The first time I heard of Dirac was at Xiaomi's Mi 3 launch event in India all the way back in 2014. Back then, Xiaomi was an unknown Chinese manufacturer that was taking the first step into a foreign market.
Hugo Barra was on hand to showcase the device, as were executives from Flipkart, which nabbed exclusive rights to sell the phone in the subcontinent. The Dirac came up during the Q&A when Barra was asked about the audio prowess of the Mi 3.
That was an interesting question as the Mi 3 was the first device borne out of Xiaomi's collaboration with Dirac. Over the years, the two brands have worked closely together in fine-tuning the audio on Xiaomi's phones. Here's what you need to know about Dirac, and its impact on smartphone audio.
What is Dirac, and why should you care?
Dirac is named in honor of Nobel-winning British physicist Paul Dirac, whose delta function set the stage for signal processing. The company itself is based out of Sweden, and specializes in digital audio optimization.
Over the years, Dirac has worked with a range of automobile manufacturers to tailor cabin acoustics in the luxury car segment, with the company's solutions ending up in models from Bentley, Volvo, BMW, and Rolls Royce. The company also works with the likes of Harman, Pioneer, Datasat, and DTS to optimize professional loudspeakers and fine-tune room acoustics for recording studios.
In recent years, Dirac has turned to mobile audio, teaming up with a slew of manufacturers that include OPPO, Xiaomi, Huawei, OnePlus, and others to deliver the best possible sound from a phone's speaker. Dirac focuses on two distinct areas when it comes to optimizing phones: tuning the headphone jack, and tweaking the performance of the loudspeaker.
Focusing on mobile audio tech seems like a strange move for a company like Dirac, which had primarily focused on customizing audio for home theater systems and high-end cars until five years ago. But with smartphones becoming the defacto way of listening to music on the go, the brand recognized the segment as a new avenue of growth. The foray into smartphone audio worked out for Dirac, with a majority of the company's revenues now coming from mobile audio solutions.
Tailoring audio solutions for Chinese brands
Dirac's first collaboration in the mobile space occurred over five years ago, when it partnered with OPPO to optimize the audio quality of its phones. Since then, Dirac's audio optimization technologies have been a mainstay on OPPO phones.
A year later, Dirac signed its first agreement with Xiaomi, and over the years the Swedish brand has been heavily involved in tuning the audio on Xiaomi's phones. As mentioned earlier, the first Xiaomi product Dirac worked on was the Mi 3, and the phone featured the company's headphone optimization technology.
Dubbed Dirac HD Sound, the technology relies on impulse and magnitude frequency response correction to deliver a more dynamic soundstage, even when connected to budget headphones. The goal is to improve overall sound clarity and bass fidelity while correcting the frequency response so as to deliver a flat curve.
If you've ever hooked up a pair of budget headphones to a Xiaomi or OPPO phone and came away impressed with the sound quality, now you know why.
I talked to Erik Rudolphi, Dirac's General Manager of Mobile, about the company's collaboration with Xiaomi and how it enabled both brands to innovate in this segment. Rudolphi said that Xiaomi "pushed" Dirac to launch new technologies into the smartphone market at the time.
The partnership led to Dirac creating an externalization technology that allows traditional headphones to reproduce a soundstage that's akin to a listening room. Called Sensaround, the tech relies on Dirac's soundfield optimization algorithms to deliver virtual surround sound. The goal with Sensaround is to move the sound "out of your head, like you were listening to speakers," says Rudolphi.
Dirac also created a set of EQ filters tailored to specific Xiaomi products, with the soundstage changing based on the headset connected. You can even select the particular Xiaomi headphones from a list of available options in MIUI settings and tailor your listening experience to that model.
Loudspeakers need optimization too
In addition to tuning the headphone jack, Dirac works on optimizing audio coming out of a phone's loudspeaker. As the speaker module in a mobile phone is tiny, it becomes a challenge to deliver loud and clear audio from it. According to Rudolphi, this particular issue is the main driver behind the development of its algorithms:
Dirac's solution for loudspeakers is called Power Sound, which sees the company tweaking the acoustics of the loudspeaker to deliver a more balanced and louder sound (as well as more bass), and a digital controller that optimizes audio output. The bass enhancements, in particular, are noteworthy. From Rudolphi:
Unlike generic frequency correction algorithms, Dirac tunes the audio for each speaker, and as such the audio coming out of a budget Redmi Note 5 Pro is different to that of the Mi Mix 2.
Rudolphi also mentioned that Dirac has ten engineers on-site at Xiaomi that are working full-time to tune the audio acoustics for the various models in the Chinese manufacturer's portfolio. With phone manufacturers using two or three different speaker supplier for each device, Rudolphi said that there's a lot of tuning work involved in making sure that every individual speaker performs efficiently:
Dirac's partnership with Xiaomi isn't limited to phones, as the manufacturer worked with the Swedish firm over its AI-enabled speaker in increasing sound clarity and enhancing the bass from the two on-board audio drivers. The AI speaker is hugely popular in China, seeing wait times of up to eight months. Interestingly, Xiaomi has announced that it is teaming up with Microsoft to bring Cortana to the device, signaling a launch in global markets.
With more and more brands getting rid of the 3.5mm jack, we're quickly moving to a world where USB-C audio is the way forward for wired audio. Dirac sees a lot of new opportunities in this field, with Rudolphi stating that the company was working on solutions tailored for USB-C and Bluetooth audio.
Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.
DIRAC is legit. I had a DIRAC tuned system in my 2008 M5 and that system was the best sounding audio system, home or auto, that I've ever heard.
Is that why the sound is worse on custom roms, compared to miui...
Properly mapped cars are great, especially when that is your one place to enjoy music in solitude while driving. I had a company do work for me some years ago that also did interior audio mapping, and it was great what can be done to an otherwise audio-hostile environment. As far as being impressed with budget headphones, I don't think that's gonna happen anytime soon unless your exposure to real quality was restricted. You can't make a cheap pair of headphones with poor frequency response produce bass that the headphones are incapable of. You can make them sound a little better than they were by compensation, but you are not going to get the seemingly unlimited bass extension or mind blowing imaging that you can get out of some of last year's audio advancements. With that in mind, I'm not sure the Mi 3 would be the best example to boast about, as the audio performance was nothing to write home about: From the GSMArena review audio section:
"Unfortunately, the Mi 3 just doesn't have the skills to be anywhere near the level required to fight it out for the best music player around. Its performance with an active external amplifier was a mixed bag, combining below-par volume levels with disappointingly high stereo crosstalk and distortion levels and less than stellar frequency response. The other readings were good, but they weren't enough to salvage more than a mediocre performance."
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