Reviews & User Reports

JK Audio – Making the Gear We Need for Quality Remotes

Radio Guide Magazine Nov-Dec 2009
by Ernie Belanger


I remember when a station’s chief engineer would spend hours working through some new fangled way to allow talent to do remote broadcasts more easily – a way for them to carry less gear, make set-up easier and improve reliability. Not to mention trying to find a way to squeeze the best quality possible out of a standard POTS line that was used for remotes from sponsor’s locations.

Now, when I listen to our local live station, I hear one of the jocks doing a “ghost” of what we called a remote. Now it’s a couple of ten second spots via cell phone so it sounds like he’s talking from inside a dumpster. Worse yet, one day he apparently decided to use his blue tooth headset.

What Quality? The remote sounded like a cross between listening to Wile E. Coyote talking as he was whizzing along on this ACME rocket trying to catch the Road Runner, and trying to tune in an overseas broadcast on an old short wave receiver. I think you get the picture.

Don’t get me wrong; there is a place for everything but not Bluetooth – at least not in my world. My wife agrees too; the Bluetooth headsets are noisy, with such terrible quality, that it hurts her ear when I call from the road. Since New York requires us to be “hands free” for cell use while driving, I switched to a wired headset for better quality.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of Bluetooth, and I certainly was not a fan of bluetooth in broadcast applications. That was, until Joe Klinger and JK Audio worked their magic.

Enter JK Audio

Joe Klinger founded JK Audio in 1992. While audio has always been the primary focus of the company, its direction has been guided more by customer demand than by any preset business model. So JK Audio is like the old station Chief Engineers who tried to find a better way to do what needed to be done.

For now at least, this means passing on the temptation to join their competitors in the race towards the best CODECs and IP transport layers. Instead, the focus is on the right product for a particular application. This has resulted in over 30 telecom audio interface products. Sometimes the task requires a high speed DSP, other times a simple transformer in a metal box. Joe tells us that some of their best selling products are their simplest.

Now, connecting audio equipment to a phone system is considered by some to be more of an art than a science. While some people may consider that statement a compliment, flattery is not going to get a product through the tough international emissions, safety, and telecom compliance testing. In the case of JK Audio, it’s the right mix of talent. And I do mean talent.

A Mini Bell Labs – OK, I’m Impressed

Do you remember a little place called Bell Labs? Well JK Audio is a mini version. The engineering staff includes three former Bell Labs engineers. Joe still handles all of the analog audio and telecom design, while Gary Eiklor pushes digital streams through hardware and soft- ware. Brian Prorok brings his signal processing expertise to real time in their line of digital hybrids.

Joe spent seven years at Bell Labs as an Audio Engineer. Not exactly what this young audio engineer/ producer had in mind, but it was a tremendous opportunity to work with world-class developers, engineers and human factor psychologists. That’s right, Joe’s position, was that of a technical liaison between a large coding algorithm development group and the human factors psychologists that ran audio quality and user interface studies. It was here that Joe learned user interface design and quality assessment skills and received patents for UI design and signal processing.

This was right up Joe’s alley, since he had worked in consumer audio as an audio and acoustics engineer at Concord Systems back in the early 80’s when CDs were just hitting car stereos. His role was to find the link between objective measurements and subjective opinions. In his spare time he’s logged many hours behind mixing consoles in the studio and live sound.

The BluePack – Ready for Man-On-The-Street Interviews or Remote Broadcasts via Bluetooth

JK’s Balance

While the R&D staff defines the product, the company is really a well-balanced family, starting with Joe and his wife Linda.

“Joe spends the money, and I have to keep everything in balance” according to Linda, JK’s Business Manager. Linda handles everything financial and acts as a sounding board to keep everything in check and balance, of course.

The staff also includes Production Manager Wayne Reed and Technical Support specialist Denise Lockridge. A credit to the company’s product quality and support documents, these two people share support duties for the entire company. The list goes on with an excellent office and production staff, many of whom have been with the company since the 90’s.

Then vs Now

In the early years, when JK Audio was literally a one- man show, Joe worked as a design consultant with several phone companies while slowly securing broadcast dealers for their first audio interface products. At the same time, he also worked as a designer for Winslow Industries, the largest speaker crossover manufacturer in the U.S. Long time friend and Winslow’s owner, Don Kliewer became Joe’s mentor, sharing his wealth of manufacturing knowledge and business ethics.

Today JK Audio products fall into fairly logical groups: passive handset interface for interview recording, field mixers for remote broadcasts, digital hybrids for interview recording and talk shows, personal/portable gear for field interviews and telecom interface and belt packs for TV IFB monitoring.

But Can They Make Bluetooth Sound Better?

In a word, “Yes.” Our former Bell Labs geniuses solved the problem, and in the process developed some darn good products. Which is why I noted the past tense when I said I didn’t see it as a broadcast technology.

