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The future of audio technology (Wireless, noise cancellation, bone conduction and acoustics)

The future of audio technology (Wireless, noise cancellation, bone conduction and acoustics)

The ways in which we have experienced music, and how it has been recorded and consumed, have changed dramatically, and different formats have created some pretty iconic pieces of paraphernalia over the years. These have come to represent specific eras in the past century: think of the gramophone, vinyl, cassette tapes, compact discs and the rise of digital music, MP3 and now dedicated streaming services.

The devices used to translate these formats into sounds that we can enjoy on a daily basis have also transformed. The apparatus hasn’t really changed in idea (headphones and speakers still remain the standard way of consuming music personally), but the technology that goes into them, and the shapes they have taken, are in a constant state of development.

But what’s around the corner? Now that digital music is here for the foreseeable future, we can expect that all kinds of audio, whether music, e-books or telecoms, will become more versatile and mobile.

Two of the most prolific recent advances in audio technology, at least from a hardware point of view, are noise-cancellation and wireless connectivity in professional and consumer headphones and earphones. These technologies have become commonplace over the past five years or so in the way people listen to music or use audio devices to communicate. Bluetooth has only recently reached a level where it is considered by OEMs as good enough to carry quality audio and replace wires completely, thus paving the way for a throng of cable-free cans.

We are now also starting to see noise-cancellation features in these wireless devices to offer the best of both worlds, allowing users to block out external, unwanted sounds and concentrate solely on the music without being tied to a device. Still, at the moment, a bog standard set of earphones that the average person buys from Amazon, for example, will still most likely be wired. This is going to be one of the first big changes in audio technology in the coming years.

Take the recent revelation that Apple will eliminate the headphone jack from the next iPhone, rumoured as the iPhone 7. According to speculation, Apple will get rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack that has been standard on iPhones and other devices for years, replacing the included earbuds with those that plug in through the Lightning port. This will mean that users wanting to buy their own earphones will have to opt for a Bluetooth wireless variety, thus pushing the growth of wireless buds as third parties rush to give iPhone users alternative options.

WiFi speaker systems are already popular with music enthusiasts. Championed by the likes of Sonos, Bose and Raumfeld, WiFi systems offer seamless integration of stereo, home cinema system and other amplified audio devices with no rewiring or complex programming. Sonos Bridge, for example, lets you connect your wireless router and link all your Sonos players with one touch. The music can then be played from any mobile device in the house through as many players as you want simultaneously.

As history dictates, when predicting the future of audio technology it’s a good idea to look at the best available and use that as an example to see what mass market devices might look like in 10 or even 20 years’ time.

Take Sennheiser and its Orpheus project. The German audio firm created a pair of headphones in 1991 that quickly became known as the best that money could buy. The Orpheus HE90 headphones were made from the best materials available at the time and came with an amplifier. They cost a whopping £10,000.

Almost 25 years later, Sennheiser decided to bring this idea into the 21st century, again using the best materials money could buy, to design a new version of Orpheus, creating the Orpheus HE1060, which the firm again calls “the world’s best headphones”.

The Orpheus system is built into a big slab of marble, and needs to be seen to be believed. Equipped with unique features and state-of-the-art technology, these headphones transform music from something you listen to, into something you feel part of. And at £35,000, you’d want them to.

One of the main features that Sennheiser’s engineers worked on to make these headphones the best in the world was improving audio quality to such a level that they offer an experience like no other: recorded music that sounds like it’s being played live in front of you.

“We found that with the right materials, we got the best transducers from current to sound pressure, so it is the best in the world,” explained Orpheus product manager Axel Grell. “When you measure its frequency response, it works from close to zero kilohertz to over 100kHz and there is no other transducer in the world that can do that.”

Distortion, the unwanted tones in music playback that were not in the original signal, is something Senheiser has worked tirelessly to eradicate when building Orpheus in order to enhance sound quality to a level not heard before.

“When you measure normal speakers, even those made for studio recordings, when they produce sound pressure levels of 100db, they are in the range of one percent distortion. Our transducer, when it produces sound pressure levels of 100db, has 0.1 percent distortion, that’s 100 times less than studio speakers,” added Grell.

“The lower the level of distortion, the more details in the music are audible, so this is the reason why we made Orpheus: to bring distortion to such a low level so when you listen to music you can hear all the details.”

