TWO WAYS TO WIN A BET IN A PUB…
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.’