The Story

Think about it. For years, JK Audio has been building wired interfaces for connecting audio equipment to cell phones. While an engineer would typically think that a wired interface would trump any wireless link, cell phone connections are an exception to the rule.

Don’t forget, the headset jack on your cell phone is expecting to see a mic signal on the input and provides only a small receive signal to the earpiece. The phone typically adds non-linear processing to this wired signal to prevent feedback, and often includes side tone, or a low level return path from transmit back to receive.

An audio interface must work with these small signals on an unbalanced cable, connected to a rather powerful radio transmitter. Add the fact that there is no industry standard for the headset connector, and you have a potential connection nightmare.

Bluetooth Wireless Technology eliminates most of the connection concerns and RF problems associated with the wired cable. While Bluetooth is a standard, which requires compatibility testing, there is enough latitude in the connection protocol to allow some products to get by with compatibility issues.

Lousy Sounding Headsets

Some low cost headset designs have placed a stigma over this technology, mostly due to their cheap component choices, poor acoustical properties, and excessive processing to make up for their cost cutting measures. Ah, there’s the Wile E. Coyote talking while on a rocket sound that I referenced earlier.

It turns out that Bluetooth protocol is not to blame for the design and compatibility issues of these low cost headsets, but the stigma of these headsets continues to present an uphill marketing and education process.

Bluetooth’s Advantage

Bluetooth does offer several advantages over wired interfaces. First, the audio CODEC is located in the audio interface, which means the audio signal will remain digital right through the phone, avoiding the headset signal processing. JK Audio uses a music grade stereo codec to digitize the audio, allowing lower noise and distortion than typical low costs headsets.

JK spent over two years on hardware and firmware integration to achieve rock solid compatibility with even the most stubborn cell phones. Another obvious advantage is phone placement. The wireless connection allows you to place your cell phone at a greater distance from your audio equipment.

A new feature to several of JK Audio’s Bluetooth products is the ability to act as either a master or slave.

In a typical connection scenario, your cell phone acts as the master, initiating the connection to the headset, which in this case is operating as the slave device. There must always be at least one master and one slave device. You cannot connect a cell phone (master) to another cell phone (master) or connect two headsets together. Nor can you connect a cell phone to more than one slave device at a time.

Some of JK Audio’s newest products include the ability to switch roles, allowing connection to a cell phone, a headset, or another JK Audio device.

Bluetooth Profiles

Common to cell phones and headsets, the Hands Free profile offers full duplex mono, 8 kHz sampled audio. More common to music players and wireless headphones, the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) offers 44 kHz sampled stereo, but only in one direction, from master to slave. Bluetooth A2DP equipped cell phones, sound cards, and music players are typically configured as the master while the headset acts as the slave. Before you get any bright ideas, we have never seen a mobile phone configured to receive A2DP audio. This is not a limitation of Bluetooth; it’s simply that phone manufacturers have no reason to add the slave (A2DP receive) capability to their phones.

Secure Technology

Bluetooth, by the way, is a secure wireless link operating around 2.4 GHz, using frequency hopping over a range of nearby frequencies. While range is typically limited to 10 meters from a cell phone, the standard allows up to 100 meter distance. Signal power is dynamically adjusted to reduce RF emissions and save battery power. This combination allows plenty of secure channels for use on busy streets and stadiums.

Where Are The CODECs?

While almost every telecom audio interface company got is start building simple analog hybrids and interfaces, the trend is to move quickly into CODECs and high-end talk show systems. The quest for the best audio quality for remote broadcasting consumes their development staffs until there is no time for the “boring” little inter- faces that got them started.

This “little stuff” becomes less interesting and a burden on engineering, production and support until it becomes easier for them to say, “We’re pretty sure JK Audio already makes that product.” At the same time, JK Audio will be the first to tell you that if you want a quality remote broadcast, you will need to shell out the big bucks for a true CODEC. But when it comes time to record a phone interview, put a caller on the air, or call in a quick news story, they have a solution for any budget.

JK Audio’s Home

JK Audio is located in Sandwich Illinois, less than 30 minutes from Chicago’s western suburbs. They currently have over 150 broadcast dealers around the world. Sandwich is the former home of the James Knights (CTS) crystal manufacturing plant, so there is no shortage of extremely skilled electronics production staff.

A Quick Web Site Visit Says It All

All you need to do is visit the JK Audio web site to get not only a grasp of the depth of their product line but also to gain a keen understanding of the talent, creativity and understanding Joe and his team have of the broadcast industry and the needs we have for quality and reliable audio interface devices.

Their attentiveness to customer’s needs and the ability to fill them with cutting edge products like their Bluetooth equipment, promises to keep JK Audio busy for years to come.

If you have any questions for Joe about JK Audio’s products or you have a product suggestion feel free to contact Joe at 815-786-2929 or by email info@jkaudio.com. Information about their complete line of products can be found at their web site www.jkaudio.com