Style Over Substance: When Sound Suffers in the Conference Room

UK architects are widely recognized as some of the best in the world. They are known for their creative designs, such as the trend in recent years to plan offices around natural lighting.

Maximizing the amount of sunlight with lots of glass and other reflective natural materials can bring a sense of wellbeing to the workplace. But when form doesn’t follow function, even the best audio-visual (AV) technology often can’t save a conference space from poor acoustics.

Meeting Room with Large Windows

The Top Priorities for AV

Shure spoke with several leading AV integrators about this challenge, revealing that the incorporation of AV tech needs greater consideration much sooner in a building project timeline; in an ideal world, at the conceptual design and planning stages of the office itself.

“The acoustic environment on some projects has been challenging,” says Dave Grimwood, Pre-Sales Team Leader at the international audio-visual company Electrosonic. “We see it a lot with new builds – they consist of a lot of glass, and a lot of open plan spaces, which look great but have implications on achieving first-class audio.”

AV technology can help to improve acoustics, but alone it won’t solve the whole problem, he says before emphasizing: “Businesses invest a lot of money in video conferencing and the need to get it right is crucial for successful meetings to take place.”

Woman Standing in Boardroom

Poor sound has become a major concern in boardrooms and meeting spaces, according to Nevil Bounds, Key Account Director at audio-visual integrators Feltech. The main culprit is usually bad room acoustics.

“Often an AV conferencing room is a lovely square room, usually glazed with lots of hard surfaces and has horrible reverberation times,” he says. “The picture on the screen looks absolutely stunning, but the sound can be very poor. It almost doesn’t matter what audio digital signal processor you have or the mics you are using – if your room has high reverb times or heating, ventilation and air conditioning noises, the sound will not be satisfactory.”

Stuart Davidson, Technical Director at global audio-visual integration company AVMI agrees. “It’s a fundamental architectural mistake. Current trends are towards glass buildings and reflective office furniture – none of which are good for audio,” Davidson says, explaining that AVMI normally only gets involved towards the end of a project once a building had already been designed. “It would be beneficial to accept AV as an integral part of an office build and to have us in at an earlier stage to help guide and consult.”

Getting Great Audio

Shure UK Regional Sales Manager John Ellis also believes that AV planning needs to start earlier: “Great audio for conferencing starts right back at the architectural stage of any office development. There are a lot of companies who are taking it seriously and employ proper acousticians, as well as architects, who work harmoniously together. However, there are still many companies that are interested in the style and the appearance of a conference space, rather than the actual function of the room.”

Though the United Kingdom’s Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) requires a building used by the public for an audio purpose have an induction hearing loop installed, there is nothing stipulating that the acoustics of a room meet certain parameters. Only newly built school classrooms have acoustic requirements to ensure a comfortable listening environment for children.

“Education is key to the ongoing development of AV within the office space,” says Ellis. “We have a good relationship with the AV team at the Royal Institute of British Architects and there are other initiatives developing which seek to help architects better understand AV room acoustics.”

For example, architects designing conference spaces within offices should consider non-parallel walls, carpeting and baffle any air conditioning in the ceiling to make it as quiet as possible, along with the minimum amount of hard reflective surfaces, including any furniture. Discreet baffles hanging from the ceiling and acoustic lanterns also help and can become an architectural feature in their own right, drapes and thick curtains help while acoustic treatments can be painted and brought into the design of a conference room.

“People sometimes assume directional microphones will solve all the problems,” says Ellis. “While a good microphone with a fairly tight pickup pattern will help, it will still pick up room noise as well as the spoken word. So, microphones and associated processing alone cannot solve bad acoustics.”

Helping ensure a perfect combination of form and function, Shure also provides acousticians, architects and AV consultants with “best practices” specifications when designing conference rooms for optimal audio performance.

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Andrew Francis

Andrew Francis is a Senior Applications Engineer for the Shure UK Systems Group who has a decade of AV experience covering both installed systems and live events. During this time he has worked with politicians and business leaders, as well as other high-profile public figures such as His Holiness The Pope, while producing conferences, awards events and gala dinners. On the installation side he spent three years as a technical manager designing and commissioning AV systems for large corporate installations, specialising in multipurpose flexible meeting rooms.

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