Interview: SonicMaster designer sounds off

Matt Black
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We dived into the ASUS Sound and Sensitivity lab for a quick chat with SonicMaster supremeo, Henry Huang, to grab the background details on the new N Series laptops.

TiS: So did SonicMaster ‘start’ last year with the NX90?

Henry: Actually it started with the N61! This is actually before I entered ASUS and was originally just our own initiative and design, but things have changed a lot since then!

TiS: How has SonicMaster evolved then?

Henry: When I joined ASUS in September 2009, our first aim was to make SonicMaster more relateable. We then began to work with Bang & Olufsen ICEpower division where we discussed component specifications and circuit designs. Since then, for each notebook, ICEpower require us to submit audio designs for their approval in order for them to certify the user of their name. However while Bang & Olufsen ICEpower has very high standards about audio quality, it’s not it’s job to be concerned about other laptop features like vibrations.

So while the SonicMaster criteria has evolved from this co-operation to create a set of high-fidelity requirements, as a company that designs the entire notebook we have to consider how including larger speakers with a deeper bass will affect sensitive components like hard drives and cooling fans. So anti-vibration and component isolation are to criteria also added to our SonicMaster list.

SonicMaster speaker size comparison

SonicMaster speakers on the left, typical laptop speakers on the right

TiS: SonicMaster has several focal areas, can you detail them for us?

Henry: OK so these are that the sound should be louder, clearer, greater bass; these three are achieved with a larger speaker. It can handle more power and a wider frequency range.

However too big and it loses some of the high frequency range, so this is why tweeters are required on large speakers, but in the case of notebooks they can never be that large so we still get to keep the high frequency.

This is the functional end. It also requires a high-quality codec, isolated grounding and larger amplifiers to support the larger speakers.

Because a notebook or tablet is used for many applications we need a DSP that can emphasize certain sound types when needed. A HDTV will be designed for movies and TV, but a laptop has to handle music, gaming, voice, movies and all types of compression that produces different sound qualities and emphasis. So we also have the option of a smart volume function inside that uses a DSP that can emphasize tones voice if needed, for example.

Another thing we apply due to our size limitation is psychoacoustics; this gives you the perception of hearing a sound rather than actually hearing it. So if we cannot specifically create a particular low frequency, we can apply a parallel frequency within its harmonic series that makes you feel like you’re hearing the one lower.

TiS: SonicMaster is optimized for headphones too: where do you start with so many on the market?

Henry: When you plug in a headphone you have three choices in the Sonic Focus software. This comes under three options: in-ear, ear bud and large cans. We co-operate with a company that helps us tune the software according to an industry standard set of headphones types. It’s an optional effect that tweaks the audio for smaller speakers, and it can be turned on or off as needed.

TiS: ASUS previously had a lot of feedback from its Facebook fans that audio was an important requirement. With that in mind, is SonicMaster something you’d like to see on all ASUS laptops?

Henry: SonicMaster quality is already coming to our Pads and our Ultrabooks, and my target is that it gets into all ASUS laptops eventually. We have to work incredibly hard to achieve this goal.

Henry shows us how speakers are tested

Henry shines a strobe onto the speaker to highlight its frequency and check for a uniform oscillation

TiS: This never used to be the case though, how have things changed?

Henry: I break down the use of laptops into two eras – the early one where laptops are almost exclusively working devices; so at this time good audio wasn’t required. Now modern era laptops and tablets are often for entertainment more than work. Mobile entertainment consumption is killing traditionally fixed mediums like TV even, so this means that sound is now more important than ever!

When you’re sitting and watching a movie people sometimes use headphones, but when we’re gaming – especially on a tablet – headphones just get in the way. You can’t be as free if you have to worry about the wires, so great sound is a necessity.

TiS: About this bundled Subwoofer: can you tell us more about it?

Henry: We include the small subwoofer in with the new N Series laptop. It complements the internal speakers by taking over the low frequency bass sounds when it’s plugged in, giving you the best frequency range of any laptop.

The clover-leaf base is patented to both absorb the vibrations and also let the sound that’s directed towards the desk bounce outwards.
It’s an interesting design because it’s a semi-closed box: around the very edge there’s a tiny gap. All speakers require a reflection port, but in our small cone we don’t have space so we have to tweak the shape to place it around the edges of the speaker.

We actually made two versions of the subwoofer: one with a rare earth core and the other with a ferrite core. We tuned both to work exactly the same, however the rare earth one was physically ‘too light’ because the powerful magnet only needed to be small. Light feels cheap, so users just won’t accept it, even if it sounds the same. So the weightier ferrite cored speaker ‘feels’ better quality to pick it up, plus it has the added bonus that the extra weight helps minimize excessive vibrations.

subwoofer clover foot

The subwoofer clover foot

TiS: Since it bounces sound downwards, which surface types work best with it?

Henry: As hard as possible! I would recommend putting it on the ground – on concrete – but the distance to the floor is too far so the balance of sound will be off. That’s why we made the cable quite short, so you hear all the sound at the right time. Another reason was the cable storage: one turn around the base was far too short to use, but three turns and the cable falls out, so two turns gives enough freedom and still enough bite to keep it stored. Its trivial things like this we have to think about and test.

Thanks to Henry for his time and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to drop them on our Facebook page or in the comments below!

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  • Vishal

    Nice Article.

    Its great that upcoming tablets(I hope TF2) and ultrabook will be powered by SonicMaster.  


  • SethM

    I was always impressed with the audio on my ASUS N71J that has the sonic master. It really is the best sound you will hear from built in laptop speakers.