Why your gadgets sound so good

Companies like Apple and Microsoft go to incredible lengths to optimize everything for appealing, high-quality sound

curious listener listening sound talking discussion human ear hand whispering gossip 000001026615
Credit: iStockphoto
RELATED TOPICS

Have you noticed how great technology sounds these days? Smartphones are getting great speakers, and great speakers are getting wirelessly connected to smartphones.

That dimension of gadget sound is overt. We notice it.

The story is more interesting when you realize how much effort and ingenuity is put into making every little sound super appealing -- the subtle noises hardware makes, or the audio cues our apps produce.

The reason some companies go to such lengths is because people don't know exactly why they love or hate a consumer electronics product. When asked, they'll talk about whatever comes to mind -- speeds, feeds and specs. But the reality is that subtle cues, such as materials, colors and -- the most subtle of all -- sounds, make a huge difference in the appeal of any gadget.

It's easy to dismiss subtle sound cues as a trivial. But imagine if a device like Apple's iPhone 6S made irritating noises. Everyone would hate it. And that's why the stakes are so high when it comes to developing hardware and software that sounds inviting, pleasant and gratifying.

The leaders in the field of optimizing tech devices for sound are Apple and -- wait for it -- Microsoft!

Here's what those two companies are willing to do to make every noise just right.

Apple

Apple last week rolled out its latest iMac updates. The flashiest new features on these PCs are the dazzling screens. The "small" all-in-one computer, the 21.5-in. iMac, sports a 4k screen, and the 27-in. iMac has a 5k screen. The new P3 color gamut enables 25% more colors to be displayed, according to Apple.

But the peripherals -- the keyboard, mouse and trackpad -- got the biggest overhauls. The mouse in particular is now rechargeable, and you can do that with an iPhone charger cable. But the redesign apparently caused the sound the mouse makes while rolling across a desk to be slightly off.

Author and journalist Steven Levy last week published an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at Apple's testing lab on Medium's Backchannel.

Levy had exclusive access to the lab, and he described how Apple uses a nearly soundproof room, called an anechoic chamber, plus other equipment to "identify the micro-location of a sound" and figure out why it sounds the way it does.

I interviewed Levy about his experience in the lab (for my show, Tech News Today), and he told me that although Apple's Magic Mouse 2 looks identical to its predecessor on the outside, the inside has been completely changed, and that affected the sound of the mouse. The new sound "just didn't feel right" to Apple's mouse designers, he said. So they kept redesigning (and moving the location of) the runners on the bottom of the device until it sounded great.

The company also keeps tweaking the trackpad to get "just the right click" and, of course, the clickiness of the keyboard was optimized under heavy testing as well.

We've come to expect such obsessive attention to every minor detail from Apple. But we should also learn to expect it from Microsoft.

Microsoft

If you're impressed by Apple's anechoic chamber, don't be. Microsoft has the best anechoic chamber ever made.

In fact, just last week Microsoft shattered the record for the quietest anechoic chamber ever built -- its testing room is the quietest place that has ever existed on Earth.

Working with a specialty company called Eckel Noise Control Technologies, Microsoft built a room that achieved a rating of -20.6 dB, which is massively quieter than the previous record of -13 dB.

Such an intensely quiet and almost perfectly nonreflective environment enables Microsoft to precisely test, say, its Cortana virtual assistant, and to see how it performs with carefully measured traffic or crowd noise. The company also uses the room to test and optimize the sound of its peripheral devices, game controllers and more.

Speaking of the importance of sound, Microsoft's new Surface Book, which was unveiled Oct. 6, has an innovative latch that's totally silent. It uses a technology that Microsoft calls muscle-wire lock technology. To separate the tablet half from the keyboard half, you press a button and the screen is released.

The silence of this latch technology was a problem. Users like the reassurance and feedback of an unlatching sound, so Microsoft engineered one. That sound plays when you unlatch the tablet. It's totally fabricated. But it sounds great; that subtle sound will no doubt be part of the Surface Book's appeal.

Microsoft also owns Skype, which is working hard to optimize sound. A feature article on The Verge goes into detail about Skype's careful (and expensive) tweaking of its signature sounds.

Skype understood early on that a voice-over-IP (VoIP) service is easily commoditized. You're basically providing Internet-based phone calls, video calls and chat sessions. Any company can do that. Sure, reliability is important. But beyond that, Skype has limited opportunities to win user affinity with subtle amenities. It's got visual design. And it's got a few sounds to work with.

So Skype crafted appealing and unusual sounds that are played when a call is incoming, when it's answered, when you hang up and so on. Millions of people use Skype regularly, and these sounds have become iconic, nearly as iconic as the AOL's old "You've got mail!" notification.

But now, for the first time in a decade, Microsoft's Skype group is updating the noises the system makes. It hired a New York-based sonic branding agency (yeah, that's a thing) called Listen.

Skype is taking a smart approach. It's trying to retain elements of the original sounds, but with better, often shorter and, in every case, more appealing boops, beeps and blurps.

One of the biggest changes, and my favorite, affects the most familiar Skype sound -- the one it makes when you hang up. Right now, the hang-up signal sounds like a tiny space plunger and it ends on a high note. It's ultra recognizable, but it doesn't sound like a call ending.

The new sound clearly expresses the idea that something is coming to a close. And it's shorter. (You can hear the new and old sounds by following the link above.)

I think the new sounds are going to cement Skype's branding. And I'm sure Skype thinks so, too. And that's why it's working so hard at crafting the perfect set of noises.

What's next?

This is all great news. Well beyond the ken of everyday consumers and gadget geeks alike, some visionary companies are locked in an arms race to optimize every sound produced by our electronic devices.

"Good" sound in this contest is defined as sound that appeals to the human mind. So the net result will ultimately be a consumer electronics market filled with devices that we want in our lives, and that we feel good about interacting with.

But don't take it for granted. Stop and listen every once in awhile. Some brilliant people worked very hard to make sure your gadgets sound great.

RELATED TOPICS
The brave new world of Windows 10 license activation
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies