Industry & Product News
Mimi Hearing Technologies Acquires 3D Sound Labs
Mimi Hearing Technologies, a leading company in digital hearing tests and hearing-ability-based sound personalization, has announced the acquisition of French company 3D Sound Labs, the developers of 3D Audio technologies, including a Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) personalization service that improves the realism of the audio listening experience. According to Mimi, 3D Sound Labs has the know-how and intellectual property to help them further enhance Mimi Defined, the company's state-of-the-art sound personalization technology .    Read More

RCF Expands Digital Mixer and Recording Program with New M 20 Series
With Prolight+Sound 2019 becoming a single-hall trade show, it was hard not to notice a large area of the exhibits where RCF Group combined, for the first time, all its companies - including RCF, dB Technologies, EAW, DPA Microphones, and its Advanced Native Technologies (ANT) brand, created in 2017 for the musician and performance markets. In the RCF section of the booth, visitors could find an extended range of mixing and recording solutions, including new studio monitors and four M series digital mixers: the M 20X, the M 20R, the M 20XD, and the M 20 RD .    Read More

Oberton Celebrates 30 Years at Prolight+Sound 2019 and Introduces New Products
Oberton Professional Loudspeakers, the professional audio speaker company from Bulgaria celebrated 30 years in business at the 2019 Prolight+Sound show in Frankfurt. Oberton used the opportunity to promote its latest product catalog and introduced several new models, including the 10NHCX and the 15H4CX72, new 10" and 15" members of the company's extended range of coaxial drivers; the new 18NSW700, a high-power 18" neodymium woofer with low Mms; and two new 2" and 1.5" neodymium compression drivers with 4" voice coils, the NDC72-16 and ND100-16 .    Read More

New FaitalPro HF1440 Compression Driver Extends Frequency Response and Power in a Compact Format
As previously reported, FaitalPRO attended Prolight+Sound 2019 in full force and with many new products to unveil, all with great appeal for the professional audio market. The renowned Italian manufacturer of professional loudspeakers announced several new low-frequency drivers, as well as the HF1440, a new 1.4" high-power neodymium compression driver that is now a top of the range product in the brand's catalog, joining an already outstanding series of really compact high-frequency drivers .    Read More

Sonos New Speaker Range Inspired by IKEA Reimagines Light and Sound at Home 
The story was already confirmed for some time, but Sonos and IKEA have finally revealed the results of their joint project, designed to reimagine the smart home, Scandinavian style. As Sonos describes it, "Sound is a powerful mood booster, as important to the atmosphere at home as any rug or art piece or sofa. Setting out to make great sound available for everyone, IKEA and Sonos now present the first products in the SYMFONISK range - one being our loudest table lamp ever."    Read More

Blackmagic Design Announces DaVinci Resolve 16 with Much-Improved Audio Features
At the NAB 2019 show, Blackmagic Design announced several exciting new products, including the new DaVinci Resolve 16 software and a new range of 8K products. Audio professionals will benefit from new Resolve 16 features, including immersive 3D audio features for Dolby Atmos, MPEG-H and SMPTE ST 2098 metadata support, new Elastic Wave capabilities, improved overview of automation parameters, enhanced loudness monitoring, new plug-ins and measurement tools, and a new foley sound library .    Read More

Stenheim Premieres New Alumine Three Speaker in Chicago and Shanghai
A world premiere not to be missed at AXPONA 2019 (April 12-14) in Chicago, IL, or for those attending the Shanghai SIAV 2019 Show (also April 12-14), Stenheim will be unveiling its latest Alumine Three speaker, the product of many years of research and understanding of audio technology. As Stenheim states, while some manufacturers focus on the senses and others on technology, Stenheim's Made in Switzerland approach combines the two "because we understand the impact of physical constraints on subjective listening quality," they explain .    Read More

Røde Microphones Launches All-New Miniature Digital Wireless Microphone System
Røde Microphones announced the launch and shipping of the Wireless GO digital wireless microphone system, an extremely small and versatile digital wireless mic/receiver combination. As Røde describes it, Wireless GO is an ultra-compact digital wireless microphone system which is unique in its clip'n'go versatility, incredibly compact form-factor, and unmatched price accessibility. It's the perfect wireless mic solution for content creators in all disciplines: filmmakers, on-camera presenters, newsgatherers, vloggers, and more."    Read More

Editor's Desk
J. Martins

Talk To Me!
Voice and Smart TWS Earbuds

All market research firms seem to confirm that the hottest item in the audio industry continues to be smart speakers. There's no doubt that on par with what the industry calls "smart speakers" there are many millions of units sold that should be characterized instead as simple portable wireless speakers, because that's what they are for most consumers - independently if they support access to a specific voice assistant service, or are simply connected devices that are able to stream music directly from existing services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, or any other. Also, the market analytics don't usually make the characterization between the different devices usage, and we know for a fact that most of the millions of Apple HomePod devices sold are essentially used to listen to music, independently if users actually interact with Siri or not.

