Convergence is a key trend in audio, according to Dr. Tom Kite, VP of engineering at Audio Precision. “I've got an iPhone here in my hand, and it's the archetypal convergent device. You can get audio into and out of this thing in many, many different ways.” Added Tom Williams, VP of sales and marketing, “We've seen a lot of acoustics and electronics being put together into the same box.”
In a recent wide-ranging phone interview, Kite and Williams described changes in audio over the nearly 30 years of Audio Precision's existence (the company celebrates its 30th anniversary next year), including the analog/digital revolution and the proliferation of audio interfaces beyond the venerable cable with RCA connectors. I'll have more on Audio Precision in an upcoming “Executive Insight” print column, in which Kite and Williams comment on topics ranging from metadata and protocol issues to perceptual analysis. But their comments on convergence have immediate relevance with regard to the proliferation of mobile devices and the recent introduction of high-end wireless speakers.
Kite noted that you can get audio into and out of a device acoustically via microphones and speakers, wirelessly via Bluetooth, and electrically via microphone and headphone jacks. You can use HDMI if you have the right adaptor. This convergence of multiple audio I/O capabilities will only increase, he said, and it greatly influences the types of test equipment Audio Precision develops.
Integrating acoustics and electronics into one box offers advantages, Williams explained. “You can tune the system if you know what the speaker is and what the amp is, and the integrated device ends up being stronger and performing better than if you had two discrete components,” he said, adding that companies that have used Audio Precision instruments for electronics test have been asking the company to add more support for acoustic test as well so they can test their products from the digital input all the way out to the driver. The company has been addressing such requests with products such as a new software release that expands the features of the electroacoustic test suite for APx audio analyzers.
Kite cited the proliferation of Bluetooth speakers: “There are literally hundreds of them now, and they've all got very similar guts”—including a Bluetooth receiver, some DSP (“because if you don't have DSP, Kite said, “you'll never get good sound out of a teeny tiny driver”), converters, power amplifiers, and finally drivers. The market for such devices, Kite said, will only get bigger. The situation, he said, is very different from 20 years ago when you would buy a stereo amplifier and buy a set of speakers separately.
That's certainly true in the midrange, Williams agreed, but he noted that audiophiles will still choose discrete components at the high end. “I don't think there are any $15,000 Bluetooth speakers out there, but there are $15,000 subwoofers,” he said.
But change may be occurring even at the high end. Kite noted that Bang & Olufsen has just announced wireless speakers that are extremely expensive.
Of course, the new Bang & Olufsen speakers don't employ Bluetooth—they use WiSA technology to deliver full 24-bit uncompressed audio. The new wireless speakers include BeoLab 17, a place-anywhere compact speaker ($3,990 per set); BeoLab 18, the latest incarnation of Bang & Olufsen’s audio columns for walls or floor ($6,590 per set); and BeoLab 19, a redesigned subwoofer ($3,395).