Not Your Daddy’s Ceiling Speakers

As I write, I’m 30,000 feet in the air, winging towards Orlando and InfoComm.
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Frank Wells
fwells@nbmedia.com
As I write, I’m 30,000 feet in the air, winging towards Orlando and InfoComm. The first few times I attended a trade show developed for systems integrators, beginning near 20 years ago, it was hardly cause for grand enthusiasm on my part. With a studio and broadcast background, entering the world of ceiling speakers and industrial audio distribution seemed a step backwards.

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In those days, there were two professional A/V shows: NSCA (big A and little v) and InfoComm (little a and big V). NSCA was, well, quaint, with small booths (you couldn’t book a big one, only a number of adjacent smaller ones if you needed to stretch out). The booths were height restricted and signage was controlled—you could stand at one end of an NSCA exhibition hall and see if someone was at their booth on the other end of the hall. That actually fostered a sense of community and camaraderie amongst the participants. InfoComm was bigger and flashier, but audio was a secondary consideration.

I also came to realize, even in those early experiences, that even if I didn’t get too excited about the audio technology level, I could embrace the professionalism, knowledge and experience of the program presenters, the exhibitors and most of all, the attendees. There was plenty to learn about areas of the audio sciences where I had little experience, and plenty more to learn about the particular applications of technology practiced by systems contractors. And, I came to appreciate a greater sophistication in the products than I had superficially noted.

Several years ago, the trade show aspects of NSCA’s endeavors were merged into InfoComm and now there’s but one large format exposition. InfoComm is still A/V with a little A and a big V, but perhaps the A is capitalized now, just in a smaller font size. Audio exhibitors with big systems to show at InfoComm need to make noise, so they tend towards the demo rooms as opposed to taking the towering, large footprint exhibition hall stands of the folks showing gargantuan video walls.

What has changed over time is the now extremely high level of sophistication of the audio tools employed by systems contractors. Systems—and this should surprise no one—are increasingly incorporating digital technology. Distribution of signals is more often digital than not (save for the final run to loudspeakers in most cases). DSP, either central or distributed, controls levels, dynamics, equalization and crossover filters. Further, DSP is employed to tailor loudspeaker performance for clarity and precise dispersion patterns. Digital routing controls what signals go where. Presets allow integrators to create broad palettes of scene changes that adapt spaces for multiple purposes without the intense low-level programming once required.

It’s not all digital technology that is cutting edge for integrators. Transducers have gone from utilitarian to high performance and high fidelity. That’s true for both loudspeakers and microphones. Wireless systems employed for installations and small venues share performance equity with those used for major broadcast and touring.

So, while I got on this plane thinking, “Here I go again, into the land of ceiling speakers,” the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was lazy thinking. The preshow announcements were filled with highly refined products built on cutting-edge research. I’m looking forward to seeing what these clever minds have developed, and stand ready to be impressed, be the product a touring-level line array or even a high-performance ceiling speaker. We’ll talk again on the flip side, when we’ll share what we learn.