Putting speakers and other collaboration technology in conferencing rooms almost always prompts questions from the IT and tech decision-making individuals who are tasked with doing it. Which meeting room audio equipment is best for my specific spaces? How do I ensure the best collaboration audio quality possible?
Those same questions are bound to persist as some businesses start welcoming their workforce back to the office, and brand new ones are bound to arise from those who have to deal with a hybrid workforce.
We consulted with two collaboration and meeting room audio experts to answer some common concerns and help decision-makers choose or improve systems for their own spaces.
What would you tell an IT pro or some other kind of tech decision maker about pursuing speakers for conference rooms & huddle rooms?
Nancy Knowlton, Nureva advises them to take their time and consider carefully the user experience that they want to deliver.
“We’re seeing many organizations saying in desperation, ‘we just need something!‘ and I would suggest that this kind of short term thinking may result in a viable long term solution…but more than likely, it will not,” Knowlton says.
“We’re working with various clients who are in the process of ‘fixing’ their rooms after groups of disgruntled users have complained about the experience of being remote while others are in rooms. The expensive solutions they bought just weren’t viable for the spaces they were installed in.”
Knowlton stresses that just about anyone can put up with a minor annoyance for a day or two — but when repeatedly encountered, these issues prevent constructive meetings. These interruptions do have a long-term negative cost associated with them.
Deciding what problems you actually need solutions for
“Room acoustics involves the physical impact of the design of the room (square, rectangle), room materials, and other factors impacting audio performance,” says Bob Archer, audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for CE Pro and is THX Level I certified.
Above all, Archer advises everyone to consult with an acoustician for a base-level design on new systems. But for low cost or testing existing systems, he advises they buy an acoustics kit to control some of these factors.
There are lots of great adaptive, flexible, “beamforming” microphone solutions out there, but it’s your job to centralize that.
“Glass walls and dry walls tend to make audio quality sound like a tin can. If you’ve experienced this, you know that the offending space is highly reflective. So all those reflective surfaces take away from speech intelligibility.”
In higher ed and large spaces, challenges occur from changing number of people in a room. People are good sound absorbents, and if you have a few in a large space, the acoustic properties are dramatically different than when the same space is filled with many people.
If you walk into a room, clap, and hear an echo, there are acoustical issues which could detract from speaker performance.
Realistically, you want more of a “dead space” than a “lively space,” or one with any noticeable echo or “tinny” sound.
Need another thing to compare your spaces to?
“Cineplexes are designed for high audio & video performance,” Archer says. That’ll give you an idea of a space that’s designed to reproduce audio in an intelligible way. Guitar Center’s recording demo rooms also provide this, and it might be easier to access those by appointment rather than a cinema.”
Measure the properties of various meeting rooms so that you’ll understand what you’re dealing with. If you are in a reverberant environment, consider what some of the additions to that space could be which might absorb the sound and improve it.
“The overarching theme here is that you really should consider this is a process and you’re going to hear feedback from users, Knowlton says. “Something that may have been state of the art only two years ago might not be so now.”
What about remote or hybrid workforces — what are the most important collaboration audio quality issues they are facing?
“During quarantine, it’s always been the need for a solid network,” Archer says. “Good networks support the highest available bandwidth. This does play to IT pros’ strengths.”
There’s no way around the network. Even with ISP-mesh product lines, the most fundamental thing you can do is improve your bandwidth.
It’ll both improve your employees’ work and their leisure experience if they invest in better home networks.
But beyond the network, one of the big areas in the electronics market is headphones. There are many investment headphones which cost a reasonable amount which isolates audio and feature built-in microphones and algorithms which improve the input audio. It’s low impact and accessible.
We really have three employee groups to focus on here: those coming back to the office for good, those at home for longer, and those in between.
“Ask your staff for their insight into problems they’ve faced. It’s not just the quality of the audio in the office, it’s also the audio experience from employees’ homes,” Knowlton says.
Companies are starting to set standards for home products. There are many who are frustrated with the headphones they’ve used; they’re too tight, etc.
“In our own office, we have sit-stand desks, if you want, you can press a button and up pops the desk. Employees can stand during meetings. I am not sure many organizations have thought about the changed circumstances for staff,” Knowlton says.
“You need to spend time thinking about the ergonomics from the home perspective. Size and scale of products is important. You want to have a level of respect for employees’ home aesthetics and space and recognize it is different from the office, is priced right.”