Dolby livens up PC sound

Target rich environment

DOLBY WAS AT Computex showing off technologies that make PCs sound better. In this case, the two main umbrellas are Dolby Home Theater V3 and Dolby Advanced Audio.

Advanced Audio(AA) consists of four technologies, Audio Optimization, High-Frequency Enhancer, Natural Bass, and Dolby Headphone. Home Theater V3 (HT3) adds Sound Space Enhancer, Pro Logic IIX, and Dolby Digital Live to the mix. You will notice that all of these are not physical objects, Dolby licenses technology and algorithms, they don’t sell widgets, so anything you get will be in drivers or firmware.

Several of these technologies are old, but a few are new to the PC, and are worth taking a look at. Together they make up AA or HT3, so when you see the sticker, you know know what you are getting. Lets take a closer look at the key ones.

Audio Optimization is pretty easy to explain, it makes laptops and other fixed speaker devices sound better. In a space constrained device like a laptop, you put the speaker where you can, and do the best job available to make it sounds good given space and cost constraints.

In the end, it usually doesn’t sound very good, a 2cm speaker aimed down at your thigh will never match the sound of high end Klipsch speakers in a listening room. Audio Optimization measures the frequencies that a laptop can put out exactly, where it is strong and where it is weak. The resultant curve is then flattened in software, think of it as a hugely granular graphic equalizer. If the demo we heard at Computex was representative, Audio Optimization is a good thing.

High Frequency Enhancer (HFE) is another one to keep an eye on. If you know how MP3s are created, they take some liberties with the sound waves during compression. Certain things, especially short duration high frequency noise is basically removed or muted.

The idea behind HFE is to try and algorithmically reconstruct the bits, pun intended, that the compression removed. Without comparing wave forms side by side, it is impossible to say exactly how HFE accomplishes this, but once again, it did sound better.

I would think that this is more dependent on the level of compression used and the initial source material. Then again, you can turn it off, so at worst, there is no harm. In any case, it takes some of the ‘wet blanket’ feel off of MP3s, and that is not a bad thing.

Last up is Dolby Headphone. The real big news is that Dolby is licensing the tech as a standalone item for netbooks. If you think about it, the typical crotchtop is built for size and cost, neither of which are helpful in creating an immersive audio environment. As a result, Dolby says a lot of people use headphones with netbooks to escape the rattling tinny speakers that can be as friendly as an out of tune circular saw.

Dolby Headphone is not a full virtual 3D audio setup, it doesn’t do head related transfer functions or make things sound like they are from a set positional source. Instead, the idea is to warm and widen the sound a bit, making things sound less directional and more open. For netbooks, this is a really good thing.

In the end, the collection of technologies that Dolby brings to the table simply make things sound better. Coupled with an off switch, there isn’t really a down side here. If you don’t like it, you can make it go away with a click, but most people will never want to.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate