The next big thing in home audio

Amy Stoneham looks at some of the topics discussed in a recent panel discussion about the next big thing in home audio.

Back in November last year, I attended the annual Futuresource Consulting Audio Collaborative event, the first to be held in-person since 2019 due to the pandemic. With a mix of interesting panel discussions and presentations throughout the day dialling into subtopics around audio, one discussion that really stood out to me was ‘The Next Big Thing: Home Audio’.

Chaired by Guy Hammet, a senior market analyst at Futuresource Consulting, the panel consisted of Sarah Yule, marketing director at KEF, Rob France, head of global content engineering at Dolby, Marcos Simón, CTO at Audioscenic, and Julien Bergere, global portfolio planning director at Bang & Olufsen.

The topic itself is a broad one with the discussion taking many paths, but there were some themes that the conversation kept circling back to: spatial audio, consumer experiences and improving audio quality.

Hi-fi set up at home. JRP Studio / Shutterstock

“It really does feel like we’re in an audio first world at the moment,” says Yule. “You see that change happening not just through the rise of the creator, but also the fact that even social media channels like Instagram that were so visually led are now so reliant on sound, and the way music is so important to TikTok, we can see it culturally being important.”

She continues: “Technology companies are helping to drive consumer habit, change and demand around better quality audio. There has always been the argument in the past of whether the general consumer really understands what ‘better’ quality audio is. I think they do now, and I think they are demanding that more and more. For me, the future is really about harnessing and enabling more people to access high fidelity audio. Even if people can’t necessarily say the difference, I think they start to hear it and it starts to bring recordings, sounds and music to life in new ways and helps people to experience it in new ways.”

Experiences & education

Yule suggests that in order to really grow consumer and home audio, the industry needs to focus on making high fidelity audio more accessible and allowing consumers to experience it for themselves.

“The key is to experience it,” Bergere agrees. “That’s why I believe it’s part of our responsibility as an industry to realise the importance of having good quality, physical retail spaces to experience this new audio quality and new experiences. People need to understand that next generation audio is immersive, adaptive, interactive, and should discover those experiences of the future in a setting that will be a lot more effective than a YouTube video. We are used to saying that a picture is worth 1,000 words, well a real demo and experiencing it yourself is worth 1,000 YouTube videos, one could argue.”

Audio in gaming is an area we have seen a lot of growth in and this is projected to continue. Arsenii Palivoda / Shutterstock 

Retail environments are ideal for the everyday consumer, but the space should be suitable to give a realistic and good experience, something that isn’t always possible in retail environments. Dedicated showrooms, which are more popular in the high-end, luxury markets, are better suited. But ultimately, educating consumers as to how audio can sound and what experiences they can give is key.

“I think gaming consoles are going to become a much more important component of home audio in the years to come.”

“We think it’s a crucial part for consumers overall to understand why a good audio experience is better,” suggests France. “We are very lucky at Dolby as for many years, people often hear our technologies in the cinema, which is a great environment to get that experience. But as we look into more of the new world, retail is often not a great place to do audio, particularly when we look at things like wireless headphones and that type of thing, you typically can’t demo them very well. When you’re listening to a soundbar in an electronics shop for example, it’s really difficult to compare one to another. So, we want to make sure we are communicating a lot better in educating and demos.”

Obviously over the last few years, demonstrations of good quality audio and audio experiences have been difficult due to the pandemic.

“Ironically at KEF, one of our taglines is ‘listen and believe’,” explains Yule. “That has been incredibly challenging to live up to in the last couple of years where people didn’t have the opportunity to come and listen. But ‘listen and believe’ is all about that moment where you see the smile on someone’s face and you see the hairs stand up on the backs or their arms where they feel the emotion of listening to the music. It is an ongoing challenge and not every retail environment is ideal. Although we do still have places where you can do a good demo and have those experiences, it’s not the norm and it’s not the same in every location. We are constantly trying to think of ways to be able to engage with people and give them those experiences, and I think micro events are key.”

