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Why your gadgets sound so good

Mike Elgan | Oct. 20, 2015
Companies like Apple and Microsoft go to incredible lengths to optimize everything for appealing, high-quality sound.

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Have you noticed how great technology sounds these days? Smartphones are getting great speakers, and great speakers are getting wirelessly connected to smartphones.

That dimension of gadget sound is overt. We notice it.

The story is more interesting when you realize how much effort and ingenuity is put into making every little sound super appealing -- the subtle noises hardware makes, or the audio cues our apps produce.

The reason some companies go to such lengths is because people don't know exactly why they love or hate a consumer electronics product. When asked, they'll talk about whatever comes to mind -- speeds, feeds and specs. But the reality is that subtle cues, such as materials, colors and -- the most subtle of all -- sounds, make a huge difference in the appeal of any gadget.

It's easy to dismiss subtle sound cues as a trivial. But imagine if a device like Apple's iPhone 6S made irritating noises. Everyone would hate it. And that's why the stakes are so high when it comes to developing hardware and software that sounds inviting, pleasant and gratifying.

The leaders in the field of optimizing tech devices for sound are Apple and -- wait for it -- Microsoft!

Here's what those two companies are willing to do to make every noise just right.


Apple last week rolled out its latest iMac updates. The flashiest new features on these PCs are the dazzling screens. The "small" all-in-one computer, the 21.5-in. iMac, sports a 4k screen, and the 27-in. iMac has a 5k screen. The new P3 color gamut enables 25% more colors to be displayed, according to Apple.

But the peripherals -- the keyboard, mouse and trackpad -- got the biggest overhauls. The mouse in particular is now rechargeable, and you can do that with an iPhone charger cable. But the redesign apparently caused the sound the mouse makes while rolling across a desk to be slightly off.

Author and journalist Steven Levy last week published an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at Apple's testing lab on Medium's Backchannel.

Levy had exclusive access to the lab, and he described how Apple uses a nearly soundproof room, called an anechoic chamber, plus other equipment to "identify the micro-location of a sound" and figure out why it sounds the way it does.

I interviewed Levy about his experience in the lab (for my show, Tech News Today), and he told me that although Apple's Magic Mouse 2 looks identical to its predecessor on the outside, the inside has been completely changed, and that affected the sound of the mouse. The new sound "just didn't feel right" to Apple's mouse designers, he said. So they kept redesigning (and moving the location of) the runners on the bottom of the device until it sounded great.


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