Goodbye Stereo, hello 360º Sound
In the past five years, there has been a paradigm shift in the speakers market. We’ve started seeing a different form factor of audio capable devices, 360 degree audio speakers, emerging. I want to have a look at the reasons behind the appearance of this form factor and the benefits it brings us.
First, it is important to look at the market segmentation reasoning:
1. Since the inclusion of Bluetooth in phones there has been a variety of (mainly cheap, initially) speakers that sought to abolish the need for cables. Docs and Bluetooth speakers were the answer. But at the time there was no premium solution for Bluetooth speakers and besides sound quality, there was room for more innovation (or gimmicks, like a floating speaker). To luxuriate the Bluetooth speaker one of the solutions that was created was a 360° speaker.
The original Bluetooth speakers were directional speakers and since it is unknown where they will be placed, how many people need to listen to them and where they are sitting; having a directional speaker is a disadvantage in comparison to a 360° one.
2. From another perspective, 360° speakers function as a cheaper alternative to hi-fi audio systems. Many customers are just interested in listening to music in their home in comfort and do not require a whole setup with wires and receivers. They also mainly play music using their mobile phones.
So it fits right in the middle. Now let’s look at some use cases:
Parties — It can be connected to other speakers and have increased sound. It’s also relatively easy for other people to connect to it.
Multi-room — It can allow you to play music whilst controlling it with your phone in all sections of your house. It can also be controlled remotely.
Conference calls — or actually any call. It’s also possible to put it on speaker on your phone but that’s sometimes hard to hear.
Smart — Today we have assistant speakers with arrays of microphones that sometimes come in the form of 360. It’s a bit different but a 360° microphone array is as useful as a speaker array.
I want to focus on the 360° form factor and discuss why it is so important and a real differentiator. To be able to understand more about 360° audio, its advantages and the future of 360° audio consumption, it is important to have a look at the history of sound systems.
The person as sound — Before there were speakers there were instruments. People used their own resonance to make a sound and then found resonance in drums, and string-based instruments. That led to a very close and personal interaction which could be mobile as well. People gathered around a singer or musician to hear them.
Phonograph and Gramophone — This was the first time music became reproducible mechanically. However, it was still mono (one channel). From an interaction perspective, it was a centerpiece with the sound coming out of the horn.
Stereo systems — Stereo was an ‘easy sell’, after all we all have two ears. Therefore speakers that can pleasure them both are fabulous. Some televisions were equipped with mono speakers but more advanced televisions had stereo speakers too.
Surround — 3/5/7.1 systems were introduced mainly for the use case of watching movies in an immersive way. These systems included front, back, center, and sub speakers (sometimes even top and bottom). It is still quite rare to find music recordings that are made for surround. Algorithms were also created for headphones, to mimic surround.
But there is a limitation with these systems. Let’s compare it to the first two reproducible sound systems: the human voice and the Phonograph. They both had more mobility. You could place them wherever you wanted to and people would gather around and listen to music. I can’t say it’s exactly the same experience, but it doesn’t hurt the premise of the instrument. However, with stereo systems and surround systems, you need to sit in a specific contained environment in a specific way to really enjoy their benefits. Sitting in a place where you cannot really sense that spatial experience makes these systems redundant.
Audio speakers in the present
Considering current technologies and their usage, our main music source is our mobile phones. It’s a music source that doesn’t have to be physically connected via cables. Our listening experience is more like a restaurant experience where it’s not important where the audio is coming from as long as it’s immersive. 360° speakers then were able to provide exactly that with fewer speakers. But we lost something along the way, we lost stereo and surround. In other words, we lost the immersive elements of spatial sound.
Audio speakers in the near future
There are huge investments in VR, AR and AI and all of these fields are affecting sound and speakers. In VR and AR we are immersed visually and auditory, currently using a headset and headphones. At home we’ve started controlling it via our voices, turning lights on and off, changing music and so on.
Apple’s HomePod has a huge premise in this respect. Its spatial algorithm could be the basis for incredible audio developments. Apple might have been late to the 360° market but they have tremendous experience in audio and computing and this is why I think this is the next big audio trend: “The spatially aware 360° speaker”.
Although they sell it as one speaker it can obviously be bought in pairs or more. The way these understand each other will be the key to this technology.
Spatiality is important because in a 360° speaker a lot of sound goes to waste, and a lot of power is inefficient. Some of that sound is being pushed against a wall which causes too much reverb. Most of the high frequency that is not being projected at you is useless.
Here are the elements to take into account
- Location in the room — near a wall, in the corner, center?
- Where is the listener?
- How many listeners are there?
- Are there other speakers and where?
In Apple’s demonstration, it seems that some of these are being addressed. It’s clear to see that they thought about these use-cases and therefore embedded their chip into the speaker which might become better over time.
The new surround
360° speakers can already simulate 3D depending on the array of speakers that are inside the hardware shell. This will be reflected in the ability to hear stereo if you position yourself in the right place.
But things get much more interesting if the speaker/s are aware of your location. If you are wearing a VR headset and have two 360° speakers you can potentially walk around the room and have a complete surround experience. A game’s experience could be super immersive without the need for headphones. Projected into AR, a room could facilitate more than one person at a time.
Consider where music is being listened to. In most instances, a 360° speaker would be of greater benefit than a stereo system. In cars, which usually have four speakers, offices and clubs, 360° speakers would work better than a stereo system. Even headphones could be improved by using spatial awareness to block noises from the surrounding environment and featuring a compass to communicate your orientation. Even a TV experience can be upgraded with just HomePods and some software advancements.
What about products like Amazon Echo Show?
A screen is a classic one direction interaction. Until we have 360 degree screens which work like a crystal ball with 360° audio, I don’t see it becoming the next big thing; after all, we still have our phones and tablets.
The future of 360 in relation to creation and consumption tools
Here are a bunch of hopes and assumptions:
- Music production and software will adopt 360° workflows to support the film and gaming industry; similar to 3D programs like Unity, Cinema 4D, and Adobe.
2. New microphones will arise, ones that record an environment using three or more microphones. It will initially start with a way to reproduce 3D from two microphones, like field recorders, but quickly it’ll move into more advanced instruments driven by mobile phones which will adopt three to four microphones per phone to be able to record 360° videos with 360° sound. Obviously, it’ll be reflected in 360° cameras individually as well.
3. A new file type that can encode multiple audio channels will emerge and it will have a way of translating it to stereo and headphones.
I can’t wait to see this becoming reality and having a spatially aware auditory and visual future based on augmented reality, using instruments like speakers or headphones and smart glasses to consume it all.
Here are a couple of companies/articles that I think are related