Personal listening experiences are also developing. Stokkete / Shutterstock

But it’s not all about educating the consumer; it is also important that audio engineers and manufacturers educate themselves around different solutions. Yule adds: “There’s so much technology around which helps to achieve this, but there’s also good old engineering. Some of the things we have done for in-car audio comes back to acoustics design and physics rather than using any chips or ICs in the way that we’ve arranged things. You’re getting less design choice now in terms of where speakers are placed inside cars, but we saw that as a challenge to redesign how the speaker driver works in order to get immersive audio when you can’t necessarily have ideal placement. Some of that thinking is also helping us to think about how we can bring those ‘listen and believe’ moments alive in other areas. Although we are always talking audio first, we are looking at how we can use visual clues as well to help bring things to life. We are really looking now at our digital footprint as well as our website and how we can represent high fidelity audio in a visual manner to be able to reach more people. But it’s an ongoing thing and I think as an industry, it’s probably in all of our best interests to keep that education going through every path that we can.”

The pandemic has also highlighted bad audio experiences, through video calls with family as well as business calls, and also broadcasting with people not having professional microphones or not having the microphone as close to them as it should be. It could be argued that these bad experiences are now driving consumers to want better audio experiences.

“Those bad audio experiences are actually key to the education process,” adds Yule. “There’s so many more millions of people around the world that are now very aware of audio and the importance of audio quality because of those challenging experiences we have all had over the last few years with video conferencing and I think that is all part of the process. We’ve seen over the last couple of years people being at home and really valuing those special moments at home with family and entertainment and getting a balance on their life again, combined with big tech companies pushing new technologies from TIDAL, Apple, Amazon and others. Like high quality streaming, all these things combined are just helping to go into this melting pot of the education that we really need and crave as an industry that audio is really important. So I think those bad experiences are just as important as those special and magical ones that we’ve had.”

Apple is driving spatial audio through the release of its AirPods. Masarik / Shutterstock

Spatial audio

Another recurring theme that came up in the conversation about the future of home audio was spatial and immersive audio. In the high-end, luxury market, spatial audio is very important, particularly in home cinemas and media rooms to help immerse the viewer into the content they are viewing. Now, even in the middle and lower ends of the market, consumers are looking for these developments in their audio. Many manufacturers are introducing spatial audio into their products, such as soundbars, to improve the general user experience.

Apple is driving spatial audio thanks to the release of its AirPods and how easy they are for a consumer to use, as Simón analyses: “We have all been trying to push spatial audio for many years, but Apple has taken it and put it into earphones and made spatial audio a thing. Why? Because you take the AirPods, you put them in your ears, and they are working. That’s very powerful for consumers because it works straight out of the box. All of us are talking about technology providers for home audio systems needing to work towards providing great user experiences, but if we really want to bring immersive audio to the table, it has to be through technology that works straight out of the box and improves the consumer’s experience.”

“I think those bad experiences are just as important as those special and magical ones that we’ve had.”

As mentioned before, many out of the box speakers are introducing immersive and spatial audio technology, but there is still a long way to go.

Audio in gaming is reversing trends by becoming more communal rather than personal thanks to things like concerts in the Metaverse and Fortnite. PopTika / Shutterstock

France points out: “It’s very critical that we talk about spatial audio and certainly, many of us have talked about immersive audio for many years. But there’s still a lot to do in getting the industry as a whole to implement it. Figures show that by 2026, over half of all soundbars will have an immersive audio system, which is great but it’s still three years away, and there’s still a long way to go even beyond that. I think there’s a lot of work to do in some of these things that we’ve been talking about for a number of years.”

In 2015, Audioscenic’s founders looked at the sales of surround sound systems in the home and found that just 2% of consumers have them. Simón adds: “We consume spatial audio in two ways: through wearables such as headphones, or through a physical surround sound set up. But very few people buy a surround sound system. They are usually enthusiasts because the systems are not practical. So, part of founding Audioscenic was to build a technology that would help bring this experience to more consumers but in a practical way that would give them an out of the box solution to having spatial and immersive audio in their homes.”

