The year 2020 in the audio world: between timid developments and great promises



While the CES is fast approaching, and hopefully some (r) developments, it is time for us to dive back into the year 2020. This last year has not revolutionized the sector, in part because of the crisis, but it was the occasion to consolidate certain orientations, to draw a little more the future and, in a certain way, to prepare the upheaval to come for Bluetooth. Little review of the strange
year 2020 and trends for the year 2021.


 The nomad, between democratization and expectations

The nomadic environment is, all the more so with the arrival of True Wireless headphones in 2016 (with some earlier models), the most dynamic sector in audio. Cheeky growth for zero-wire headphones, and excellent performance for Bluetooth models in general. As such, the revolution is not necessarily sound but practical, the models becoming more and more connected objects, with all the advantages (many functions) and all the shortcomings (rapid obsolescence type) that this entails. An economic model that is ever closer to the ultra-consumerist principle of smartphones, with all the same progress on the recycling side for some, Apple in the lead.


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True Wireless at the age of near maturity

No news on the Apple side on True Wireless, still building on the incredible success of the Airpods Pro released at the end of 2019, and the Airpods 2, which are still very popular although already a little outdated. Thus, no locomotive tracing a major trend.





The real novelty of 2020 is the increasingly important democratization of this sector, not so much in terms of price as in terms of quality, for a sector that is already close to maturity. Thus, the entry level has not especially reduced in price, hinging around 50 euros, or even less on certain Chinese products, but their quality has greatly improved. For example, while 2 or 3 hours was a standard for battery life, it comes very quickly to 4 or 5 hours, even for unambitious headphones. This contributes to the lengthening of the recharging cycles and, consequently, to the theoretical increase in the life of the models.

Brands like Xiaomi, 1More or JBL, for the French market (non-import) are doing quite well, but other manufacturers, sometimes less known, have also made it possible to democratize the principle. At this price point, one should not yet expect audiophilia, even from a True Wireless point of view, but the quality has become decent in just a few years, widely listenable anyway.

But above all, old models a little more expensive before, like the good Creative Outlier Air, more or less supplanted by the Outlier Gold and Outlier Air V2, now sail in the 50 euros, without being
outdated by their replacements.




But even more than the entry level, it is the mid-range (80 - 200 euros) which has really evolved. Here, no real revolution in itself, but the arrival of technologies usually reserved for high-end and, above all, very recent. Sony and Libratone launched the first noise-canceling True Wireless around June 2019
really efficient, Apple followed in the last quarter. Long inaccessible, this technology was democratized at high speed throughout 2020.

And on this side, it is the Chinese manufacturers, like Huawei and Oppo, who are doing the best. With a model for less than 100 euros, the Freebuds 3i, succeeding the imperfect Freebuds 3, the manufacturer is playing equal with the best on the ANC, something unthinkable at the end of 2019. For a little more, around 150-180 euros, we already have what would have been a very high end barely a year ago. Going upmarket, the technology is refined a little, and it is the other points (autonomy, sound, IPX7, etc.) that allow the product to stand out. So the ANC is not yet a standard, but it has all the tools to be.

The top of the range, for its part, has not fully reacted, except through the awakening of new brands in this market, such as Devialet, Technics or Grado.






Full democratization will most likely come from turnkey solutions, like what Qualcomm increasingly offers. Instead of rushing a mountain of money into R&D, in order to hopelessly catch up with a Sony, a Bose or an Apple on ANC processing, the giant offers 'small manufacturers' real ready-to-use chips. A brand with good transducers? Qualcomm can now provide a Bluetooth chip with full sound processing: right / left synchronization, conversion, amplification, active noise reduction, hands-free noise reduction, sound adaptivity according to the user's ear, etc. Good news for the diversity of brands in audio.

Difficult to know the future on True Wireless, if it is not the democratization of the ANC therefore. After that, the future is a bit hazy. A
new function, more focused on health? The IPX7 standard? The
trends will undoubtedly arrive at CES. But above all, Bluetooth LE
Audio is likely to play the metronome in the years to come.