I believe that to be true for most of the other actual smart speakers sold all over the world, mostly because they don't even support a proper voice assistant in the user's language. Even if they do, many users try the voice interaction a few times, and quickly resort to using the speaker as simply a connected device, setting up a routine to listen to their music playlists, and eventually accessing podcasts or establishing very basic interactions, such as checking the weather, confirming traffic conditions, or reading the news. That is, the user quickly finds a way to trigger what he finds useful from the connected device, using the assistant's voice abilities so that it "speaks to him," instead of the user speaking to the assistant.

According to the latest Strategy Analytics' "Global Smart Speaker and Screens Shipment and Installed Base Forecast by Region: 2014 to 2024 Q1 '19 Update," published in April 2019, shipments in the smart speaker category are expected to grow by more than 50% in 2019 to reach more than 130 million units. By the end of this year, 115 million households worldwide will have access to a smart speaker with the vast majority of those households concentrated in North America, Western Europe, China, and a handful of developed Asian markets. The US has the highest shipment level of smart speakers followed by China, UK, and Germany. However, Strategy Analytics notes, the fastest growth over the next few years will come from countries in which smart speakers are just becoming available such as Mexico, Brazil, and India - because those are the regions where Amazon Alexa is finally going to be available, speaking Spanish, Portuguese Brazilian, and English (according to the Amazon Alexa developers website, there's an ongoing program to create skills for basic interactions in Hindi and other languages spoken in India, with Alexa currently responding in English).

This provides a clearer idea of what the actual smart speaker market looks like, and the reason why I believe there are more to the figures than the possibilities of voice interactions. When we see reports of overall shipments globally, we often see the simpler "connected speaker" category mixed with actual smart speakers that support a voice assistant. We don't know if that's the case with the Strategy Analytics forecast, or with a few others we have examined. The Smart Speaker category should clearly imply the availability of a voice recognition and assistant engine - after all, that's what diferentiates the consumer's experience - after many previously failed attempts in other products (TVs, appliances) and markets (automotive).

Could this be Amazon's Alexa-enabled true wireless earbuds!? Amazon will more likely be looking at the category for other reasons - more hearing enhancement related.

As Futuresource Consulting recently reported, thanks to the successful smart speaker experience, voice personal assistants, or virtual assistants - whatever you might want to call them - are now expanding and becoming available in television remotes and even TVs (with far-field arrays), soundbars, appliances, cars and headphones and earbuds. 

But there's a category where the same voice assistants that we currently recognize as dominant (Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and SoundHound) were available first, which was computers and smartphones. Even though it seems no one wants to directly associate the popularity of voice interfaces and recognition engines with those devices where they started, the truth is, they have been there for a while - and the reality is people don't use it the way they use smart speakers. In fact, voice engines in smartphones are extremely popular in services like messaging, where they convert our voice to text, and many people use it to have messages and emails read to them while they drive (and they can be used for translation, but that's for another article).

Again, voice engines are used increasingly to assist us in daily routines, mostly when we need to be hands-free. But as important as the possibility of users "speaking" voice commands or actually using them as a voice interface, those engines are used to convert our voice to text for interaction with other humans or having virtual assistants "speak to us." And that is key when we think about the evolution of voice in other product categories.

Recently, Bloomberg (I assume this was the source) reported that "Amazon Is Making a Rival to Apple's AirPods as Its First Alexa Wearable." I find this story interesting but not for the "product announcement" itself - just another example of a sad click-bait title. I find interesting that the story generated such attention - replicated ad nauseam based on supposed statements from "people, who asked not to be identified discussing private work" - for the fact that it mentions "wireless earbuds similar to Apple, Inc.'s AirPods, according to people familiar with the matter."

Amazon already offers everything needed for any manufacturer to implement its Alexa voice assistant - as does Google - in any type of product category, so effectively, any true wireless earbuds can do the same. But let's look at the announcement closer. First is the fact that the story calls AirPods a "wearable." The extremely successful Apple Watch is a wearable. The AirPods are only truly wireless stereo (TWS) earbuds that recently gained the ability to activate Siri on the device they are connected with. And that's not even the main feature in the update.

While Amazon might be working on its own TWS earbuds, competition just heated up with Beats announcing the latest Powerbeats Pro, powered by Apple's H1 improved chip, which no doubt will quickly grab another important share of the market.

