Sound without speakers; Kyocera is changing how we hear each other

by: Nate SwannerAugust 13, 2013

Smart Sonic

What if a phone didn’t need a speaker to relay a phone conversation to you? Sounds crazy, maybe. We’ve been utilizing speakers (almost exclusively) since Alexander Graham Bell (or Innocenzo Manzetti, depending on how you look at it) invented the telephone, so not having one seems far fetched.

We’ve all read reviews that claim a phone’s call quality to be “tinny”, or otherwise less than adequate. Those little speakers don’t often help when it comes to relaying quality audio. Inflection, cadence, and other variations in speech or background noise can give an inferior speaker fits. Kyocera, makers of mobile devices few are impressed with, but ceramics that many are wowed by, may have figured out how to both improve call quality and device integrity.

It’s an amazing feature, but has some curiosities to it.

Their Smart Sonic Receiver technology is quietly making a big impact on louder, more crisp audio. The way it works is by conducting audio through the screen, not a speaker. Done via a ceramic piezoelectric actuator that rests in the device, audio is transmitted via soft tissue and directly into the eardrum.

How is it different?

Some may immediately think of things like bone conduction technology, found in some Bluetooth headsets and Google Glass. While those rattle your bones to transmit audio, Smart Sonic sends the noise direct to the source. The ceramic actuator is much stronger, which allows it to send out a depth of vibration bone conduction technology can’t. Better vibration means a richer sound, too.

With the ceramic actuator sitting behind the screen, and no need for a dedicated speaker, our devices could be much more rugged. As those Kyocera phones with the technology can demonstrate, waterproofing becomes easier. It could also mean we’d see less top and bottom bezel on a device, since the need for a speaker and hardware isn’t there.

The gift and the curse

It’s an amazing feature, but has some curiosities to it. We’re all very attached to our Corning screens, and Kyocera doesn’t give specifications on what type of screen is used for the devices which have Smart Sonic. The only thing noted is that they are touch screen, which tells us nothing about the actual material makeup of them. This leads us to wonder if some materials aren’t able to handle the output of a ceramic actuator.

The devices using this technology are rugged, but that’s Kyocera’s bread and butter. Smart Sonic lends itself to a more rugged device, and waterproofing, but is that out of necessity for the technology as well as the market they’re trying to reach? It’s clear the technology has benefits for those construction workers who need to make a call in noisy environments, but we have to consider the vibrations made by such a powerhouse may compromise the hardware integrity in some way.


Does it work?

At MWC this year, Engadget got a good look at the technology for Smart Sonic. Saying it’s impressive seems inadequate. It plays through a headset, and not via an audio jack — it literally played through the earphone hardware. That should tell you how pervasive the ceramic actuator is. It should also indicate that this technology may be able to find its way to more devices, unless the Corning glass so ubiquitous in our mobile devices has some issue with passively allowing such vibrations, or the hardware behind it so delicate it would break down due to the subtle vibrations.

Smart Sonic is also a technology that’s in the early stages, having only been around for about 20 months.

Smart Sonic doesn’t rely on bone rattling technology, which gives it a truer sound versus bone conduction. Bone conduction technology is great for some applications, but bypassing soft tissue means the eardrum isn’t directly engaged. Bone conduction headphones transmit vibrations via your hard tissue directly to the cochlea, which is the last stop before nerve impulses are directed to the brain to tell you what you’re hearing. The eardrum is where nuance is picked up, and bypassing it is why bone conduction technology is often said to be “muffled”.

Bone conduction technology has been around for quite some time (Beethoven was said to have put a rod into his piano, which he rested on his head to “hear” what he was playing), but has been focussed on the hearing impaired. Those who are hearing impaired often get cochlear implants, which act as described above. The sound is muffled, and not as rich as it would be if conducted through the eardrum, but better than not hearing things you wish you could.


Where is it?

Right now, Smart Sonic seems to be settled into Kyocera devices. We’d like to think that’s just from lack of implementation, and they’re not keeping it to themselves. Smart Sonic is also a technology that’s in the early stages, having only been around for about 20 months.

Without knowing more about the specifics about Smart Sonic, we can’t speak to why it’s in limited production. We’ll hope more time is needed for other OEMs to take notice, and start working with Kyocera.

