Australian HIFI - - ESOTERICA - Rod Eas­down

Here’s a sure way to win a bet in a pub; ask your mates which com­pany made the most tyres last year. The cor­rect an­swer is Lego. And here’s a ques­tion with the same sort of rip­ple in hi-fi; which com­pany made the most speak­ers last year? It wasn’t one of the Danes, it wasn’t Yamaha or Sony, Fo­cal or B&W, Bose or Johnny-come-lately Sonos, it was Johnny-comeeven-later Ama­zon.

In 2015 Ama­zon pi­o­neered the idea of the smart speaker. It was called the Echo and you could ask it to do stuff which it did with vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess. Mar­ket re­search an­a­lyst Strat­egy An­a­lyt­ics es­ti­mated that Ama­zon sold 22 mil­lion of them last year. And over the next four years it ex­pects this num­ber to quadru­ple. Part of it is that once there’s a smart speaker in the home peo­ple im­me­di­ately feel the need for more—one in ev­ery room would be nice. Which maybe ex­plains why 10 per cent of smart speak­ers wind up in bath­rooms.

Smart speak­ers are about more than just ask­ing for a song on Spo­tify, you can ask one what the time is in New York or even who made the most tyres last year. Pro­vided you have the rel­e­vant hard­ware and soft­ware op­er­a­tional you can ask one to close the cur­tains, turn on the pop­corn ma­chine and crank up the dig­i­tally re-mas­tered 20th an­niver­sary ver­sion of Star Wars. If you’ve just wo­ken up and you’re a lot like me you can ask one what day of the week it is.

Of course Ama­zon isn’t the only player in this mar­ket any­more, it was just the first and now it’s just the big­gest. Google and Ap­ple are in the game now. Sonos is work­ing on hook­ing into it, Har­man, now a happy lit­tle sub­sidiary of Sam­sung, plans sim­i­lar tech­nol­ogy for cars.

For au­dio purists like you and me, the alarm­ing thing about the world’s big­gest speaker com­pany get­ting into the speaker busi­ness is that au­dio pu­rity is prob­a­bly not a pri­or­ity. In fact smart speaker man­u­fac­tur­ers don’t re­ally think of them as speak­ers at all: they re­gard them as plat­forms. And their buy­ers have ex­actly the same mind­set. Your phone is a plat­form for all the apps you’ll ever need, your smart speaker is the same idea. It’s all about con­ve­nience.

Just as Ap­ple has Siri and Mi­crosoft has Cor­tana, so Ama­zon’s smart speaker has Alexa who, at last count, has 25,000 ‘skills’ rang­ing from or­der­ing gro­ceries or fast food to lock­ing the doors and turn­ing off the lights. Con­sider; with in­ter­ac­tive ear­buds you’ll have more than mu­sic, you’ll have voice con­trol over the house to the point where you may leave your buds in all day. That will make their mon­i­tor­ing of your health more ac­cu­rate too.

So wire­less speak­ers are more than just the next big thing, it could be that they’re the only next thing. Fu­ture­source, an­other mar­ket re­searcher, says that in 2009 about 200,000 wire­less speak­ers were sold around the world and if that’s true, my guess is that most of them were sub­woofers. In 2017 this num­ber had grown to 70 mil­lion, or 2009’s to­tal sales mul­ti­plied by 350. Don’t you wish you were the guy who in­vented Blue­tooth? (It was Dr. Jaap Haart­sen.)

Con­ven­tional wis­dom would sug­gest that any boom in au­dio prod­ucts (and over the last few years sales of head­phones and wire­less speak­ers, both smart and dumb, have rock­eted) is a good thing for peo­ple who love mu­sic. But con­ven­tional wis­dom no longer ap­plies. Ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist mag­a­zine, smart speak­ers will bring about fun­da­men­tal change in the au­dio in­dus­try.

Will we ever see a dumb, pas­sive, un­in­volved, purely hi-fi speaker again? If the trade shows are any­thing to go by, even the died-inthe-wool speaker brands are dis­play­ing Ama­zon and Google lo­gos to in­di­cate that dig­i­tal as­sis­tants are hooked into their prod­ucts… or soon will be. The con­cern­ing point here is that if phones are any­thing to go by, this will re­sult in most of the profit go­ing to soft­ware de­vel­op­ers and providers, mean­ing that get­ting good qual­ity sound as well as all the lat­est flim­flam is go­ing to im­pose sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tional cost which you will have to pay for even if you don’t want the per­si­flage. This could mean that even among the pre­mium brands sound qual­ity may be­come the se­cond or even third pri­or­ity in speaker de­sign and manufacture, fol­low­ing a com­pet­i­tive soft­ware plat­form and end-price. We au­dio purists will have to take our place in line be­hind peo­ple who want a quick and easy way to place an order for pizza.

Take a look at De­vialet’s su­perb Phan­tom. OK, it’s the best cord­less speaker I’ve ever heard, but it’s also a plat­form and it’s wait­ing for app de­sign­ers to leap on board. The catch is that it’s $2,690. $5,380 for stereo.

‘If you see your­self as just an au­dio com­pany,’ De­vialet’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Quentin San­nie told The Econ­o­mist mag­a­zine, ‘your days are num­bered.’

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