Convenience is key to the growth of home audio and its development, as Bergere recognises: “Convenience has limited the success so far of technologies like voice control, where the product doesn’t necessarily behave in a way that you expect. It may not be the product, it may just be the technology behind it, but then the consumer is unhappy and frustrated with the experience and even blames the product which is not good if it’s yours. Products have to work, it’s true convenience. You also don’t want to scare away the younger generation by telling them they need five, seven, even 12 speakers in order to enjoy the new dimensions of audio. The scalability of the system, being able to demonstrate it even with one speaker, you get something that is really thrilling as an experience and emphasises what headphones and earphones can’t deliver, the physical sensation. We are even seeing spatial audio in the Metaverse, and if you’re in that environment, why not have the Metaverse playing on several speakers in the room and knowing where you are in 3D. These kinds of things would be truly exciting for the younger generation, but only if they are executed well.”

Kzenon / Shutterstock

Audio in different forms

It’s easy, especially in our industry, to think of home audio as music listening and home cinema, but this isn’t the case anymore. As Hammet says: “At Futuresource, we are seeing an increasing significance that the audio industry as a whole is understanding and appreciating the growth in importance of other forms of audio listening, such as gaming, automotive, podcasts, etc.”

With audio moving beyond just music and home cinema, audio specialists need to think differently when designing audio products and services for the home as the trends change.

“Many of us have been saying for a while that the lines are blurring between different types of consumer,” says Yule. “I think especially now, we are seeing trends and forecasts that suggest audio is going to continue to grow, that price points are going up, people are being more thoughtful. You could also argue that people are expecting products which are central to their life. Just because I’m a music lover, that doesn’t mean I’m not a gamer, or I don’t work from home, or any of these other things. Maybe I even do some of my own recording and production at home. So the lines between these different types of consumers are much more blurred and I think people are looking for things which can fit into their life.

“These kinds of things would be truly exciting for the younger generation, but only if they are executed well.”

“I think manufacturers have to be thinking about all these types of things now, such as connectivity, even if that’s in its most basic form of I/O and compatibility, or even thinking beyond that to having multiroom audio that is all connected and app control and an easy process and great onboarding. As a brand, we celebrated 60 years last year, but we’re constantly trying to reinvent ourselves and look at new technologies and new areas to engage and interact. Talking of the Metaverse, we launched our first NFT in September and are growing our Discord community which we know is a 1,000 steps away from our traditional audiophile audience, but we are really encouraged by how active that audience has been and how much of a great response we’ve had to those sorts of projects.”

Various forms of home audio also feed into personalisation and how different generations and residents of a home will want to consume their audio in numerous ways, something manufacturers and specialists also need to be thinking about in this new generation of audio.

“Audio experiences in gaming is rapidly changing,” highlights France. “Gaming engines and the creation of gaming has always been 3D for many years and Dolby has done a lot of work, particularly with Microsoft on Xbox and Windows in enabling Dolby Atmos to access that experience. I think we are going to see a lot more immersive audio for gaming going forward. But to touch on the topic of personalisation versus communal, things are getting more personal, such as dialogue control so you can adjust those levels, or if you want headphones that are more tuned to your own listening environment. Gaming is one of those interesting ones that has always been hyper personal because whatever you do interacts with the experience you get, but it’s now going the other way. It’s getting more communal with things such as concerts in the Metaverse or in Fortnite. What used to be a very personal experience is now going the other way, compared to all the other trends that we have in a lot of audio where it’s getting much more personal.”

Simón argues that gaming consoles can be a part of home audio. “We can say that consoles are a part of home audio as the latest generation of consoles, like Xbox and PlayStation 5, have dedicated chips in them just for the audio and spatial audio,” he says. “We are now using that to allow more interactive experiences like the concerts in Fortnite, which is something that was never possible before but is now thanks to gaming consoles. I think gaming consoles are going to become a much more important component of home audio in the years to come.”

Main image: LDprod / Shutterstock

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