Better sound through software? This company says it can make your headphones better … with an app

Can you get audiophile quality sound with hardware that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars?

In this latest episode of Tech First Draft I speak with Mathias Johansson, the CEO of Dirac. He’s fixing crappy audio with software, and we’re going to find out how …

  • See below for full video or links to the podcast
  • Keep scrolling for the full transcript

We chat about what’s wrong with audio, why he thinks Dirac can fix it, and what headphones and earbuds Dirac works with. Some of our topics include:

  • You’re on a quest to fix bad audio. Why?
  • What is the problem with most headphones/earbuds sold today? Why?
  • You are trying to fix it in software … via an app. How?
  • What headphones or earbuds do you support right now? Will you eventually support all brands?
  • Your software learns or adjust to different hardware … how? Do you test all different types of hardware in the studio?
  • How close are you right now … you’re in beta still, right?
  • When I tested, it sounded great. But podcasts had some echo … perhaps because of lower-quality recordings?
  • How are you going to bring this to market? What’s the sales or monetization plan?

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Or, of course, you can read the full transcript here …

Read the transcript: better sound via app?

John Koetsier: Are your headphones not providing the quality sound that they might actually be capable of? Can you get audiophile quality sound with hardware that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars? This company says it can make your headphones better with software.

 Welcome to Tech First Draft. My name is John Koetsier and today we’re speaking with Mathias Johansson, the CEO of Dirac.

He’s fixing crappy audio with software and we’re going to find out how. Mathias, welcome!

Mathias Johansson: Thanks John. Pleasure to be on the show. 

John Koetsier: Thank you for joining me. Thank you for joining all of us. It’s wonderful, you’re on a quest to fix bad audio. Why?

Mathias Johansson: Well, I think first of all, hearing is one of our five senses and we’re just constantly surrounded by audio.

Some of us might get pretty good audio, but for the most part we actually are surrounded by audio which is like you put it ‘crappy,’ or at least not as good as it can get. Even the best sound systems out there can actually sound a lot better. 

John Koetsier: So we’re gonna dig into all this stuff and we’re also going to talk about why you started the company, how you started the company. But I want to also at some point get into what brands and what kinds of headphones and earbuds that you can fix in software. Let’s start here though. What’s the problem with most headphones and earbuds that are sold today? 

Mathias Johansson: Right. Well first of all, I must say we would have to be fair to all the great guys who build those speakers and headphones because it’s a hard thing to do when you think about the human auditory range, the frequency range which we can hear, and it’s from 20Hz to 20kHz. In wavelength that’s from 17 millimeters to 17 meters. That’s a lot to ask for one little transducer to reproduce perfectly. So there are lots of compromises that go into building a great headphone or a speaker. And that’s what we’re trying to fix in software, so that’s really another problem, is the actual transducer itself it’s a mechanic system that moves air. It’s really hard to cover that whole frequency range, considering reproducing a grand piano with the same instrument as you’re reproducing a human voice, or a drum. That’s what we’re asking these headphones to do. So it’s not easy. 

John Koetsier: So it’s not easy. You’re trying to fix it in software via an app. Talk to me about how. 

Mathias Johansson: Yeah. So in essence, first of all, what is the task that a good headphone has? Well, it should reproduce the sound as it was intended by the artist.

Let’s consider music as the use case. It could be anything, it could be a podcast like this as well. But what we’re trying to do is just get back to that original intent of the producer of that music or whatever it is. So in order to do that the speaker or the headphone needs to be perfect in a sense. It’s just transparent, it doesn’t add any coloration. But what happens when you send out anything through a system such as a speaker or a headphone, which is essentially a speaker as well, is that it gets slightly distorted. And it varies from frequency to frequency. You think about the membrane of a speaker or a headphone, it just moves air in and out, and it’s of course very hard if you put it like an [snap sound] impulse like that, through a speaker. The membrane should just move out and then in and stop there. What happens though is it continues to ring a little bit. So what we do is we measure those headphones or speakers with microphones on various kinds of measurement devices, in many different ways to kind of catch the acoustic fingerprint.

What happens with the music that we send through this speaker or headphone? Well when it reaches our ears then we can compare that with what the input was that we sent out. And that way we can construct what we call a digital filter that actually precompensates the signal sent out to the headphone, so that the headphone itself kind of turns back the signal into its original intent. It’s very much like if you have an analogy like eyesight, glasses fix poor eyesight, and we’re doing the same thing for speakers with the audio for production, if it makes sense. 

John Koetsier: It does make sense. Why are the manufacturers of these devices not doing it themselves?

Mathias Johansson: Well, first of all, they’re trying of course to do it as good as possible with the hardware, but hardware is still analog hardware. It’s only so much you can do and it costs more and more the better you want to do it. Right now, of course, headphones are getting digitalized. They’re wireless to a very large extent.

