man floating in a pool wearing headphones

Spatial leading the way as audio enters new worlds

Image credit: Dreamstime

Increased demand for high-definition, spatial and immersive audio, coupled with greater personalisation, were identified as the leading future trends for the audio industry at a gathering of industry experts in London.

Speaking at this year’s Audio Collaborative conference, an annual event organised by data analytics company Futuresource Consulting, presenters and panellists throughout the day discussed the key issues around the future of audio for both the industry and the consumer.

Delivering the conference keynote speech, Carsten Olesen, president of Harman, said that “audio is critical for immersion and believability in virtual spaces”, noting that there were 76 million Fortnite viewers globally for an Ariana Grande virtual gig in 2021, with that figure only representing 20 per cent of active users. “It’s too big to ignore, from an industry perspective,” Olesen added.

Virtual worlds such as Fortnite, Roblox and the Metaverse all need immersive audio to deliver an optimal experience. Music fans engaging with their favourite artists want better audio, as do regular users interacting within the worlds. This is driving the surging demand for spatial audio – the ability to precisely position sounds within a 360° soundscape – with high-definition audio and music also set to play "a very significant role" accordingly.

Olesen said Harman is focusing on the ability to deliver “higher and higher density of content to the listeners' devices”, with an increasing number of consumers asking for HD audio. Further refinement to the quality of audio delivery has come thanks to increased processing power and bandwidth – “better modems in the home; better bandwidth to those modems” – and “that mechanism drives the response to high-definition audio”.

Commenting on the Metaverse, Olesen said: “The video piece without the audio means very little,” going on to suggest that, "this is going to unfold over many years; the next 50 years.”

Harman believes any Metaverse success will come from spatial audio, driven by data and AI algorithms constantly processing and feeding information back to your ears: “Spatial audio will be key moving forward,” he said.

“Over the next 5, 6, 7, 8 years we’ll see a continuing drive of internet in the audio industry. We see audio develop in so many areas,” he added, pointing to the proliferation of audio in an increasingly broad ecosystem of connected products, with audio features now present in such standard household objects as fridges, furniture, shower heads and light bulbs.

Audio, Olesen said, is “atomising and penetrating into new areas where it wasn’t before”.

Commenting on the surge in demand for spatial audio, and the holistic uptick in expectations regarding audio quality from consumers, Helmuts Bems, CEO of Sonarworks, said: “Right now, we're seeing an acceleration of these trends. In two to three years, the industry will be in a totally different place. Pandemic put the pedal to the metal. In the upcoming three years, we’ll really see it playing out with all the changes.”

Sonarworks' own research, Bems said, clearly indicated “more demand for spatial than for lossless” from consumers, noting that while both audio features can co-exist, the mainstream demand is there for spatial more than for lossless.

The problem, as Bems sees it, is one of delivering it to consumers, who don’t typically have amazing recording-studio-quality speaker systems at home or in their ears.

“With spatial, you can make a mess just with two speakers," Bems said. "You can make a really big mess with 20 speakers!”

He also noted the current small pool of spatial content for consumers to explore, which may inhibit greater take-up: approximately 10,000 tracks, versus the 10 million or so non-spatial tracks available on the major streaming platforms.

According to Olesen, the home audio market will be worth an estimated $50bn by 2026, in a segment including headphones, smart speakers, soundbars, TVs, computers and more. "Music shapes our world view, changes our perception," he said, pointing to future behaviours where audio delivery could respond to a listener's emotional needs, via AI and data analytics. 

“Sound in that form becomes much more than a companion,” proactively adapting to your needs, he added. 

In a panel session discussing the 'next big thing' in home audio, Sarah Yule, marketing director at consumer-technology audio company KEF, noted how the “lines are blurring between different types of consumer” and that “we’re in an audio-first world now”, citing the importance of audio to social media sites such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

“Audio has always been a shared experience since the dawn of time, it was always about communication,” Yule added, describing how many consumers today are interested in more than just one or two areas of entertainment. People often enjoy and participate in a range of audio-related activities, such as gaming, music consumption, music production, home cinema, social media content and more. 

