Xbox update brings noise suppression to Party Chat

Chatting while gaming on your Xbox One Series X/S can be fun, but party chat members’ poor quality mics that let in every barking dog and blaring TV? Not so much. Now, Microsoft is doing something about it by introducing noise suppression to party chat in the latest Xbox update

“We’ve enabled a new feature which will process your microphone input through a noise suppression step to help produce cleaner audio in your Party Chat session,” it wrote in the Xbox blog. ” The setting is enabled by default but can be toggled from the dropdown options menu.”

The feature appears to be taking a cue from Discord’s Krisp audio filters, along with NVIDIA’s underrated Broadcast tech. Krisp has been a mixed bag — while the AI filters out most noises (mechanical keyboards, chip crunching) except for voices, some users have complained about reduced audio quality.

The Xbox update also includes various fixes for audio, controllers, HDMI CEC, Guide and more. It’s entering the alpha skip-ahead ring today, but should roll out more widely in the near future. 

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Google’s SoundStream codec simultaneously suppresses noise and compresses audio

All the sessions from Transform 2021 are available on-demand now. Watch now.

Google today detailed SoundStream, an end-to-end “neural” audio codec that can provide higher-quality audio while encoding different sound types, including clean speech, noisy and reverberant speech, music, and environmental sounds. The company claims this is the first AI-powered codec to work on speech and music while at the being able to run in real time on a smartphone processor at the same time.

Audio codecs compress audio to reduce the need for high storage and bandwidth requirements. Ideally, the decoded audio should be perceptually indistinguishable from the original and introduce little latency. While most codecs leverage domain expertise and carefully engineered signal processing pipelines, there’s been interest in replacing handcrafted specs with AI that can learn to encode on the fly.

Earlier this year, Google released Lyra, a neural audio codec trained to compress low-bitrate speech. SoundStream extends this work with a system consisting of an encoder, decoder, and quantizer. The encoder converts audio into a coded signal that’s compressed using the quantizer and converted back to audio using the decoder. Once trained, the encoder and decoder can be run on separate clients to transmit audio over the internet, and the decoder can operate at any bitrate.

Compressing audio

In traditional audio processing pipelines, compression and enhancement — i.e., the removal of background noise — are typically performed by different modules. But SoundStream is designed to carry out compression and enhancement at the same time. At 3kbps, SoundStream outperforms the popular Opus codec at 12kbps and approaches the quality of EVS at 9.6kbps while using 3.2-4 times fewer bits, Google claims. Moreover, SoundStream performs better than the current version of Lyra when compared at the same bitrate.

Here’s reference audio before processing with SoundStream:

And here’s the audio after processing:

Google cautions that SoundStream is still in the experimental stages. However, the company plans to release an updated version of Lyra that incorporates its components to deliver both higher audio quality and “reduced complexity.”

“Efficient compression is necessary whenever one needs to transmit audio, whether when streaming a video or during a conference call. SoundStream is an important step toward improving machine learning-driven audio codecs. It outperforms state-of-the-art codecs, such as Opus and EVS, can enhance audio on demand, and requires deployment of only a single scalable model, rather than many,” Google research scientist Neil Zeghidour and staff research Marco Tagliasacchi wrote in a blog post. “By integrating SoundStream with Lyra, developers can leverage the existing Lyra APIs and tools for their work, providing both flexibility and better sound quality.”


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Tech News

Chromebooks will soon support noise cancellation for external mics

Google is positioning Chrome OS and Chromebooks as the ultimate productivity weapons, especially in this day and age of remote work and schooling. Ironically, they are also one of the last to jump on one of the most important bandwagons in this day and age of remote work and schooling, video chats and conferences. Many of the apps and services for these require Windows or macOS or even Linux, and those that do run in Web browsers sometimes don’t even work well compared to those other operating systems. Case in point is the rather complicated case of noise cancellation, something that may be soon to Chrome OS at long last.

Most of the video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet offer fancy and creative ways to cut out the visual noise or embarrassing background behind you. They often leave the handling of actual audio noise to each platform’s or device’s noise cancellation support. Unfortunately for Chrome OS users, Chromebooks have neither.

That might be changing soon as a change in Chromium source code reveals a new flag that will toggle whether Chrome OS will display input noise cancellation UI or not. This, of course, presumes that the hardware actually supports noise cancellation, which it detects from headsets.

Unfortunately, this also implies that the feature only activates for external headsets that support the feature. Android Police notes that it doesn’t include support for the internal microphones of Chromebooks themselves, implying that the hardware doesn’t support noise cancellation either. Hopefully, Google will come up with a software solution like it always does.

Chrome OS is definitely shaping up to become an even more powerful productivity device, receiving features that most computer users may have taken for granted on other platforms. That includes even just the ability to scan documents which, while rarer these days, can still be a pain when the need does arise. Google has also been optimizing its own Google Meet to work better on Chromebooks, many of which have less powerful hardware compared to Windows laptops.

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Tech News

Amazon’s new $120 Echo Buds are 20% smaller and cancel twice the noise

Amazon today announced a new set of Echo Buds, promising improvements to the sound quality and noise-canceling abilities of the original while maintaining a low price of $120 — less than half the price of the AirPods Pro, its most obvious competitor. That’s cheaper than most earbuds with ANC in general, too.

The earbuds have a sleeker design available in either black or white, and, crucially, are 20% smaller than their predecessor. It also uses shorter nozzles that are less likely to dig up earwax and is vented to reduce pressure on the ear. There are many times I’ve tested a pair of earbuds and offered to let my girlfriend try them out, only to find out they don’t fit her at all, so I definitely appreciate the size reduction.

Performance-wise, Amazon promises to maintain the sound quality while making noise-canceling twice as effective as their predecessor. You are able to turn the feature on and off via Alexa, as well as enable a Passthrough mode to help you be more aware of your surroundings instead. Meanwhile An optional ‘VIP filter’ also helps you minimize the notifications by only allowing alerts from priority contacts to ring on your earbuds.

I generally refuse to use Alexa on my phone — sorry, I’m team Google Assistant — but I appreciate being able to access some features without touch controls. I often use a single earbud when riding my bike, and being able to bark commands at my headphones rather than finagle with a tiny touch surface is something I appreciate a lot.

Also, mercifully, the headphones now charge via USB-C, the one port to rule them all. May Micro USB forever disappear from our collective memories.

While it would be easy to dismiss the Echo Buds as just another me-too Amazon product, the originals did have some objectively solid performance, and were among the cheapest way to get active noise canceling in a pair of true wireless earbuds. The new buds look a lot better, if you ask me (though I still detest the Amazon logo), and hopefully, their smaller size will make them suitable to a wider range of users.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and we’ll let you know what we think when we get our hands in a pair. If you’re interested in picking a pair up already, Amazon is currently selling the Echo buds at $100 for a limited time before their release in May.

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Discord’s mobile app is getting background noise suppression because life is noisy

Whenever I’ve tried using Discord’s mobile app to call a friend, I’ve found the audio quality to be pretty subpar. Sure, Discord’s desktop app gives you a few options, like simply using a better mic, and there are a few ways to add noise suppression — particularly if you have an Nvidia graphics card. But now, Discord has added the same background noise suppression feature to its mobile app that it rolled out on desktop in April, meaning your phone’s built-in mic or your earbuds should be able to take advantage as well.

Like the desktop version, Discord partnered with to create a virtual microphone that should intelligently filter out the background noise that might keep people from hearing your voice, like the clack-clack-clack of typing on a mechanical keyboard or, hopefully, the sound of my twin brother’s puppy barking and howling at my fridge for making ice as I frantically try to calm her down during a work meeting.

The new feature is already live, and you can see how to access it in a truly “I can’t believe I just watched that” video featuring animated goats:

As the coronavirus pandemic keeps many of us indoors, there has been an increasing demand for voice and video chat services like Discord, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Zoom. Teams and Slack recently announced they’d surpass 75 million daily active users and 12.5 million concurrent users, respectively. In April, Discord said that it saw a 50 percent growth in daily voice users in just the United States and exponential growth overseas in countries including France and Italy. It announced in June that it had secured $100 million in funding to move beyond the gaming community and become more of a “day-to-day communication” tool.

Discord isn’t the only company to embrace noise cancellation features: Google Meet added a similar AI-powered feature in April, Microsoft Teams is adding a real-time noise suppression feature this year, and Krisp also offers a desktop app and Chrome browser extension that, like Nvidia’s offering, can work with a variety of apps.

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Tech News

Mars rover captures mysterious ‘scratching noise’ on the red planet

NASA’s Perseverance rover has captured a mysterious high-pitched scratching noise on the surface of Mars.

The sounds were recorded as the rover drove along the Jezero Crater, an area that scientists believe was once flooded with water and home to an ancient river delta.

In the clip, you can also hear a discordant mix of bangs, pings, and rattles, as Perservance’s six wheels roll over the rocky Martian terrain.

“If I heard these sounds driving my car, I’d pull over and call for a tow,” said NASA engineer Dave Gruel. “But if you take a minute to consider what you’re hearing and where it was recorded, it makes perfect sense.”

The cause of the peculiar screech, however, remains unknown.

Perseverance’s engineers suspect it was triggered by electromagnetic interference from the rover’s electronics boxes or interactions between the mobility system and the Martian terrain. The team says they’ll continue investigating the cause.

