Videobars are the new kid on the block

Videobars have emerged from nowhere to be the hottest commodity in the AV world. Paul Milligan finds out if the hype is real, and what you need to know before buying.

One of the biggest stories of the last six months has been the emergence of the videobar. We’ve witnessed the growth of soundbars in the past few years, and they’ve had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the audio quality in meeting rooms. They are small, look nice, sound great and are easy to install. The next generation of products has seen cameras incorporated into soundbars in one easy package, rather than it being one of several individual products bundled together. Every month at the moment it seems like another manufacturer has entered this segment.

We gathered a selection of videobar manufacturers, some established, some new to it, to ask them if the hype was real, when videobars are suitable and when they aren’t, and how integrators can add value to something so often sold as ‘plug-and-play’? First of all, are videobars actually selling in any serious quantities, is there genuine demand out there or are we just the victims of marketing hyperbole? “Videobars are very much selling in the market at the moment, it’s not just marketing hype,” says Reece Stead, business development manager, pro audio, Yamaha Music Europe. “AV and IT management teams are in need of simple solutions and these  products can be rolled out en masse relatively quickly and relatively easily. They need to provide not only a high quality, easy-to-manage experience, but in a lot of cases, budget and space are key areas that also need to be considered, and the videobar fits all of those categories.”

Sven Berckmoes, the European business development manager from TD Synnex Maverick is another seeing genuine demand: “We do see an increase in videobar sales through distribution, the form factor and ease of install seems to be the predominant reasons why a lot of channel partners are choosing them.” Before videobars were an option, integrators would have to couple a soundbar with a small camera, would they still be better served doing that? Is it just the convenience of a videobar that is driving sales? Convenience is a prime factor says Stead, “If you’ve got 300 rooms to roll out and you need to put an installed system where you need to run cabling, you’ll need to run everything else across 300 rooms, and that takes a long time to do. If you’ve just got a videobar which fixes to a bracket on a wall, or even better onto a television bracket, it can be done within half an hour.”

The soundbar is at the centre of everything that’s going on in meeting rooms, even in larger spaces says James Spencer, video solutions director for Northern Europe at Jabra, “It may be more things are added on top but I’d say things are certainly pushing towards that single audio and video all-in-one solution.” Florian Fricke, product and innovation manager from Wolfvision agrees that any one-packet solution will always a popular one, “We have to think about the end users and about the system designers planning these rooms, but also the IT administrators rolling out the settings on a corporate network.”

At the moment the suppliers of videobars fall into two camps, ones from established audio companies who have attached an OEM video camera (in a lot of cases it seems to be the Huddly IQ camera) to a soundbar, or it’s IT companies who have done the opposite and bought in an OEM soundbar to add to their existing camera offering. Are there companies that can do both or is it just about picking the right partner to supply something you don’t currently manufacture? It appears to be the latter on most occasions.

Wolfvision is about to launch its first product into this market, the Cynap videobar, and the company has taken the approach of picking a suitable audio partner explains Fricke. “Because we are not audio professionals, we are very happy to partner together with Fohnn (German loudspeaker manufacturer), we gave the whole responsibility in terms of sound to them, and that’s a perfect partner for us.” Jabra has gone the other way, adding to its audio expertise by bringing video capability in-house by buying Altia Systems in 2019.

The fact that say a company like Shure doesn’t have a long history of video products shouldn’t put you off says Berckmoes, citing several reasons. “I believe there is
huge benefit in platform accreditation, and that filters out bad products. There are no real bad products launched if you’re certified for Zoom or accredited for Teams, it’s one of the reasons why most manufacturers put their products through that process. Brands like Bose or Yamaha, well known for audio but also in this space, are adding cameras to well established microphone and speaker technology. The differentiator in those scenarios is the software development that goes on top of the OEM components.”

On the surface it sounds like this new ‘wonder’ product solves all problems put in its path, but are there circumstances or locations (ie rooms sizes) where videobars are suitable and times when they’re just not suitable? Smaller is better is the consensus. “They are suited to smaller spaces such as huddle pods, huddle rooms, six to eight people spaces where they’re going to be picked up by one microphone at the front of the room,” says Stead. Bigger than that and you might have problems he adds: “If you’re trying to use it in a large boardroom and auditoriums you’re going to run into trouble, because it’s just not built for it.”

Larger rooms have specialist requirements adds Spencer, "These might be CEO briefing rooms, these may be partitioned rooms. When we get to those rooms, I still see a soundbar but its part of a much bigger solution.” Wolfvision has set itself a radius of up to 7m for its videobar (but it can do more) and Yealink’s can achieve 6m comfortably (but again can do more). As Stead has said, if you go bigger you will run into problems, as this quote from Berckmoes illustrates: “There are larger videobars available, but I believe in those kinds of rooms there is a bit more understanding and pre-work needed, because we’ve seen a couple of project coming back requesting additional microphones.”

