The Science of Speakers, the Wonders of Wireless
I hardly consider myself a technophile, but I do own several electronic gadgets, from a standard cell phone to a portable gaming system (because I still check my Animal Crossing town to see what gifts I’ve gotten on my birthday, adulthood be damned). Basically, I own just enough devices to have acquired a total mess of cables and cords. The floor space near the power outlet in my home office looks as if it’s been taken over by a pair of nesting sparrows.
Fortunately for me (and for sparrows everywhere, who shouldn’t have to be insulted by being linked to my mess), wireless technology is becoming more prevalent. A poll of small businesses that AT&T conducted in 2013 revealed that 98 percent of the companies surveyed use wireless technologies in their daily activities.
Wireless tech powers a number of different kinds of devices; phones and tablets are the ones most likely to come to people’s minds. However, brilliant engineers everywhere who are sick of watching people like me untangle headphone cords on the train continue to work on making other devices a little less dependent on wired connections.
One type of device that’s seen some beautiful innovation is the audio speaker.
QLP offers a huge selection of speakers designed to round out the sound quality of music played on people’s phones, because there’s no point in having an MP3 of “Let’s Groove” on your phone if the bass sounds tinny or hollow. What’s really neat, though, is that some of the speakers we sell don’t have to be connected to a phone or other audio device to amplify the sound. No cables needed; simply set your phone on them and hit “play”!
Naturally, we were curious: how do these magical doohickeys work?
Magical Doohickeys, Type 1: Where Are the Wires Hidden?
Here’s one of the items that got us wondering: the Party Pal Silicone Speaker, or as I’ve named the one we keep in the Content office, Tuba.
The skeptical part of the brain says that products like Tuba the Party Pal Silicone Speaker shouldn’t work. It’s made entirely of silicone and has no circuitry inside, nothing. How well could it possibly transmit sound?
Surprisingly well, it turns out. We tried it out using the second-best type of testing music there is after Earth, Wind & Fire jams: showtunes. The sound quality wasn’t nearly on par with what you’d get from an expensive pair of headphones, but it was clear, and the amplification of Donnie Osmond’s sweet, sonorous voice was far better than what we got using the old phone-in-a-cup trick.
The reasons that products like this work have nothing to do with magic, it turns out, but everything to do with science. Really, when you saw my name on this post, did you expect otherwise?
So here’s a quick lesson in acoustics. As you might remember from grade-school science class, sound is a wave that travels through a medium, like air, until it reaches a surface and causes that surface to vibrate. We hear sound thanks to sound waves pulsing against our eardrums.
Sound waves also can make other objects vibrate—say, the body of a guitar, for example. Party Pal Silicone Speaker. When these objects vibrate, they create additional waves that build upon the original sound and make it louder. This idea also explains products like the Boom Amplifier with Mini Stylus-Pen, seen below. (Note: much to my great sadness, the Boom Amplifier with Mini Stylus-Pen has been discontinued. However, if you’re looking for a wireless speaker/phone stand that works with out battery power or electricity, please check out the Phone Amplifier Keychain.)
The Party Pal Silicone Speaker doesn’t depend only on a chain reaction of vibrations, however. Have you ever used an actual megaphone?
Megaphones amplify volume in two ways:
- They focus and direct sound waves. Normally, sound waves travel away from their source in every possible direction, but megaphones prevent sound from dissipating by focusing them into a narrow cone shape.
- They actually allow more sound waves to leave the mouth of the person who’s speaking. Normally, when there’s a huge transition from a small space (like the inside of a person’s mouth) into a large one (like all of the Great Outdoors), some sound waves actually bounce back into the small space, because physics is crazy like that. Megaphones make the transition gradual so that there are fewer waves bouncing back.
The cones of speakers put these same principles to use, making it easy to get louder, clearer sound even from a product that draws no juice.
But what if you do want to power up your sound?
Magical Doohickeys, Type 2: Power to the People
Here’s another product that sparked our curiosity: the Vigo Vibration Speaker.
There are several speakers like these available on the market, including a few others that we sell here at QLP. All of them draw power from a battery (or a power cord, if the battery’s charge is low), and all of them work by simply placing a phone on top of a speaker, turning the speaker on, and playing a song on your phone (or putting a call on speaker phone and irritating the bejeezus out of the caller).