Helmet, the top of the range that announces lightning

Unlike True Wireless, the Bluetooth headset has hardly budged. Interesting models have arrived, showing that, in this sector too, the ANC was becoming a quasi-obligation,
whether at the entry level (as with the SoundCore Q20 or Q30) or around 100-150 euros (Philips PH805 for example). Nothing that does not completely shape the future of this already mature product.






Sony painstakingly updated its 1000X range, with a WH1000Xm4
Admittedly very good but all the same not very innovative, Bose did not offer anything, and no brand really emerged, except Huawei (with the very good Huawei Freebuds Studio).

Nothing new, with one colossal nuance: Apple. The only brand that can on its own guide an entire sector, the Cupertino giant released its highly anticipated Airpods Max headset at the very end of the year. With this single action, the brand legitimized the ANC Bluetooth headset market, immediately putting it back in the limelight. It's hard to say if this will launch a very high-end market, or if it will trigger a simple rebound in the ANC market, but the basics are there. True Wireless for lightness, headphones for more premium sound and more luxury? This is what emerges, belatedly, in the year 2020.





Finally, in what is for the moment only a micro-niche, some Hifi manufacturers are starting to create a Bluetooth headset market.
Hifi, or living room Bluetooth headphones, depending on each person's vision. Audeze with its Mobius and Penrose, a gamer model but working in Bluetooth, Hifiman with its top-of-the-range Ananda BT (around 1,200 euros) and its Deva at $ 300, Grado with its GW1 (even if released a year before), or the very ambitious THX Panda, a real success on Drop (formerly Massdrop). A pivotal year for the nomadic sector therefore, focusing on democratization and not on pure innovations.




The living room universe, an immensely connected issue


The long battle of the assistants

While the nomad lives a very dynamic existence, the year 2020 has been much calmer for the sedentary universe. There too, no real developments, but trends that are always becoming more refined, without noticeable change. And, above all, the arrival of next-gen consoles in homes, paving the way for some changes, in particular in 3D audio.

First lesson of the year, an expected consolidation of the connected world. Apple, with its connected speakers: Homepod Mini, shows that connected sound now concerns all price ranges, even on its side.





 Even more than sound, these are the functions that have had to be highlighted in 2020, placing your in-house voice assistants to gain the
giant battle between Google, Apple and Amazon. This type of product is democratized among technophiles, but not yet for ordinary users.

Behind all this, the concept of smart speakers goes much further than a sound concept. Sound is a yes argument, sometimes a very solid argument, which we try to make more attractive through good quality, stereo pairing, Dolby Atmos, multiroom, etc. but above all, for brands, it serves as an elegant gateway to a home automation universe, access to the user's entire home in the longer or shorter term. It's not a secret, 2020 being a continuation of previous years.

Connected lamps, sensors of all kinds, household appliances,
the enclosure constitutes the central brain, or one of the brains of the home automation revolution. Fashion then seems (which is the case at the end of the year), towards simpler and more compact products from the giants responsible for assistants, and towards increasingly qualitative products from other manufacturers.

The Google, Amazon and Apple brands remain on products that are not too ambitious in terms of sound, but complete, with a music service in the background, and a locked but attractive ecosystem.




 On the fringes, and almost independently of the assistants, the other brands are developing their multiroom / connected universe in a chaos that has still not been organized, even in 2020. More or less proprietary applications and technologies (Sonos universe, Heos system, Yamaha Cast, DTS Play-Fi, etc.), more or less compatibility with the protocols already in place (DLNA / UPnP, Airplay, Google Cast, Spotify Connect), the assistants can be integrated, or vector of control of the products. The connected market is therefore extremely
encompassing, and not as mature as you might think. Between turnkey speakers, and a high-end Hifi wanting to free itself from the numerous and bulky components, like what Kef does with its fabulous LS50 Wireless II, the market has trends, an imperturbable dynamic, but is registered before all in the long run.



The Next-Gen, 3D acceleration?

While the concept of Atmos or DTS: X is fairly familiar to the general public, it is not democratized either. The easiest way is to offer universal products, with ready-made solutions, linked to perfectly identifiable products.

It is through this that the new consoles, on the front line, could advance the 3D audio sector, as the PS2 had been able to democratize DVD, and the PS3 BLU-RAY. Here we are talking about a slightly more encompassing principle, but still with different technologies clashing.




