Meeting room audio: How to make or break a meeting

When planning small meeting rooms and huddle spaces audio should be given careful consideration.Paul Mac looks at meeting space requirements and argues the case for fair budget allocation.

For many companies,small meeting rooms,huddle rooms, and so on,make a lot of sense.

overwhelming positive is that the real-estate efficiency equation often works out to be a lot more favourable:more rooms, fewer people per room.

However, the budget -
and the budget priorities - for those smaller rooms can suffer disproportionately, becoming skewed towards board room bling rather than some less obvious but possibly more valuable technologies.

Audio, because it’s not measured in inches of screen space, and rarely measured by its bells-and-whistles, is often overlooked as a priority.

odd, because when all else fails,it's normally audio that becomes the most urgent matter. Zach Snook, senior product manager at Biamp Systems,underlines this idea, “If a meeting is going badly and the technology isn’t working, ultimately people will put a cell phone on speaker in the middle of the table and have their meeting that way.You wouldn’t do that with video and no audio.

"Audio is 
the foundation of a meeting - if you can’t talk to each other it’s not going to work.”Another point is that good audio in a meeting isn’t often ‘noticed’- just experienced. Michael Taboris a product specialist at Shure: “People are aware of poor audio quality when it’s hurting them.If the meeting goes well, nobody thinks about it.”

All of those symptoms, and more, are easily summarised in the idea of voice intelligibility. High intelligibility increases the engagement and confidence of participants. If they feel comfortable with what they are hearing, and they are assured that what they are saying is being heard, then all is well with the world. 

For our purposes, it’s useful to bear in mind that the human voice does have a wide-ish frequency range, but the bands relevant to intelligibility are narrower. Vowels are low down- from around 200Hz up to around 2kHz – though are least important. 

Voiced consonants overlap vowels but extend higher - with most of the energy being in the 2kHz - 4kHz range. Unvoiced consonants (f, s, etc) are higher still and extend up to around 8kHz.

The consonants are the 
most important components of speech for intelligibility, which is why the reproduction and appropriate control of high frequencies is paramount to intelligibility in the meeting space.

The major influencing physical and technological factors in voice intelligibility can usefully be summarised as acoustics, audio codecs, microphones, audio processing, and speakers.

Acoustic considerations

Full-spec acoustic design,construction, and treatment is rarely appropriate for small meeting rooms and huddle spaces.

The budgets simply 
cannot accommodate it. In acoustics, the good news is that higher frequencies respond well to relatively simple acoustic treatments.

For example, highly reverberant spaces, that bounce high frequencies around at high levels and decorrelate those multiple reflections are bad news for speech. It’s a problem often caused and severely exacerbated by hard surfaces like desks,large windows, artful concrete features, and big screens: an excellent description of a modern meeting space.

Carpet, acoustic tiles, soft furnishings, and so on can do a lot to help the space. There area wide range of acoustic wall hangings now available that incorporate art and graphics,so they can easily fit into the aesthetic of a room.

Unfortunately, sometimes all that will do is a miracle. Bernd Schindler is the managing director of Ingenieurbüro Schindler – a consultancy that focuses on enterprise clientele:“We are seeing more and more open spaces being allocated as conference and meeting spaces.That’s a physical contradiction.You can’t have ideal pick-up and reproduction in a large open space. We often face rooms with concrete ceilings and glass walls – which are especially challenging.”

Audio codecs

‘Audio codecs’ in this context describes the algorithms that encode and decode audio on and off data connections and networks, especially those incorporated in the common conferencing packages.

They are 

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