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.

John_Werner's picture

With Bose heading firmly into the headphone and Bluetooth market the first influential company that sought to make small speakers sound bigger has kind of stalled. Yes, but mainstream speakers today have continued to get smaller and better with the exception of the laptop computer. I will admit 17" laptops are only for gamers as the rest of us want ultimate portability In doing so we kind of accepted a Faustian bargain that we will forget about sound quality. My Asus Ultrabook and my MacBook Air's sound is abysmal yet these are my favored computers. Whenever it is possible I therefore use external Bluetooth speakers yet I'll admit I hate having to lug around an additional piece of equipment that yet requires me to remember to regularly charge it. It's a clumsy kind of fix. Now, I don't expect body slamming bass or concert hall volumes, but if Dolby could create a kind of fidelity on my Air or Ultrabook that didn't insult my mind and ears that would be one of the greatest aural bending of physics of all time. I'm not holding my breath but if anyone can do it at the present time it would probably have a kind of paradigm shifting effect. We can only hope. In the seventies when I heard the Bose 901s (driven by McIntosh big amps) I was blown away that such small speakers could make such a full-range sound. In the early eighties when the original Bose Acousta-Mass three piece system came out I was only slightly less impressed as diminutive speakers were putting out bass and levels far beyond their footprint. In other words bring on the culmination of all Dolby has both learned and imagined. With high-quality sources at one fingertips this is the final sonic frontier for high-fidelity it would seem.