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This TV sound bar uses phone tech to aim audio at your ears

The prototype from the mobile mavens at Qualcomm borrows from Wi-Fi technology to find the sweet spot.

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The 5-foot sound bar promises to wrap you in audio.
Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In a sound isolation room deep within Qualcomm's testing labs in San Diego, California, six journalists snapped into blue, antistatic smocks watched a video play on an ordinary TV screen. The 5-foot-long sound bar piping out the music and dialogue, however, was anything but ordinary.

Stretching 5 feet (about 1.5m) from side to side, Qualcomm's prototype sound bar will perfect the keen ability to know where you're sitting, and direct the audio straight to your waiting ears.

How? Right now it uses beamforming, which focuses the sound waves emitted from the sound bar directly to your listening sweet spot. In the future, adding a camera -- or even ultrasound -- will be able to move that sweet spot by zeroing in on your position and directing the audio to you no matter where you sit, even if you're not in the dead center of the room.  

So what's Qualcomm, the world's largest maker of smartphone chips, doing with a prototype for a standalone TV speaker? Creating new markets for its chips. The sound bar runs on the company's Snapdragon 835 chipset, the same processing guts found in a Galaxy S8 phone.

Finding other ways to sell its chips for more devices beyond the Galaxys and Pixels of the world will be especially crucial as Qualcomm faces steep financial loss in the wake of antitrust lawsuit payouts and rumors that Apple will cut ties with Qualcomm and use Intel tech for its iPhones instead.

In December, the company also introduced the first laptops to run on its Snapdragon chip, with promises for more to come in 2018.

Beamforming and directional audio

Right now, the Qualcomm sound bar is hammering out the kinks of beamforming to the center of the room, the so-called sweet spot that's anywhere between 3 and 13 feet in front of the speaker's center, the place where the shows you watch sound just about ideal.

But once the sound bar can direct audio to you no matter where you plop yourself down, it has the potential to solve a relatively small but common problem of audio sounding off-center if, say, you sink into your pillowy recliner off to the right of your TV, and you don't have surround-sound speakers.

Moving audio is already in use in movie theaters like Dolby Cinemas, but it -- and beamforming tech --- is still far less common to your everyday TV viewing experience. Companies like Apple and Amazon are also using beamforming technology in their smart speakers, either for the output (speakers) or the input (microphones). But those small speakers aren't designed for TV audio.

In the sound bar world, Yamaha's models have long used the company's proprietary Digital Sound Projector technology, which bounces sound waves from dozens of microdrivers (tiny speakers) in the sound bar's body off of nearby walls in order to create a faux surround effect. The $1,300 Yamaha YSP-5600, for instance, has 44 such "beam drivers."

By contrast, the Qualcomm sound bar uses eight drivers, including on its end caps, to shoot audio all over the room. But they're far larger than the coin-size ones found in Yamaha's models, and Qualcomm is further sweetening the pot by using the recent MPEG-H standard for 3D audio.

Audio by Qualcomm

Ultimately, there's no expectation that this sound bar will show up in your local Best Buy as is. But like the white label phones on which Qualcomm tests its latest and greatest mobile chips, this prototype lets Qualcomm shop the technology around to various manufacturing partners that can take on the manufacturing and distribution duties, while Qualcomm supplies the underlying chips.

It's a model that propelled the company to dominance in smartphones. And the Yamahas and Definitive Technologys of the world may well fear a great-sounding Qualcomm-powered sound bar hitting the market at its target price of "under $300" -- even if this early-stage version lacks that camera to find you sitting off to one side.

Still, with VizioAmazon and others selling "good-enough" models at $150 and even $75, respectively, Qualcomm may find the home audio world to be a tougher nut to crack.

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