THE ENTERTAINING SMART HOME
By Paul McCambridge
Creating new experiences at home and rediscovering the excitement of past ones has never felt as relevant as over the past few months. Social distancing and lockdown measures have incentivised all of us to turn our homes into an office, gym, workshop or home cinema. Music and video streaming services have seen an uptick in 2020, with many of us turning to Disney+, Amazon Prime or Netflix to get our entertainment fix, as concerts were cancelled, sporting events postponed and movie theatres closed.
Lockdown confirmed what we knew already: in times of uncertainty, humans will seek out safety and escapism. Like many people, when the harsh realities of the pandemic became apparent, I spent hours studying the graphs of critical trends from the apocalyptic looking Covid-19 Dashboard, produced by the great people at Johns Hopkins University. Whilst doing so a quote from Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprung to mind: “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.” It’s at that point, in the safety of my cocoon, that I reached for the TV remote and waited for the soothing sound of the Netflix ident animation and the escapism it brings. Turn on, tune in, and cop out, in the modern era.
But great content can only go so far; the correct hardware support is needed. I’ve watched how the search for distraction and relief during lockdown led many people to upgrade their devices, looking for a richer entertainment experience. Thankfully, the choice for the consumer has never been larger with many high-end TVs and audio products promising to integrate harmoniously into the intelligent connected home.
DTS Play-Fi, the Key to Smarter Entertainment at Home
Variety has made choosing hardware for one’s home trickier. In order to pick the right devices, owners have to visualize their smart home, to understand how it has evolved over time and how it can be transformed in the future with next-gen technologies.
Science fiction has explored the idea of the smart home for decades. The fully automated, interactive home, that seemingly ran itself was imagined and reimagined by many. Although the concept of home automation has been around for a long time, actual smart homes have only existed for a relatively short period of time. In the early 2000’s the technology that made smart homes possible started to become affordable, making home automation a viable option for consumers. The primary devices and applications were aimed at security and greener living, alerting us to intruders and ensuring that the home was not expending unnecessary energy.
With the free time gained from no longer having to stare out the window in search of interlopers or regularly adjusting the dial on the thermostat, we now have the opportunity to make our leisure activities more rewarding and worthwhile, perhaps even smarter. The wireless multiroom speaker was one of the earliest devices that addressed the need for smarter entertainment in the home. The best devices provided pristine audio, built in support for the most popular streaming services, and seamless playback on multiple-speakers (multi-room). Fast forward to today and the humble wireless speaker has morphed into the vocal chords of a plethora of seemingly sentient computer assistants. Now almost all wireless speakers integrate seamlessly into at least one of the three big voice assistants.
There remains however one drawback, interoperability! Each speaker manufacturer employs their own proprietary connectivity technology leaving you locked into their eco-system. If you want to connect two or more speakers together for multi-room playback, then you had better make sure those speakers are all from the same brand. Great for the manufacturer, not so great for the general consumer.
Enter DTS Play-Fi. Born of frustration, DTS Play-Fi was designed principally to allow audio companies to compete in a nascent wireless audio space, dominated by Sonos at that time, all whilst taking advantage of an ecosystem of devices. Hi-Res (24bit/192KHz) wireless audio support was added to DTS Play-Fi’s arsenal shortly after the protocol’s conception and it remains today the go-to technology for high fidelity audio over Wi-Fi.
DTS Play-Fi works across a vast number of brands including Onkyo, Quad, SVS, Arcam, McIntosh, Anthem, Paradigm, Philips, Wharfedale, and Pioneer amongst others. It boasts arguably the most extensive product ecosystem in the wireless audio space, with over 200 interoperable devices including: speakers, soundbars, set-top-boxes, A/V receivers and now TVs.
Offloading Tasks to More Advanced Devices
Getting low latency high fidelity digital audio out of a TV or a STB to a sound system has traditionally been the realm of a HDMI or a SPDIF cable. Some TV and STB manufacturers provide Bluetooth audio connectivity to their devices, but the audio quality over Bluetooth is generally not as good as other solutions. It is highly dependent on the codecs supported on both the transmitting and receiving ends. Depending on the devices used, there could be significant latency, resulting in a mismatch between audio and video. Moreover, many Bluetooth TV adapters will support a limited number of concurrent connections, so that synchronising audio between two or more speakers poses a significant challenge.
With DTS Play-Fi, we have succeeded at overcoming these compatibility and synchronisation issues whilst providing the significant benefits of wireless control and connectivity. It can link all your home audio products together to play content coming from your TV or STB, at the same time ensuring that the audio remains crystal clear and perfectly in sync with what you see on the screen. This is all thanks to the protocols sub-millisecond synchronisation accuracy.
