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Why your gadgets sound so good

Mike Elgan | Oct. 20, 2015
Companies like Apple and Microsoft go to incredible lengths to optimize everything for appealing, high-quality sound.

The company also keeps tweaking the trackpad to get "just the right click" and, of course, the clickiness of the keyboard was optimized under heavy testing as well.

We've come to expect such obsessive attention to every minor detail from Apple. But we should also learn to expect it from Microsoft.

Microsoft

If you're impressed by Apple's anechoic chamber, don't be. Microsoft has the best anechoic chamber ever made.

In fact, just last week Microsoft shattered the record for the quietest anechoic chamber ever built -- its testing room is the quietest place that has ever existed on Earth.

Working with a specialty company called Eckel Noise Control Technologies, Microsoft built a room that achieved a rating of -20.6 dB, which is massively quieter than the previous record of -13 dB.

Such an intensely quiet and almost perfectly nonreflective environment enables Microsoft to precisely test, say, its Cortana virtual assistant, and to see how it performs with carefully measured traffic or crowd noise. The company also uses the room to test and optimize the sound of its peripheral devices, game controllers and more.

Speaking of the importance of sound, Microsoft's new Surface Book, which was unveiled Oct. 6, has an innovative latch that's totally silent. It uses a technology that Microsoft calls muscle-wire lock technology. To separate the tablet half from the keyboard half, you press a button and the screen is released.

The silence of this latch technology was a problem. Users like the reassurance and feedback of an unlatching sound, so Microsoft engineered one. That sound plays when you unlatch the tablet. It's totally fabricated. But it sounds great; that subtle sound will no doubt be part of the Surface Book's appeal.

Microsoft also owns Skype, which is working hard to optimize sound. A feature article on The Verge goes into detail about Skype's careful (and expensive) tweaking of its signature sounds.

Skype understood early on that a voice-over-IP (VoIP) service is easily commoditized. You're basically providing Internet-based phone calls, video calls and chat sessions. Any company can do that. Sure, reliability is important. But beyond that, Skype has limited opportunities to win user affinity with subtle amenities. It's got visual design. And it's got a few sounds to work with.

So Skype crafted appealing and unusual sounds that are played when a call is incoming, when it's answered, when you hang up and so on. Millions of people use Skype regularly, and these sounds have become iconic, nearly as iconic as the AOL's old "You've got mail!" notification.

But now, for the first time in a decade, Microsoft's Skype group is updating the noises the system makes. It hired a New York-based sonic branding agency (yeah, that's a thing) called Listen.

 

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