Audio and Voice Megatrends, Thinking about the Future. Part 1, The Previous 5 Years (or so)

by | Friday 22nd December 2017

Megatrends To Date

In the last 5 years & more there have been a number of high level trends that have transformed the audio and voice market. These have been well documented in various SAR studies and can be summed up roughly as follows, in no particular order:

  • Wireless Audio Streaming
  • Digital Downloads and Streaming
  • High resolution audio
  • Digital assistants
  • MEMS Microphones

All of these have been instrumental in the development of the audio and voice technology market, all of them continue to develop and can be seen as the building blocks for the next 5 years of innovation. Below is a snapshot of each trend.

Wireless Audio Streaming

Since the creation of Bluetooth, wireless audio streaming has gradually been gaining momentum and today is a common technology for many consumers. That is not to say that Bluetooth has been the only horse in the race, proprietary solutions have also been widely used but none of these have had the same wide spread use, especially as the smartphone has become ubiquitous. According to SARs latest estimates >3 billion Bluetooth audio enabled devices shipped in 2017.

While growth of the market for Bluetooth audio enabled devices has been relatively stable since 2010, the use of Wi-Fi as an audio streaming technology has been explosive. With the inclusion of Wi-Fi streaming technologies such as Apple Airplay and Google Cast into an increasing range of devices audio streaming via Wi-Fi has become almost as common as Bluetooth audio streaming today.

Although usually used in different ways, Bluetooth as a peer to peer streaming technology and Wi-Fi as a WAN technology (were initiation is often made via a mobile device but then continued direct to the device e.g. a smart speaker), each technology has now become a normal part of life.

Bluetooth remains the technology of choice for battery powered devices such as headphones and speakers due to its superior efficiency, CODECs such as AptX have also improved audio quality significantly. Wi-Fi has quickly become the main audio streaming technology in the home, due largely to its networking ability and it’s superior bandwidth.

Digital Downloads and Streaming, And a Vinyl Revival

Are Music Downloads a Thing of the Past? Looking back to the turn of the 21st century, we saw the introduction and growth of MP3 players/portable audio players as a main source of audio consumption for many consumers, with it saw a massive increase in digital downloads of music. Consumers became increasingly happy to download compressed audio files to a portable device, with the tradeoff of lower quality audio in exchange for carrying around their entire music collection in their pocket.

As time went on the audio storage device of choice has moved from dedicated media players to multi-purpose devices such as tablets and, more importantly, smartphones. This combined with vastly improved download speeds through the role out of fast broadband and 4G has more recently enabled and promoted the ability to stream audio content rather than downloading. Making it now possible to carry an almost infinite music library in your pocket (albeit the actual file now residing in the cloud rather than on your device).

According to the RIAA, streaming grew to be the largest revenue earner accounting for 34.3% of total revenues in 2015, and it has continued to increase share. At the same time that streaming has become the dominant way in which we consume music, physical media (at least vinyl) has started to make a comeback too.

Events such as Record Store Day have helped to re-acquaint a growing number of people with vinyl records, many listening to an album on a streaming service before purchasing a record. At the same time, research suggest that younger people, those born in a “post vinyl world” are also increasing purchasing records for their aesthetic value. In the UK, the BPI announced that 2016 was also the first year that spending on vinyl outstripped that spent on digital downloads.

High Resolution Audio

Until recently, the music industry as a whole has been slow to embrace High Resolution Audio (HRA).  The linkup between the Consumer Electronics Association, The Digital Entertainment Group, Japan Audio Society and major music labels, such as Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group in 2014 to define and promote high resolution audio formats through formal definitions for master quality sources, was a major step forward.

There is a strong incentive for the music industry to drive consumer awareness and, therefore, increase interest in HRA music as this can be used to help increase prices for a premium product (such as HRA downloads), and help to drive premium streaming services. Each has the potential to increase margins for the music industry.

Relentless technological advances have seen storage media capacity continue to increase rapidly as price per GB falls, while broadband/cellular speed and coverage has increased supporting higher bandwidth and faster download speeds; paving the way for higher resolution audio. There is a continued drive towards improving audio source material, the technologies used to access it, and equipment used to play it.

