It’s good to talk

In the past decade there has been a steadily growing list of reasons for remote conferencing. Environmental considerations, security concerns and just plain time efficiency all mean that voice and vid

Prior to such new-fangled technologies as video conferencing came along, we were quite content to communicate via telephone. Before long, being social animals, we wanted to share our telephones and have more than just a one-to-one conversation. We wanted to have multiple participants at each end of the call, and possible even more than two locations. More importantly we no longer wanted to use a telephone each. The speaker phone was developed, leading to the ubiquitous triangle shaped appliances that grace the tables of small meeting rooms and offices in corporate settings across the world.

In the larger boardrooms another solution was sought. Many of these have sound reinforcement solutions in their own right, with wall or ceiling mounted loudspeakers and table microphones leading to feedback issues and acoustic echoes at one or both ends of a conversation. In addition, videoconferencing has become more and more ubiquitous and it is now necessary to match the high-quality video conferencing experience with an equivalent sound solution.

The final transformation has been the move to IP based speech over traditional telephone lines, requiring players in the market place to again, re-examine their products to take account of modern networking technologies and challenges.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a growing and potentially lucrative market place, there are really only three big players when it comes to audio conferencing solutions at the professional end of the scale. For some time Biamp, ClearOne and Polycom have nearly owned the market in DSP systems for voice communication applications between. It could be argued that this lack of competition has perhaps stifled innovation and until recently the offerings from all three were looking distinctly long in the tooth. However in the last 12-18 months all three have hit the street with new solutions designed to meet changing customer needs and take advantage of advances in technology.

For Polycom, their audio conference DSP solution is/was Vortex. This came in a number of flavours depending on exactly what you wanted. EF2280 is the fullest featured member of the family, fitting 8 microphone/line-input channels with AEC and noise cancellation on each, a 25 x 18 matrix mixer and 5 band parametric EQ for each channel in a single rack unit. Other units in the range are either microphone mixers, which can be connected to separate echo cancellors or to telephone exchange interfaces such as the EF2201, via Polycom’s proprietary digital bus. Importantly for the quality of the audio, the series operates at full range response of 20Hz - 20kHz.

However times have changed and the competition has moved on. Therefore at this year’s InfoComm in Anaheim, Polycom announced the successor to Vortex: SoundStructure. It feature several key improvements over its predecessor. The most notable of these is the integration of Ethernet connectivity, allowing the unit to be controlled and managed over the network. Additionally, all of the units conference DSP functions are available on each input. The company also touts improvements to its AEC algorithms as well as making much of the addition of stereo echo cancellation.

SoundStructure is also a simplified range compared to Vortex, gone are the separate microphone mixers, AEC units, noise cancellers and interchange interface boxes. There are three models, the C16, C12 and C8 denoting the number of inputs and outputs on the matrix.

Dr Craig Richardson is Polycom’s VP of installed voice, and he summarised the changes that have taken place between Vortex and SoundStage: “What we’ve done on SoundStage is take the features that have been in the Vortex and added some more commercial sound type processing. That includes feedback elimination on all inputs to try to prevent the acoustic feedback issues that commonly occur in those systems.”

He is also enthusiastic about stating the case for stereo echo cancellation: “One of the things you can do is get some positional audio. You might have the UK on one loudspeaker system and New York on another one, and now you are a bit more immersed in the situation because you have a better idea of who’s talking. As you have multiple callers you can then pan that sound around you.” Another thing that SoundStructure supports is more than one reference monitor per microphone. That means you can have L-R audio coming into the room from a remote site and then maybe a VC audio feed as well. By using two cancellation references you can cancel both of those echoes and stop them being sent back to the remote side.

With the XAP 800 ClearOne claimed to have the best audio conferencing product on the market. Period. Clearly in response to competitive product updates the company pointed out its heritage in echo cancelling and conferencing technologies. XAP offers 20kHz of bandwidth, AEC on each microphone input and the ability to link multiple XAP boxes together to handle up to 64 microphones. However like Vortex, XAP was only controllable and configurable via RS-232.

Almost ten years on, a successor has arrived in the shape of Converge Pro. ClearOne has added the latest generation of its DSP technology for AEC / noise cancellation, compatibility with push-to-talk microphones, in-built Ethernet and USB connections and a simplified configuration system.

