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Can Samsung crack wireless audio with its dinosaur egg speakers?

Traditionally shying away from the audio business, the South Korean electronics giant is trying to make an impact with its new wireless speakers. CNET goes deep within Samsung's research facility to see if it has what it takes.

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Samsung

SUWON, South Korea -- Deep underground, inside Samsung's R&D centre is a typical modern living room. Dotted around the space, either on shelves next to curved-screen TVs or suspended from the ceiling, are a dozen egg-shaped Wireless Audio 360 speakers. The effect reminds me of a scene from Ridley Scott's "Alien," minus the facehuggers. The speaker's design is immediately striking, and according to Samsung at least, so is its sound quality.

"Sit down and relax," instructs Jurack Chae, senior vice president of Samsung's R&D Office, Visual Display, pointing to a sofa placed in the middle of the room. He wants to show me me that the speaker's non-directional sound will fill the entire room with music. "Now listen, and guess which one is being turned on."

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Jurack Chae, senior vice president of Samsung's R&D Office, Visual Display. Samsung

After he swipes the screen of his smartphone, I hear classical music and I have no clue which speaker is the culprit. Chae swipes his smartphone again and the music switches to pop. Then he sets up the dozen speakers to play the same tune. Finally, he singles out one of the speakers, cuts the sound from the others, and moves me around the room. The sound quality doesn't seem to change, no matter where I'm standing. "We wanted sound without sound, if you catch my drift. Non-directional, omni-directional," he says.

How people tune in

Samsung first unveiled the concept models for the Wireless Audio 360 (currently sold as Radiant 360 R7 and R6 Portable) in January at CES in Las Vegas, alongside its usual lineup of TVs and home appliances. It was an interesting play by Samsung, as audio products have traditionally played second fiddle to its TVs, but the speakers will play an important part of its overall smart home strategy for 2015 and beyond. "In a way, the speaker was among the most analogue of consumer electronics, was the least prioritized in Samsung until now," said Chae.

Already full of big players, the market was segmented and tough to penetrate. Europe and Japan had their own established AV brands with the old guard -- such as Denmark's Bang & Olufsen -- holding their ground. But the wired home theater is a dying model, says Samsung. Building on the success of wireless audio devices utilizing Wi-Fi ( Sonos ) and Bluetooth (nearly everything else, including the UE Boom and Beats Pill) -- both in the home and outdoors -- the company believes there's a window it can clamber through.

"We believe the way people tune in has fundamentally changed," says Min Lee, vice president of sales and marketing, Samsung Visual Display. "A few years ago, the norm was to sit in front of your speakers to listen to music. You were immobile. But now, in a time where we are talking of Internet of Things, smart home and penetration of wireless devices and services is so high, the expectation is different."

Dinosaur eggs

The Wireless Audio 360s are controlled by a smartphone app that allows you to register each speaker for remote control. The group function has multiple speakers in different rooms play the same song with a single click. The app even controls other products that you can sync with the speakers, such as TVs and sound bars. Synced with a sound bar, for instance, it's possible to alternate between 2.5 channel and 5.1 channel surround sound setups, among other combinations.

The speaker itself dates back to 2012 when top executives in Samsung's Visual Display division decided to enter the market. "Non-directional," "multi-room" and "seamless" were the keywords for what the company had in mind. They named the project "Ambient."

Kim Hyun-suk, president of the Visual Display business, invited 14 international sound engineers to join the project, and began construction on a new audio laboratory in Los Angeles.

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Initial concept sketch of the Wireless Audio 360. Samsung

At one of the first meetings, the engineers and Samsung's in-house designers brainstormed and immediately drew the first sketch on a whiteboard -- a speaker with the signature egg shape.

"These were all experts in the field, so they knew what was possible and not possible architecturally. To achieve the ambient sound, woofers, tweeters, sound absorbers and the acoustic lens were drawn in places that were the most logical," said Chae.

The ambient sound projection is made possible by Ring Radiator technology, currently patent pending in the US. It designates the precise location of the woofer, tweeter and the acoustic lens, which reflects the sound outside at the two openings of the enclosure. Basically, Samsung's design places the sound source at the bottom-center of the speaker, and the compressed air projects sound out in all directions.

Making the product, however, was more difficult than sketching it. "Designing a small or mid-sized product with a printed circuit board and speaker capabilities is challenging, because there are unwanted vibrations, and the sound echoes," said Chae.

Samsung completed a mockup in April 2014, and execs approved an unveiling at CES 2015.

Hitting the right note

Samsung tests hundreds of its Visual Display's devices at the R4 research block inside its R&D centre every day. The block's floor space is more than a couple of football fields, as do the adjacent R3 and R5 facilities used by the IT & Mobile Communications business.

The cube-shaped recording room for the Wireless Audio 360 is located on the basement level. Background noise inside the recording room, or "audio dead room," is maintained below 14 decibels (dB) and near impenetrable from outside sounds.

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Samsung's recording rooms. Samsung

Being inside the cube -- roughly 20 feet per side -- with the door closed feels like being on a plane during takeoff. At the exact center of the room a Wireless Audio 360 rests on a turntable, in front of a fixed microphone. Sounds from 20Hz to 20,000Hz -- the hearing range of humans -- are played and recorded for testing.

Up to 30 speakers were in the same room at the same time during testing. The goal was to deliver a better experience over conventional speakers that project sound in a single direction. Just standing slightly to the sides of such speakers, for instance, disrupts the balance between bass (250Hz), midrange (4,000Hz) and treble (15,000Hz), resulting in poor sound. Tests for the Wireless Audio 360 focused on ensuring every frequency was heard in the same level in all directions.

Adjacent to the recording room is a listening room with wooden walls that can be set to reflect or absorb sounds and provide the optimal echo best for hearing. Instead of machines, human ears check the sound. "Different people will differ in their preference in tone, but they will agree on good patterns," says Chae.

After the recording and listening test phases are done, speakers are placed in dozen of makeshift "home environments" to test real-world use. Each room has a different size and furniture with even the material of the windows varying.

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A peek inside the Wireless Audio 360. Samsung

Future lineup

The Wireless Audio 360 comes in standing and hanging models of the same size, both in black and white. And with a ballpark price tag of $500 (£315, AU$640), Samsung is aiming for the premium market. The speaker is already available in the U.S. and South Korea, with the global launch starting now. Wood grain and metallic speakers may be released as special editions, though the plan was not finalized, Chae said.

The egg shape, which the company worried might be too experimental before the speaker's introduction, could potentially change too. "We are not fixated on continuing the egg shape. Our focus in the series is the continued application of our proprietary Ring Radiator technology," said Lee.

New products with different looks using the tech are already in the pipeline, but Lee and Chae both declined to comment on how they will materialize.

Samsung predicts that wireless audio will eventually dominate the home theater market, which isn't the boldest of claims. Though only a fraction of the overall audio market now, wireless audio is growing at a rate of 30 percent per year, according to Samsung's research.

Chae wants to stay ahead of the trend. "For us, the questions remain on how wide and diverse consumers will enjoy the Wireless Audio 360," he said. "We must continue to observe the market trend to stay competitive."