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Rekindling That Audio Fire

Last fall at the HTSA meeting in Chicago, veteran AV retailer David Wexler, owner of The Little Guys in Mokena, IL, was reminiscing about his early years in the audio retail business.

Last fall at the HTSA meeting in Chicago, veteran AV retailer David Wexler, owner of The Little Guys in Mokena, IL, was reminiscing about his early years in the audio retail business. Back then, in the mid-1970s, he could sell customers just about any brand of receiver/turntable/speaker combo that he could get his hands on. Guys, he said, were returning from Vietnam, happy to be alive, with some cash in their pockets and a love of music. They wanted a car and a hi-fi system and would line up around the block to buy out the local retailer’s stock of audio gear almost before it could be unloaded from the delivery truck.

Times have changed, of course, but there’s a new kind of excitement for audio products, driven by increasing access to music options, immersive home theater formats, voice-enabled wireless speakers, and even the ongoing resurgence in vinyl and turntables.

Procella Audio’s Chuck Back pointed to the growth in the number of immersive audio systems being designed and installed worldwide as one trend that is growing his company’s business. “The increased awareness of Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D, and DTS:X is driving greater interest not only in upgrading existing home theaters, but it has also increased the amount of interest in the design and construction of new theaters, specifically designed for 3D audio,” he said. “Interestingly, we’re seeing a significant number of high-channel-count systems installed. These systems, with up to 32 channels, provide immersion comparable to that heard in the dubbing stage when the original soundtrack was created, and they also make speaker manufacturers very happy.”

Jon Herron, high-end audio director of sales, Americas, for Trinnov is also happy to see “a terrific comeback” for the home theater market over the last year or two, thanks to 3D audio formats. “Once you hear a properly set-up and calibrated, high-channel-count Dolby Atmos theater, there is no going back,” Herron argued. “Due to our unique ability to render up to 32 discrete Atmos channels, we have been involved in hundreds of such installations. We are often involved in systems using between 20-30 speakers in the room, along with the requisite channels of amplification, high-quality sources, etc. In some instances, the numbers are much higher; we have been involved with home theaters in the 40- to 50-speaker range.

Trinnov’s Jon Herron pointed to the trend toward immersive 3D audio formats, calling this home theater project for retired cinematographer Rob Hahn, designed by Keith Yates Design and installed by Geoff Franklin’s The Projection Room, “the finest theater overall that I have ever experienced. Period.”

Trinnov recently announced an optional software update (available later this year) that will allow its Altitude32 to provide up to 48 discrete channels, including the maximum of 34 rendered channels in the home Dolby Atmos specification.

“The spatial resolution of objects moving through 3D space with this technology is simply breathtaking,” Herron added. “Sounds move smoothly and seamlessly, whether you are in the main listening position or the worst seat in the room. Dealers and integrators have a unique opportunity to go back to their best clients with an upgrade possibility that is easily perceived and dramatically better than the theater they may already own. Plus, thanks to the available upmixers (Dolby Surround, Auro-3D, and Neural:X), even the client’s existing library of 5.1 and 7.1 recordings are remarkably immersive and engaging. Those clients will then want to show off their new theaters to their friends. In my opinion, this is one of the most compelling upgrade opportunities our industry has seen in many, many years.”

In Pro Audio Technology’s segment of the industry–high-end distributed audio and dedicated home theater–Paul Hales is witnessing a desire for “better sounding” distributed loudspeakers as well as “widespread interest” in 3D audio formats. “The difference in performance of traditional 7.1 surround sound and the new immersive formats is easily heard by all listeners and has rekindled customer excitement about audio,” he agreed. “In turn, this renewed enthusiasm for surround audio quality has fueled a desire for superior audio quality throughout the home. After many years of low customer expectations brought about by the proliferation of compressed digital audio files, these are welcome and exciting trends indeed.”

Paul Grove, SVP global sales and marketing, MartinLogan, Paradigm, and Anthem, thinks that it’s “an exciting time” for the audio side of smart homes because people crave music and movies and understand their importance more than ever.

Paul Grove, SVP global sales and marketing, MartinLogan, Paradigm, and Anthem, thinks that it’s “an exciting time” for the audio side of smart homes because people crave music and movies and understand their importance more than ever. Pictured here is the company’s Premium Wireless Series.

“Interconnectivity of people’s homes and ease of use are creating a renaissance of audio, and people are consuming audio like never before,” he said. “Stereo systems are also seeing a resurgence as the iPod generation is transitioning from headphones and Bluetooth to sharing and enjoying music with others in their homes. This, in turn, is also driving a new generation to experience musical performances through records and turntables.”

Grove said that other trends that are driving the audio side of the smart home include the convenience of wireless networking, access to content, and the rapid expansion of streaming content providers. “These opportunities have given people the chance to make choices on how to consume music in their environments, whether wired or wireless, amplified or controlled,” he said. “Audio is a journey for many people. As they are exposed to quality audio products, they will turn into discerning listeners and invest in a higher level of performance and the experience it offers. As the IoT continues to evolve, we are seeing opportunities to tie together many new premium audio solutions from DTS Play-Fi and outdoor solutions to soundbars and dedicated home entertainment systems.”

In addition to the resurgence in home theater, thanks to 3D audio formats and consumer interest in high-resolution audio via streaming music services, Control4/Triad’s Kordon Vaughn noted an audio trend that is the result of the ubiquity of sleek and beautiful 4K televisions. “They offer an incredible visual experience, but the thin profile compromises the sound quality, which drives customer interest in equally attractive, high-quality speakers,” he said. “[Therefore,] soundbars have become a go-to solution to match the audio quality to 4K TVs in most rooms.”