The company says that many of the new features are a direct result of requests from its extensive user-base. Kurt Olsen is the company’s Director of Voice Telephony who commented: “One of the things we like about Converge Pro is that almost all the new features compared to XAP are ones that have been requested by our customers. We’ve been building that up over the last five or so years and added it to this platform. Also, at the same time as adding some significant new features, it’s still a platform that our integrators and customers aren’t going to have to do a complete reboot on. – One of the most important things about the product is the software that you have to programme it on, and for someone who used G-Ware (XAP’s programming suite), Converge Console is familiar. You can even import your G-Ware configurations to Converge Console.”

All of this equates to a company with a market leading product that is unwilling to jeopardise that position. Converge Pro is familiar to the customer, and with just the right enhancements to match the competition. It’s also reasonable conjecture that the reason it’s taken over a year from its announcement at InfoComm 06 to its shipping date of Autumn 07 is that ClearOne will have been carefully listening to the feedback from it’s user base.

Further focus on ease of use is provided by the addition of a library of common system components to the Converge Console and a drag and drop interface for programming the matrix. As Olsen puts it: “Everyone has their favourite products. The idea is to give the integrator maximum freedom of choice.”

Despite having been in the market for the shortest period, Biamp can no longer call themselves “new comers”. The twin lines of Audia and Nexia, cover between them the whole gamut of DSP applications. Nexia through dedicated boxes, which can be digitally linked or AudiaFLEX via its suite of processing option cards. For simple teleconferencing applications of up to eight microphones there is Biamp’s newly updated Nexia TC. This single unit box delivers AEC on the eight line inputs run off a separate DSP chip to the main DSP. This frees up the central Hammerhead processor to deliver functions such as echo cancellation, another power hungry function.

This kind of thinking is central to Biamp’s philosophy according to the company’s Graeme Harrison: “We use the SHARC DSP chip in Audia, but the TrueSound AEC option card, the AEC-2HD, has its own chip on board. We don’t want to limit what signal processing people can do outside of AEC.”

“One of the things that we’ve really focused on as a company is looking ahead for ourselves, and not too much at the competition. We’ve focused on solutions to real-world problems. Particularly at the minute when we are arguably in the lead. They are catching up with full bandwidth AEC and network enabled products,” he goes on. “Audia has been TCP/IP controllable for the past 5 years since its launch.”

Having the experience of integrating network connectivity into their products for the past four or five years is something that Harrison believes is a big advantage for Biamp in a competitive market. “Real network compliance means that we can go across the intranets of campuses or use VPNs so that we can do remote diagnostics. It’s not just about doing TCP/IP by adding an RJ-45 connector. It’s about how you implement it.”

If it’s tough at the top end of the voice conferencing market, it’s certainly tough at the mid to low end. Along side their DSP products the likes of ClearOne and Polycom also have tabletop units for the smaller meeting room. Here too there is innovation to be seen, along with some perhaps surprising new entrants to the space. The use of DSP for feedback elimination is trickling down to these products. ClearOne’s MAX IP range of SIP-based VoIP phones features distributed echo cancellation and noise cancellation.

Pro audio giant Yamaha has also recently thrown its hat into the conferencing ring. Its so-called ProjectPhone range will eventually include PJP-100UH a 32 microphone unit, which can be daisy chained together, PJP-50 (which is a straightforward desktop product) and PJP-25, the 50’s little brother. Also included at the top of the range is PJP-300V, which mounts below a flat panel display and includes a video codec as well as the audio conferencing features. Nick Cook, General Manager of Yamaha Commercial Audio (UK), explains what they can bring to the table. “Our offering to the market is the quality of Yamaha’s audio and DSP technology, and when we compare it to Max IP or any of the Polycom products, it is streets ahead in terms of audio quality. Our message is simple: We are Yamaha and we do audio.”

Another company that does audio is Revolabs, which has cleverly carved a niche in the voice conferencing market with its range of wireless microphones. These can be attached to almost any audio system giving the user freedom to move. The company produces a variety of different options including boundary mics, lanyard worn ones for the neck or even a wireless XLR adapter which can be attached to any standard XLR microphone. Martin Offwood, the company’s new International Managing Director, and who incidentally joined the company from ClearOne said: “Our audio bandwidth is about 8kHz, which is fine for a voice conversations. We don’t do anything other than the microphone itself, relying on our flexibility to work with any other manufacturer.”

There are many yards of jargon and marketing material on the subject of this market. The main players all have their own terms for the various types of technology they employ. Is there a huge amount to differentiate the products? Not really, ultimately it comes down to a lot of personal preference, and as always cost, as well as what you or your customers are familiar with, and comfortable using.

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