Venue Sound Systems Are Being Refurbished — at a Cautious Pace

In sports parlance, 2013 has been kind of a rebuilding year for sports-venue audio systems. After the massive build-out that peaked mid decade, stadiums and arenas are pondering the holes in coverage patterns and taking advantage in the incremental but still substantial improvements in pattern and dispersion control, coverage, and throw distance.

Many stadiums still face the critical decision between point-source and distributed sound systems. Although, in some cases, architectural design compels one path versus the other, the demand for increased intelligibility has favored the trend toward distributed systems, which cost more on average because of the larger number of speakers and vastly more cabling required. That’s a hard pill to swallow in the wake of a recession that depleted municipal coffers and reduced city and county bond-issuing leverage.

Not that point-source is disappearing, though, especially in the college-football vertical. Dave Shoemaker, SVP at Pro Sound & Video in Orlando, points to the recently updated Ohio State stadium, where Pro Sound installed a new Meyer Sound LEO system in the end zone. He says the company was able to leverage improved throw and coherence capabilities in the system to provide a higher level of speech intelligibility throughout the stadium.

“We’re in an update cycle at the moment, but we definitely are also seeing a lot of planning in the works for the next couple of years,” says Shoemaker, who alluded to but declined to identify several new-build and renovation projects on the horizon. “We’re expecting to see significantly more activity in the near future for several reasons. First, there is more confidence in revenues out there to pay for it; second, there is a big push to get more fans back in the seats,” an allusion to the NFL’s ironic but nonetheless significant decline in attendance due in large part to how good the broadcast experience has become.

“People expect more of the sound in any venue now,” Shoemaker continues, noting that he’s even seen some consideration given to creating stereo PA systems in venues, although the logistics of stereo in large open spaces makes achieving it questionable. “The sound systems have to meet those expectations in order to increase revenues.”

The potential dodginess of stereo PAs in sports venues (they’re common in music systems) doesn’t mean they aren’t being seriously considered. Brian Elwell, senior consultant VP, Acoustic Dimensions, says that stereo PA systems in sports venues is an “interesting concept, not too many venues are trying it, and it’s limited to point-source, end-zone–type, or overlapping distributed systems, but it’s one way of spicing up the audio.” He adds that the notion becomes more viable as more music is pumped into venues before and during games.

Elwell says advances in pattern control are important as stadiums and arenas become louder — and it’s not the technology leading the way in that regard; in fact, providers are trying to find ways to catch up with expectations.

“Crowd noise just keeps getting louder, and there’s only so far you can push a PA system to keep up with that without damaging people’s hearing,” he explains.

Although the decibel limits on a PA system depend on the environment it’s used in as much as anything else, the ability of a sound system to remain intelligible for speech and full range for music against a highly energized crowd relies far more on pattern and dispersion control and its ability to maintain tonality — accurate frequency response, especially for music — than on sheer volume and power.

And even then, Elwell adds, much has to do with the content of music pumped through systems. “Low frequencies are harder to control, and that’s what you’re seeing more of in terms of the content, especially in basketball arenas,” he says. “Line arrays do a [better[ job of controlling the lower frequencies” than point-source systems do.

Improvements in live-sound technology are being considered as ways to enhance the in-venue experience for fans and, by extension, enhance league revenues at the gate. A postrecession major-league landscape is going to be naturally cautious, but lower costs of audio products and systems on average may well encourage some welcome risk-taking next year for more audio-system upgrades.