So now at least you can do some processing in the actual phone, but it’s still limited. You don’t have that much processing power. And we’ve been around for many years to help manufacturers, also headphone manufacturers, but all kinds of sound system manufacturers, to do this kind of processing to make these headphones and speakers sound better.

And that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re bringing it also to the end user directly through this app. And that’s also the idea here, because when we work with… some of our customers are big car manufacturers such as Volvo, BMW, Rolls Royce, these are customers of ours. And when Volvo builds their sound system they have the Bowers & Wilkins sound system right now that sounds really, really good, and it’s by us, and it’s also great hardware by the way. But of course there’s no on/off button to what we’re doing. So then you are like, wow, this is great sound, but it’s also hard to see for the end user what the digital part is actually doing, and it’s so massive the improvement.

So it’s also one of those things we just want to let people know any type of hardware and any type of sound reproduction hardware can be made to sound a lot better with simple software, not expensive hardware. And I think that’s the other thing, we just want to let people know about this because it’s a problem that people don’t really realize, is they’re always exposed to this bad sound actually.

John Koetsier: Yeah. Well you sent me a phone with your beta app on it. I tested it. I listened to it. It was interesting, it sounded really, really good. It honestly sounded more… I’m trying to find the right words for it, it’s hard to express an auditory experience. It sounded more real, it sounded more present.

It sounded more like maybe I was in the place where the music was being recorded in the concert hall or something like that. So I enjoyed that, but I had it on a beta app on a special phone that you sent out. What kinds of headphones or earbuds do you support right now and will you eventually support everything?

Mathias Johansson: Yeah, that’s the vision to support everything. And we already, by the way, we work with a lot of manufacturers, so sometimes it gets built into it and we’re not even visible to the end user. But with this app right now we’re supporting at least a hundred different headphones. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Mathias Johansson: All the popular brands like Bose, Beats, JBL, Bang & Olufsen, you name it, and we’re constantly adding support to more and more headphones. And that’s also something within our app that users can feedback and say, ‘hey, my headphone isn’t supported, can you please do it?’ And we have a nice little process to take care of that.

So step by step, we’ll cover everything. And we’ll cover more use cases than just headphones as well. We’re starting with headphones because that’s where people spend a lot of time listening to music, and I don’t know if you noticed, but at least for me, when you listen to music through a headphone after a while you get a little bit tired because it is kind of an unnatural sound experience, and that’s because it’s really hard to make headphones sound really good.

One of the things, by the way, with headphones, that I didn’t touch upon, is unlike when you’re listening to speakers, headphones completely isolate your two ears, right? So if you just listen to stereo speakers normally then you have a left and right signal. And what happens is that, of course, when you play back just the left signal, it goes out through the left speaker, it reaches your left ear, but also then your right ear a little bit later, and a little bit attenuated. With headphones that’s not happening. So if you’re listening to Beatles, for example, which did a lot of funny stereo experiments and put everything in the left channel and everything else in the right channel, it sounds really strange in a headphone.

You can try that out if you haven’t. And we also fix that. So we create sort of an ideal Hi-Fi listening experience with the headphones. 

John Koetsier: Interesting.

Mathias Johansson: We also remedy the stereo image problem. That’s why I think you also experienced it became much more real, because you can separate where are the instruments actually are in the recording.

John Koetsier: Interesting. Super interesting. So before we got on air here, you talked a little bit about how you started the company, why you started the company. Can you tell that story right now? 

Mathias Johansson: Sure, yeah. It’s an interesting story in a way because first of all, it was back in school in my university days, and I remember so well I had to take a class called ‘Signal Processing,’ and anybody can appreciate the fact that that doesn’t sound fun at all. It sounds pretty boring. And I thought it was, until I got into the last semester with signal processing and my professors were really great and opened up my eyes to what you can actually do. It’s like you can do anything, you can really do fantastic stuff with signal processing. And it led me to do a master thesis on how to improve small speakers with the help of digital processing.

So very much like in this app, we measured computer speakers and we then optimized them. And the improvement was so dramatic. This was not intended to be a research project, but we thought it was a night and day difference. We thought, hey, we’ve got to share this. And we decided to participate in a business plan contest here in Sweden where I’m based, and we ended up winning it, and that was the start of the company.

I mean, at the beginning we started out in our spare time, just doing it as a hobby because this was back in the day when sound systems were anything but digital, and even to talk about using digital processing to improve the sound experience was almost a taboo in the industry. And step by step we overcame these barriers, and people started to listen to what we were saying in the industry, and saying that, well, you know that actually makes sense. There’s things that make sense and they heard it. Then eventually they started to think, well it works, and we got into BMW being our first customer in the car industry where they had digital processes, and then on and on into different industries. 

So this app is the combination you could say of a lot of industry work we do with B2B customers across various industries, from luxury cars to smart phones, to pro audio systems and headphones and stuff. 

