Jawbone LiveAudio plug-in simulates 3D sound

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Owners of Jawbone’s popular Bluetooth Jambox speaker now have an additional way to listen to their music, as the company unveiled a free software update on Tuesday night for the speaker that includes a plug-in called LiveAudio. With LiveAudio, Jawbone aims to recreate the experience of hearing your favorite music live.

“Music is about being in the moment,” Travis Bogard, Jawbone’s vice president of product management and strategy, told Macworld. “Why does it feel different when you’re in person at a concert, versus when you’re listening to music at home played through speakers?” Beyond the obvious answers (the crowd, different instrumentation, and the like), Bogard points to “this other aspect that happens on a human level… You hear things in a three-dimensional space.”

“When you’re at a concert,” he said, “the singer is standing in a different place from the drummer, who’s set apart from the guitarist; you experience the music differently because of that spatial layout.”

Jawbone released its well-reviewed portable Jambox speaker in November 2010. At the time, the company highlighted its ability to update the speaker via software, without requiring hardware revisions. Jawbone believes the Jambox qualifies as a new class of device. You’ve hard of smartphones? Jawbone now refers to the Jambox as a “SmartSpeaker.”

Jambox owners can now download and install Jawbone’s free LiveAudio plug-in, which attempts to recreate the live concert experience on the speaker by offering binaural audio, in which different parts of a recording hit your ears differently, without requiring headphones.

“We’re able to use the rich computing power [inside the Jambox] to process the audio coming through it and create this immersive audio space,” Bogard said. The effect is unsurprisingly most pronounced when you center yourself directly in front of the speaker.

“You’ll notice that on some songs,” Bogard said, “that audio hits your left ear, and it’s not even going to your right ear.” He likened the auditory experience to recreating the human ability to focus on a single person at a noisy dinner table; you can ignore the other eight voices and hone in on your conversation partner—something Bogard said becomes impossible on a speakerphone call when the brain can’t use the spatial clues it relies on for that focus. LiveAudio, Bogard said, “helps you hear music more distinctly, improving the emotional feeling of the music.”

The experience is different from surround sound, Bogard said, because with surround sound, “even though the sound is coming from behind you, it’s located right at the rear speaker.” That’s in contrast to LiveAudio on the Jambox, he said, where “you’ll notice sound coming from behind you, even though the speaker’s in front of you.”

Not every song will sound better with LiveAudio, Bogard said; mono recordings or recordings with minimal stereo separation don’t provide enough hinting for LiveAudio to work its magic. Bogard also said that Jawbone is in talks with various artists to put out LiveAudio-optimized recordings that even more-dramatically exploit the technology.

Jawbone isn’t planning to license its LiveAudio technology just yet: “In order to make something like LiveAudio possible, you really need a very robust computing platform inside the speaker box,” Bogard said—and other speakers just aren’t there yet.

Once you’ve installed the LiveAudio plug-in, you can turn it on and off by holding down the Jambox’s plus and minus buttons for a few seconds.

Early LiveAudio impressions

Bogard suggested tunes from U2, Pink Floyd, and David Bowie would demonstrate the LiveAudio experience well, and indeed they did. I also listened to “You Don’t Know Me” by Ben Folds, “Me and My Mirror on a Saturday Night” by Julian Velard, “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, and “Four Seconds” by Barenaked Ladies using LiveAudio, and the effect on each song was impressive: I heard instrumentation and background vocals that I had never noted before—even while using headphones.

With LiveAudio on, the tiny Jambox speaker really did manage to send some elements to one ear or the other. I wouldn’t say that the technology recreated the experience of attending a live concert, but it certainly offered a very cool, very different way to hear music—at least when I was centered in front of the speaker.

I loved the Jambox when I first reviewed it. Given its size (just six inches wide), the Jambox couldn’t pull off much in terms of stereo separation—before LiveAudio. I don’t understand how LiveAudio technically works its magic, but it certainly creates a much wider sound than the Jambox offers on its own. With certain tracks (Jawbone offers a Spotify playlist of particularly good ones) the effect is the ear equivalent of jaw dropping.

I did notice that the Jambox’s peak volume drops—significantly—when you’re in LiveAudio mode. Jawbone confirmed the volume drop; since LiveAudio is aimed toward the individual listener, the company suggests you disable the mode when you’re using the speaker for full-room listening, like at a party.

How to get it

To install the free LiveAudio update, visit Jawbone’s MyTalk website, plug in your Jambox, and follow the site’s prompts.

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