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Accelerated audio trends

What kind of audio market is set to emerge after the pandemic? Well, according to Geir Skaaden, Chief Products and Services Officer, Xperi, “It's been the kind of shock that seeds innovation and shapes industries."

“Over the past twelve months there has been an opening up of consumer expectations with more people, for example, embracing e-commerce. With people having to spend increased amounts of time at home, how they spend their entertainment budgets has changed radically. The big question for the industry is, are these changes temporary or permanent when it comes to how consumers engage with audio experiences?”

Skaarden suggested that with people spending more time at home so more content was being consumed and that, as a consequence, consumers were looking for a different type of experience that was not available to them elsewhere.

“I think post pandemic we’ll see a continuation in this trend, with consumers spending more on TVs and on audio technology. We are seeing new demand patterns emerging as consumers look to invest in equipment for other rooms, beyond the traditional living/sitting room. They want excellent audio quality anywhere they consumer content.

“They’re expecting far more from their technology. There’s always a desire for a ‘better experience’, immersive technologies is a good example of that, but there is also a risk that with greater choice and more offerings consumers will have to navigate a more chaotic audio market.”

Voice will remain a key driver in how people engage with content, said Skaarden, whether in the home, in the car or on the move.

“Today’s experiences will stick, as we move into 2021. New content is being driven by a demand for more offerings and this will encourage further advances in smart speakers, artificial intelligence and technologies that will make it easier to engage with new forms of content –whether that’s broadcasting on demand, new models of engagement or the better curating of content.”

“I think that’s a cause for optimism; better access to content is essential for consumers and I think there will be ample opportunity to adapt and change to meet new demands, with interesting opportunities for new products.”

One market that has seen dramatic changes is headphones, which has experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade and, as a result, have become one of the fastest-selling personal electronic devices on the market.

According to Futuresource research analyst Luke Pearce, “Covid-19 has accelerated their adoption due to the increase in remote working, the growth of gaming and further potential in use cases, such as health and hearing augmentation.”

In a panel discussion chaired by Pearce, Stuart George, Managing Director at Cambridge Audio said that headphones were no longer simply being used for work purposes but increasingly for leisure and relaxation.

“Today, people have chosen to use audio as a place to find private space and personal isolation. In many ways, seeking solace to escape the stress and strains of Covid-19 has been a key reason to utilise headphones within the home environment.”

Bernice Cramer, Director of Product Management and Global Marketing at Bose, added that headphones were no longer simply about passive listening alone but were now being used for multi-tasking.

As we’ve got use to juggling remote working with other personal commitments and family time, Cramer argued that Covid-19 had accelerated the need to move between different spaces and that, “headphone devices are now being used as an interface with the world.”

Tim Johnston, Vice President of Engineering at Starkey Hearing warned that while headsets and headphones were providing a broad range of innovative solutions for improving communication and providing a form of escapism, the fact was that with so many people now being exposed to more sound than ever before, with total exposure over one day since lockdown having increased phenomenally, there was a growing risk to hearing health.

He made the point that, “A growing number of young people are now experiencing hearing loss through sound exposure. We also have to consider the fact that with more people living longer lives so they will be living with hearing loss for longer.”

Multiple-product ownership

George made the point that the headphones market and the rate of innovation for new products is helping to fuel an addictive need, among consumers, for premium audio quality.

While consumer preferences for audio devices will certainly differ, the panel agreed that we would be seeing an overlap between what consumers are seeking with headphones products and what is requested from the hearing aid market.

According to Chris Havell, Senior Director of Product Marketing, Voice & Music at Qualcomm Technologies, “While we will see multiple-product ownership, there are very significant differences between certain use cases and therefore where a product has its focus. Our requirements will certainly differ for work purposes, for fitness and for entertainment – so I don’t think we will see an over-arching dominant technology.”

Cramer added that, “the single most reliable predicter about whether consumers will buy a pair of premium headphones, is whether they already own another pair of premium headphones.”

According to Cramer, people remain interested in custom-built devices for many different activities and we will not be looking at a ‘one-size fits all’ solution.

“Sound quality is a universal requirement,” commented George. “First and foremost, it’s purely about the listening experience and the ability to listen to music in better quality.”

However, as all headphones products are becoming more specialised, there was agreement that audio quality, by itself, would no longer be sufficient.

Microphone quality will also be crucial. The implementation of AI allowing users to distinguish voices from background noise was seen as being particularly important given the amount of time spent attending virtual meetings remotely.

“Situational hearing enhancement will be invaluable,” added Cramer, “and hearing enhancement is likely to become wrapped up in the audio quality of devices.”

Looking to the future of audio Havell said that there were still numerous improvements to be made.

He pointed to immersive audio quality, microphone audio quality and protecting users’ health as all being of importance.

In addition to this, consumers were now gaming and watching movies more using headsets, so along with audio quality these devices need to provide low latency.

Havell added that it would be essential for the industry to start implementing these features, moving forward, into standard headphone products for consumers.

“With multiple product ownership likely, it will be about delivering a particular product for a specific purpose. Working from home will be about good communications, blocking out background noise to deliver a more professional experience; while with sport applications I doubt users will be worried about the quality of a call, but rather of the audio experience.”

Future trends

Over the next decade audio demand is expected to increase substantially and there is likely to be a requirement for more personalised audio, along with more voice control.

Users will expect the audio experience to be seamless and transferable, so they will be able to move from the office, to their car and to the home with no drop off in the quality.

The need for more personalised audio will be achievable because of more intelligence being available, so it will be possible to create better individual audio experiences, although that may require users to give up some degree of privacy.

Immersive technologies will also require significant advances in audio technology as the need for generative sound systems for virtual objects, meeting the need to not only ‘feel’ and ‘believe’ in virtual objects but create the sounds that are associated with objects in order to believe in them, will be required.

Audio continues to matter and in this space it’s no longer simply about delivering an experience that is ‘just good enough’.

  • This feature is, in part, based on a roundtable discussion hosted by FutureSource at its Audio Collaborative event held at the end of 2020

Author
Neil Tyler

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