A Norwegian journey in audio and acoustics

I’m delighted to see NNNN develop groundbreaking speaker systems and enjoy it every time I get a chance to be immersed in the sound of one of them. This comes from a life-long passion of mine for electronics, audio, and radio. I guess I had to end up that way growing up north of Oslo in a setting where all my neighbors were employed by either The Norwegian Defense Research Establishment or The Institute for Atomic Energy – now Institute for Energy Research. Even the houses were provided by the employers. What other street address could we have had at the time than Research Garden “Forskerhagen”?

When the successful Tandberg company established their third factory just a few kilometers away, I was determined to get my foot inside in some way. The first time that happened was during a week of internship in my last year in junior high school. A second internship took place in the summer of 1973 as I was about to start my studies at what is now NTNU – Norwegian University of Science and Technology. I still remember the biweekly visits by the founder himself, Vebjørn Tandberg (1904-78), and how he took the time to say hello to every employee. That was characteristic of his leadership style.

At that time, the Tandberg company was near its peak, and in 1976 it had 3100 employees. Vebjørn Tandberg was one of the most extraordinary industry founders in Norway. He was known both as a pioneer in providing for his workforce, as well as for his uncompromising demands for quality. In anticipation of the move from headphones to speakers for radio sets, he had done his MSc thesis at NTNU in 1930 on the new moving-coil speaker. This led him to establish Tandberg Radiofabrikk in 1933, which started by making loudspeakers and microphones before launching its first radio.

A Norwegian journey in audio and acoustics
Vebjørn Tandberg, norsk næringslivsleder . Udatert . Foto: NTB-arkiv, SCANPIX

Technology and design legacy

Over the years, they opened several factories in the larger Oslo areas, as well as in Scotland. They produced radios, loudspeakers, TV sets, and tape recorders – even branching off into computer monitors. Well-known Norwegian designers, such as Terje Ekstrøm, Peter Opsvik, and Svein Ivar Dysthe, were employed to give the products a characteristic contemporary industrial design. Some of the products are even exhibited at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Oslo. Tandberg soon established an international reputation.
“As an example, a Tandberg tape recorder was used during President John F. Kennedy’s meetings in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.”

The White House, Photo: Rosie Kerr


Vebjørn Tandberg’s passion was really for the loudspeaker, and he wrote papers about it up to at least 1965. Another Norwegian speaker designer, Ragnar Lian, who designed the first soft dome tweeter with a textile diaphragm and an aluminum wire voice coil, was an admirer of the Tandberg 165BK speaker element. It was designed by Vebjørn Tandberg in 1945 with an unusually low intermodulation distortion, and 50 years later, Lian called it a classic.

The Tandberg company that emerged out of bankruptcy in 1978 became an industry leader in video conferencing and continued with an uncompromising requirement for quality in its video and audio as well as in industrial design. In 2010, Tandberg was purchased by Cisco in what was the largest IT acquisition in Norway ever, up to that time. An acquisition that NNNN´s CFO Lars Johan Skeisvoll Hereid has referred to as a catalyst for several new companies which he has named the Tandberg Cubs

Alexander Fossland and Lars Johan Hereid at Haugen Trevareindustri.


The impact of sound technologies from Norway

My career did not go in the direction of audio, but rather to a different aspect of sound. Starting in 1990, I was hired to develop a new generation of digital ultrasound scanners for Vingmed Sound. The application was imaging for the diagnosis of heart conditions. The team was fantastic and led to the development of the world’s second digital ultrasound scanner for cardiology, a product that won the Grand Prize of the European Union’s 1995 Information Technology Award. Another result was a very successful acquisition by GE in 1998 and the establishment of GE Vingmed Ultrasound in Norway as the Center of Excellence for Cardiology Ultrasound for GE worldwide. Today, these cardiology scanners are number one in a critical market like that of the US, and more than 200 000 exams take place with GE Vingmed products – every day.

I moved on to the University of Oslo in the mid-nineties to be a professor. Still, we have research collaboration, as GE Vingmed Ultrasound is part of a cluster of companies that are part of the Center for Innovative Ultrasound Solutions. It is one of the Norwegian Research Council centers for research-based innovation (SFI). This collaboration covers ultrasound research for medical applications, as well in the oil, gas, and maritime sectors, and runs from 2015 to 2023. It is led by NTNU and has both industrial and academic partners. One of the partners is Kongsberg Maritime which has made high-performance sonars and echo sounders since the 50s. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with them on e.g.nonlinear acoustics.

A related area is marine seismic, where the low-frequency sound is reflected off structures deep below the surface of the earth. The oil boom in the North Sea led to the establishment of companies such as PGS and WesternGeco in Norway. I haven’t had any role with these companies, but it is admirable how they have established themselves as world-leading in using sound in their fields.


The new wave of sound tech companies in Norway

The decade from 2000-2010 also saw the appearance of some innovative startups with roots in research at the University of Oslo. I had a role in developing the early ultrasound localization technology for Sonitor Technologies, which enables “A Positioning System That Goes Where GPS Can’t” as was the title of an article in Scientific American in 2008. Other companies where I have had advisory roles are Squarehead Technology and Elliptic Labs. Squarehead Technology develops microphone array technology that enables precision, acoustic detection, and audio capture. Elliptic Labs Virtual Smart Sensors are software modules that allow detection of motion, proximity, presence and provide touch-free gestures. They are now in more than 100 million Xiaomi phones.

Other recent Norwegian startups in audio are among others SenSibel with new microphone technology. Minuendo with adjustable hearing protection, and Nomono with wireless microphone technology. I welcome the initiatives of the innovative people of the national audio, ultrasound, and seismic industry. 

I came back to audio proper in 2006 by starting a collaboration with Rune Skramstad, now CTO of NNNN, in a small technology company, Paragon Arrays, for developing his ideas on horn speakers. Here also, low distortion has been in focus. It comes as a result of the higher efficiency of horns as speaker elements there operate at a much lower displacement than in ordinary speakers. For that reason, horn speakers are also much less power-hungry, and this reflects in the environmental footprint

As these ideas were combined with talent originating from Cisco/Tandberg in NNNN a few years ago, I feel that my dream has come through. Ground-breaking horn technology with a low environmental impact is combined with the uncompromising requirements for audio quality and the superb industrial design from the best of the Tandberg tradition.