Wireless “standards” abound for home automation, PC peripherals, video and more … so why not wireless audio? A new organization called WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio) hopes to propagate a standard for wireless 7.1 surround sound. It is being driven by HDMI developer Silicon Image along with Summit Wireless, developer of the wireless audio technology on which the WiSA “standard” is based.
“I think it’s an industry first,” says Jim Venable, senior director of standards for Silicon Image and president of the WiSA Association, in an interview with CE Pro. “I think it will be a big boost in the growth of quality wireless audio.”
That would be nice, considering the 100 million homes or so that are not prewired for surround.
Silicon Image, which recently acquired wireless HD video developer SiBeam, is managing WiSA under the newly formed WiSA, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Silicon Image, Inc.
Wearing his SI hat for a moment, Venable says that the initiative fits with SI’s “strategy and core competency.”
He says, “Being able to be involved in an association that ensures delivery of high-definition audio content in home fits nicely with their [SI’s] strategy going forward. It’s becoming wireless world, whether we like it or not.”
WiSA is based on technology from Summit Semiconductor, a spinoff Focus Enhancements. Via its Summit Wireless division, the organization offers a wireless surround sound platform that is highly regarded but not widely adopted, despite three years of trying. To date it appears only one manufacturer, Aperion Audio, has implemented Summit in its wireless speakers.
Summit utilizes the 5 GHz Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) frequency band – a relatively uncrowded space used mostly by government for radars. Using that space frees WiSA from interference by other wireless technologies like 802.11a.
Venable says we won’t see interference in the 5 GHz UNII band anytime soon.
“It’s not that simple” to implement, he says.
Wireless Surround Sound Roadblocks
There have been several wireless surround-sound products and technologies demonstrated over the past few years – even by most major CE brands – but few have shipped in any volume.
Summit’s technology in the past has been reserved for the high end, but the company is coming out with a new chipset that is 60 percent less expensive and smaller, according to spokesperson Linda Ferguson.
“The price point has come down, but obviously it depends on which parts [of the Summit technology] they [manufacturers] want to use,” she says.
It is the high price of high-quality wireless that has kept at least one WiSA Advisory Board member from implementing such technology in the past.
“The cost of a good system has been really high,” says Stu Lumden, VP engineering for Polk Audio (part of DEI Holdings, which also includes Definitive Technology). “We’re a loudspeaker company. There are electronics now in some of our speakers as a necessity, but the most important thing to us is the loudspeaker. That’s the thing we add value to.
Lumden tells us that Polk in the past has not wanted to overwhelm its speakers with pricey wireless technology because it “tends to cheapen our value add.”
He hopes that a standard will help drive down the cost of wireless technology.
Lumden says Polk has vetted the Summit technology: “I’m confident it works well and sounds good.”
Even so, Lumden would not comment on any future product plans for Polk and Definitive, including whether or not the companies would actually ship WiSA-compatible products in the future.
In addition to Polk and Definitive from DEI Holdings, Aperion, Klipsch (a subsidiary of Voxx, previously Audiovox), Pioneer and Sharp are the other consumer electronics manufacturers on the WiSA advisory board. They are joined by Silicon Image, Summit Semiconductor and electronics manufacturers Hansong Electronics and Meiloon Industrial Co.
The WiSA 1.0 spec is expected to be completed in March 2012, just in time for the opening of an authorized testing center (ATC) in San Jose, administered by SI’s Simplay Labs.
The goal, as with other standards, is to ensure interoperability among WiSA-certified components “so that when a consumer sees WiSA on a package … when they get home it’ll work,” Venable says, adding that the goal is to enable surround-sound systems to be up-and-running in 30 minutes or less.
WiSA won’t comment on the product roadmap of its members, but Venable tells CE Pro that we’ll be “seeing product at retail certainly in 2012.”
For its part, Aperion is now showing 7.1 surround sound using Summit technology and Venable says we can expect to see “new developments” at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2012.
Polk’s Lumden wonders how retailers might demo a full WiSA experience – a perennial challenge for audio resellers — but WiSA’s Venable says the custom integrators he’s spoken with seem amenable to the technology.
“I was pretty apprehensive if they’d embrace it,” he says. “But they say, ‘First of all, we don’t make too much money pulling wires. It really increases the cost.”
Secondly, without wireless, “there are certain markets we can’t play in because we can’t drill holes,” dealers have told Venable.
Apartments and other rentals, as well as existing brick- and cement-constructed homes in Asia and Europe, will now be prime prospects for new surround-sound systems.
About the Technology
The Summit (WiSA) technology supports 16- or 24-bit audio up to 96 kHz in configurations ranging from stereo to 7.1 surround sound and beyond. It is a lossless format, with bit-for-bit rendering.
Venable tells CE Pro that latency is a respectable 160 nanoseconds, mitigating lip-sync and other synchronization problems.
For best results, WiSA recommends a space no larger than a 30 x 30-foot box. And while line-of-sight is not required for the wireless to work, it can certainly improve performance.