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Audio trends at CES 2017: how consumer lifestyles shape new music tech products

What drives the design and feature set of new audio hardware? Is it manufacturer-led or is it consumer demand?

Audio has always played a big part at CES over the past 50 years, increasing exponentially as the manner and ways in which we choose to consume our music have grown and diversified. The 2017 show was no exception, with all audio worlds covered across the expansive floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center and in the suites of the Venetian hotel.

At one extreme is the high-end world of five-figure hi-fi separates, where the game is big, expensive numbers befitting products comprised of esoteric, expensive components. These are the aspirational, Holy Grail products, still relevant and important, but ultimately the 1 per cent-ers.

At the other end of the audio spectrum are the products that the rest of us – the 99 per cent – buy and use in our daily lives. We want them tough but beautiful, feature-packed but reasonably priced.

In such a competitive, congested marketplace, where we as consumers demand more features for less money, how do companies decide where to go next? What are the forces shaping new product design?

Going from stand to stand at a show the size of CES, you inevitably start to feel a sense of déjà vu, as certain product feature sets, shapes and sizes start repeating themselves. Is this lazy design, another slew of me-too landfill, or is it the inevitable convergence, a universal standardisation on design essentials, with terms and limits set by consumer demands?

Take, for example, the wireless earbuds segment. With Apple’s decision to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack with the iPhone 7, it was inevitable that a big focus on wireless headphones would follow. Already, a design shorthand for such products has been established: two small wireless earbuds that recharge in their own dedicated slipcase, which is itself rechargeable. This is what the consumer now expects from such a product: ergo, this is what the industry now delivers for such a product. Earin showed just one such iteration at CES with its new M2 earphones.

It makes no economic sense for a company to fly in the face of its own customers’ stated needs and expectations. One could try something radical, be divergent, but you’re likely to end up with a large stockpile of unsold inventory. Your best bet is to follow the prevailing mood of the customer.

As David Yang, spokesman for Jam Audio, put it: “In regards to just wireless speakers in general and the trend, the total market share, number of sales, units, dollar-wise didn’t really increase throughout the whole year. However, internally, we saw a trend. We saw that rugged, waterproof continues to trend positively, eating away at other sections, and that may be just because I think this feature set is becoming a basic, normal feature that everyone just has to adopt.”

This may help to explain Soundcast’s introduction at CES of its new VG1, the smallest, most portable, waterproof and ruggedised Bluetooth speaker in its range. Charity Hardwick, vice president of sales and marketing, explained the trends pushing Soundcast product design: “With the accessibility of technology today, what we’re seeing are people being able to integrate music into all the things they’re doing.

“Now we have small portables, we have medium-sized portables they can take with them, they have their iPhones, they have earphones and they’re constantly having this lifestyle experience, they’re having this soundtrack experience. So that’s kind of where we see things going, we just want to be easier to use, integrate into lifestyle really well and be something you’re not afraid to break.”

Integrating products into its customers’ lives was a sentiment echoed at the B&O Play launch for its new M5 speaker by product manager Helga Somava: “For us, it’s extremely important to be relevant for consumers, deliver the products that fit into their everyday lifestyle and that’s why we follow very closely the trends of how people consume their type of content, either music or video content, and how we can deliver the products that support those use cases.”

What are the audio trends that we, as consumers, are setting these companies?   

“With the recent developments in wireless technologies it’s easier for consumers to get hold of music, to stream music, and music is a very, very important part of everyday life,” Somava suggested. “The consumption increases, it’s easy to stream, the quality is higher and higher, so we try to make products that fit this trend.”

It’s a reflection mirrored by Hardwick: “A lot of people are identifying themselves with music today in a much more prolific way than they used to. We’re spending our whole day integrated with music and in that experience; we need to look at our audio products. How can we make the audio products for users today that are going to best serve their needs, through their entire life? They’re indoors, they’re outdoors, they’re by the pool, and they’re dropping things.”

Changing attitudes from consumers, as we explore and more widely adopt new audio options and hardware configurations, also in turn helps shape new product development, as Somava observed: “The smartphone adoption, the growth in streaming services and the quality of streaming is better than it used to be and that encourages people to use music more in their everyday life. That’s why we expand our portfolio with more and more wireless products that are also meant to be used on the go, not only in the home on Wi-Fi, but also on Bluetooth.

“There are some interesting trends where we see the introduction of Chromecast technology, so the concept of multiroom is becoming easier to understand for consumers and we would like to tap in to it. That’s why we have launched the M5 today.”

Jam’s Yang pointed to another trend, related to Somava’s comments: “What we see, from a wireless speakers perspective – drastic growth – is in the Wi-Fi section. In 2016 we saw a drastic jump, about 35-40 per cent, and we attribute the majority of that success to the Internet of Things, which is driven a lot by Amazon, and it’s Alexa and it’s voice activation at home. We think that going forward for the next couple of years this voice in-home solution is here to stay – or at least the next wave.

“Some of our retailers that carry both Bluetooth speakers and also Wi-Fi saw an internal cannibalisation of business, that people gravitated towards more Wi-Fi and Alexa-enabled products than they did for Bluetooth, so Bluetooth suffered and Wi-Fi grew. We see that trend continuing to build for 2017 and 2018, whether it be Google, whether it be Amazon, that is integrating more and more in-home products, like Hue and Nest, that it becomes your home ecosystem solution, that everything is connected, and that will just continue to snowball into other things.”

In a more enlightened, responsible manufacturing age, there are also other, tangential considerations to make, as Josh Lynne, creative director at House of Marley, said: “We are, at Marley, trying to establish ourselves as a brand that cares about the Earth and what we put in the world. We use a lot of recyclable materials, a lot of bamboo, a fabric wrap called Rewind that’s made of recycled PET, organic cotton and organic hemp.

“What we see in trends moving forward in the coming years is, I believe, other brands, as well as ours, being a bit more conscious about what we’re producing. There’s a lot of injected plastic going on and I think people just need to start being a bit more conscious with what products they’re making.

“Our development process is pretty limited, between the materials that we use and the process with which we make it. You’ve got to balance everything out with the cost of creating it and what you’re going to sell it for and how long it hits the market.”

One of House of Marley’s new products at CES was the Stir It Up turntable, the company’s first vinyl turntable – a definite response to an ongoing customer trend.

“We see a huge trend in turntables,” Lynne said, “especially from the UK. I heard that records are at a 25-year high. Records are beating MP3s at this point because streaming has taken over MP3s, so records are like the second source of music, so turntables is a great category to be in and this is our first one, so we’re very proud of it. Again, bamboo, recycled aluminium, stainless steel.”

However we choose to listen to our music, whether it’s a vinyl record or a digital stream played on multiple connected speakers all over the house, Hardwick probably nails the one unfailing consumer demand: “People suffered through years of compressed audio, people suffered through years of lacklustre technology and people are really starting to go, ‘If I’m listening to music all day long, I want to listen to good music!’.”

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