Sound specialist Alto Aviation founders Don Hamilton and Steve Scarlata on getting cabin acoustics perfect for audiophiles
For nearly 20 years now, ALTO Aviation, founded by ex-Bose sound engineers Don Hamilton and Steve Scarlata, has been installing high end sound systems into business aviation aircraft cabins. EVA talked to the founders about their approach to getting near-perfect sound in the air and on the ground.
Q: What led the two of you to found ALTO Aviation?
A: We were both audio engineers at Bose, focused on audio systems for cars. In the years leading up to the founding of ALTO, in 1997, we were doing some special projects for Bose. One of these involved installing a sound system on a Gulfstream G4. Doing this showed us that there was a real market for bringing high-end audio systems to business jets. So shortly after that we left and started ALTO Aviation, targeting this market specifically.
Bose also saw this sector as a valuable market and signed us up to do all the required engineering and manufacturing to try to grow Bose’s business in this sector. From Bose’s standpoint, their contribution, apart from the systems side, was on the marketing front. We handled the installation and implementation as well as the engineering required.
Q: Implementing a sound system in an aircraft that can play classical music to the satisfaction of an enthusiast is a very different proposition to installing a home hi-fi set. What are the challenges?
A: It is absolutely right to say that the two environments are completely different. However, the living room has its challenges as well. You do not know where the people are going to be in the room when they are listening. An aircraft cabin has fixed seating, so you can optimise the sound for particular seats. You have a lot of control over where to place the loudspeakers to get maximum advantage from them.
An aircraft cabin is basically a long tubular structure and you know that from the outset. However, the speakers are going to be up high on the SUPSU rails or on a side panel, which is not usually an ideal position for them. If you simply sold the parts for the sound system to the customer and let them or a completions house install it, turn it on and hope for the best, you can be pretty sure that the results would be far from optimum.
Our first step is to focus on designing the system to achieve an optimum sound. Then we go on site and onboard the aircraft to ensure that all the speakers are installed properly, in accordance
with our design, and that they are correctly wired. After that we go to each seat and measure the output from all the speakers. We take exceptional care with the designated VIP seats, but we also ensure that all the seats are served with the best possible sound for that position in the aircraft. You have to adjust the sound contour coming out of each speaker to get a perfect balance.
Q: Jets – even the quietest – are intrinsically more noisy than a lounge environment. How do you solve that problem?
A: It is definitely the case that there is more sound even in the quietest of jets than you will find in a home environment. On the other hand, the systems that we put into business jets have much more power and can play at far higher volumes. On the ground you might think that the system is over-powered if you turn the sound all the way up, but in the air, with the background noise, you need plenty of volume to hear it right. When we do the design we take care to ensure that the system will meet the owner’s expectations. In the air you want to listen in the top quarter of the volume slider to get balanced audio and to have the system performing at its best.
Q: Aside from power and volume, what else do you need in a business aviation aircraft system?
A: We have a compression feature that is very useful for listening to loud and soft music and to movie dialogues where the characters can go from speaking in a whisper, to shouting. We have a dynamic range algorithm in the signal amplifier that makes sure that you get the best sound quality irrespective of whether the sound is a whisper or a yell.
Q: What aircraft are your systems on?
A: We are on a range of OEM products. We are on the entire Dassault Falcon range and on all Gulfstreams, plus all Cessnas that have the Clairity CMS system. We are also on the Embraer lineup, except for the Phenoms. We are part of Honeywell’s Ovation CMS and the Rockwell Collins Venue CMS. We have done quite a few Sikorsky helicopters for audio, and are standard for the PA in the S-92 and S-76. We’re also on a whole range of after-market and refurbished smaller aircraft, ranging from the smallest of the King Airs, all the way up to VVIP 747s.
Q: How long does it take to install one of your systems?
A: It varies tremendously. With some customers and some sizes of aircraft, they can order in the morning and we can ship the system in the afternoon. Some systems, for example, are simple, direct replacements for the sound systems they are replacing. For an older OEM system, we may well have ALTO speakers that fit directly into their old speaker slots. So we could see an install finished inside two days. A 747 completion will probably take two years, so we will specify the system at the start of the completion process and it will be two years before we go back to the aircraft to install and sound-test the finished system.
What we are seeing, however, is that on a range of jets, it is becoming more and more common for customers not to go with complex CMS and IFE installations, and instead they prefer a more cost-efficient solution and are happy to use their own personal iPads, iPhones or Android devices to play whatever they want to play. We can do the speakers for this kind of approach at a very reasonable cost and via a much simpler installation.
Q: Smaller jets and turboprops are a lot noisier than mid-range business jets. How do you overcome that disadvantage?
A: In a smaller environment you can get a lot more sound pressure out of the audio system, so that helps to compensate for the fact that you are installing in a noisier aircraft. We have done very nice, clean installations in smaller Embraer aircraft, for example. It is all up to the customer and what they want!