A truly smart device can offload tasks that it may not be able to perform well to other devices on the network that are perhaps more suited to the task. Take for example, the physical constraints of flat panel LED or OLED televisions mean that quality audio restitution is challenging, by using DTS Play-Fi, you can pass the responsibility for audio playback from the TV to a compatible soundbar or wireless speaker without the need for physical connections.
Discrete, Immersive Surround Sound Without the Need for Wires
Not only are physical connections not needed, but they are part of the reason why the adoption of full surround sound in many homes has stalled, despite all of the Tier 1 streaming services (Netflix, Prime & Disney+) offering premium surround sound audio tracks for much of their content.
Research confirms consumers’ reluctance to running cabling for rear speakers; while there is steady growth in the global audio devices market (a 15% increase to €7.9 billion, excluding North America, according to German market data experts GFK), the global AVR market has always been a high-end niche and will remain so.
So, people have been increasingly turning to soundbars as a means of obtaining quality sound from a small form factor. Many of these devices now employ clever psychoacoustics to simulate immersive surround sound using technologies like DTS:X with Virtual:X or Dolby Atmos. Whilst hugely impressive, it is a compromise, as no soundbar can deliver the realism provided by discrete speakers.
DTS Play-Fi supports the ability to set up a 5.1 wireless surround configuration. Each speaker has a built-in amplifier and wireless receiver, meaning the only cable that needs to be connected is the power. DTS Play-Fi’s sub millisecond latency ensures that all audio cues are perfectly preserved, making discrete surround sound over standard WiFi a viable option in the modern smart home.
A True STB Differentiator to Help Reduce Churn
Set Top Boxes are on an evolutionary path from media consumption device to a smart media hub. By integrating more deeply into the smart home the STB becomes the indispensable brains of the home entertainment experience.
Today, Set Top Boxes can, in theory, be products that interact with consumers’ smart speakers and distribute audio to them. By integrating DTS Play-Fi into a STB, we can transform it into a versatile device that can determine where audio gets played back, rather than simply passing the bitstream down the wire.
By offering this possibility, STB manufacturers are giving consumers an extra incentive to retain their devices. Suddenly, swapping out your current Set Top Box for a competing offer becomes less attractive if it means removing a key source from your wireless audio setup. When the user experience goes up, customer churn goes down.
By giving Set Top Boxes the powers of DTS Play-Fi, the end experience will be more immersive than ever before, helping to reinvent the humble STB as a true Smart Media Hub capable of taking full advantage of the immersive bitstreams available on your favourite sports, movies and series.
Wireless Audio Connectivity: The Unexpected Advantages for Manufacturers
Acquiring the latest intelligent devices is the first step towards ensuring a rewarding smart entertainment experience. Key to that concept is selecting content carrying devices, Smart TVs and Set Top Boxes, that can intuitively distribute audio to the wireless speakers in the home.
DTS Play-Fi can be the saving grace for today’s consumer, it is by far the most versatile wireless audio platform on the market, capable of offering high-fidelity audio while connecting different audio devices over Wi-Fi. It possesses an ever-increasing portfolio of diverse products and is unique in that it is fully embedded in TVs and Set Top Boxes; no dongles are required. DTS Play-Fi releases the consumer from the shackles of a particular brand and offers manufacturers ways in which they can collaborate that were not previously possible. DTS Play-Fi gives the consumer the entry ticket into an ecosystem supported by many manufacturers and a wide range of products.
A smart home is not just a “no-wires” home, but a place where smart devices are capable of offloading tasks to more suitable connected devices. When it comes to audio, DTS Play-Fi gives the user the flexibility to switch the audio playback from any of their source devices (TV, STB or Smart Phone) to any DTS Play-Fi enabled speaker on the network. All devices are seamlessly interoperable, so you can find the perfect one for every room.
The global pandemic has helped provide us with a sense of perspective and a renewed altruism, the words of the 17th century English poet John Donne when he wrote: “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”, seem truer now than ever before. Likewise, for smart entertainment devices, you can’t manage this all by yourself, no smart audio device should be an island.
Paul McCambridge is a technophile at heart who’s passionate about creating extraordinary experiences. He currently works at Xperi, selling solutions that make entertainment more entertaining, and smart devices smarter. Paul lives and works out of his home in Toulouse, that he shares with his wife, two small children and a small beagle pup. In between changing nappies and battling sleep deprivation, you can find Paul swimming in the lakes, cycling up the mountains, and running through the countryside of the south west of France.