Damson Claims First Dolby Atmos Wireless Audio System with Compact, Modular Components
Damson's super-compact, wireless S-Series can grow from a single soundbar to full Dolby Atmos or multiroom audio, thanks to modular design, auto-calibration, low-latency JetStreamNet technology.
The company’s new 8-channel S-Series includes just 5 petite components: a three-channel soundbar (the S-Bar, which is actually more of a sound box), two wireless rear surrounds (S-Cube), a subwoofer (S-Woofer), and an Atmos module that sits on the soundbar, providing two upward-firing “ceiling” speakers (specs here).
Initially, Dolby was a little incredulous about the diminutive ensemble, according to James Talbot, CEO and co-founder of parent company Damson Global.
He recalls their reaction: “Wow, this is so small.”
The Dolby engineers have “specific requirements that have to be achieved” for Atmos certification, Talbot explains. “They were probably thinking, ‘How is this going to pass?’ We didn’t just pass. We smashed it.”
Talbot says his team was fortunate to enjoy a “close relationship with Dolby” to fine-tune Damson’s first home-theater system to Atmos specs.
To pack eight Atmos-worthy channels into five little pieces, Damson customized its own drivers for the S-Series, borrowing from its first wireless “party speaker,” the $80 Vulcan.
For that product Damson created its own “Wide Field Stereo” technology to parse the various frequencies, according to Talbot.
The company claims the technology “dramatically increases the soundstage meaning this speaker sounds bigger than it looks,” with four drivers – two forward-facing and two side-facing – with the side-facing drivers allegedly delivering a wider stereo image through the processing.
The audio magic must be legit if it passes Atmos muster, right?
Home-Grown JetStreamNet Wireless Audio, Battery-Powered Rears
The fact that Damson’s compact design earned an Atmos certificate from Dolby is a feat in itself. But add wireless to the equation, and the accomplishment is doubly impressive.
Damson looked closely at other good wireless-audio technologies in the market, including the WiSA surround-sound platform, but “we couldn’t find anything that was appropriate,” he explains. “There are some great technologies out there but they just weren’t for me. They weren’t stable or good enough. There were dropouts or latency.”
Some latency might be acceptable for multiroom applications, Talbot says, “but when watching a movie or TV in surround sound, there’s no room for compromise. The moment you lose lip sync, you’re dead.”
Damson’s proprietary 5-GHz wireless technology, JetStreamNet, clocks in at a respectable 19 milliseconds of latency, according to Talbot: “We set an internal goal of 24ms.”
The challenge of creating a wireless protocol from scratch was sorely underestimated by Talbot and team, which initially introduced the technology at CES 2013.
“We believed wrongly we’d be in development by the end of that year,” he recalls, confessing the wireless element alone “has nearly bankrupt me.”
Four years later, the S-Series is almost ready for prime time, and early reviews of JetStreamNet are quite positive, according to the CEO. He reports that Damson has been approached by a few companies, including manufacturers in the pro channels, to license JetStreamNet.
“At the moment, we want to own it,” Talbot says, without dismissing future licensing agreements “after we get our name out there.”
In addition to its wireless streaming capabilities, the S-Series can go almost completely wireless, thanks to built-in batteries in the Cube speakers. Because of the system’s modularity (more on that below), the speakers can charge up while being used as bookshelf speakers, and then move to the back of the room for use as rear surrounds.
Talbot says you can get about two or three feature films out of the charge.
It was his wife, he claims, who was responsible for the battery-powered cubes. When he was single, he enjoyed the typical bachelor-friendly 5.1 sound system with wires trailing out of the rear surrounds. After marriage, he suffered heroically listening to TV audio. Even when the couple graduated to a soundbar, the lady of the house cringed at the monstrosity.
The S-Series was born.
Compelling Case for System Modularity
Damson claims to have a unique product because of its wireless technology, compact components and battery-powered rears for a wire-free configuration.
But there's one more thing that makes the system unique, acccording to Talbot: It's modular.
"You could, if you wanted, use just the soundbar and subwoofer to deliver Dolby Virtual," he says, "and then add on the S-Cubes to make it 5.1, and then the Atmos speaker to make it 5.1.2. It's flexible and convenient for the user and intelligent enought to know what set up you are using."
On the other hand, you could use the multiple channels for whole-house audio instead of Atmos. The system initially will support just the eight channels, but over time, the company hopes to support up to 16 channels.
The challenge with a modular audio system that supports so many configurations is potentially complicated calibration schemes -- both for the initial set-up and then every time a speaker moves, or new components are added to the set-up.
Talbot claims the S-Series does all that work itself: "There is no complicated set-up or calibration," Talbot says. "The system is purely plug-and-play and optimizes itself."
The S-Series has no on-board microphones for the task. Instead, the system uses its wireless technology and "internal processes" to measure the distance between speakers, subwoofer and base. The electronics adjust automatically to optimize audio for any given configuration.
Shipping, Pricing and Crowdfunding Lessons
Damson promised a wireless 5.1 surround-sound system when it launched the S-Series on Indiegogo in October 2016. The company raised $71,106 through the campaign.
Talbot says the company could have shipped the product months ago, but he wasn’t satisfied: "We could have shipped in April as a 5.1 system, but putting Atmos in it meant we were actually game-changing.”
Damson opted for game-changing. Talbot says he personally contacted every backer, offering to return their money, but only four of them backed out. He claims to have launched several crowd-funded projects previously, learning his biggest lesson from project #2, the AuraVisor.
It was supposed to be the “first all-in-one virtual-reality headset,” according Talbot, who says he believed it would be a “really good product.”
Unfortunately, he yielded to pressure from backers and released the product “three months too early.” The company managed to fix numerous software problems, but it was too late.
“A company like Apple can ride through the storm with updates,” he says, “but we didn’t have the fanboy base.”
At the end of the day, he says, crowd-funding success depends on managing customer expectations. Many backers don’t understand the process, including the delays and bugs that typically plague initial shipments, especially with start-ups.
Talbot’s new mantra? “I won’t release a product if I don’t think it’s right.”
On top of that, he says, “I’ll only use crowd-funding if we can ship in three months.”
Today, the S-Series is available (again) for pre-order with shipping expected in “early 2018,” according to Talbot.
The preorder price for the 5.1.2 system is $800 in the U.S., £800 in the U.K. and €850 in the rest of Europe.
NEXT PAGE: S-SERIES SPECS & PRESS RELEASE
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]
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