Conference Room Audio Equipment: The Four Major Factors
Conference room audio equipment is what powers a call, and when it is selected, installed and configured carefully, it makes the conversation flow naturally and clearly. Audio conferencing remains an essential part of collaboration, according to a 2015 survey published by Wainhouse Research. That survey found that the use of audio conferencing doubled between 2010 and 2014, from 78 billion minutes of use to 150 billion minutes of use. The survey’s respondents cited reduced costs, better usability, better availability and the rise of the remote employee as reasons for adopting audio conferencing.
There’s many reasons to integrate audio conferencing into your company’s conference and boardrooms. Before committing to any solutions, though, four essential factors must be addressed. They include acoustics, the surrounding environment, equipment positioning and the system’s usability and interoperability.
Acoustics: How the Room Affects Sound
Acoustics refer to how the audio equipment, the room’s layout and the room’s composition come together to affect any outputted sound. Acoustics are difficult to account for and alter without an audio expert, and this is more challenging because bad acoustics can come from many sources. If, however, the room is affected by poor acoustics, it will be immediately apparent when a call is started. Sound quality and volume will be inconsistent, especially when comparing people in the room and remote participants.
Resolving poor acoustics is essential before relying on the system for collaboration. Audio conferencing experts do this by first modeling how acoustics are affected by the room’s sound. Audio measuring equipment diagrams where sound travels, what it bounces off of and where the problem areas are. From there, an integrator can start fixing the issues. Some simple solutions include:
- Adding soundproof materials – Soundproof curtains and drywall can mask audio reflecting off of walls, ensuring more of the direct, unmarred sound makes it to the listener. Soundproof curtains are especially helpful when several windows are present, as windows tend to worsen acoustics.
- Adding acoustic ceiling tiles – Acoustic ceiling tiles can be suspended off the ground and mask sounds that would reflect off of the ceiling. They are inexpensive and do not affect the room’s aesthetics or function.
- Adding baffles – Baffles are similar to acoustic tiles in that they are suspended from the ceiling. Unlike ceiling tiles, which are arranged parallel to the ceiling, baffles are arranged perpendicularly. Baffles are ideal for rooms with high ceilings and come in a variety of colors and designs, so they can complement the conference room’s appearance.
- Removing problem surfaces – Adding sound masking materials can help, as can removing materials that are more likely to damage the room’s acoustics. This typically concerns flat, hard surfaces that reflect sound rather than absorb it. Standard whiteboards, windows and hard, empty walls are common culprits, but they can be modified or removed to reduce their impact.
Once the room’s acoustics are optimized, integrators can focus on ambient noise and the equipment itself.
The Conferencing Environment: The Impact of Ambient Noise
To maximize call quality, it’s not just about controlling the sound inside the room. It’s also about controlling any sound that is coming from outside of the conference area. Ideally, an audio conference room would be situated away from high traffic areas to provide better privacy and sound control.
If ambient noise frequently seeps into the room, it can be a major distraction during conference calls. Worse, it may not be obvious to people in the room that ambient noise is an issue, but other people on the call will likely notice.
AV integrators have tools to counter ambient noise, however. White noise generators, which can be as simple as a small water feature, can create a perimeter that ambient sound can’t penetrate. Some audio conferencing equipment is built with noise reduction technology that detects interfering sounds and removes them. Poly’s (formerly Polycom) Acoustic Fence is an example of this and uses microphones to establish a field that ambient noises are blocked from entering.
Equipment Positioning: Where it’s Placed Matters
Proper microphone and speaker placement ensure an audio conferencing system sounds like it should. Poor placement can make quality equipment sound terrible. Fortunately, AV integrators rarely have difficulty in arranging equipment for optimal performance.
In conference rooms and boardrooms, microphones can be placed on the table, inside the ceiling, or even built into the room’s furniture. The best solution will depend on the room’s size, the number of expected meeting participants and whether aesthetics are a concern. When audio clarity and ease of use are the priorities, a gooseneck mic for every one or two participants is ideal. Gooseneck mics rise off of the table and are less likely to be covered by papers or affected by ambient noise.
Boundary microphones are another popular option, and are built with a lower profile that remains out of sight. They can be installed at the edge of the table so participants can speak naturally.
Ceiling microphones stay completely out of the way and preserve the room’s aesthetics, but they can pick up noise from the HVAC system, so they must be carefully configured.
In smaller conference rooms and huddle rooms, speakers aren’t always necessary. In larger conferencing spaces, they usually are, and AV integrators typically arrange speakers around the room to create an even dispersion pattern. This ensures no one participant is subjected to uncomfortable volume levels. Integrators can mount speakers to the wall or, if ADA requirements dictate it, inside the ceiling with a similar dispersion pattern.
Usability and Interoperability: Making the Most of the Solution
When conference calls do fail, it’s often because the technology is not simple enough to use consistently. Modern audio conferencing equipment is designed with responsive, clear controls that take little time to learn. It’s important that the audio conferencing solution your company selects comes with these intuitive controls, as it will drive usage. Mute controls are particularly important, as it allows meeting members to mute someone who is brining distracting noise into the call. A simple screen tap can resolve the problem without restarting the call.
Audio conferencing solutions should also come with one-touch call starting and be preconfigured for optimal call volume and clarity. These quality-of-life features save time and frustration among employees who may be less inclined to engage with the system if it is a challenge to handle.
Interoperability is another part of the usability equation. With so many audio conferencing options, it’s important that remote employees can connect with a mobile device or from their home office. These remote team members may have their own audio conferencing software on their devices, and if they are walled off from a conference due to incompatible technology, it can be a frustrating hurdle to overcome. For this reason, AV integrators focus on interoperability when developing audio conferencing solutions for their clients.
Putting it All Together
Since audio quality dictates call quality, audio equipment must be planned for, selected and arranged carefully. AV integrators are experts at this, and will focus on the finer points for their clients, so elements like interoperability, ambient noise control and acoustics are accounted for in the ideal solution.