Dolby Tackles a Nearly Impossible Small Challenge

With relatively unrestricted size, weight, and budget, and given enough time to tinker, it's not that hard to build a good-sounding loudspeaker. But when size, weight and budget are tremendously restricted, good sound becomes incredibly difficult to achieve, if not impossible. Now, Dolby is taking on that challenge.

Compared to most other technologies, loudspeakers are pretty basic. I don't want to take anything away from talented loudspeaker designers, but the design for a dynamic loudspeaker has been around for 92 years and if it hasn't been perfected, it is at least well understood. Given the choice of building, from scratch, my own loudspeaker, or my own smartphone, I'd choose the speaker.

I guarantee you that my homemade speaker would sound terrible, but when you crunch down to small size and smaller budget, even the pros have trouble getting good sound from a loudspeaker. The speaker still makes the prerequisite sounds, but fidelity isn't exactly a strong point. Cue up Beethoven on your home theater. Awesome! Now, your laptop. Ouch!

Small and cheap speakers just don't play well with the laws of physics. Even worse, in some cases, manufacturers, for example, of laptops, just don't care much about sound quality. Sometimes the left and right speakers are from completely different companies, sometimes their levels are unequal, and my personal favorites are those laptops that have two speaker grilles, but one of them is a dummy. Finally, as laptops get slimmer, there is even less room for speakers.

Now Dolby is jumping into the small speaker market. Their software is already found on many laptops, but when played through dismal speakers, even the best software really is pointless. Moreover, when audio software is slapped onto a laptop whose audio design has already finalized, it cannot really address the speakers' deficiencies. Dolby wants to change that with a new focus on small (often called "micro") speaker sound system designs.

As you might expect, the road to good sound in laptops must begin with the laptop manufacturer itself, thus Dolby started working directly with a laptop maker — Chinese manufacturer Huawei. Its MateBook X is the first laptop to employ a Dolby-designed sound system including, I suspect, upstream equalization and other pre-processing. I have not put ears on it yet, but early reports are that the sound quality is quite good, at least compared to other laptops.

I hope that Dolby can convince other laptop manufacturers that sound quality is important, and get them to agree to get Dolby on board early in the design process. If you are a laptop manufacturer, you are painfully aware of how competitive the market is; wouldn't you want to take advantage of every possible way to improve your product over the competition?

Sure, the fidelity of your laptop will never rival your home theater, but every incremental improvement in sound quality is always a good thing.