Yule pointed to the importance of "high-fidelity audio" in making “the whole experience so tangible”, with it now being the job of the audio industry to reach and educate consumers in order to move the likes of HD, spatial, lossless and Dolby Atmos forward.

Speaking as part of the same panel debate, Julien Bergere, global portfolio planning director at Bang & Olufsen, highlighted the tricky balance necessary for companies to find between introducing advances in AI and data analytics, for greater audio personalisation, and ensuring it becomes “not something creepy, trying to understand the situation. If it’s too manual, then you’re becoming a nuisance to the user and disrupting the flow. It’s a fine line.”

Other audio topics discussed at the conference included the ongoing limitations of Bluetooth, notably the latency issues, which is why true wireless earbuds and headphones still can't replace wired headphones in mission-critical audio work in recording studios and post-production facilities. Even with latency as low as 5ms, professional musicians, DJs and studio producers feel that difference in timing and audio delivery. 

While statistics shared at the conference showed that the wired headphones segment overall is shrinking, the professional recording space remains a solid niche which is actually growing, as more people engage in content creation activities – including for social media.

There are also known limitations to the processing power currently available on Bluetooth chipsets, meaning that product developers aren't able to do some of the things that they'd like to because the power simply isn’t there.

Ultra wide band (UWB) has been proposed as one answer to this bottleneck, but Bluetooth would likely still be necessary to do some of the ‘handshaking’ between devices. Panellists at the conference also agreed that while UWB might be an answer to many of the issues around Bluetooth, it’s unlikely to become a standard in the way Bluetooth has, so broad uptake – and a coherent implementation – remains unknown.

Bluetooth remains a strong technology for audio companies, with Futuresource's analysis of year on year data showing that true wireless earbuds and, to a lesser degree, TV soundbars saw major growth in consumer product sales over the last 12-24 months. 

The pandemic had a seismic effect on the uptake of TV soundbars, with people worldwide confined to their homes during the lockdowns choosing to upgrade their home entertainment equipment. This, in turn, served to help educate consumers about the aural and emotional benefits of listening to better-quality audio, which is consequently causing a ripple effect in the uptake of better-quality products. The cheapest, lowest end of the wireless earbuds market, for example, has lost significant market share, according to the Futuresource data, while the more expensive segment has increased its share, with consumers opting more for quality over price.

Inevitably, the question of sustainability hangs heavily over the audio industry, both in terms of manufacture and production of hardware and also in the consumption streaming media, both audio and video. 

Olesen noted that the audio industry has to become sustainable to continue innovation and that “the environmental challenge is universal”. The audio industry “must play a key role” in the net-zero ambition, he said. This currently equates to more eco packaging, greater use of recycled plastic, cardboard and vinyl, and a move away from unsustainable packaging and production.

He added: “The target for the audio industry must be to be carbon neutral by 2040. We can’t realistically go faster than that. Bold actions must be put in place now. Most factories are baking in sustainability in their products now.” 

Althea Ricketts, associate vice president corporate initiatives at Shure, spoke about the challenge of optimising – "not maximising" – the balance between the triple axis of "people, planet and profit".

On the topic of sustainability across the entire industry, Dom Robinson, co-founder of 'Greening of Streaming', highlighted a number of serious energy consumption issues surrounding the streaming industry.

Greening of Streaming acts as an industry member organisation to collectively address growing concerns around the energy impact of the streaming sector. It includes Intel and AMD among its members, with major streaming platforms anticipated to also join soon.

The delivery of more content, at larger file sizes – as necessitated by, for example, the increasing demand for high-definition spatial audio in the Metaverse, or streaming HD audio and video by millions of consumers – has a hugely detrimental effect on power consumption and energy use, with the monthly energy bills of streaming sites already in the region of tens of millions of dollars.

Streaming, in fact, potentially already has a carbon footprint greater than that of the aviation industry. The balance between consumer demand for more content, in higher resolution, and the resulting environmental impact, will be a thorny issue for the audio industry to resolve.

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