So what’s going on here? Well, these speakers do more than just pick up the phone’s vibrations. They depend on a technology called Near Field Audio (also NearFA or NFA) that’s trademarked and patented and currently kept under pretty tight wraps by the companies that use it in their products.
So of course the Internet had to figure out how it worked.
A few bloggers and writers have dissected NearFA speakers and shared their thoughts. From what they can guess, speakers like the Vigo Vibration Speaker seem to work thanks to a principle called electromagnetic induction.
Okay, take a deep breath. Ready? Here we go:
The TL;DR explanation of electromagnetic induction is that components called transducers take the motion and energy of sound waves and convert them to an electrical signal. The signal becomes the current flowing through speakers and eventually the sound that gets transmitted. Power supplied by the device’s batteries are what give the components enough juice to make this happen.
It might sound complicated, but it’s pretty similar to how the pickups on electric guitars detect the vibrations of guitar strings and pass that info along to the amplifier. Ah, simple, comforting analogy.
You can see NearFA in action here:
Near Field Audio also tends to draw some comparisons to Bluetooth technology, because both types of tech are wireless. Bluetooth is different
, of course. It transmits its signals through radio frequencies, which means that Bluetooth speakers don’t have to be right next to your phone or whatever sound source they’re amplifying.
They’re nice, no doubt (otherwise we wouldn’t sell them, right?), but Near Field Audio speakers still offer some advantages over their Bluetooth cousins:
- Bluetooth speakers have to be synced to a particular device, and that connection takes a little bit of time and patience to set up. NearFA speakers will work with any phone set on top of them.
- NearFA speakers are said to be less power-hungry than the Bluetooth kind, not in an “I will claim the Iron Throne” kind of way, but in a longer battery life kind of way.
Plus, there’s still a fun novelty factor to simply setting an audio device on top of a plain-looking object and having it produce audible, danceable sound. The sound’s pretty good, too, as an informal test suggests.
Who Doesn’t Love an Informal Test?
The Content team plus QLP Data Entry manager Rachel (whose phone we borrowed in exchange for some of the snack food we stash in our room) sat down recently to assess the sound quality of the three QLP products mentioned in this post:
- The Party Pal Silicone Speaker
- The Boom Amplifier with Mini Stylus-Pen
- The Vigo Vibration Speaker
While Rachel’s iPhone 5S played the soundtrack to The Avengers (the third-best kind of testing music, after Earth, Wind & Fire songs and showtunes), we listed to the sound that each speaker produced. Then we compared them all to each other and to the sound that the phone produced unaided.
As mentioned earlier, for a hunk of molded silicone, the Party Pal Silicone Speaker does a shockingly good job of amplifying music. It still lacked bass during our test but transmitted sound that was audible and clear.
The Boom Amplifier with Mini Stylus-Pen also transmitted clear sound, but it actually was a bit louder than the iPhone Megaphone Speaker. Overall, we determined that the Boom Amplifier with Mini Stylus-Pen had the fuller sound quality of the two speakers, though it still lacked bass.
Then the Vigo Vibration Speaker came along and apparently stole all the bass that the other two were missing. Seriously, the Vigo Vibration Speaker made ample use of its battery power, providing a load of low-register sound at a high volume. However, for all of the power it offered, each member of our scientifically minded team felt that the Vigo’s sound was more muffled than the sound from either of the power-free options.
(Interestingly enough, during a later test conducted by Rachel and our office manager Jeff, both managers agreed that the Vigo produced better sound from Jeff’s LG Android phone than from Rachel’s phone. As they say on the Interwebs, YMMV.)
Our admittedly subjective conclusion? The Party Pal Silicone Speaker and the Boom Amplifier probably are the speakers to get for people who want to listen to the lyrics of a song; the Vigo Vibration is the speaker to get for people who want to dance. For our office-listening purposes, the Boom Amplifier with Mini Stylus-Pen won the highest marks.
I still think Tuba is adorable, though. And thanks to products like it, I and consumers like me can enjoy our music without getting tangled up in cords. That’s a benefit I can hear loud and clear.
Do you use wireless speakers at home or in the office? What do you think of the sound quality? Isn’t science frickin’ amazing? Let us know in the comments below!