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Innovations: Bluesound Professional Music Distribution for Commercial Spaces

Graeme Harrison, vice president and general manager of Bluesound Professional, recounts how the residential streaming audio hardware manufacturer reinvented itself by launching a division aimed at commercial spaces.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column in which different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought process behind creating their products of note.

Graeme Harrison
Graeme Harrison

We launched Bluesound Professional last year so commercial environments could realize high-quality networked audio systems that are easy to install and operate, dependable and, above all, that deliver a high-quality audio experience. Prior to starting Bluesound Professional, I worked for another well-respected audio company for nearly 30 years—and 15 years ago, I was doing what many other people were doing: ripping CDs on my home computer to put onto my iPod so I’d have music when I traveled. I ended up building up a hefty library of audio material, which I also wanted to listen to on my hi-fi system.

The problem was, my computer was in my home office and my hi-fi was the living room. The only way of connecting them was to use a long analog cable—but this wasn’t really an efficient solution. I bought a device from Slim Devices that was, I think, the first networked audio player, and loved it. I thought it would be good if we could access network-stored media, process it with DSP and distribute it in commercial installations. We looked into advancing this idea within our business, but the partnership we were pursuing didn’t materialize.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2018. Once I came to know what Lenbrook International was doing on the residential side with Bluesound, it occurred to me that nobody had done the same in the commercial audio market. I thought there must be a very good reason for that, so I made about 50 phone calls to industry peers, including magazine editors, consultants and distributors. I asked them: “What am I missing here?” Nobody I spoke to knew why it hadn’t been done in the commercial space, particularly because there are so many companies already doing it in residential. I went back to Lenbrook and said, “You know what? Streaming audio hardware for commercial environments seems like a great idea.” I came aboard and started Bluesound Professional.

Identifying the Market Need

In this industry, there is traditionally one way of bringing licensed music into a commercial environment, which is to engage a company like Mood Media or Play Network. These companies traditionally work with larger retail chains. In the past, retailers would receive specially recorded cassettes of commercially licensed music that would typically play only in the providers’ players, mainly to ensure that employees wouldn’t use their own devices or bring the cassettes home. Then came specially encoded CDs, and nowadays retailers receive digital downloads approximately once a month so they can update their playlists. This is all a very expensive process. While it works adequately for larger retail chains, it is not appropriate for coffee bars and restaurants due to its high cost.

Innovations: Ashly Audio’s New Installation Loudspeakers, by Noel Larson, July 20, 2020

This was the need that Bluesound Professional was set up to meet: How do we facilitate access to digital media, whether the content originates from local libraries, internet radio stations, custom URLs or streaming services? Aside from addressing the core need that existed in the market, it was a particularly good time for us to launch Bluesound Professional because so many business streaming services are being formed now, and we currently have integrations with several, including SoundMachine, Custom Channels and Qsic.

Initially, some customers were concerned about the concept of streaming in commercial environments because they’d be left in the lurch if the internet went down. Well, you would lose your streaming music, true, but more importantly, you would lose your ability to process credit cards or handle any point-of-sale activity, which are mission-critical activities. But I haven’t seen a manual credit card swiper in years, simply because the internet just doesn’t go down anymore. Internet infrastructure has expanded and become a robust and dependable utility. You must have it, so streaming is now a realistic possibility.

A Professional Formula

There are three main elements we need to be able to deliver our services to customers and integrators. These include having sufficient bandwidth, having access to streaming services, and having the hardware to play it on. When we look at it from an integrator or end user’s perspective, we have to ask ourselves, What do we have to do to make this as easy to install and use and possible?

The first thing is that everything needs to be rack-mounted, because that’s how commercial installations are done (as opposed to residential installations, where hardware can often be mounted on a shelf, for instance). Another consideration is that professional audio equipment runs at +4 dBu reference level, whereas residential installations typically run at -10 dBV. Pro audio equipment has to run at a higher level because you’ve got longer cable runs, and you need a more robust signal. Likewise, all pro equipment needs to run on balanced I/O because there are many more potential sources of interference, including fluorescent lights, refrigeration systems and HVAC systems. There are many more potential hums and buzzes than in a typical residential situation.

Innovations: LEA PRofessional Connect Series Amplifiers, by Brian Pickowitz, Sept. 20, 2019

Then there is security, which is a stark reality in the commercial market. It is a little-known fact that if your local coffee shop puts in a regular consumer-based streaming system and also provides wireless internet access, customers can potentially take over and play their own music if they have the right app. As a result, we developed a robust security infrastructure so the system can be password-protected by user and by zone. In this case, even if you do have an app, you will still be prompted for a username and password. We have also designed wall-mount controls to allow easy, intuitive control of the entire system. These panels, which are made of attractive aluminum and glass, are easy to install and operate. In addition, our equipment is compatible with all the major third-party control systems, and an API is available for integration with custom POS systems.

All of these elements point toward a confluence of needs among the dealer, integrator and end user communities. As products and services increasingly evolve toward an online model, especially in this time of pandemic and lockdown, businesses in the brick-and-mortar retail, restaurant and hospitality sectors need to entice people back into public spaces by creating delightful, immersive, multisensory experiences that cannot be had at home. As sight and sound are the only “safe” senses at the moment, the AV industry is very well positioned, as these are the senses that we address.

Bluesound Professional •

Lenbrook International •