Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on our sister site Commercial Integrator.
Back in May, during a trip to Shure’s headquarters in the Chicagoland area, I had an opportunity to immerse myself in the Shure Stem Ecosystem. Shure acquired Stem Audio back in November 2020, bringing into its fold a company that was born in 2019 and that attracted very considerable attention during a short time. Here, we’ll share insights into Stem Audio’s creation, its mission to resolve conferencing pain points, its ongoing firmware updates and emerging capabilities, and its commitment to white-glove customer support. Moreover, we’ll explore how Shure Stem devices cater to both AV integrators and enterprise IT managers, making their lives easier and empowering them to devote their attention to other matters. Finally, we’ll share a use case that illustrates the Stem Ecosystem action.
Ryan Budvitis, direct-to-market reseller channel manager, Stem Ecosystem by Shure, is a Stem veteran who provides background on the company. Stem Audio emerged from a company called Phoenix Audio Technologies. Joseph Marash and, later, his son Jacob ran Phoenix Audio Technologies, which made conference speakerphones, standalone microphone arrays and other products. In ideating Stem Audio, Jacob Marash, CEO at the time, found himself asking several important questions. Budvitis paraphrases them as follows: “Where is the industry going? What do the actual people who are using these products want?”
Marash set out to find the answers, embarking on a huge end-user tour that encompassed finance, education and healthcare organizations, along with end users, IT managers and AV integrators, as well as consultants, architects and other industry stakeholders. Marash presented a long questionnaire whose purpose was to help determine market desires and identify pain points.
Six Pain Points
Marash and his team identified six principal pain points that needed addressing:
- Not least due to time constraints and cost considerations, project stakeholders wanted to find a way to get people on the same page more quickly with respect to room design and specification. One avenue for doing that, the team determined, was bringing the client into the process earlier.
- Respondents perceived wiring, powering and programming a room — in short, installation — to be overly difficult. End users also understood that, the greater the degree of complexity in installation and programming, the more challenging it would be for them.
- Project stakeholders desired an objective way to verify successful installation — that is, to test the room.
- Respondents also expressed their wish for an enhanced ability to match solutions to different rooms’ unique needs. Hypothesizing about solution customization, Budvitis says, “Hey, for this room, I only need a couple of table units. For this room, I may need ceilings, because I want nothing on the table.” Respondents also wanted mix-and-match flexibility.
- Project stakeholders surveyed also articulated concerns about being unable to guarantee day-to-day reliability on large installations. “Not having a simple way to manage all of the rooms is always a pain point,” Budvitis reflects.
- Finally, respondents gave voice to a strong desire for training — in a sense, ensuring everyone “plays nice” with new technology. “People who are running that room have to know what they’re doing,” Budvitis declares.
Armed with all those insights, Marash and his team created Stem Audio. “Those are the pain points that we saw,” Budvitis recalls, “and we aimed to solve [them] with both the hardware and the software for the Stem Ecosystem.”
The Stem Ecosystem Building-Block Approach
The Stem Audio team achieved something very close to that with the Stem Ecosystem. The company embraced a very intuitive approach — analogous to using building blocks — that enables substantial flexibility, regardless of room size or aesthetic considerations. “You can use these building blocks however you see fit,” Budvitis says with a smile.
We’ll explore each of the building blocks in turn:
- Stem Ceiling is a microphone array that is mountable on the ceiling of a conference room. Composed of 100 elements, it allows you to pre-select different beam widths.
- Stem Wall is a conferencing bar array that boasts 15 inbuilt microphones, as well as speakers and subwoofers. These attributes enable it to function as a standalone device.
- Stem Table is a conferencing speakerphone built for tabletops and flat surfaces. With nine inbuilt microphones, it offers spatial-awareness functionality for conference spaces. It, too, is usable as a standalone device.
- Stem Speaker has the capacity to deliver a high-quality sound experience in meeting rooms of any kind. Usually, it’s paired with the Stem Ceiling microphone array.
- Stem Hub Express serves as the brains of the operation when more than one Stem device occupies the same room. It is suitable for conferencing spaces with up to 10 units. “It aggregates everything,” Budvitis explains. “It turns it into one big, giant USB peripheral.”
- Finally, Stem Control is a dedicated touch controller that, via a single Ethernet connection, connects to your network. Stem Control is an optional add on for any Stem Ecosystem room. Alternatively, operators can manage their rooms on a browser, via apps, etc.
Built for Videoconferencing
Asked where the Stem Ecosystem works most naturally, Budvitis offers a ready answer. “Stem is always more for a standard, straightforward room where the only thing that’s happening in it is videoconferencing,” he says. Nevertheless, the Stem Ecosystem scales quite flexibly, accommodating huddle spaces, meeting rooms, larger training rooms and more. Industry observers frequently see the Stem Ecosystem on corporate campuses and enterprise environments, but Budvitis stresses that healthcare and, especially, higher education represent ripe opportunities.
Indeed, he notes that it’s common to see 200, 300 or 400 units deployed in multiple classrooms across a campus. “We’ve had our largest wins in education for sheer volume involving individual projects,” Budvitis says proudly. In fact, he references one community-college technology manager who, by using Stem Remote Management, now has visibility into up to 600 rooms on the single pane of glass of his iPad.
Remote Management offers the ideal segue into the Stem software toolset, which is equally robust:
- Stem RoomDesign helps assess which devices one needs in a meeting room. “You can not only see microphone pickup,” Budvitis explains, “you can [also] see speaker coverage. You can really get the full picture of what is in the room.”
- Stem RoomAdapt evaluates a room’s distinct acoustic signature and adjusts device settings to deliver a better-tailored audio solution. This calibration tool, for instance, measures the room’s reverberance signature and contextualizes device placement.
