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Technology for Audio Description

A collection of facts and opinions about how technology is used or could be used for audio description ... by Mike Feltman, equipment manager for Arts Access Inc., Raleigh, NC. 
Last updated in September 2018. 
Providers -- please contact the Webmaster to be listed!

Welcome Scenario - What a Difference Technology Makes!

Scene One:  My friend who is blind goes to the movies with me. During the show, he leans over to me and whispers, "Why is the audience laughing?"  I whisper back, "Kevin Cline just stuck two French fries in the other guy's nostrils!".

Scene Two:  I go to the same movie with this same friend.  As we walk through the lobby, he stops at the audio description table and picks up a small radio receiver and ear piece.  We go to our seats and while I'm looking around, he is listening to the pre-show audio described program notes.  He leans over to me and asks, "Did you know this movie we're about to see first came out in 1988 and was written by John Cleese, who also stars in it?"  The movie starts, and my friend doesn't ask one question during the show...not one.  We are both free to enjoy the show in our own way.

Audio description is being done in both scenarios.
The difference is TECHNOLOGY!

Each technology has its own set of solutions and shortcomings.  Here we provide a brief discussion about each technology and invite you to tell us more about how your organization uses technology to enhance audio description.  For users of audio description, we encourage you to tell us what works for you, and what doesn't.

As we become aware of new technology, we'll add the information and links.  We'll do our best to stick to the facts but we'll also share opinions and publish information from ADP's listserv.  Please see our Contacts page for information about the listserv.

What Technologies Are Available?

TV networks broadcast over the airwaves, cable TV or satellite TV. In any case, they use additional transmission equipment to broadcast a second audio program (SAP) channel containing the regular audio with the audio description added.  When your TV is tuned to the second audio program channel, you hear both.

The Good News:  There are a few popular TV shows and specials in North America and Europe that broadcast audio description on SAP.

The Not So Good News:  Setting up your TV to receive SAP can be a daunting task.  See Accessing Audio Description on Your TV.  In North America, the future of this service is unknown.

We Wish We Knew:  How audio description will be affected by the coming age of digital TV.

Movies in Theaters

Many new movies have audio description available which can be detected and transmitted at specially equipped movie theaters.  Patrons are loaned a small receiver and a headset to pick-up the audio description, while they can hear the regular sound track 'around' the headset.  Find out more about AD in Movie Theaters.

The Good News:  Many new movies are being released with audio description available.

The Not So Good News:  The equipment on the movie theater side is expensive, so not many movie houses have it.

We Wish We Knew:  How to drive down the cost and drive up the availability.

Video Tape and DVD Players

Video tapes of a few very popular movies can ordered with a soundtrack that contained both the regular audio and the audio description.  No special equipment, other than a standard VCR and TV is required.  Recently, a few DVD compact disks have appeared with a user selectable audio description sound track.

The Good News:  No special equipment needed.

The Not So Good News:  Only a very few VHS video tapes and a few DVDs with audio description have been produced for the home market.  Outright purchasing can be expensive.  Rentals may not be convenient or may be impossible in some localities.

Live Performances or Exhibits

Whether the description is live or on tape, some type of transmitter and receiver technology is used.  The description is fed into the transmitter and heard at the receiver carried by the user.  These transmitter and receiver systems fall into two broad categories, radio frequency and infrared.  In radio frequency designs, the describer's voice travels on radio waves.  In infrared designs, the describer's voice travels on 'invisible' light.  Which system is best depends on the specific environment and how much the users will be moving.  In general, radio frequency systems can penetrate some walls to some extent.  Infrared systems can have a better sound quality, but are best when in a line-of-sight application.  Infrared systems can not go through walls, but if line-of sight to the transmitter is maintained, the user can walk around without the annoying 'drop out' experienced when the antennas on radio frequency systems go in and out of alignment.

The Good News:  The systems are robust, affordable to many organizations and well supported.

The Not So Good News:  There is no one perfect system. It takes a lot of research to determine the best system for a given environment, and then, it is only 'best' in that environment.  What if your needs change or you want to use the same equipment in a variety of environments?  Compromise is often the only solution.

Links to Suppliers of Audio Description Equipment

We invite providers of audio description technology to allow us to let our readers know more about your products.

Disclaimer:  Neither the ADP nor the ACB endorse any of these products or vendors.  The list below is meant to help our readers contact providers of technology.  AD environments vary.  What works well for one group in one location may be marginal or totally inadequate for another group or in another location.  We recommend you work with several vendors to find the best value for your specific application before making any purchase.  Updates to this list are welcome -- contact the webmaster.