With so many connected devices–Alexa, Sonos, Chromecast, Apple TV, smart TVs, smartphones, and gaming systems–and the many possible applications for providing audio that each of those have, the range of options for content is almost mind-numbing, noted Jeff Francisco, president and CEO, The DaVinci Group. “Add to that the fact that each member of a home likely has different preferences–the teens may primarily stream music from YouTube on their smartphone…while Mom uses the Sonos app…and Dad likes to stream Tidal from his smartphone to his Bluetooth speaker,” he lamented. “While we can highlight the advantages of certain solutions, we can’t expect to force any one of them on users.

“As an industry we need to provide a seamless way to let users experience the best possible audio from whichever solution they choose in hardware and applications. The DaVinci Group believes that the last part of that bridge in the home is still best done with quality audio amplifiers and installed speakers.”

Wireless control of smart devices from phones and tablets continues to enhance convenience and security for homeowners, and wireless speakers are a wonderful solution for the DIY consumer looking for an easy solution. As an audio product supplier to professional integrators, however, James Loudspeaker is seeing an increased demand for wired solutions due to their better performance and reliability. “Many James Loudspeaker products are architectural by design–such as our Small Aperture Series, which features an aircraft-grade aluminum enclosure delivering full-range sound mounted securely to studs behind a wall or ceiling,” said Ted Telesky, the company’s chief marketing officer. “We anticipate that discreet architectural speakers for premium whole-house entertainment systems will continue to use wired connectivity for audio delivery, with wireless control as a natural addition, even in the burgeoning age of IoT.”

Pro Audio Technology’s SCRS-6c-iw Dolby Atmos and distributed audio in-walls.

Jay O’Brian, director of U.S. sales East, Kevro International, said that while trends in the AV world are dominated by discussions focused on AV/IP technology, USB-C, IP video distribution, interactive touchscreens, MR/AR, and integrating all these features into the AV smart home, once the signal has been “expeditiously routed,” the real analog experience then begins. “It is often visual and always auditory,” he said. “The loudspeaker is the mouthpiece of your AV system, and good or bad, it is the most important component. Speaker driver technology has advanced far beyond simple plastics, woven fabrics, or pulp driver design. Verbiage now centers on FEA modeling, ceramic and metal alloys, under-hung edge-wound voice coils, inverted dual concentric drivers, and micropleated diaphragm transducers. Welcome to the technology-driven world of driver design trending by the best of today’s loudspeaker manufacturers.”

As IoT devices gain further penetration into the residential market, integrators are faced with more performance-savvy consumers intent on accessing streaming content and overall great sound throughout the home.

The call for whole-house entertainment has also been accompanied by an increased demand for sound quality, placing the burden on integrators and manufacturers to deliver solutions that meet or exceed expectations, noted Chris Kane, VP of sales and marketing, AudioControl. “AudioControl has addressed these trends on several fronts, leveraging innovative, high-power amplifier topology utilizing DSP (providing graphic and parametric equalization by zone as well as network monitoring and programming), enabling integrators to more easily satisfy discerning clientele in every room, zone, and even outdoors.

Among the products driving the mass audio side of the IoT home are Amazon’s Echo and Google Home voice control products, observed Doug Henderson, president, B&W Group North America. “Although perhaps mostly used as audio devices today, it’s not news that they are increasingly being integrated into many other smart home applications and serving as the voice interface to control systems,” he said.

Henderson noted that the strength of the “mega-tech companies” behind digital assistant speakers is not in acoustics, but software. At Bowers & Wilkins, we believe there is a natural intersection of performance and user experience. With content now coming from the cloud, but also from local legacy sources–including the resurgent vinyl LP–we’ll use software to enable a more natural, fluid path to a great music and cinematic experience. That’s the exciting ‘smart’ future we’re driving toward.”

Savant is leveraging Audio Video Bridging (AVB) technology in existing and future AV products to deliver entertainment content throughout the home, accessible anywhere on a high-bandwidth network. “This vast flexibility is a tremendous advantage for both integrators and end users, enabling access to popular streaming services and other sources in any room using the Savant Pro Audio 4 six-zone entertainment hub without being tethered to a centralized equipment rack,” said Savant’s director of product management, Tim McInerney. “AVB is an open standard that was developed for commercial applications and works seamlessly and reliably in a residential setting.”

Bryston is a traditional high-performance audio manufacturer that offers amps/preamps, digital music players, including a CD player, loudspeakers, and even turntables. Yet the company has taken steps to stay ahead of technology trends. All of the company’s latest generation electronics can be connected to the network via ethernet to integrate with smart home platforms so that they can offer their customers firmware updates. “We see this level of connectivity as a necessity due to the increasing demand for IoT devices by consumers,” said James Tanner, VP, of Bryston Ltd.

And, based on the “brisk sales” of Bryston freestanding speakers worldwide, Tanner added, “it is clear that some end users who favor smart home technology and IoT capability still choose freestanding speakers for music and movie playback. High-performance audio has found new life thanks to vinyl and streaming services, which seem to be driving a renewed passion for music that people are only realizing in performance-oriented systems–in an engaging, inclusive way. We are seeing a trend toward more social gatherings, get-togethers where people congregate in the music room, where the record collection or the streaming platform of choice becomes the social glue, bonding friends and strangers alike. This phenomenon rarely happens with an audio system built for background music. Performance matters again, which is wonderful!”