The Surprising Highlight of MWC: Audio
It’s certainly not what I expected. After all, when it comes to a show that’s traditionally focused on the telecom industry, audio typically just refers to voice.
But at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade show in beautiful Barcelona, Spain, several of the biggest product announcements actually share a similar characteristic—a focus on sound and audio. In this case, it’s the surround sound technology from Dolby called Atmos. Both Samsung’s new flagship S9/S9+ phones and the Huawei Matebook X Pro notebook feature it, as well as the new Lenovo Yoga 730 notebook, which was also announced here at MWC. The convertible 2-in-1 Yoga 730 also extends its audio features through the integration of both the Alexa and Cortana digital assistants, as well as array microphones to allow you to use the device from a distance, similar to standalone smart speakers.
To be clear, all of these devices offer a variety of other important new technologies that go well beyond audio, but these sound-focused capabilities are interesting for several reasons. First, Dolby’s Atmos is a really cool, impressive technology that people will notice as being a unique feature of these products. But in addition, the inclusion of Atmos is the kind of more subtle type of improvements that are becoming the primary differentiator for new generations of products in mature product categories such as smartphones and PCs.
Walking through the halls of the convention center you could easily find collections of very nice-looking client devices amidst the telecom network equipment, IoT solutions, autonomous car technologies, and other elements that are a big part of MWC. What was impossible not to notice, however, is that they pretty much all looked the same, particularly smartphones. They’ve morphed their physical designs into little more than flat slabs of glass. Even many of today’s superslim notebook PC designs also have fairly similar designs. In both cases, the form factors of the devices are quite good, so this isn’t necessarily a bad development, but they are getting harder and harder to quickly tell apart from a visual perspective.
As a result, companies are having to incorporate interesting new technologies within their devices to offer some level of differentiation from their competition. That’s why the Dolby Atmos integration is an interesting reflection on the state of modern product development.
At its heart, Atmos is the next evolution of Dolby’s 30+ year history of creating surround sound formats and experiences. Originally developed for move theaters and now more commonly found on home audio products like soundbars and AV receivers from big consumer electronics vendors like Sony, Atmos offers two important additions and enhancements to previous versions of Dolby’s surround sound technologies. First, from an audio perspective, Atmos highlights the ability to position sounds vertically and horizontally, delivering an impressive 360˚ field of sound that really makes you feel like you’re in the center of whatever video (or gaming) content you happen to be watching. Previous iterations of Dolby (and rival DTS) technology have had some of these capabilities, but Atmos takes it to a new level in terms of performance and impact. The technology primarily achieves this through the concept of head-related transfer functions (HRTFs), which emulate how sounds enter our ears at slightly different times and are influenced by the environment around us.
The second big change for Atmos involves the audio file format. Unlike previous surround sound technologies, where the position of sounds was fixed, in Atmos sounds are described as objects and will sound slightly different depending on what types of speakers and audio system they’re being played through. Essentially, it optimizes the surround sound experience for specific devices and the components they have.
The effectiveness of this approach is very clear on Huawei’s Matebook X Pro, where the Dolby Atmos implementation leverages the four different speakers put into the notebook. One critique of surround sound technologies is that they’re effectiveness can be dramatically impacted by where you are sitting. Basically, you really need to be in the sound “sweet spot” to get the full impact of the effect. What’s interesting about the implementation of Atmos in a notebook is that it’s almost impossible to not be in the sweet spot if you’re viewing content directly on the screen in front of you. As a result, the audio experience with Dolby Atmos-enabled content on the Matebook X is extremely impressive—it’s actually a second-generation implementation for Huawei and Dolby and it’s quite effective.
For mobile devices like the new Samsung S9/S9+, Dolby Atmos can be delivered both through stereo speakers (a feature that many smartphones still don’t have) or, even more effectively, through a headphone jack. In fact, the implementation of Atmos on the S9 is probably the most effective argument in favor of having/needing a headphone jack on a smartphone that I’ve seen. With headphones, you get a truly immersive surround sound experience with Atmos-enabled content on the S9/S9+, and through the speakers on either end of the S9/S9+ you also get an audio experience that’s much better than with most other smartphones.
In the case of the Lenovo Yoga 730, the Atmos implementation is only via the headphone jack, but once connected to a standard set of headphones, it gives you the same kind of virtual surround experience of the other devices.
Admittedly, not everyone cares about high-quality audio as much as I do but given how much video content we consume on our devices, either through streaming services like Netflix, or just as part of our social media or news feeds, I believe it can be an important differentiator for vendors who deploy it. Plus, it’s important to set our expectations for the kinds of advancements that the next few generations of our devices are likely going to have. They may not be as dramatic as folding screens, but technologies like Dolby Atmos can certainly improve the overall experience of using our devices.