HONG KONG: What NXT did next...
Worked out what it is yet? No, it's not a UFO over Causeway Bay here in Hong Kong, but a floating speaker from JVC, designed to deliver bathtime music. It has a built-in MP3 player and amplifier, and at its heart is a a speaker driver from NXT.
Yes, that NXT - the company founded amidst all that hoo-hah back in the days when it was under the same roof as Mission and Cyrus, but now doing its development work here on the shores of the South China Sea, just a couple of blocks from the former home of Bruce Lee. That home's now not a museum to the martial arts star, by the way, but a 'rent by the hour' love hotel. In Hong Kong, things move on...
And NXT finally moved its operational base here three years back, after an earlier relocation of some key staff a few years earlier, although the pure science is still done in the UK.
Here, among design and advertising companies in the Innocentre in Kowloon Tong, is the compact lab, design and sales operation of NXT, with the staff just about equally split between ex-pat Brits and locals. Other offices are in Japan and California.
Why Hong Kong? Well, for the same reason there are those other satellite offices - to be close to the customers, and where the products are produced. For as well as licensing its technologies, which now go far beyond the original 'Flat Panel' speakers, to manucaturers, NXT now designs and develops products sold as own-brand models through a wide range of distribution channels, and works with factories in mainland China to make drive units for both off the shelf and custom applications.
It has getting on for 15 licensees for its original SurfaceSound Distributed Mode Loudspeaker technology in China, and its products and technologies, covered by around 350 patents, find applications as diverse as advertising billboards and in-car audio.
Some Citroen vehicles, the C4 and C5, use its Audio Full Range drivers in place of conventional in-dash drivers, the speakers veing developed in association with Philips, while Toyota uses Distibuted Mode Loudspeakers in the headlining of vehicles such as the Alphard mini-van (above) in Asian markets, and its Tacoma and FJ Cruiser in the States.
NXT works closely with a wide range of manufacturers and brands including Hitachi, Maxell, Philips, Parrot, Revo, Targus, TDK and TEAC, along with some undisclosed major names. For some of these it develops entire products, while with others - such as Revo - it's a matter of joint development of products.
There are also less expected applications for its technology. 3M uses its bending wave touch screens in the development of advertising and kiosk touch panels, while with its partner Qinetiq NXT's producing solutions for use in transport applications such as high-end executive jets and even some locations on the London Underground.
Work is also going on with printed electronics and other unusual applications: luxury birthday cards from Hallmark now use NXT technology to play high-quality greetings music when they're opened!
The popular Hitachi AX-M133 system was the first to hit the shops using NXT's Balanced Mode Radiator speakers, which are now being made available to a wide range of manufacturers.
The BR High Aspect Ratio Panel, or HARP, at the top of the picture above, is particularly well-suited to use in flatscreen TVs, and NXT is working with its driver manufacture licensee, Shinhint, to develop this driver in a variety of sizes to suit different requirements. There'll be more on the Shinhint link in a later blog.
The drivers are already in flatscreen TVs from the fastest-growing company in the US TV market, Vizio, and Viewsonic models. What's more, to make sets even slimmer the dispersion characteristics of the driver allows them to be angled or even used in a downward-firing orientation.
While I was with the NXT team, there were ongoing discussions underway with some of the biggest names in TV manufactuing about the use of versions of versions of this driver in their products.
NXT's original technology is now found in a variety of applications, the company having found that the EVA foam used in bag manufacture makes a good diaphragm for the speakers. Targus backpacks are made with an amp and stereo speaker panel, while the SoundBags below combine an iPod case and speaker.
Similar technologies are applied to a wide range of standalone speakers for use with computers and personal music players, with the company having a wide range of designs available to customers.
And it also has a variety of designs aimed at the 'road warrior' wanting to use the laptop for entertainment as well as work. This model is designed as a 'soundbar' to clip on the top of a notebook display
while these can be used freestanding, or clipped either side of the screen.
A variety of connection and power options are being investigated, from USB power and connectivity to conventional 3.5mm jacks and batteries, and even Bluetooth.
The company is also working on devices to drive the displays of laptops and handheld devices directly, turning them into speakers.
I was shown a development implementation for one current ultraportable computer, and it was explained how this SoundVu technology can not only save precious space inside a product, but also deliver stereo sound where previously there was only room for a single conventional mono speaker.
Parallel research is also going on into a side benefit of this technology, which allows screens to be touch-sensitive and also provide feedback when used. This 'haptic' technology allows the sensation of writing on a screen to be akin to that of writing on paper - instead of a stylus skidding on plastic, the screen appears to produce a degree of drag, just like paper.
But for all this, NXT still considers itself a hi-fi company, and is proud of its UK audio heritage. It's developed these ultra-slim speakers from its experience with the Hitachi system: book-sized, they sounded very good indeed on the brief demonstration I heard, and i could imagine them slipping between the volumes on a shelf to give an all-but-invisible small room/second room hi-fi solution.
The company's circular BMR drivers have already become familiar from their use in the new Revo BLOK iPod dock, and NXT and its manufacturing partner have developed these little cube speakers.
With drivers just 4.5in across, and no crossover to sap power or create phase problems, they again sounded very convincing on the end of some Cyrus electronics, and could be an interesting add-on for small systems.
Other developers are also workjing with the BMR technology: I had a brief listen to a pair of the speaker on the right below, which combines the small square driver and a passive radiator, together with onboard amplification and a metal housing designed to act as a heatsink.
On first seeing it, the NXT materials and engineering people were intrigued that the external designer had used a transparent material for the passive radiator diaphragm. 'Why?', they asked, 'Does it sound better?'
The answer was somewhat more prosaic - the designer had run out of space on the housing for an receiver for the infrared remote control, so putting it behind the radiator panel seemed the logical solution.
It's just one of many designs which will be featured on the NXT stand at the massive Hong Kong Electronics Fair, which opens here on Monday, and the company has been working on prototypes right up to the last minute.
Having spent a day visiting the Shinhint speaker factory in China with NXT Sales and Marketing Director James Bullen and Matthew Dore, who oversees sales and marketing of the Balanced Mode Radiator technology, we retired to a local watering hole for a few cold ones.
I suppose I shouldn't have been too surprised when Bullen produced from his bag some more designs for portable player speakers, freshly arrived from the builders. Earlier in the day the two had explained to me that one of the advantages of their current location is how fast products and components can be taken from idea to existence - here was all the evidence I needed of that process in action.
It's clearly needed: on this showing, the small but highly innovative team at NXT has a lot more ideas on the way.