There are still hurdles to overcome, there are a number of barriers to market for example, consumers, particularly younger people, have become increasingly accustomed to or have grown up only listening to compressed audio. This is perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome for the music industry as a whole if it is to drive HRA to the mass market. It is not insurmountable but will require a big push by all parties.

In its 2015 study on HRA, SAR Insight predicted that ‘lossless’ streaming subscriptions are expected to account for almost 25% of all music subscriptions by 2020. This is becoming a reality as services such as Tidal and Deezer Elite grow in popularity and other services such as Spotify expected to follow suit in 2018. As the streaming industry moves towards “lossless” or “CD-quality” sources it is expected that a move towards higher resolution will happen over time.

Digital Assistants

Digital assistants have become the latest software trend in creating an interactive voice UI experience with connected devices.  While voice recognition has been in existence for over 10 years within the automotive sector, the voice software was lacking in reliability and caused numerous response errors for drivers.  Over the years, with the advancements in artificial intelligence, improvements have been made in the accuracy rate, helping to build more confidence in the technology starting with smartphones in 2011 and speakers in 2014.  Back in 2011, the iPhone 4S was the first modern smartphone that came equipped with virtual assistant Siri as a main feature on the phone and in 2014, Amazon launched their first smart speaker (Amazon Echo) integrated with Alexia, their proprietary voice assistant platform.  This sparked the evolution of digital assistant technology and the emergence of voice-enabled smart speakers.

Today, digital assistants may be integrated into many types of platforms and devices and have become instrumental in the revitalization of the smart IoT market.  As consumer confidence in voice UI continues to grow, digital assistants will become a critical ingredient technology for consumers worldwide.  According to SAR, 2.2 billion digital assistant-enabled devices will ship in 2017, increasing to 3.6 billion by 2022.   Digital assistants use natural language processing to assess voice input and implement specific commands and continue to develop learned skills through artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to advance the user experience.  Digital assistants have become a critical component in delivering a wide variety of input and output voice services including search capabilities, email/text communication, streaming music and many other infotainment/entertainment product offerings.

As a result of the voice UI momentum, there are numerous digital assistant platforms now competing for market share including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, Samsung Bixby and many others all vying to become the new operating systems for smart homes, mobile, connected cars and enterprise solutions.   While the focus has recently been on the growth of voice-controlled smart speakers, such as Amazon Echo, and Google Home, many other industries are leveraging their connectivity and integrating voice features into their devices in the home, on mobile devices and in the car.   Voice technology systems are now being implemented in connected speakers, televisions, personal computers, smartphones, tablets, appliances, automotive and a range of enterprise solutions.

Digital assistant technology and the use applications has been a major trend impacting the audio and voice space and has made artificial intelligence a more tangible concept to consumers.   Digital assistants will continue to play an instrumental role in the development of innovative solutions to service an expanding connected ecosystem.

MEMS Microphones

Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) microphones have been around for many years, the first capacitive devices demonstrated in 1916 at Bell Labs, technology developed relatively slowly and it was with the first surface mount MEMS microphones that came to market at the turn of the 21st century that a surge in MEMS microphone use began.

The inherent advantages of using MEMS microphones over traditional electret condenser microphones (ECM) include robustness, integration and scalability. This has led to the widespread adoption of MEMS mics across many markets, most significantly smartphones.

SAR Insight & Consulting’s latest microphone forecasts show that 5 billion MEMS mics have shipped in 2017, totalling >20 billion units shipped from 2010 to 2017 a massive market.

MEMS microphones have been continually developed over the last few years with improvements in specifications such as Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR), sensitivity and Acoustic Overload Point (AOP) there has also been a move towards miniaturization to enable more mics to be added to ever thinner products. SNR has become particularly important as a means to improve far field voice capture for digital assistant enabled devices (see next).


And for the next 5 to 10 years…..

Unsurprisingly, we’ve also been thinking a lot about what comes next……see part 2, coming in the new year.

Contact the author:

Peter Cooney