Loudspeakers Are on the Network, What Next?

Loudspeakers Are on the Network, What Next?

Digitally-steerable arrays were first introduced in the early 1980s, so smart, network-enabled loudspeakers are hardly new. But while those speakers may have appeared to be science fiction at the time, recent developments in networking, especially, have enabled manufacturers to, well, significantly raise the IQ of their products.

Right: JBL’s EON 615 features the company’s waveguide technology. Left: Up to four steerable beams can be individually shaped and aimed from a single Renkus-Heinz IC8-R-II column using the powerful software-controlled DSP.

EAW’s Anya, for example, is one of the first loudspeaker products to allow direct integration with Audinate’s Dante network, which carries both control data and audio. Processing and amplification—either as separate components or integrated into a single outboard unit—are often networked these days, and the outputs of that system feed the speakers. In a break from that model, DSP and amplification on-board Anya may be addressed directly over the network. Analog and digital audio connectors are also included, which additionally allows any module to transmit its input to any other modules on the Dante network.

Anya offers what EAW calls Adaptive Performance, which might be considered the next generation of beam steering, in terms of coverage capabilities. Each column of modules—the length of the array, thus the number of modules, determines the lowest frequency that may be controlled—is simply hung in a straight line; since its coverage extends from 90 degrees above to 90 degrees below, there is no need for the typical line array J curve.

“One of the biggest challenges you have when you’re dealing with venues, especially indoors, is all the reflections coming off the walls and ceiling. What Anya enables you to do is adapt your coverage area,” explained Rusty Waite, vice president of sales for EAW.

In a music festival application, that coverage can be adapted dynamically to the changing size of the crowd, he noted: “With Anya it’s a two-minute fix in the software.”

System setup is achieved through proprietary Resolution 2 software, via traditional 3D mapping or using a microphone in combination with Smaart analysis. “You can also set up the system so that each of the modules knows through infrared sensing exactly where it is within the array,” he said.

PreSonus, too, has a Dante digital audio option card for its new StudioLive AI (Active Integration) line of three-way coaxial speakers. “We really feel—and I don’t think we’re alone in this—that audio networking over ethernet is the future of our industry,” said Wesley Smith, product manager, PreSonus.

The company has leveraged the DSP engine in its StudioLive mixer line and the expertise of design partner Dave Gunness, who designed an algorithm—TQ or temporal equalization—that optimizes the performance of the coaxial system, for the new AI speaker range. “The price of DSP has come down so much just in the last five years,” she said. “We started thinking, what if the system processor for your PA system was actually built into the loudspeakers?”

The networked point source system “is really going to be beneficial for the systems integrators in the mid-level install market,” said Smith. “Right now they’re spending thousands of dollars on copper and having to mitigate poor wiring in a building; this will simplify that process. It’s also going to allow people to do more distributed audio systems without having to have a big line array.”

The system can be managed over wire or wirelessly from a computer or tablet running proprietary software. “Most of the system integrators are using their laptop with Smaart or some other analysis application. Now they can install our SL Room Control and the Dante Controller app and manage their whole system with an ethernet cable,” said Smith.

Duran Audio, the first to market—in 1981—with a steerable speaker and now part of Harman’s JBL brand, offers serial control data and CobraNet networking capabilities on its flagship PA/VA product, Intellivox, with optional Optocore SANE support. “We’ve always had an RS -485 on the network on the Intellivox that we use for programming,” said Nick Screen, sales director at Duran Audio. “But we’re also using it far more intensively for system monitoring now, for all the different international standards for compliance and monitoring. We’ve got a RISC processor onboard the unit and are constantly monitoring the amplifiers and the DSP .”

Duran can leave its WinControl server hooked up to the system for monitoring. “It generates fault logs; we can program it so that it emails those to the system maintainer,” said Screen. If that server is connected to the internet, Duran can dial in to provide technical support.

Intellivox offers both DDA (Digital Directivity Analysis: beam steering) and DDA (Digital Directivity Synthesis: beam shaping) technology. “Beam shaping gives you the ability to create really complex dispersion patterns. You can try and do the same thing with multiple beams, but they will always overlap and you’ll have areas of interference,” said Screen.

But as Joshua Evans, technical manager, TC Group, reported, layering beam steering speakers, such as TC ’s Tannoy QFlex column array, has its benefits. “There’s a proposal for an east coast project, using two of these devices at each location, to get a 3 dB level increase. But at the same time you get a redundant system, so if there was ever an emergency you’d have a backup.”

Steerable speakers offer other new applications, he said. “Now, people look at how important speech is versus music. You can have one system on the proscenium arch, where you bring your localization down to the focal point of the artist on stage, and a music system up top. That’s a new market, especially for musicals.”

“QFlex control is serial data,” said Evans. “But we have a converter box that integrates Dante and the control data then takes an AES output locally to the loudspeaker. From there you can drive several speakers in parallel.”

Beware the time it takes to transmit the configuration file, Evans warns. When installing a competitor’s products in a previous job as an integrator it took two minutes per box in a 100-plus-box system. “Do the math! But uploading our file to QFlex takes under 10 to 20 seconds, depending on the size of the system.”

Steve Harvey (sharvey.prosound@gmail.com) has been west coast editor for Pro Sound News since 2000 and also contributes to TV Technology, Pro Audio Review, and other NewBay titles. He has over 30 years of hands-on experience with a wide range of audio production technologies.