Greetings from Las Vegas! Before we start walking the miles of another exciting CES show, we are ready to meet those attending ALMA International Symposium & Expo 2018 (AISE) - January 6-7, 2017, at the South Point Hotel & Casino. This year's theme is "The Revolution of the Audio Signal Chain," reflecting one of the main trends for the audio industry - the fact that the entire audio experience is becoming interdependent and integrated in modern systems. As Dan Foley, ALMA International President states, "The recognition of the increased and expanding interdependence of every component in the audio signal chain is vital to the loudspeaker industry." That's it!
The theme for AISE 2018 is "The Revolution of the Audio Signal Chain." Take a look at the Program!
And as we prepare to immerse ourselves in the exciting activities at this year's AISE 2018, promising to be its most dynamic seminar program ever, I thought it would be suitable to do a brief recap of the 2017 trends, pointing toward what we can expect in this exciting 2018.
First and foremost, there are very positive business indicators in some product segments. As Futuresource Consulting noted recently in its December 2017 worldwide home audio market report, "Worldwide demand for home audio products has witnessed strong growth in 2017, and is forecasted to grow by 21% to 125 million units, whilst trade value will grow by 16% to generate revenues worth $13.4 billion by the end of 2018."
This 21% growth in the "worldwide home audio market" includes product categories that many assumed were fading away three years ago (e.g., hi-fi systems, home theater, and A/V receivers). Of course, the reason for the spectacular growth in the segment is directly related to wireless speakers and soundbars, which will continue to excite consumers in 2018 - both new and existing ones. And for 2018, I think that's precisely what manufacturers need to look at - how to integrate existing systems, including high-end components, with new streaming services and networks, not necessarily creating redundant components.
Manufacturers are aware that younger generations are increasingly appreciative of analog technology such as turntables and recognize the value of classic high-end speakers and amplifiers - including tubes. But there's no reason why those consumers shouldn't be able to connect streaming services and smart speakers to those components. Basically, they are just new sound sources, and manufacturers need to deliver the "smart" solutions and a convenient extension to those new challenges.
On the home theater front, I predict consumers will continue to look at the convenience of the soundbar/TV base, now with wireless audio and immersive sound capabilities. With media streaming services now delivering 4K UHD content with Dolby Atmos soundtracks, consumers will expect to be able to have a compatible experience at home - in a convenient way. Manufacturers need to provide wireless speaker extensions for soundbars (which increasingly will take the place of AV receivers and home hubs) with support for object-oriented audio formats such as MPEG-H and Dolby Atmos. I predict that, for the majority of consumers, this will bring back the "all-in-one" concept we've seen before with the 5.1 home systems. The difference is that now they need to provide connectivity to new services, support wireless audio, and connect to new generation interfaces in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and HDMI... And I wouldn't discard WiSA.
Will all those home systems need to have Alexa or Google Assistant built in? Yes, and no. They should be able to be integrated with voice assistants in general, but they don't need to be designed as "competitors" to those VPA products. Instead, think about providing a way to interface with voice assistants as another service. If you are designing for Amazon Alexa only, restricting choice, and making your product more expensive, you will lose.
At CES 2018, be on the lookout for new Thunderbolt 3 products. It seems that after Apple went all-in on the Intel technology, this will be the year when Windows PC makers in general will be revealing massive numbers of products adopting the latest 40 Gbps bidirectional interface. And of course, there is an avalanche of peripherals that go with it. Mainly because with Thunderbolt 3, it doesn't matter how much local SSD storage we have on a laptop or how powerful the GPU is. If we need to edit hi-res audio or 4K video uncompressed we can connect an external Thunderbolt 3 disk array, without noticing the difference, and we can connect the latest GPU external unit to drive the latest games or 3D simulation software.
And, of course, those Thunderbolt 3 products now use the same Type C connector as the latest USB-C specification, which means that consumers will expect compatibility with all new products, including the ability to power those from a single connection - which is the complicated component that the industry needs to sort out. To make matters worse, the mobile industry is moving forward at a fast pace with Type-C connector products, which are not necessarily fully compliant with the latest USB specs. But they all ship with power adaptors and cables that look exactly the same. And users need to learn how to distinguish the fine-print specs and the minuscule logos that are supposed to be the differentiators. I hate to say it, but when a new standard requires "educating the consumer," it just means that things will not work as intended. To be continued...
Also on my personal watch list for CES 2018 will be the latest development products to support HDMI 2.1, and Bluetooth 5, as well as NFMI and Low-Power WAN technologies (Sigfox, LoRa, etc.). This will not yet be visible to everyone, and it will take until CES 2019 to see massive new product shipment announcements, as I wrote previously.