'Mask' Microphones

Portable Soundproof Booths

Audio Guides

Software Solutions

Solutions for Movie Theaters

Transmitters & Receivers for 'Live' Broadcast

These systems are marketed primarily as Assistive Listening Device (ALD) systems (for people who are hard of hearing), but they are also used by audio describers.  We gratefully acknowledge the source of this list:  Betty Siegel and The Kennedy Center.

This section is divided into four subsections, based on the technologies employed by the systems marketed.  In the listings, M=Manufacturer and S=Supplier.

All System Types

American Loop Systems (S)
29 Silver Hill Road
Suite 100
Milford, MA 01757
(800) GET-LOOP
(800) 955-7204 TTY

Audio Enhancement (S)
14241 South Redwood Road
P.O. Box 2000
Bluffdale, UT 84065
(800) 383-9362

Cardinal Sound & Communication (S)
2317 Kansas Avenue
Silver Spring,MD 20910
(800) 964-3496

Centrum Sound (S)
572 LaConner Drive
Sunnyvale, CA 94078
(408) 736-6500

General Technologies Inc.
3806 Security Park Drive
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742-6916
(800) 328-6684

HARC Mercantile, Ltd. (S)
1111 West Centre Avenue
Portage, MI 49024
(800) 445-9968 Voice/TTY

Harris Communications
15155 Technology Drive
Eden Prairie, MN 55344
(800) 825-6758 Voice
(800) 825-9187 TTY

Hear More (S)
42 Executive Blvd.
Farmingdale, NY 11735
(800) 881-4327 (voice)
(800) 281-3555 (TTY)

8160 Madison Avenue
Burr Ridge, IL 60521
(800) 288-8303 voice
(800) 536-8890 TTY

Innovative Hearing Devices
482 W. San Ysidro Blvd. #1292
San Diego, CA 92173
(619) 981-9822
FM Systems, Infrared Devices, Hearing Amplifiers

iProbe Multilingual Solutions, Inc. (S) New Sept '15
273 East 3rd Street, Suite 2W
New York, NY 10156
(212) 489-6035
FM Systems (72 Mhz, 216 Mhz), Infrared Devices, Sound Isolation Booths. (Rental and Sales). Also audio description, captions and SDH subtitles in English and foreign languages.

Potomac Technology (S)
1 Church Street, Suite101
Rockville,MD 20850-4158
(800) 433-2838 voice/TTY 

Oticon, Inc. (M) (Formerly Phonic Ear, now under "FrontRow" brand)
29 Schoolhouse Road
Somerset, NJ 08873
(800) 526-3921

Both FM and Infrared Systems

Listen Technologies Corporation (M)
14912 Heritagecrest Way
Bluffdale, Utah 84065-4818
(800) 330-0891

NADY Systems Inc. (M)
6701 Shellmond Street
Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 652-2411

Sennheiser Electronic Corp. (M)
1 Enterprise Drive
Old Lyme, CT 06371
(877) 736-6434

Tour-Mate Systems (M)
1290 Blossom Drive Suite D
Victor, NY 14564

Williams Sound (M)
10321 West 70th Street
Eden Prairie,MN 55344-3459
(800) 328-6190 

FM Systems Only

Telex (M)
9600 Aldrich Avenue, South
(800) 392-3497
(612) 884-0043 Fax

Comtek (M)
357 West 2700 South
Salt Lake City, UT 84115
(800) 496-3463

Induction Loop Systems Only
AssistiveAudio (S)
2627 Algonquin Parkway
Toledo, OH 43606
(800) 224-9295 Voice
(419) 292-2169 Fax

Oval Window Audio (M)
33 Wildflower Court
Nederland, CO 80466
(303) 447-3607 Voice/TTY 

Infrared Systems Only

ALDs, Inc. (M)
#2-11220 Voyageur Way
Richmond, B.C., Canada V6X 3E1
(604) 244-0269
(800) 665-2537
(604) 270-6308 Fax

Audex (M)
710 Standard Street
Longview, TX 75604
(903) 295-8244
(800) 237-0716
(800) 283-3974 Fax

Lightspeed Technologies (M)
15812 SW Upper Boones Ferry Road
Lake Oswego,OR 97035
(503) 684-5538
(503) 684-3197 Fax

Siemens Hearing Instruments (M)
P.O. Box 1397
10 Constitution Avenue
Piscataway, NJ 08855
(732) 562-6600
(732) 562-6696 Fax

Ultra*Stereo Labs, Inc. (M)
181 Bonetti Drive
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
(805) 549-0161
(805) 549-0166 Fax