SRS Labs Works More Closely With TV Manufacturers to Improve Audio Quality
The Consumer Electronics Association recently polled flat-panel TV owners to determine what TV characteristics they value most. Not surprisingly, video quality came in at the top of the list, but close on its heels was sound quality. In fact, 81 percent of participants ranked a TV’s sound quality as being important or very important. Yet, the same study revealed that 76 percent of flat-panel TV owners use the speakers built into their TV or only use two speakers to listen to HDTV programming.
How do you reconcile those two statistics? It’s enough to drive an audiophile mad. Beyond the ergonomic and financial limitations of adding a surround sound system, many consumers probably stick with the TV speakers because they question their own ability to discern high-quality audio. We may not all be able to distinguish subtle differences between two $10,000 speaker systems, but we all know bad sound when we hear it. And unfortunately, lots of TV speakers just don’t cut it. Numbers like those in the CEA poll should put more pressure on TV manufacturers to offer a higher-quality audio experience, but it doesn’t exactly jibe with the current trend of making TV speakers as small and invisible as possible.
One company that wasn’t surprised by these finding is SRS Labs, which develops audio processing technologies for all sorts of consumer electronics devices – from MP3 players to PCs to A/V receivers. The company is aggressively courting flat-panel TV manufacturers, and the result is that SRS audio technologies are starting to appear in a larger number of big-name, big-screen LCD and plasma panels. Samsung, LG, Pioneer, and Toshiba regularly feature SRS technologies in their TVs, and the company recently added Vizio, Syntax-Brillian (Olevia), and Sharp to its client roster. According to SRS chief technology officer Alan Kraemer, the use of external audio systems, or the penetration home theater systems, has not changed that much since the early ’90s when the company first got its start. The numbers have remained fairly flat, with only about 25 percent of the market embracing multichannel audio systems. The exploding popularity of flat-panel HDTVs presents a whole new crop of challenges, as manufacturers try to figure out how to eke better sound from ever-shrinking speaker cabinets. Consequently, SRS has changed its focus over the past few years: Instead of simply licensing audio algorithms to TV manufacturers, SRS now views itself more as a service provider, collaborating with clients much earlier in the design process. “We have a big toolbox of things we can apply to deal with different acoustical and physical design constraints in a TV,” Kraemer says. “What we’re doing is taking the audio signal processing algorithms and looking at design constraints imposed by the TV and creating an optimal tradeoff between the two to get the best possible audio performance out of the TV.” The company has put together an engineering group that specializes in this process, for those clients who wish to utilize it. Kraemer believes that it is getting easier to convince TV manufacturers of the importance of better-quality sound. Whereas these companies used to argue that consumers can’t hear the sound system when looking at a row of TVs at the local big-box store, everyone seems to recognize that online user reviews and word-of-mouth play a much bigger role in TV sales these days. When one consumer complains on Amazon that a TV’s sound quality is bad, it has a much bigger effect on sales, which certainly gets the manufacturer’s attention.
The most popular SRS technology currently found in flat-panel HDTVs is TruSurround XT®, which renders a surround field, provides dialogue clarity, and uses a bass-enrichment system that employs psychoacoustic principles to create the impression of low bass, below what the TV’s speakers are capable of reproducing. Some manufacturers, like Toshiba and Pioneer, prefer SRS WOW®, which also features dialogue clarity and bass enrichment but, instead of creating a surround field, provides an expansion of the stereo field. SRS is currently working on several new technologies that will begin to appear in products later this year and throughout 2009. TruSurround HD™ adds a definition function to improve high-frequency clarity, since many new TV models use single-driver units with no tweeter. TruSurround HD should make its first appearance in new Vizio TVs later this year. While TruSurround XT and TruSurround HD are designed for two-speaker configurations, the new TruSurround HD4 technology can use up to 5.1 speakers to render a surround field, all from the front – as you would find in a TV or soundbar. Kraemer describes a popular TV configuration that would use 4.1 channels, with two channels for the front field, two for the surround field, and a subwoofer. Perhaps the most anticipated new technology is Volume IQ, an automatic gain control that deals with volume disparities when watching TV, such as those between shows and commercials or between analog and digital stations. The new Volume IQ function is designed to “minimize undesirable artifacts while accurately maintaining a reference volume level,” and the technology should start appearing in TVs and set-top boxes later this year or early next.
There’s still no replacement for a good multichannel audio system if you wish to be fully immersed in your favorite DVD, Blu-ray, and HDTV content. If we can’t convince people to move beyond their TV speakers, we can at least encourage them to demand more from those speakers. SRS is working hard on the development end, and we can only hope that translates into more higher-quality offerings on the retail floor
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