You might not have ever heard of Dirac , but if you’ve used aXiaomi, OPPO ,Huawei, orOnePlus phone in recent years, chances are you’ve heard their software in action. The Swedish audio firm works with an increasing number of device makers to optimize the sound quality of smartphone loudspeakers and headphone outputs.
Dirac’s smartphone suite, Power Sound, boosts the base and enhances the clarity of speakers by correcting impulse, phase, and magnitude frequency response. Unlike off-the-shelf equalizer solutions, Power Sound is built into device firmware and it applies tweaks at the system level.
I had a chance to experience it firsthand at last year’s Mobile World Congress, and the difference was striking. The loudspeakers on aGoogle Nexus 6P with Panorama Sound enabled (one of Power Sound’s filter effects) produced crisp, clear headphone-quality audio with an ultra-wide soundstage. During a music video, strings on an acoustic guitar sounded as though they were being plucked inches away from my ears, not coming from a smartphone speaker several feet in front of me.
To learn more about the technology, I had an opportunity to speak over the phone with Erik Rudolphi, Dirac’s General Manager of Mobile. We spoke about the company’s current partnerships, the applicability of its solutions to streaming music apps, and future plans.
Erik Rudolphi, General Manager of Mobile at Dirac.
Erik Rudolphi: So, we have basic technology that we use to track the impulse response and the frequency response of headphones or speakers. What we add to that for smartphone speakers is to make them play as loud as possible and enhance the bass—that’s not needed for headphones normally, but it’s necessary for speakers. So, there’s a set of […] different technologies to enhance the base, and there’s something we do called called Virtual Bass which is basically tricking your ears. What we do is we play the overtones of the bass, and if you play the overtones at the right level, your ear fills in with the fundamental tone and believes that there is base.
We made a lot of noise about our Xiaomi partnership at CES [Consumer Electronics Show], and also, at MWC [Mobile World Congress], we announced a partnership with AAC Technology. AAC Technologies happens to be the world’s largest manufacturer of the micro speakers that go into the phones that we’re supplying to—at least all the big OEMs that I know of. So, that has been a strategic partnership, and we develop software that controls the speakers and they develop speakers that are designed to be controlled by our products. That’s something we’ve been working on for two years and we’re starting to see the fruits of that.
E: So for instance, we have been showing up to MWC with a few mockups for stereo speakers solutions and smartphones. One of the challenges with stereo speakers is real estate. Last year at MWC, we demoed our technologies on [Huawei Nexus 6P]. The benefit of the Nexus phone is that it has two large speakers, so it’s relatively easy to do an impressive demo. Now, most of our customers want to also have a large display. There comes a fight between the audio and the display, so there’s no room for speakers. So actually, in one of the demos we have just a very tiny speaker on top of the phone for the receiver. That is the earpiece, but that receiver can also produce pretty high output, so it can be pretty loud.
Then you have the speaker, the down-firing speaker the bottom, and the trick we do here is that we can balance them, even though the sound is very different from the two—the speaker on the top and the speaker on the bottom. We can balance the two and we can make great surround sound from those two speakers.
And then there’s a smart speaker mock up we’ve created that is producing sound with micro speakers. We can produce pretty loud Hi-Fi sound from a very small compact package, like an Echo Dot, but it’ll sound much louder and much better than the originalAmazon Echo Dot.
E: Of course you can have any EQ, but what you could do is an intelligent system that would listen to the output and then do some kind of self-correction. It would take some time—that’s as much as I can say.
The problem would be that the microphones you have in your phone are too close to the speaker to make a true representation of the sound that you experienced. It’s conceivable, but it’s not going to happen soon. It’s pretty complicated to do that kind of thing.
Another option is, if you think of headphones and the digital headphones you use with USB Type-C and Bluetooth, you could identify the headphones, and if you know these headphones have a beat pattern and you have a library of profiles, you could automatically download the profile for the headphones. So that’s of course an option. The problem with it, though, is that you can’t enhance system-level audio streams—it requires a deeper integration into the phone. There has to be some kind of pre-integration. You can make an MP3 player or something, for example, but nobody plays MP3 files anymore. We want our technologies to work on the system level and support YouTube and Spotify and all of these different audio streams.
E: Of course we would like to, it’d be very helpful for our brand and brand recognition in the Western world. The U.S. market is dominated by Apple and Samsung, so of course we’re talking to them, but it’s not been an easy sell. They have their own technologies.
But a company that we’re glad to work with is OnePlus. Also, Xiaomi has started selling [its phones] in Spain and Poland, I believe—not just Asia. And of course they are extremely successful in India now. Xiaomi has over 25 percent of the market in India, I think, and they basically […] killed the domestic brands there. So that’s also an interesting development. Huawei of course is taking over market share. So I think [those companies] will probably change the [smartphone] market in the coming years.
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