Directional speakers are one of the most exciting innovations in sound technology.
They alter the way sound moves through the spaces people visit. They grab attention, enhance the way art is consumed, and open up new opportunities for marketing.
In short: they're pretty awesome.
But how do directional speakers work? How do you know if they're right for your needs? And where's the best place to install them?
This guide answers the most common questions about directional speakers (also known as focused, ultrasonic or parametric speakers). Whether you're interested in enhancing your space and delighting your visitors, or you're just curious about how they work, it will tell you everything you need to know.
What are directional speakers?
Where can you install directional speakers?
How do you install directional speakers?
What are the best ways to use directional speakers?
How do directional speakers work?
What's the best directional speaker?
Where can you buy directional speakers?
Directional speakers are audio loudspeakers that broadcast a straight beam of sound, so you can only hear it when you're in a specific place. They're different to conventional speakers, which play sound that bounces around in all directions.
They're used in lots of different ways where sound needs localising to a specific place - public announcements, retail displays, interactive kiosks, or art exhibits, for example.
They're an innovative way to get people's attention and give them useful information without disturbing others in the same space. They're much more hygienic than a set of headphones that people share, and subtly blend into the setup of your space without altering your design aesthetics.
Most directional speakers are pretty simple to install. While the inner technology is complex, the actual product is simple - a relatively flat shape, the size of a dinner plate, with one side emitting the sound.
This means any flat surface can hold them (e.g. a wall, structure or ceiling) or you can attach them to the same scaffolding that hosts your lighting rig and other equipment.
They're as easy to install as regular speakers – just plug in a power source and an audio input, and you're ready to go.
This means that most of your consideration will go to mounting them so they'll have the biggest impact and the best sound quality(we'll explain more in the next section).
In some cases, you can seek the services of a design consultancy to help you build custom installations, which might be appropriate for the more ambitious projects you're thinking of. But in most cases, you won't need any complex set up - in fact, our range of Akoustic Arts directional speakers are designed to be easily installed.
The sound inputs can come from any audio system you've already got - regular acoustic cables can input sound from a sound system, amplifier, computer, or even a phone or bluetooth device.
Because of the way that focused speakers work, they're best suited to mid-range and high-range sounds. That includes radio-friendly music like pop, jazz or classical, natural soundscapes or sound effects, and the spoken word.
This is because directional sound is better at keeping higher-frequency sounds within a narrow beam, whereas low-frequency bass sounds spread out in different directions.
You'll want to think about how visitors will end up standing in the 'sweet spot'; the location in the sound field where they hear the beam best. Will they stand in the best listening position naturally, or do they need visual encouragement like signs or floor stickers, like Cultura used for their retail kiosk?
If you want to play ambient or background sounds to increase your retail sales, think about whether the audio clashes with nearby sounds, or if it's a busy place where people move through too quickly. If you have pop music coming out of bassy subwoofers nearby, it might not be the best speaker position.
Directional speakers are fantastic for enhancing the senses and focusing the attention. So, make sure to consider which part of your space you want to highlight and improve the sound experience for.
Of course, you don't have to make these decisions straight away. You can always experiment and see what visitors respond to best!
In a store or showroom, the customers' audio experience is sometimes the last thing you'll think of. But this is missing a huge opportunity to increase the profitability of your shop by using sound creatively.
Directional speakers can help increase brand recall, dwell time, customer satisfaction, and profitability per square metre.
They pair especially well with digital signage - whether you're playing videos, showing live store information (like offers or events), or displaying interactive touchscreens, a focused beam of sound can grab shoppers' attention where other sounds can't.
You can direct guidance information towards customers in a certain spot (like Cultura did with their ebook kiosks - see the case study below). You can help customers navigate the store efficiently, reducing the burden of your shop floor employees. You can also create innovative product displays with sound customised to a few square feet, creating an immersive bubble of sound that extends the magic of your brand.
The possibilities are endless, and we love seeing our customers come up with creative new ways to use focused sound in their stores.
The case studies and articles below will show you the range of ways you can increase sales and customer engagement in your retail store using directional audio.
You can see how our product works in a retail context here: Akoustic Arts Directional Speaker B for Retail.
And learn more about directional speakers in retail in these articles:
A comprehensive guide to using directional speakers in retail
How to use sound in your retail store to increase sales
The best types of POP display (and how sound makes them even better)
Retail Case Study: Cultura (books & entertainment store)
Retail Case Study: Comptoir de l'Ours (home decorating store)
Directional speakers in museums, exhibitions and art galleries can offer a huge upgrade to your visitor experience.
In a quiet exhibition space, you don't want to ruin the ambience of the environment. Visitors want to concentrate on the displays without distractions, like loudspeakers leaking sound from other exhibitions.
Directional speakers preserve the calm serenity of the space while enhancing your displays. Instead of leaking sound all over the place, they restrict it to a focused beam of audio, pointed directly at the place it needs to be heard.
