devices tested to be fully interoperable with the application.

Similar certifications exist for Skype for Business, Cisco, Avaya, and other UC&C systems, but they all target professional applications in optimized environments, such as meeting and huddle rooms. Nothing happens when a participant in a meeting calls from his car using a Bluetooth-connected device... Any integration means simply automatic device selection (not bad), answer and end calls, adjust volume, and mute. That's it.

If a proper bidirectional connection was established, maybe the software could assure automatic signal processing optimization features according to a device profile, such as in fully integrated UC&C solutions. This is possible using a USB connected headset - the USB Implementers Forum did a lot of work in their latest updates to the USB specifications, knowing that video conferencing was one of the key applications.

The problem seems to be now, as with everything else in technology today, people want to go wireless, and of course all the latest business- and office-oriented solutions from Jabra, Poly, etc., are now Bluetooth based. Of course, to work with a lot of existing office systems and old computers, these new wireless communication headsets use a USB dongle to manage the connection - in big part to ensure they work in a longer range, establishing a radio connection up to 98' (30 meters) with Class 1 supported devices. These new generation office headsets even use active noise canceling and support wideband voice, which means that they could potentially optimize the whole experience - as long as the software understands what is connected.

And it's not like these companies weren't aware of the transition to "outside the office." As Poly states, communications should be simple, "But there are so many headset scenarios, from open offices, to mobile work, to hallway chats, to large-scale deployments, and it's not a one size fits all situation." Now Poly - as with Microsoft and everyone else - is busy adding working-from-home scenarios, and how to make all those converged systems combining consumer and "office" technologies work together.

The race is on! Facebook introduced Facebook Messenger Rooms to compete with Zoom and Google. Between WhatsApp and Messenger, more than 700 million accounts participate in calls every day. In many countries, video calling on Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubled.

No Going Back
And when I stated that things have changed forever on that front, I was also thinking how software and services have also changed dramatically in the last 10 weeks. Zoom updated its software to close the security problems and better manage all the mind-boggling number of different applications that people invented - from remote schooling to technical support services, including uses in critical and sensitive areas, such as tuning hearing-aids remotely.

Google decided to open its Google Meet videoconferencing service (previously called Hangouts Meet) to anybody who wants to use it, instead of just offering it to enterprise and education customers via the Google Suite. And Google Meet is not only working very reliably, it also offers the advantage of live voice to text transcription, something that others had promised and is only possible with third-party software and services - mostly paid for.

And of course, Facebook also quickly reacted and announced Facebook Messenger Rooms to compete with Zoom, while Microsoft also removed restrictions from Skype, allowing a larger number of users and the possibility for anyone to join a call through an invitation, using only a browser. Facebook is also consolidating the technology and user interface for its other services, like WhatsApp (WhatsApp Group Calls) and Instagram, in order to boost the web-conferencing service. Free access from the web, from apps, and even from mail and calendars is becoming standard, with almost no limits to the number of participants or time limits for the sessions. How can we ever go back?

Facebook Portal is a brand of smart displays developed in 2018 by Facebook to provide video chat via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, augmented by far-field microphone arrays, and a camera that can automatically zoom and track people's movements. The devices are integrated with Amazon Alexa.

Probably the only option for these companies to sell additional services and add revenue, will be to combine the meetings and conferencing tools with cloud, storage, and software productivity suites. That, or do as Facebook is trying with its line of Portal hardware devices, creating simple solutions to connect even more people, by enabling real-time video and videoconferencing directly to TVs and smart displays for the kitchen or living room.

One thing is certain. After this pandemic is under relative control and we are all able to return to working from offices and travel, the winners will be the companies that have better leveraged this period to gain scale and have (hopefully) a satisfied user base that is already familiar with the interfaces and have connections established. Trying to launch new "pro-level" solutions or change the way people already work for teleconferencing and collaboration will be very hard... and incredibly expensive.

From The Vault
The TechTube Blackburn E813CC: A New Approach to Tube Design
By  Neville Roberts
We invite our readers to return to the past, when the original Blackburn manufacturing site - where Mullard tubes were once made - was shipping the TechTube Blackburn E813CC - an engineering effort to redesign the ECC83 dual triode, claiming more accuracy and more consistency. "The famous Blackburn MicroTech Solutions tube factory has launched the first in a line of audio tubes featuring the first radical re-design in tube technology in over 40 years," writes Neville Roberts in his original 2009 report for audioXpress Sadly the venture ended quickly - Blackburn Microtech Solutions went into administration in September 2009 and the company closed in December 2009 - just a few months after they ' d started shipping out their first new tubes and shortly after Roberts' article was published in audioXpress. According to the press at the time (see sources), Blackburn Microtech Solutions collapsed owing £12.4 million, after years of struggle as a supplier of obsolete cathode tubes used in TVs. Roberts' article is definitely worth revisiting, since it tells the story of how difficult it is to resume tube production, and more importantly how and why such historical companies have disappeared. This article was originally published in audioXpress, November 2009 .    Read the Full Article Now Available Here

Market Update - Voice
Voice Capture Challenges: The Threshold of the Golden Age of Voice
By  Mike Klasco
For its last edition of 2018, audioXpress published a complete Market Update report on Voice, exploring some of the latest developments and trends. Voice processing and recognition leading to the development of voice-based personal assistants is one of the decade's greatest achievements and provides a unique opportunity for the audio industry. And of course, those developments propelled by voice are leading to exciting developments in smart speakers, leveraging those sophisticated technologies now available to the consumer electronics industry. The same technologies used to create systems optimized for voice recognition can also be used to enhance music listening, improve communications, or simply allow speakers to become part of a smart home network. That makes the investment on new designs much more exciting. In this article, Mike Klasco provides an introduction to the voice capture, signal processing and voice recognition challenges. This article was originally published in audioXpress, December 2018 .    Read the Full Article Now Available Here

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