There are other advantages in installing them in smaller meeting spaces adds Berckmoes, “A good element of a videobar is they can be easily integrated on a rolling cart, because of the form factor you can make it a single plug solution, you have nothing run into the table, and everything is focused in one component.” Just because the space might be open, shouldn’t deter you either says Stead. 

“Open office spaces are actually becoming more popular with videobars too. If you’ve got the right DSP algorithms and technology built-in, it allows the beamforming microphones to focus on whoever is speaking within a space and therefore cut out background noise, so it means you can use it in an open office space, or in a louder environment as well, they’re not off limits.”

In what is rapidly becoming a very crowded marketplace already, what criteria should integrators use when choosing from the many different units on offer? The products are split into two schools of thought says Fricke, there is a room solution market, where everything is in the room and the user comes in and starts everything by pressing one button, most likely on a tablet or touchscreen.

The other approach is the one Wolfvision has chosen for its Cynap videobar. “We decided on the BYOM approach, meaning you are always using your laptop, the big advantage is you are familiar with your system and whatever VC platform you usually use.”

Connectivity is a key issue here, as Berckmoes illustrates, “A lot of the videobars will have BYOD pass-through like an HDMI pass-through where you connect to a USB-C, which in a world of Teams rooms, and Google rooms and Zoom rooms, is something that end users really like because it offers different flavours of meetings.”

Audio should always be prioritised and is utterly fundamental when choosing a videobar says Stead. “The key criteria should always be based around what contributes to audio quality. The exact number of speakers isn’t that much of an issue as long as you have a high quality speaker that can cover the size of space you’re looking at. In terms of a microphone, buyers should be looking for something with multiple microphones built within it, which create beamforming  arrays, so you can focus on whoever it is that is speaking within the room and it can cut out background noise from around it.” Hybrid working is still a huge issue for many businesses, and WFH staff need to be thought about says Spencer. "If people are writing on  a whiteboard within the room do people WFH have the ability to actually pick out that whiteboard in the room, can they see what is being written on there?"

Part of the appeal of videobars is that they are being touted as ‘plug-and-play’ devices. Which is great, as stated above, if you have 50 rooms to install, how can integrators add value to, on the surface at least, what seems like such a simple product? “It’s  going to be difficult to add too much value because it’s not very difficult to plug in one USB cable into your laptop or device,” admits admits Chris Godsalve, country manager, UK and Ireland for Yealink. The rise of the videobar is not all doom and gloom for integrators however. “You just screw on the wall, plug it in and it works, right? I would say my car is very easy to use, I get in it, I start the ignition, but if something goes wrong under the hood, I don’t have a clue how to fix it. Integrators can add the value on the support side of things, because these products are doing a lot of complicated stuff in the background to make it a very simple solution. So when something goes wrong or needs to be changed, you need somebody to go in and fix it,” explains Stead.

Also, with a plethora of devices around, how do you choose the right one, the answer is you don’t, you let your integrator do that for you. “This is a ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ scenario for many, what is the right choice for our business or educational institute? Integrators, who’ve got a lot more experience in this marketplace and know the pitfalls of products, and know which ones are good and which ones aren’t, are going to be absolutely key in helping design each room specifically, and being able to choose the right product for these rooms,” adds Stead.

The installation part of videobars will be of less relevance to the overall service element says Berckmoes: “Because the form factor allows it to be installed easily and it doesn’t break easily, there’s a five year warranty, these types of managed services aren’t really necessary. Where we do see a lot of opportunity is in monitoring, managing and remote troubleshooting of these products. There is no real unified platform around it.”

We might be using these devices just to talk or collaborate, but we can use them for more too explains Berckmoes, and this can benefit integrators looking to offer more IoT and FM services. “It’s combining all these different data sets to customers to make sure that when they go to a meeting, they don’t lose that average 12 minutes of start-up time we all talk about. All of these data points can also help organisations achieve goals around carbon neutral ambition, sustainability, and HR KPIs. A lot of the videobars today have IoT sensors built-in so they can capture CO2 levels, they can look at average temperature, they do people counting. They can get all that data and help organisations understand the usage of rooms, and there is still a large opportunity out there to build the best practice around those things.”

Finally, if the products are truly plug-and-play, what is to stop some end users bypassing the channel altogether and buying them online? It is a concern admits Godsalve, “The reality is the margin is not there, because it’s going down that e-tail route, rather than utilising system integrators that add value and additional services,” but he adds that if any client is serious about their AV proposition, they will choose the more established path. “If an end user wants to drive video across their estate, then they’ll work with integrator partners, they won’t look to buy online because they know the value that the integration community can bring to the table. And I don’t see that changing any time in the near future to be honest." 

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