NASA released two separate recordings of Perseverance’s 90-foot drive on March 7.

The first version includes over 16 minutes of raw, unfiltered noises, generated by the rover’s wheels and suspension rolling along the surface, as well as the high-pitched scratching.

The second clip is a 90-second compilation of sounds from the journey, which were processed and edited for clarity.

They were recorded by Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) microphone during a 90-foot drive on March 7.

The off-the-shelf mic was added to the rover to let the public hear the sounds of its February 18 touchdown, but it remains operational today.

[Read: Elon Musk’s SpaceX unveils plans for historic all-civilian mission to space]

A second microphone installed on Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument has also been sending sent sounds back to Earth.

They include recordings of the Martian wind sighing and a rapid ticking noise produced by the Supercam’s laser zapping rocks to understand their structure. Scientists will use the data to search for signs of microscopic life.

Vandi Verma, a NASA engineer and rover driver, said the audio alone offers insights about the red planet:

The variations between Earth and Mars – we have a feeling for that visually. But sound is a whole different dimension: to see the differences between Earth and Mars, and experience that environment more closely.

You can listen to all the recordings here. Let us know if you hear any signs of alien life.

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Tech News

Xiaomi packs active noise cancellation into its $25 neckbuds

After marking its vast territory in the smartphone market in India,, Xiaomi has released plenty of affordable audio products in the country, including a smart speaker and truly wireless buds.

Today, the company announced a new 16W Bluetooth speaker and the Mi Neckband Bluetooth Earphones Pro — and I’m interested in the latter. Why, do you ask? The new neckbuds come at a modest price of ₹1,800 (roughly $25) and have active noise cancellation. You don’t often get ANC in audio devices at this price point, as a search on marketplaces like Amazon reveals.

I haven’t tried this pair yet, so I can’t pass a verdict on its performance. But its feature set seems commendable given the price. Apart from active noise cancellation, it offers 20 hours of playback time and a splash and sweatproof design, which might be good for workouts.

[Read: How do you build a pet-friendly gadget? We asked experts and animal owners]

Xiaomi says that you can enable active noise cancellation with one click, and it’ll reduce surrounding noise by 25dB. 

In terms of sound, it has a 10mm bass driver. So, it’ll have passable sound quality for casual music or podcast listening at best.

I like the neckband form factor as I can just hang them on my neck and forget about them even if I’m not using them. And when I get a call, I can quickly plug them in my ears without having to retrieve them from my pocket.

This is exactly why I use the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 regularly. They’re not the best neckbuds out there, but they’re comfortable and sturdy. 

I’m not expecting these to rival AirPods Pro or Sony’s trusted WH series in terms of noise cancellation. But this might be a budget backup I’d want to keep in my everyday carry bag, and use it for taking calls or working from a cafe.

I’ve ordered a pair, and once I’ll use them for a bit and tell you if it’s worth $25. You can buy them from Xiaomi’s site in India.

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Published February 22, 2021 — 08:52 UTC

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Listen to Google Meet’s impressive new background noise cancellation feature in action

Google Meet’s new AI-powered background noise cancellation has started rolling out, VentureBeat reports. Google announced the feature back in April for its G Suite Enterprise and G Suite Enterprise for Education customers. It’s coming to the web first, with iOS and Android following later.

A video produced by VentureBeat shows the software in action, with G Suite’s director of product management Serge Lachapelle demonstrating how it can pretty seamlessly remove the sound of crackling crisp packets, clicking pens, or glass clinking. Google’s announcement said the tech will also work on dogs barking or the clicking of a keyboard.

VentureBeat reports that Google has been working on the feature for around a year and a half, using thousands of its own meetings to train its AI model. YouTube clips of lots of people talking were also used by the team. However, Lachapelle was keen to emphasize that although the feature will improve over time, the company will not directly use external meetings to train it. Instead, it will use customer support channels to try to identify where the software might be going wrong.

Google isn’t the first company to try to use artificial intelligence to reduce background noise on calls. However, unlike a solution such as Nvidia’s RTX Voice software, Google’s processing happens in the cloud, meaning it can work consistently on a much broader range of hardware. Eventually, this will include smartphones. Lachapelle emphasizes that the data is encrypted during transport, and it’s never accessible outside of the de-noising process.

The new feature is on by default, and Lachapelle says that it won’t give call participants any visual indication that it’s turned on to try to keep the software’s interface clean. However, if you’d like to turn the noise cancellation off, you can do so from the audio menu in Google Meet’s settings.

Google hasn’t given a timeline for when the feature might roll out to non-Enterprise and Enterprise for Education accounts, but Lachapelle says that the hope is to bring it to a “larger and larger” group of users over time.

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