John Koetsier: That’s a great segue because I’m going to ask you very soon how people can get Dirac, how people can get that enhanced audio experience. But first let’s dive into how close are you to finishing? I saw the beta app and how close are you to actually being ready to release?

Mathias Johansson: We’re actually very close right now. I won’t disclose the launch date because we’re actually going to launch it in two different ways. And it depends with our partners which way we do first.

So first of all, it will be a direct consumer app for download both for Android and Apple. But we’ll also do what we’ve always done, because one of the things which is important is we really want to reach everybody. This is not just for audiophiles and that’s what we find out in tests as well that “regular people” really enjoy this improvement. People will say, ‘Nah, I won’t hear a difference. I don’t really care. I think my sound system is great. My sister would like it. You know, I have the ear pods. Why? Why would I need this?’ 

John Koetsier: I can totally relate because I’ve had experiences in the past where this is ‘audiophile quality sound’ and it’s $1,500 for these headphones or something like that. And I didn’t really catch too much of a difference, you know? 

Mathias Johansson: Yeah, exactly. So to be honest, we in the audio industry maybe have a lesson or two for learning because I think there’s a lot of over promise and under delivery. But I think, and I hope you agree with the demo you’ve heard so far, that this actually does make a meaningful difference.

So like I said we’re going at it in two different ways. You could say one is the app and the other way is to partner with companies such as smartphone vendors, but also streaming services. So that’s already actually things that are coming. We know that, we just don’t know the exact launch date because when we go through these kinds of partners, of course, we can get bigger reach and that’s what we want. We want to be like I sometimes compare ourselves to Ikea, the furniture maker, also from Sweden, that you try to make quality sound for the many people, not just for the audiophiles. And we want to have reach and it’s very hard…

John Koetsier: As long as it doesn’t have to be assembled at home.

Mathias Johansson: Yes. Good point, John. I love that. Let’s think about that, maybe we need… no, and that’s a good point. That’s one of the feedbacks we’ve gotten as well, that people really like the simplicity of the app. In the audiophile community and in the pro audio community, people of course liked to fiddle around with the sound and be able to have a lot of settings and so on. We think that, and that’s what we’ve got confirmed, that yes for the niche audience that’s great, you can set this out as you want it. But for the most part, people actually just want great sound regardless of your content. I don’t want to adapt it to the specific things I’m listening to. I just want better sound so I can hear what people are saying in the movie and so on, and that’s what we’re focusing on. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. 

Mathias Johansson: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: Good, good, good. So in my testing, what was very cool about the testing experience is I could flip the processing on or off, on or off, and I could hear the difference from second to second, never mind try this song and then try that song, or try this set of headphones and then a few seconds later try that set. So I could really see or hear the difference. One thing that I noticed is that for podcasts some of them sounded echoey, is that because they’re just not recorded at the same high quality as music that might be recorded in a studio?

Mathias Johansson: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. A lot of podcasts aren’t really like yours, they’re recorded in environments which are pretty echoic, pretty reverberant. And with our technology we’ll hear if it’s in a reverberant environment. So that’s one of the things actually, this first release of the app is primarily… we’re not doing any kind of reverberation, dereverberation taking away that kind of reverb. Because we’re focused on music and of course if it was recorded with reverb on we don’t want to remove that, we want it to be exactly as it was intended. But if we do know that this is actually a podcast or a voice call, for example, we can do specific optimizations that really address speech intelligibility, maximizing speech intelligibility. Other than that the basic technology we have will bring out whatever quality of recording you have. 

John Koetsier: Yes. Yes, that makes sense. Okay, cool. So you’re coming out, there’s going to be an app, you’re working with streaming services, you’re working with headphone manufacturers, other places like that. For people who already have a set of headphones or earbuds and they’re thinking of hey, I’ll try this out. When your app is available, is it going to be available for purchase? Is it subscription? What’s the model? 

Mathias Johansson: Right, so first of all, we’ll actually launch a beta program and also the best way to stay tuned is to look in at our website or Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

And it will be most likely a free download. And of course, the first thing is it’s going to be a free trial and then it’s going to be a subscription model. But really it’s not going to be expensive at all because we want this to go out mass. And we think that when people just hear the all-in-all you don’t want to go back, that’s been our experience.

So for us it’s more of getting out there and getting visibility than making the most buck out of every single person. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Cool. And I have to ask, because you brought it up and I’m a reporter, so these things have to be asked. You mentioned streaming services. Can you mention any names? Is it Spotify? Is it Apple? Is it Amazon? Is it Google? 

Mathias Johansson: I don’t know, I can’t mention any names yet. Hopefully all of them eventually right? But step by step, we’ll see. It’s probably not gonna take too long until we can announce something. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Well, I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much for joining us on Tech First Draft. This has been a real pleasure. For all listeners, watchers, viewers, whatever platform you’re on, please like, subscribe, share, comment.

If you’re on the podcast later on, you like this, please rate it and review it. Thank you so much. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with Tech First Draft.