- Stem RoomCheck empowers integrators and end users alike to align their audio expectations for any specific area of the room. It does so by generating a heatmap of the actual microphone coverage. Thus, users can objectively know the room coverage.
- Finally, the aforementioned Stem Remote Management offers Ecosystem-wide visibility.
The Stem Ecosystem and its Ongoing Firmware Updates
Notable for integrators and IT managers alike, the Stem Ecosystem has aggressively released firmware updates lately, the most recent of which was 2.9. Among the benefits unlocked by those updates are no longer needing a DHCP router in your meeting room; the recent addition of speaker coverage to the Stem RoomDesign tool; and the ability to change the audio output on individual devices, thus enabling different, customized soundscapes in any room. According to Budvitis, the last of those benefits has particularly enhanced classroom settings, which prize delivering an equitable educational experience for all.
Of all the firmware updates, Budvitis reserves his greatest enthusiasm for the release of an API to enable control and monitoring of Stem audio endpoints via third-party control systems. “Now, you can bring in the control of the Stem solution throughout your organization within that single pane of glass,” he enthuses. Thus, the full Stem Ecosystem can now seamlessly merge into the overall management system for the larger campus. Although Budvitis won’t tip his hand about the next announcement, he expresses enthusiasm about Stem’s continuing innovation. “A lot of great updates have come,” he declares, “and we’re still going to be doing more.”
Integrators and IT Managers
Although the Stem Ecosystem has enjoyed success in the AV integrator channel — not least because of Shure’s firm channel grounding — the company’s offering almost appears built for IT managers. “An IT manager or IT director is going to understand Stem far better than an AV integrator will, as many AV solutions are ‘over spec’ for certain situations,” Budvitis says candidly. “Stem allows IT teams to install high-quality audio to locations that aren’t practical or budgeted for AV implementation.”
And, really, simplicity lies at the core of Stem Audio’s value proposition. Claire Barrett, associate global marketing manager, Stem Ecosystem by Shure, makes the point clearly. She states, “Your IT manager might have 30 tickets on their desk and 12 repairs to make. Lisa in accounting might need help with her headset or help with her setup. And someone else might need to get a room started. So, [we ask], ‘How can we help make their lives easier?’”
The imperative to make conferencing systems easier to manage is particularly acute because, according to Budvitis, IT managers and IT directors are increasingly finding that installation and management of in-room conferencing and communications systems falls within their technology estate. As Allison Dolegowski, Shure’s senior global media relations manager, puts it, “Now, [post-pandemic], IT is overloaded more than they’ve ever been before.” But, by leveraging the Stem Ecosystem, those IT managers enjoy greater confidence that they’ve selected devices that will be right for their rooms.
Stem’s Customer Happiness Team bolsters their confidence further. The team aims to provide a white-glove approach to customer care. “If you call that Customer Happiness number right now, you’ll get a human on the phone,” Budvitis promises. And access to the team is open ended, stretching as long as the relationship with Stem Audio lasts.
But CI can’t overlook the integrator channel, which Stem does, indeed, play in. Interestingly, Barrett notes that the Stem Ecosystem’s simplicity actually redounds to the benefit of integrators, as well — especially at a time of escalating labor rates and when firms are concerned about utilizing their talent wisely. “You don’t have to send your most experienced technician to install Stem,” she declares. “You can outfit way more rooms in a much shorter time span, and really take on more business that way.”
Indeed, integrators can even strategically deploy their most seasoned technicians for more challenging, highly complex projects, whereas less-experienced technicians can handle Stem Ecosystem installations.
The Stem Ecosystem in Action
To get a client’s-eye perspective, CI sought out Daniel Hassell, information technology systems engineer with R.E. Garrison Trucking, a refrigerated-trucking company whose fleet numbers approximately 800. The company was dealing with an issue common across industries and trades: subpar conferencing experiences. “We have a lot of meetings with customers,” he relates. “So, that’s where we had to start getting serious on our sound situation in our conference rooms.”
Hassell acknowledges that clients and others would call in and have problems hearing the meetings. “That’s never a good look,” he laments. Those challenges spurred Hassell and his team to act, searching for a solution that would work well but require minimal maintenance.
Drawing on R.E. Garrison’s existing relationship with Ring Central, the company sought a recommendation. The communications-solutions provider pointed to a particular sound system, saying, “We’ve never seen a room that it didn’t work in.” Unfortunately for Hassell and his team, these conference rooms presented the perfect storm that resulted in the originally recommended solution failing.
Only then did R.E. Garrison receive a recommendation to try the Stem Ecosystem, sourcing the products through videoconferencegear.com, a division of Cloud Connextions. After testing various setups and combinations, Hassell found that the optimal configuration entailed using two Stem Tables with the Stem Hub Express. This setup enabled coverage despite crosstalk during meetings and facilitated smaller breakout conversations within the larger group-collaboration space.
According to Hassell, Stem helped during initial setup, showing his team the ropes of how to get everything set up. Outside of that, though, he has found that he has needed little support. “It just works,” he states plainly. “It’s not difficult.” Thus, it’s unsurprising that Hassell and R.E. Garrison Trucking intend to stay loyal to the Stem Ecosystem for their conferencing needs. “Once you find someone who provides a good service, you just want to stay with them,” he concludes.
During my Shure brand immersion in the Chicagoland area in May, I got a glimpse of why both AV integrators and IT managers are giving the Stem Ecosystem such a close look. And if these indicators are predictive of the future, we might well see even greater market penetration across conferencing-centric verticals in the months and years ahead.
Dan Ferrisi is Editor in Chief of audiovisual integration trade publication Commercial Integrator.
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