This democratization has already been partly effected by sound bars, which are much simpler and less expensive than a real surround system.
or atmos, but the real 3D will pass through the use of the headset
Audio. Easier to set up, a 3D helmet overcomes the
multiple layouts of a room. All that is needed is to transform a multitrack signal, with or without a sound object, into a suitable stereo signal. Our two ears are sufficient for our real 3D sound environment, so a stereo signal is sufficient.

Several technologies clash and, paradoxically, will not revolutionize the helmet as an object, but the way of approaching sound. Some are based on an already existing technology, such as Dolby Atmos for Headphones, which Microsoft offers with Windows 10
or his Xbox (with paid license).

Another solution, always in the same idea, to develop its own sound system, intended for its ecosystem. Sony, not the last to want
create proprietary solutions, for example offers 360 Reality Audio for music, a concept that is not extremely convincing and has not really taken off in 2020, but still a principle focusing on the future. But above all, its Playstation 5 serves as a support for its Tempest processing, operating on the same basis as the Dolby Atmos For Headphones. Any stereo headset can work if connected to the PS5, wired or wireless (via a compatible dongle). Proof that the headphones are a priority here, the Tempest treatment has not yet been deployed for the speakers.

For the moment in its infancy, the truly coherent and general public 3D processing, on console therefore (impossible to think more general public), should show its full potential in the first years of the
consoles, 2021 and 2022 therefore, to transform what still looks like a wow effect to the status of essential immersive option. The fact remains that the revolution, its bases, were indeed planted in 2020.




A revolution in which Apple took part in pas de colombes (very big dove), again during the year, with Space Audio. Still limited to a few video content, with a rather unclear ambition, this very effective treatment could well, if integrated into Apple TV and iOS / Mac OS video games, definitively implement 3D audio in more sedentary uses. For the moment, the proof that 3D audio is already mature, after years (even decades) of being a sluggish emulation based on sound reverberations.



What to expect in 2021?

2020 was, with the circumstances we know, a much flatter year than it should have been, 2021 should therefore be much more dynamic.

While the living room universe should remain fairly calm, at least in continuity, with a fairly significant development of 3D sound, in particular driven by next-gen consoles, the nomad could benefit from a major breakthrough announced at CES 2020: Bluetooth LE Audio, to which we have already devoted a dossier.





Integrated from Bluetooth 5.2, Bluetooth LE Audio is a sort of new protocol in the Bluetooth protocol, allowing the use of the Bluetooth Low Energy layer, usually reserved for connected objects (watch type) for the integration of an audio profile. . In addition to future products with optimized autonomy, this much more modern protocol than the Bluetooth used until now risks opening the way to a real revolution in uses. Allowing to manage multi-streams, broadcast (blind sending / receiving), and advanced profiles (hearing aids for example), it packs a new mandatory codec, the LC3, much more optimized than SBCs. , AAC and AptX, all with undetectable latency. Bluetooth LE, more flexible on the profiles, will especially allow the earphones and headsets to integrate more advanced connected functions.

We must not dream, 2021 will not be the year of its pure democratization.
But, it is almost certain to see appear, finally, the first helmets and
compatible smartphones, whether at CES 2021 or later this year, with the integration of Qualcomm compatible chips. Standardization will undoubtedly arrive in 2022 or 2023, but 2021 may be the pivotal year.

Via Qualcomm, True Wireless is likely to further democratize ANC models, via its turnkey solutions and dedicated codecs. Conversely, the nomadic headset market could benefit from renewed interest, in particular at the high end. The founder could even bring his technologies to ANC headphones, history of bringing more 'audiophile' brands into the dance, as is starting to be the case for headphones.




For the loudspeaker market, it is difficult to imagine any real prospects, apart from the increasingly important rapprochement with the home automation sector, a battle of standards above all. On the fringes, the small wired market, headphones and speakers, will always continue to evolve in its niche, slow but imperturbable, the Chifi (Chinese Hifi, very present on headphones and audiophile players) having sufficiently jostled the sector to give it a little of interest.

Classic 2020, innovative 2021? that's what we want.

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