There are, of course, better solutions, but the end result always seems the same; the ceiling is not the optimal place to locate microphones. They're far from the talker. They're close to all kinds of ceiling noise. The best results one could hope for are "barely adequate". So it was with hope but some degree of sketicism that I took part in a test of Clear One's new digital beam-forming ceiling mic array.
|It's neither a bird nor a plane, but a ceiling mic array.|
Physically, it's a nice looking piece of hardware. It's thirty inches long, five and three-quarters wide, by only one inch deep. On the bottom (if ceiling-mounted) are cutouts for the individual mic elements and two LED/touch buttons, one of which has the Clear One 'C' log discretely wrapped around it. It connects to a Clear One Converge DSP (and only a Clear One Converge - more on this later) and power-injector through two Cat5-type cables which can be neatly managed through the hollow rectangular support pole. It also comes with a tile-bridge to easily mount to a standard two-foot drop-ceiling. It's certainly a nice physical package.
The big question, of course, is what it sounds like. We set one up in the center of a fifteen by thirty foot room and made calls from various positions. Sitting at a table. Standing next to the table. Walking around the room. Standing in the corner. We turned on a projector about five feet away from it on the ceiling. Then we did a quick-and-dirty A/B test with some wireless boundary mics (from the good folks at Revolabs). Remember that bit of skepticism I mentioned? It turned out to be completely unwarranted. In as unscientific a test as could possibly be devised in which we were absurdly unfair to the hardware under test (passing it through an extra DSP to avoid having to reconfigure an existing system) it performed splendidly. Intelligent tracking software built into the mic follows the sound of voices, giving a clear and even signal as one of us walked in a circle around the room. Audio was clear from all four corners of the room. Clear One's noise cancellation dealt nicely with the projector noise, although at the expense of slight artifacts perceived by those of us with the most sensitive ears for such things.
Those LEDs light blue when the mic is live, red for muted, off for off (and can be turned off entirely via software). Sadly, there's no ability to actually direct the beams although one can switch them on or off. Switching off a beam pretty effectively would cut off audio to half of the room, making the mic somewhat more directional. Configuration is relatively simple through Clear One's Converge Console software.
There are two issues I saw with this mic array; first is that it connects to the Clear One DSP through a proprietary expansion bus. The ability to daisy-chain three of them together is nice, as is the cleanliness of the installation. It's an additional nice touch that even if you inadvertently switch the power and link wires (we tried) you'll not let any of the magic smoke out of the unit; it'll just hang there until you get the wiring right. The problem is that it locks you into one DSP option, which wouldn't be my preferred option for all applications.
The other concern is that it isn't an inexpensive option. MSRP is close to $4000, and the DSP will be another four. You could get eight nice boundary mics for half of that, assuming you have anywhere to put them. So it's not the budget choice, but is one of the best I've seen thus far. If anyone's interested, perhaps some more on this after some more experimentation.