You wouldn’t think it, but the premium sound system in a Bentley, and the speakers in Xiaomi’s and Oppo’s phones have something in common.
Dirac, the Swedish audiophile company that’s been tuning Bentley’s, Harman’s home cinema systems, and BMWs and Volvos for years, is now tweaking the sound you hear coming out of some of China’s top smartphones.
The unlikely partnership between Dirac and its Chinese customers started out small, but is today found in some 200 million phones coming out of China.
It all started with a single Oppo model five years ago. Today, Dirac is enlisted to help flagship models such as Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2, and the Oppo R11, sound better — and just got world number two maker Huawei onboard last year.
It might seem like a strange switch for Dirac, going from audiophile cinema hi-fi systems to mobile phones, which typically come with miniscule, flat speakers. Coaxing good sound out of the latter is exponentially harder in comparison, when you go from robust surround sound hardware to single speakers that need clear audio while avoiding sounding tinny.
Mathias Johansson, Dirac’s CEO, explains that it applies its software algorithm to help tune the phone’s audio output — although increasingly more of its clients are allowing it to come in at earlier development stages, to influence how the phone’s speakers themselves are designed.
“We all want smaller speakers that don’t take up too much space, yet we want bigger sound — that doesn’t add up. Speakers need to move air. So the only way to work around that, is to apply digital algorithms that steer the speakers, and widen the sound stage,” he told Mashable in an interview.
In audio terms, widening the sound stage makes the stereo effect more pronounced, and can make music sound more natural and “live” to discerning listeners.
Even Apple has recognised the demand for bigger, better audio.
Much of the demand comes from users shifting their reliance away from desktops and onto smartphones as their primary devices, he said.
In Asian markets, this “phone first” phenomenon is more pronounced. Many people in emerging markets skipped the desktop, and had their first experiences of going online from the phone, so they’re more demanding of excellence from the phone’s audio.
“Because people are consuming shows, new songs on their phones, playing them out loud, there’s a surge of interest in better audio,” Johansson said.
When Dirac first started working with smartphone clients, “all that mattered was that the sound was louder.” Today, that demand is more sophisticated, he added.
Even Apple’s recognised this demand, as it pushes into China aggressively. Starting with the iPhone 7, it put two speakers in the device to deliver stereo audio, but also in an effort to drive louder sound.
The iPad Pro models that were released from 2015 onward include four stereo speakers, which take turns producing bass and higher frequencies, so that the device can produce sound far bigger than its slimness would suggest.
Outside of China, other manufacturers like Korea’s LG, Taiwan’s HTC and Japan’s Sony have started to produce phones that are marketed for their high-end DACs (digital-to-analogue convertors) — a piece of hardware that can improve sound quality, when paired with high-end headphones or speakers. Phones like the LG V30, for example, come with high quality sound EQ software, and more robust audio hardware, to cater to a growing audiophile market.
Riding the Chinese smartphone boom
Dirac’s bet on Chinese smartphones has paid off for the small, privately-owned firm. Although it only started its Chinese business in 2012, that division now makes up two-thirds of Dirac’s revenue.
Prior to the smartphone push, its revenue mainly came from hi-fi systems and the auto industry.
Oppo, the first Chinese smartphone manufacturer to work with Dirac, told us that Dirac’s technology is in every Oppo phone it has produced since 2015.
The Swedish firm doesn’t influence Oppo’s hardware, however, but adjusts its algorithm to each model’s design to tweak the sound produced.
The Oppo spokesperson also noted that the company brought Dirac on after receiving feedback from customers and retail stores that indicated audio quality was getting more important to users.
As for why Dirac’s clients are all Chinese right now, Johansson says it was a matter of filling a gap in the market.
“Chinese makers have come from nothing. They haven’t had the chance to build capabilities in every aspect, so they turn to third parties like us,” he said.
Going by industry trends, we can expect to hear better and better sound coming out from our little handheld devices in the near future. That’s a great thing for music makers — and lovers — everywhere.