Sound Predictions for the New Year

Immersive audio took off in a huge way in 2014, especially in cinema with the release of films in Dolby Atmos and Auro 11.1 formats. The Traumpalast in Backnang, Germany was one of the first theaters to install a Dolby Atmos system, which includes a total of 57 speakers.

Here we are at the beginning of 2015, and as with all new years it is fashionable to analyze how the previous year went and take a look at how this new one might unfold. In this column dated Jan. 1, 2014, I made some predictions about what I thought the big stories of the year would be in the world of television audio. So let’s assess my prognostication skills and see whether they’ll hold up this year.

My first prediction of last year was that the CALM Act would be further refined to make it easier to understand and implement, and this simply did not happen. There was almost no movement around the CALM Act this year other than the FCC finally adopting the 2013 revision, and the ATSC winning a well-deserved Primetime Emmy for A/85.

The rest of the year turned out rather quiet on the loudness front (pun definitely intended), with consumer complaints tapering off from an initial surge. Whether this is due to consumers actually being satisfied with the results of CALM implementation— or because they’ve given up reporting because they see no public vilifying of broadcasters over loud commercials—is something we don’t yet know; but most broadcasters seem to be doing a good job of keeping loudness under control.

It will be interesting to see what happens as initial two-year waivers expire; whether the FCC will allow extensions to those waivers due to the adoption of A/85:2013; and whether there will be any significant enforcement of the CALM Act. I think we’ll see some minor news regarding CALM this year, but it is unlikely to be anything significant.

It may not have been possible to be more wrong about this prediction than I was, and it’s partially the result of attending events where discussions take place regarding technology that remains years away.

Since audio objects for broadcast are tied directly to the rollout of ATSC 3.0, and since we won’t see a candidate standard for it until 2016, audio objects for broadcast are a technology of our future rather than our present. The work on this is so current that it was just a month ago (Dec. 5, to be exact), that the ATSC issued a Call for Proposals for ATSC 3.0 Audio Systems, with initial complete system submissions due by Jan. 12, 2015.

It appears that whatever the audio system ends up being in ATSC 3.0, it will be a complete solution from a single company as opposed to a system with technology sourced from many companies. Needless to say, we won’t see audio objects delivered via broadcast in the home for quite some time.

Immersive audio, however, has taken off in a huge way, especially in cinema with the release of films in Dolby Atmos and Auro 11.1 formats. With the inevitable Blu-ray and streaming releases of immersive films to consumers, we will undoubtedly see additional speakers, immersive sound bars and sound frames from a variety of manufacturers cluttering living rooms across the country in the very near future.

Mobile and streaming is a bit of a conundrum since the devices used to access the content over the air and over the Internet can be the same, though different technologies in the device get used for each.

During a trip to South Korea last year I learned that essentially every mobile phone there comes with unlimited data; that watching television on phones, while riding the subway or driving a vehicle, is something everyone does; and that an awful lot of the phones have an antenna to receive over-the-air DMB television broadcasts.

Compare that to how people use their mobile phones to watch television in the United States, where the majority of viewing seems to be Internet streaming with very little obvious viewing of over-theair broadcasts (based on my observations from the daily commute).

With the big cellular providers making handsets with receivers available and accessory manufacturers providing plug-ins and add-ons for tablets and other devices, there’s no reason people can’t watch broadcast television while they’re on the go, but I still wonder how many people are actually doing so in the United States.

Of course, one big problem with television on the go, whether broadcast or streaming, is that external environmental noise means dynamic range of the audio must be kept to a minimum and loudness management is critical.

On Jan. 30, 2013, the ATSC released their recommended practice A/154:2013, which specifies –14 LKFS as the target loudness level for audio content. This means that a pretty serious loudness practice already exists for mobile television delivery. However, we still have nothing solid for streaming Internet delivery loudness that I’m aware of.

NPR conducted a study on this in 2013 and I’ve been taking some content measurements— both of which we’ll cover in another column—but the results leave me wondering whether this will be the next battleground of consumer audio complaints as viewing of streaming content increases.

I’m still kicking myself for omitting audioover- IP and AES-67 adoption as an important technology for broadcast audio in 2014, possibly the most important one, in fact. I simply focused too closely on the other predictions and ran out of room and left it out even though I already had plans to begin implementing the technology myself.

Obviously AoIP took off last year with lots of AES-67 compatibility announcements, culminating with a very successful AES-sponsored plugfest in Munich.

After a bit of actual experimentation with AoIP products I found that they behaved pretty much as I expected with high-quality audio, but there were some discovery issues when connecting devices from different manufacturers together, even when using the same AoIP technology. Still, I have high hopes for AoIP and think adoption will continue to escalate this year.

As you can see from this analysis of my 2014 predictions, my crystal ball is on the fritz, so either take my predictions with a grain of salt or just wait awhile, because I have the feeling that all of them will eventually come to pass—my timing is just a bit off.

Jay Yeary is a broadcast television engineer specializing in audio. He can be contacted via TV Technology.