Also, this will not yet be the year for 5G networks, which are not expected to become a visible reality until 2020. But in 2018, we will be able to see where and how those extra Gigabits of faster data will benefit industries and consumers, with the connected car and wearables in the forefront. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA), owner and producer of CES, announced that 5G will be a key topic for CES 2018, and they were right to do it. The main keynotes and presentations will focus on self-driving vehicles, breakthroughs in health care and smart cities, AR/VR applications for commercial and consumer use, content and entertainment opportunities, IoT data applications, and more. As Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA says, "The impact of 5G is groundbreaking and will accelerate innovation in all of the technologies we showcase at CES, from smart home and appliances, drones and robotics to self-driving vehicles and smart city technologies."
And... as we all know, "smart speakers" will continue to be a key growth category in 2018, but we all need to wait for Apple's HomePod to know exactly what to look for (believe me, even Amazon is waiting to see what will come out of that...), while CES will see a sea of "me too" voice products. Trends to watch on this front will include how to integrate audio products with voice assistants in a compatible and smart way, and how to integrate voice user interfaces at the local level for simple commands, where appropriate. Anyway, I will refrain from saying much more, since we intend to feature several Guest Editorials from leading voice-expert companies in forthcoming editions of The Audio Voice newsletter.
For 2018, audioxpress also has planned a new focus on audio product design that will include a series of articles on new development platforms leveraging some of the industry's most exciting developments, such as connected systems, wireless audio streaming, voice, new Class-D controllers and amplification modules, and DSP. For that purpose, we have already approached some of the leading chip and development platform providers for a series of articles that intend to explain and explore the possibilities of those technologies - and that will include DIY projects, whenever possible! In this series of articles, audioXpress will also combine the latest test and measurement tools to better understand and address the challenges of the latest technologies currently embedded in smart speakers.
Looking at other audio product categories, 2018 will see significant growth in headphones, earbuds, and Bluetooth wearables in general. With smartphones, tablets, and computers in general continuing to take the space of audio sources for the majority of consumers, due to the formidable expansion of music streaming services, audio manufacturers need to look at the best way to integrate with those devices - and that includes adopting the latest wireless standards but also the latest physical interfaces, such as USB Type C and Thunderbolt 3. In my opinion, dedicated home audio music servers and Android-based dedicated portable players are an "endangered species."
As for headphones and earbuds, I wouldn't bet too much on "one-feature-products," such as adaptive noise cancelling, integration of voice assistants and smart user interfaces. While interest in noise-cancelling will continue to grow in general, headphone manufacturers will do better in considering those features in an integrated way. Consumers looking for sports activity products, comfort while traveling and commuting, or the best audio reproduction will simply expect to have "extra" features in new models, but they will probably do better by focusing on the overall design, including battery efficiency. Consumers are getting weary of low-cost products that don't last as long as they need too, and are a nuisance to charge for frequent use.
This is particularly relevant as manufacturers look at ways to improve true wireless designs with extra features (e.g., live translation, health sensors, and hearing enhancers) in an increasingly competitive space. Yes, True Wireless Stereo (TWS) earbuds will continue to be a growth category, with Apple now leading the market in convenience and ease of use. But I believe that many of the features that are being included in TWS designs could work better in Type-C and Lightning-connected designs. And that includes sound personalization - which for me is the leading feature to be considered in 2018.
One-and-a-half years since the Kickstarter campaign, I have received my own nuraphones. They sound the best, because they are personalized!
I am happy to report that, just before the end of the year, I received my own pair of nuraphones, combining an innovative in- and over-ear design and the ability to automatically tune the sound to my unique hearing profile (created with a well-designed app in 30 seconds). The nuraphones were one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter - promoted by Nura, an Australian start-up company - and directly supported by 7,730 backers that pledged an impressive $1,803,988.
Even more impressive was the way the company's founders managed the process, expanded the team, procured manufacturing facilities, and didn't compromise on the product concept - delivering an excellent result, which I can attest, works exactly as advertised! And this wasn't an easy concept. The nuraphones use a calibration process that acoustically measures the response of the inner ear, and stores that unique profile in the connected app. The process is then supported by a clever design of the headphones, combining in-ear transducers with an outside low-frequency driver, providing dual sound isolation and deep immersion, with wireless or wired connectivity. I have been listening to music on my own nuraphones for the last few days, and I can say that switching to my own faithful ATH-M50 headphones for comparison, feels like changing from a high-end wonderful hi-fi experience to a pair of cheap computer desktop speakers. The sound of the nuraphones, with my personal profile, is only the best sound I have ever experienced.
I predict that sound personalization - on par with augmented reality and hearing enhancers - will be a fascinating technology trend in 2018. And that's why we are also planning a few articles on the topic.
Happy New Year!