New Chip Provides High-End Sound
Dec 5, 12:21 AM (ET)
By PETER SVENSSON
NEW YORK (AP) - Veteran audio engineer Tony Bongiovi, who once worked with Jimi Hendrix, has been disappointed for decades that the equipment most people used to listen to music couldn't replicate the high-quality sound heard in the studio.
Now, he thinks he's created an answer: a technique for sound processing that's making its debut in a JVC car stereo this week.
"Speakers are such a primitive device, but with digital technology we can overcome that," Bongiovi said. (If his name sounds familiar to those who know music but nothing of audio engineering, it's because his second cousin is Jon Bon Jovi.)
The technique, which Bongiovi calls the Digital Power Station for the studio he once built in a converted power station in Manhattan, can be described as a very sophisticated equalizer. It adapts intelligently to the music to give even cheap speakers a full, robust sound and compensate for the deficiencies of the listening space.
This is accomplished by digital signal processing, a technology found in virtually all consumer audio products. But according to Bongiovi, it has never been employed in this way.
Bongiovi and his company, Bongiovi Acoustics of Port St. Lucie, Fla., first built a device using analog components to produce the effect, but the unit was the size of a refrigerator. He turned to Glenn Zelniker, a specialist in digital signal processing, to program a chip to do the same thing.
"The technique really allows the sound source to be heard very well, loud and clear and intelligible in a very, very compromised sonic environment," Zelniker said.
The chip, an off-the-shelf digital signal processor from Motorola spin-off Freescale Semiconductor Inc. (FSL), is programmed specifically for each car model, taking into account the characteristics of its speakers and interior. It has more than 120 points of adjustment.
"It's so precise that the hatchback Ford Focus has a different tuning from the regular one," Bongiovi said.
In a demonstration for a reporter in a Ford Focus with standard speakers, the JVC KD-S100 car stereo produced radically different sound quality with the Digital Power Station chip engaged. The sound swelled to give an impression of space, and all instruments came through clearer.
The bass was very rich and free of distortion, a phenomenon Bongiovi attributes both to the chip knowing exactly how much the four speakers can take, and to synchronizing them to act as one "virtual subwoofer."
The stereo will cost $700 to $1,000 installed, depending on the make of the car, and will be available only at dealers, since the chip requires programming (via a CD) to match the make of the car.
While the technology is particularly suited to a noisy environment like a car, Bongiovi sees it as having much wider applications, though there are no specific plans for taking the chip to consumer gadgets beyond the car stereo.
In another demonstration, he had a computer play the movie "King Kong" through an inexpensive JVC home-theater-in-a-box speaker setup. Using software on the computer to run the Digital Power Station algorithm, the sound quality improved tremendously. With no real increase in volume, sounds surfaced that previously were unnoticed, like the giant gorilla breathing and shuffling his feet. There was an overall feeling of theater-like space even in a small room.
While the process may do little for the high-end gear of an audiophile, it appears to be very adept at compensating for the weaknesses of cheap speakers. Even the sound from the built-in speakers of a flat-panel TV set was improved by Digital Power Station.
"I want people at home to experience what we experience in the studio, and this is the only way to do it," Bongiovi said.