Rotary-dial phones may be a thing of the past, but the public switched telephone network (PSTN) that connected them still links us together, including audio conferences, a mainstay of business communication.

As experts in the science of sound and human perception, Dolby scientists and engineers have been working with BT to improve the workday conference call, making it sound more like an in-person meeting with Dolby® Voice™.

To better understand the state of audio conferencing, we talked with market experts at Wainhouse Research, who had some head-turning insights.

Wainhouse senior analyst Andy Nilssen gave his perspective on the findings, just published in a new white paper called Ripe for Change—Three Factors Set to Transform Audio Conferencing.

Lab Notes: What did you find out from the research?

Andy Nilssen (AN): We found that the time for change is now. Our research results, industry dynamics, and the ways in which work is evolving all suggest we’re on the brink of something big in audio conferencing.

Globalization and the 24/7 workforce are here to stay, and now the search for work-life balance suddenly makes virtual conferences desirable, rather than an obligation.

People choose trade-offs for productivity and personal benefit, like settling a customer issue on a late-night call with coworkers in China, so that you can go to your kids’ school recital the next day.

Lab Notes: Did anything about the study surprise you?

AN: What really struck us was that quality issues absolutely rose to the top of people’s concerns.

Above and beyond call setup and reliability, people report issues with background noise; inability to understand when more than one person was speaking; and “unnatural” interaction where everyone talks at once—or not at all, because everyone has muted their lines.

Muting cuts down on distractions, but it also eliminates the kind of interaction that can make meetings productive.

On a conference call, you don’t want to unmute your line for the sounds that move conversation along naturally, like saying “yup” or grunting to acknowledge that you heard someone.

are any of these issues

Lab Notes: How are people participating in calls? What are they using, and is it changing? 

AN: Especially in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a shift from the desk phone to PCs, smartphones, and tablets being used to connect to calls—and they’re not connecting over the mobile voice networks. Instead, they’re using “soft phone” technology to join via the Internet and using a truly digital connection.

They’re also using headsets and earbuds. The same earbuds they chose to listen to their online music library are also the listening instrument for their calls.

With a digital connection and better technology for listening come new options for transforming that conference-call experience.

Lab Notes: So is there one thing that will make audio conferencing a consistently better experience?

AN: A conference call is initiated through a series of events and processes, and a chain is only as good as its weakest link. The chain is a key principle in making calls sound better.

You can see that principle in action in Dolby Voice. It uses a wideband codec that makes higher frequencies and the sibilance of consonants more apparent, so your brain receives more audible cues and you perceive a conversation that sounds more natural.

If you have noise on the line, however, that wideband codec can make it more apparent if the chain is not “tuned” correctly.

So Dolby Voice incorporates more of the “chain”: it provides echo cancellation so that speakers don’t hear their own voice echo, and normalization so that everyone on the call comes across with equal volume.

Lab Notes: Based on your observations and this research, what do you think the future holds?

AN: With a strong chain in place, you can really hear a dramatic difference in a call when you add spatial audio rendering—in other words, the cues that the brain uses to perceive and group sounds as similar or distinct.

When someone on the conference call speaks a second time, you understand that it’s the same person who spoke previously. And you can focus on or pick out the thread of conversation when people talk simultaneously—what the industry calls the “cocktail party effect.”

Dolby Voice does spatial audio rendering, and BT has integrated Dolby Voice into its MeetMe conferencing service, available later this year.

From our research, I can see how this service might change the landscape of audio conferencing: people told us that if the soft phone outperformed landline and mobile connections, nearly three-quarters would use soft phones almost exclusively.

if a soft phone

Sound off: What do you want to hear in a conference call?