Entering the decade of sound

Last week, I attended Futuresource Consulting’s Audio Collaborative event, a conference focused around audio in both the residential and commercial world.

A series of presentations and panel discussions ran throughout the day looking at different topics while several companies had stands set up outside of the seminar hall in the style of a small exhibition. 

A highlight for me was the opening keynote titled ‘The Future of Listening’ from Carsten Oleson, president of consumer division at HARMAN who introduced the idea that we are entering ‘the decade of sound’. 

Through recent research and a joint study between HARMAN and Futuresource, Oleson noted that media consumption is changing. Video is becoming a secondary source to audio and Oleson explains some of the key findings from the study that shows what he calls is the “emerging sonic revolution”.

Interestingly, Oleson states: “According to recent studies conducted by Spotify among millennials and Generation C, 51% said they believe there is too much visual stimulation and they think audio offers a great escape.” 

“Thanks to 3D technology and immersive audio technologies, beam forming and beam steering, the sound will accompany us like a halo and open up new virtual spaces for the listener.”

He continues: “Acoustic formats and experiences are on the rise with the likes of podcasts, audio books, music streaming, even records are back. And a big driver of this, connected speakers. We are more surrounded by sound than ever before.”

According to Oleson, in the US, smart speaker ownership is currently the fastest growing tech sector with around one third of households having a smart speaker. 

“A profound shift is happening right now,” explains Oleson. “After a decade dominated by visual media and culture, sound will take centre stage and people, companies and institutions will increasingly approach the world through a sound-first mindset.”

The study conducted between HARMAN and Futuresource talked to 8,000 people over six countries about their view of the future of listening. Oleson explains that three themes emerged from this research.

Sound unleashed

The first of the three themes that have emerged is the idea of ‘sound unleashed’. Going back to radio days, audio sources were always fixed to a single location in the home, limiting the audio experience. Today however, sound has literally been unleashed using wireless technology. Oleson points out: “Our sound experience has not just become mobile, it has become independent of a dedicated device, allowing it to follow us wherever we go.” Additionally, streaming means it is no longer tied to a physical medium. 

However, the research conducted has implied that audio will become even more immersive in the decade of sound. Artificial intelligence will play a big role in this space, allowing music to combine with virtual spaces for an entirely new experience. 

Oleson adds: “The best way to describe it is that listeners used to sit in front of the sound source. But in the future, they want to be in the middle of the sound, immersed. Thanks to 3D technology and immersive audio technologies, beam forming and beam steering, the sound will accompany us like a halo and open up new virtual spaces for the listener.”

Audio Collaborative 1
Credit: HARMAN

Personal sound
The second theme identified is ‘personal sound’ where AI will again have a role. Currently, technology gives us the opportunity to customise the sound experience to listen how and when we want. The research conducted supports this claim: “Our study clearly shows evidence of this desire for personalised experiences,” Oleson agrees. “The vast majority of people believe that listening is different for each person and therefore, it’s important to be able to personalise the music according to one’s own tastes or hearing capabilities.”

Three quarters of the respondents in the study conducted are interested in having an all in one solution that can remember and adjust their listening preferences according to different environments. As Oleson explains: “There’s great interest in using AI application to personalise music styles. Six in 10 people find the concept of personalising or manipulating music tracks attractive.”

This is something we are beginning to see taking shape. Recent announcements at IFA and the last CES underline the demand for personalisation with many major audio manufacturers introducing new products and technologies that they are working on that supports this trend, including HARMAN. 

Sound + data

The third and final theme emerging also involves AI, the convergence of sound and data. This means music composed entirely by AI. Not something I am particularly keen on personally, but something we still need to discuss. 

The trend isn’t entirely new but with AI, it is about to take completely new dimensions. Most consumers do not believe that music created by computers can replace the human composer yet. However, according to Oleson: “Computer generated music is seen as one day becoming a viable alternative to music produced by human artists.” This is already happening in the gaming music industry. 

Audio Collaborative 2
Credit: HARMAN 

Going forward
Regardless of these emerging trends taking us into the future of sound, one thing is for sure: quality is key. Oleson points out: “Rapid advancements in visual quality have taught us to expect flawless, life-like media experiences. But during the decade of sound, audio quality becomes even more of a focus for the listener.”

These findings tells us a lot about how the consumer listens to audio and how it could change in the future, meaning audio manufacturers must take note of these changing times. Currently, listeners prioritise greater sound quality, noise-cancellation features, and battery life/size. But moving into the next decade these will change to having more 3D or immersive sound, voice user interfaces, and smart audio devices. 

The ‘decade of sound’ already promises big changes in the industry and to the way we consume audio. Speaker manufacturers now have the opportunity to prepare for this new evolution and be future ready when it comes to home speakers. 

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