We see Smart Sonic stateside in recent Kyocera models like the Hydro lineup or Torque. All available in Sprint stores, they’re probably devices you quickly overlooked due to poor screen resolution or a bulky build. Stuck in phones typically meant to be tossed in the dirt, Smart Sonic is a diamond in the rough.

As for those reviewers which like to damn call quality? They say the call quality on devices with Smart Sonic is “great”. It’s always nice when science and opinion agree.

Update: Kyocera has reached out to us, and notes their technology is currently being used in their devices on a proprietary nature, but are open to licensing the technology to other OEMs. They also note that while they use it in their rugged US handsets, it’s not required of the technology to have such a shell. Good news all the way around!

  • MasterMuffin

    Could this replace all speakers or just the one used in phone calls?

    • Luka Mlinar

      I don’t see it happening. :/

      • MasterMuffin

        Well :/

    • joser116

      Look into some Gateway all-in-ones. I saw this one on HSN like 5 years ago where its sound came through the display itself. BTW, is Gateway even still around?

      • MasterMuffin

        Will I sound like a (even bigger) noob I say that I hadn’t even heard of Gateway before you said it? D:

        So you’re saying it could be possible? Because I can think of few situations where that could be handy (for example in making of water proof phones)

        • Trent Richards

          Hehe MM aren’t you from Finland or around those parts? Gateway was a fairly large player in the US PC market roughly a decade ago. They went out of business and then came back but never really made a splash.

          • MasterMuffin

            I read about them from their official page and they don’t even sell to Europe, no wonder I didn’t know about them!

          • Trent Richards

            Yeah they haven’t picked up enough traction since they came back from bankruptcy. I doubt they will ever make it to European markets.

        • joser116

          They could make the top and bottom bezels significantly smaller, although I think they would have to make the device thicker.

    • Farhi

      It relies on conducting the vibrations to the human ear. In this case the conductor is the ear it self and the small bones around it. Without a solid conductor this can’t work. Yes air is a conductor but not in this case since we’re talking about vibrations. It has to be a relatively solid conductor.

      • MasterMuffin

        Thanks :)

        • Abdel Aziz Farhi

          No problem ^^

      • droidtomtom

        So the screen must be physically touching the ear to hear anything? Or can you hear it a little bit with a gap between the phone and your ear?

        • Trent Richards

          Seems to me that it must be touching.

        • On a Clear Day

          no. it does not have to be touching it. in fact in one video i saw which i think was the endgadget review alluded to they actually placed the phone on the outside edge of of a large sized set of headphones and he could still hear through the obstructing plastic of the dead head phones.

          it can also work when held near to and separated by a few inches from the ear area i think.

  • Ruz

    When will these replace our TV speakers

  • D.Wulf

    Wow, that would be great along with wireless charging tech. Air tight device indeed.

  • Rauel Crespo

    My Mom recently picked up a Kyocera Hydro Edge. At first I was “WHY DIDN’T YOU TALK TO ME FIRST” then I checked out the phone. It was pretty snappy. Then I checked out the battery compartment, sealed with rubber. Popped in my old Class 6 32GB SD card, and it was actually usable for Apps, which were able to be installed to it (which is more than I could say about my Galaxy S4 that was quickly exchanged for an HTC One). Looked into this phone. Has a 1Ghz Dual-Core S4 (Like a slower version of the chip in the Moto-X) Along with Adreno 305 graphics which were respectable for the price she paid (she said $80). Sadly it’s on Boost Mobile, which uses Sprint…and we all know how terrible Sprint is….Despite that the sound coming from the SCREEN was very good, and I came to find out that this phone is water proof, and perfect for her(her iPhone4 fell in the toilet). But that “speaker” is not just a gimmick and it was funny that this cheap little pre-paid phone has tech that my God-Class HTC One is missing, and I’d like. A review of one of these better Kyocera phones would be a great idea.

  • On a Clear Day

    this technology in concert with the audience noised reduction speech clarify chips that are in the galaxy s four and other higher end phones that filters out ambient noise as in public venues in addition to hd voice would be heavenly and finally give us something all so mobile phones fail miserably at call quality.

  • Peter Frazier

    i would give anything to get better call quality.. even thou i think its more network and less phone in my case..

    i however am a BT Stereo Audio headset snob and love to rock new audio tech.