As Apple knows, voice assistants are not a big feature on wireless earbuds, including the AirPods, because it is not that useful and it is weird if you speak out loud "Alexa, call mom" in public. Also, because to implement something like Alexa on a tiny device like earbuds, the battery drains much faster since the device must be always listening, at least for the trigger command. After that, the usability of the voice assistant will depend upon a connection to the Internet and the cloud, which means the earbuds would need to be at least 4G-enabled (not practical today) or they must be connected to another device, like a smartphone. Even with an edge solution, voice assistants need eventual connectivity to the cloud, and that needs support from a smartphone, for now.

Amazon doesn't make phones (it sells some cheap Android garbage it buys in China) and it misses a proper operating system, like Apple has. So such a product from Amazon - earbuds with connection to Alexa, like Bloomberg proposes - is not exactly what the story - if we want to believe the rumor - portrays. I suspect this would be more related with sensors and health applications than Alexa.

Of course, Amazon can launch another TWS product and implement access to its voice assistant like any manufacturer, with a connection (that uses Bluetooth) to a smartphone. It can make it cheaper than most other TWS products in the market and sell a lot, while providing a reference design for other companies to follow. That's usually what they do. But the fact is, voice interactions in earbuds are not a "killer app," as Bragi, Apple, Jabra, and many other companies already know. But having the assistant speaking to us, providing instructions while we look for a destination, reminding us about our agenda, motivating us during our daily training in the gym, or reading important notifications, is a potentially interesting use case - and something that I believe we will see increasingly in augmented audio devices, such as earbuds or hearables.

As I stated in my editorial for audioXpress April 2019 - an edition focused on Hearables, True Wireless Stereo, Voice Capture and Recognition - I don't believe it will make much sense to continue having a separate category called smart speakers in the future, once all speakers (and other devices) become "smart. If today we associate Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri to services we need to "call" and ask something, very soon those AI-powered assistants will be talking to us instead. And nowhere will that service be more useful than personal digital assistants "talking to us" on our hearables, and turning into really useful "augmented-hearing" assistants.

There's plenty of companies copying Apple AirPods already, including these TicPods that grabbed over $2.5 million USD on Indiegogo. These are supposed to work with any voice assistant, but that's not why they generated so much interest. It's more about the price.

As Futuresource's Director of Research, Simon Bryant also notes in his commentary to the Bloomberg rumor, this would represent a major concern for all audio vendors since history suggests the Amazon earbuds will be competitively priced. "At the moment True Wireless/Hearables are holding their ASP at around $160. The headphones and technology industry are looking at ways to pack more sensors, processing, security features, battery life boosters, and more, into the small form factors, which should help maintain some price stability," he remarks. But more important, he notes, "This is another example of Amazon further blurring the lines of the relationship with the vendors they sell on their website, as they become a vendor of more hardware, via acquisition (e.g., Ring) or their own devices. Amazon is the largest retailer of headphones worldwide with over 50% of headphones sales in some countries (and so hugely important to Harman, Sony, etc)."

So, maybe competing with their suppliers in this category might not be such a good idea, unless it actually brings something new as a reference design. And that's not probably only related with voice, I suspect .


Book Review
How to Design and Specify Loudspeaker Drivers
Review by Richard Honeycutt
Our longtime columnist Richard Honeycutt shares his insights on Geoff Hill's recently released book, Loudspeaker Modelling and Design: A Practical Introduction, which demonstrates modern software and hardware being applied to the processes behind loudspeaker design and modeling. Learn more about this indispensable work, now available from publisher Routledge/Focal Press. This article was originally published in audioxpress, February 2019 .   Read the Article Now Available Here

Voice  Coil Test Bench
Radian Audio Engineering 475PB 1-Inch Compression Driver  
By Vance Dickason
In this Test Bench, I characterized the 475PB, a 1" compression driver from Radian Audio Engineering. After covering the Radian 745PB 1.4" ferrite motor compression driver in the December 2018 issue of Voice Coil magazine, I will test the second ferrite motor compression driver from Radian. As you might expect, the 475PB has a similar set of features as Radian's 745PB. This includes a 1" throat diameter, a 134 mm × 19 mm ferrite magnet motor, a high-temperature 44.5 mm (1.7") diameter polyimide voice coil former wound with copper-clad aluminum edge-wound ribbon wire voice coil, 50 W AES power handling above 800 Hz (100 W program power handling), a self-aligning field-replaceable diaphragm assembly, a copper shorting ring located in the gap area, and the most important feature-a proprietary processed and hardened aerospace-grade aluminum alloy diaphragm over a three-slit phase plug. Although Radian does not produce horns for its compression drivers, it does measure its compression drivers with Eminence horns, and thus provided an Eminence H 290B 90° × 40° 1.0" exit ABS exponential horn. This article was originally published in Voice Coil, January 2019 .   Check it out here!

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