Wireless And Wired
Although unintended, this issue of audioXpress offers a very interesting comparison between the thriving installation market and the complexity of consumer mainstream technologies, while also revealing the convergence trends. From wired to wireless, the two Market Updates featured in this issue detail technology evolving and adjusting to different requirements at its own pace.
In the process that will eventually lead us to a world of Wireless Audio, many efforts and even companies that pioneered the early streaming audio and multiroom systems have been left behind. And sometimes evolution serves up strange twists. Due to the mighty power of the mobile industry and the spectacular rise of smartphones, Bluetooth technology ended up being perceived by consumers almost as synonymous with wireless audio — even if wasn't designed for that and barely handles it. The result today is that any superior audio system working over Wi-Fi or even using a dedicated/proprietary transmission system, eventually needs to be able to receive a signal source streamed over Bluetooth due to that technology's ubiquity for mobile devices and low-power wearables.
While the early goal of many wireless audio systems was to allow "Wired-Quality Sound Without the Wires," the reality of the Wireless Networking technologies that might eventually become standard will be far more complex and will enable even more possibilities than we could ever have imagined.
But there's also still the need for high-quality, high-resolution Wireless Audio Transmission that "simply works." And that's the reason why we see a growing number of radio frequency transmission efforts using dedicated hardware and proprietary digital encoding and protocols, mostly just for simple point to point or to multipoint applications. We can see the signs everywhere, with manufacturers shipping dedicated transmitters to plug directly into analog jacks or USB ports, simply to enable a reliable and "better than Bluetooth" wireless audio transmission. The gaming industry is also another example of discontent, with wireless systems that require "dongles" and dedicated drivers and software to enable lower latency.
It is clear that we still need evolution in wireless audio to address simple Wireless Audio Transmission and Wireless Multichannel applications. At the consumer level, wireless audio is the only way to enable immersive audio in a practical and economic way for mainstream applications.
Meanwhile, the Connectivity Standards Alliance, supported by more than 550 technology companies, announced the release of the Matter 1.0 specification, which will finally pave the way for the next generation of Smart Home connected products that work across brands and platforms. This is certain to have a significant impact over all sectors of the audio industry, including residential integration.
However, consumers continue to buy connected products. In its latest consumer survey of 10,000 US households, research firm Parks Associates reveals that 38% own at least one smart home device. Twenty-seven percent of US Internet households report buying a smart home device in the past 12 months, and 44% of households report intentions to purchase a smart home device in the next 12 months.
For perspective, Nielsen estimates that TVs are in 96.2% of US homes (2020-2021), and 52% of all TV sets are now reported to be smart TVs, and are one of main content hubs in the smart home. This means that more than half of those homes are able to stream content directly from the TVs to speakers, soundbars, and other systems in the same or other rooms in the house. But it doesn't mean that they do. And the reason is mainstream consumers are not going to run wires to anything that's not under or very close to the TV. And wireless audio, particularly wireless home theater, is not yet well understood.
Connected homes, smarts TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones are massively used as access points for streaming content services, represent a massive opportunity for the audio industry.
Impactful audio experiences are only possible from high-quality speakers. As long as those are connected, they remain the preferred option for quality reproduction of music, movies, and gaming. The missing link, literally, is the convenience of wireless audio transmission for all those applications.