Distortion reduction is just one of many innovative ways Sennheiser is showcasing the technology in Orpheus to demonstrate how it can improve audio and thus pave the way for advances in the future. However, Grell said that it could be 25 years or so before we see technologies like this in mass market devices. Nevertheless, he predicts an expectation among consumers for very high sound quality in headphones and speakers, and that it will become a trend in the coming years with mass audiences who will expect music to have greater clarity and less distortion.

“Quality will play a bigger role in headphones and speakers and in production as consumers opt for better quality sound recordings,” predicted Grell. “This will be a trend, and it has started already, but the next step will be better wireless devices based on Bluetooth, which could see better quality sound and battery life.”

Another upcoming technology that completely turns audio tech as we know it on its head is the concept of listening to music from a part of the body that isn’t the ear. This might sound impossible, but bone conduction technology aims to give music fans the ability to listen to a recording privately and keep an ear on the world around them at the same time. Few have attempted to tackle the technology so far. But a startup called Studio Banana Things has had a go with a project entitled Batband, which the firm describes as “a high fidelity acoustic experience via an innovative bone conduction system”.

Batband looks like a set of headphones but without the ear cans. A band goes around the back of the head and the ends rest on the bones above your ears. The technology consists of transducers that emit sound waves transmitted at a frequency that can be conducted through the bones of the skull, perceived by your inner ear, thus freeing your outer ear.

Studio Banana Things insists that this works in a better way than standard headphones as it frees up your ears and you get to hear twice as much “without compromising on comfort, quality or style”.

However, Batband is merely experimental, as its status as a Kickstarter project suggests, and doesn’t represent a technology that the industry’s big players are taking seriously in their audio development strategy just yet.

For example, Plantronics, a Californian audio communications equipment company particularly popular in business, told us that it has experimented with bone conduction technology, but that tests proved it wouldn’t be viable for production because it doesn’t offer the level of quality or comfort its customers expect.

Nevertheless, as the technology improves, or if one company masters it, we could well see bone conduction used in the way we listen to audio in the future. It would be especially beneficial to cyclists, who need to keep their ears on the road and would like a backing track too.

But the future of audio technology isn’t necessarily just how we hear music through devices such as headphones, earphones or speakers. It could also encompass a change in the way we perceive sounds in particular environments, specifically at work, through the role acoustics play in an office, for example.

Plantronics champions this very idea with its open air noise cancellation technology. Some of the firm’s solutions include smarter working in offices by improving acoustics to offer better speech privacy, reduced reverberation in meeting rooms and lower noise levels in open plan offices.

“While flexible working is a growing trend, people still feel that they have to go to a place of work. As more offices become open plan, the acoustics are changing for the worst,” explained the firm’s head of consumer marketing and business development, Stuart Bradshaw. “And businesses are not taking into account the challenge of acoustics.”

Bradshaw believes that more companies face the challenge of keeping workers productive while providing a positive working space.

“We have created our own working space in Plantronics to demonstrate how audio best works. Our architects have created the right kind of white noise, which is pushed out across the office so that when you’re on a phone call it drowns out some of the noise from other colleagues,” he said.

Plantronics is not expert in the full solution of office acoustics, but is developing noise cancelling solutions and certain aspects of the kit that generates the white noise. The company believes it could be an area of traction as there are no other companies currently developing it, and it is worthwhile because workers can feel confident in the ability to focus, connect and collaborate in open office and on-the-go work environments.

“While for some people, personal audio devices can block out external sounds and make their individual work space more productive, there are negative effects to be had there,” added Bradshaw, explaining that this can be distracting for others. “However, white noise generators, for instance, I think will become a prevalent trend.”

While digital audio has generally seen the demise of physical audio formats in recent years, the future of audio could well see a return to a much older but once celebrated format, according to Orbit Sound’s Director, Daniel Fletcher.

Fletcher thinks that we will see a return of the once very popular vinyl records, with the music medium creeping back into the mainstream as people look to celebrate the art of enjoying music in a nostalgic, physical form.

“An upcoming trend I am rather please about is the return of vinyl,” says Fletcher. “It’s this nostalgic thing, and people like it. For the first time recently, vinyl sales outstripped ad supported streaming; it’s made a comeback and suddenly become and grown to become a cool thing.”

In the future, Fletcher sees it becoming a big trend as people want to experience music “and feel part of it again”, something that can be done much better with the ritual of collecting a physical format with art work; something that can be collected and shown off. A complete 180 when looking at the history of audio technology in the last 100 years, but at the same time, proof that in an ever-digital age, people still enjoy more traditional habits that are a somewhat removed from the virtual world.


9 February 2016 Blog

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