So you might provide a voiceover that explains the content of a display piece, that can only be heard by the person standing in front of it. Or you could play ambient sound to enhance the sensory dimension of the display, making it more memorable and enjoyable for everyone. You could also creatively integrate directional sound as part of the exhibit itself, like you'll see in our Hermes case study, where visitors cut through the beams of light to hear birdsong and ambient sound.
Focused speakers can also improve your accessibility, by directing people to where they should go next – especially useful for those with visual impairments.
With the post-pandemic world beginning to open up, arts & culture enthusiasts are eager to get back out there and seek new experiences – so why not make sure sound is the best part of their visit?
You can see how our product works in a museum / gallery context here: Akoustic Arts Directional Speaker B for museums
And you can learn more here:
A comprehensive guide to improving your museum visitor experience with directional speakers
In public spaces, directional speakers provide a revolutionary new form of the intercom.
Have you ever been in the reception area of a doctors office, talking to the secretary, and raising your voice so the secretary can hear you? And you have to ask, "can you please repeat that?" as the plexiglass barrier gets in the way?
And in the age of social distancing, face masks can make it even more difficult to understand what people are saying.
A directional speaker system can solve all of this by sending a beam of sound directly to the listener. It keeps the environment calm, because nobody has to raise their voice. It also keeps information confidential, as it doesn't broadcast widely for everyone around to hear.
This is useful for medical institutions, town halls, and various public administration centres such as law courts.
Intercoms aren't the only use for them, though. Public address (PA) systems can also be transformed to broadcast their sound in a much more targeted and useful way.
As you can see in our Samsung use case, the company installed Akoustic Arts directional speakers below a large digital signage board in Paris' Gare de Lyon train station. Creating a giant 'sound shower', the setup caught commuters' attention effectively without interrupting important station announcements.
While this was a commercial advertising venture, it could easily be utilised instead for local governments or city authorities for informing citizens of important events.
You can see how our product works in a public sector context here: Akoustic Arts Directional Speaker B for confidential public intercoms
And you can learn more about directional speakers in public spaces in these articles:
Public Sector Case Study: Blanc-Mesnil town hall (confidential intercom)
Public Sector Case Study: Orleans University Hospital (confidential intercom)
Public Sector Case Study: Samsung (train station screen)
Directional sound speakers are growing in popularity at events - in particular, trade shows, where you might host a kiosk to advertise, talk to customers and give away merchandise.
On a busy trade show floor, there can be a lot of distractions and foot traffic around your display. A well-placed, high quality directional speaker can be a powerful way to get people's attention and ensure they hear your message.
You can also use directional audio to create a more creative, immersive experience as well.
Firstly, if you're playing video content at your stall, you might already have a shared set of headphones for visitors to use. Directional speakers remove the need for these, meaning you won't have the maintenance and hygiene concerns of 50+ people touching your equipment each day.
But this is also an awesome opportunity to stand out from the other exhibitors. Sure, you could just play a video and hand out flyers – but you could also create an oasis of calm in a busy exhibition, where visitors can sit and relax in a nicely-decorated environment.
You could even use directional speakers to create a more mysterious or intimate experience, inviting guests into a closed-off area that's quieter than the bustling trade floor. That's a much more memorable way to enjoy content from your brand.
And there are plenty of uses for gatherings and exhibitions that don't involve advertising. At video game events or arcades where visitors sit at different places to play different games, you can deploy focused audio to replace the need for headphones.
Alternatively, you might be operating a virtual reality (VR) space, an 'escape room' venue, or even a Dungeons & Dragons event. In each situation, a directional speaker can help you customise the sound that each visitor hears – a serious enhancement of the visitor experience.
You can learn more in our guide:
Using directional speakers at events and trade shows
If you're wondering how a directional speaker works, here are the basics.
Essentially, they use an array of tiny speakers instead of a single large one, like you'd find in a conventional hi-fi loudspeaker. These fire out ultrasound, which is sound that travels at high-frequencies - with short wavelengths too high for the human ear to hear.
This is because ultrasound is much easier to limit to a straight beam than audible sound. But as the signal travels through the air and gets interrupted by an object (e.g. the person listening!), it gets distorted into a low-frequency, more audible sound wave.
The science behind this audio magic is actually a little more complex than this, but it's super interesting. If you'd like to know more, read our guide on how directional speakers work.
Choosing the best directional speaker for your needs really depends on what your circumstances are. Some things to consider are:
Of course, we think our Akoustic Arts directional speaker has a great mix of versatility, sound quality and features – get in touch if you'd like a demo, and we'll be happy to help.
You can buy directional speakers from various suppliers, although they're not typically sold in consumer electronics stores.
We recommend buying directly from the manufacturer, because they'll have the expertise to help you choose the right speakers and get the best out of them.
If you'd like to talk to us before making a purchase, contact us and we'll happily answer any questions.