Audio is one of those technologies for which listeners have a gold standard for quality. The standard is live music performed in an acoustically competent hall. As more people remember what audio should sound like, audio quality on all fronts will improve. Henry Davis outlines six trends that will highlight what's in store for audio design in 2007.
1. Kitchen Sink Products: 2006 was a banner year for combination products. For example, cell phones not only continued offering built-in camera features, but added MP3 player capabilities also. This "put everything in" approach to new products of all kinds will continue. Look for reasonable audio quality added to unexpected products in 2007. Audio capabilities will become nearly universal in all but the lowest cost disposable products. Systems on a chip that combine a wide variety of audio codecs with a basic Class D amplifier will enable a wider diffusion of audio technology as the cost of reasonable quality audio continues to drop.
2. Audio complexity: The continued increased complexity available in low-cost microcontrollers and microprocessors enables packing more software onto the chip. Memory size increases permit designers to avoid making the choice of which audio codecs to include: put them all in! That's what some vendors have started doing for their new products. The choice to include all of the popular codecs is at the same time both a deferral of decisions and a reduction of product configuration management complexity. It's a net win for marketing, production, and engineering. Watch for more "no choicechoices" to emerge as the preferred engineering alternative.
3. Cell phones drive market choices: The ubiquitous iPod is one of the fastest selling products of all time. But even with its tremendous popularity, its sales pale in comparison to the cell phone. The butt of many jokes, cell phones lead the way in combining disparate features. The half life of a specific cell phone design is less than 6 months (some say less than 3 months). This fact of cell phone lifetime causes "feature churning." With more than half a billion cell phones sold each year, the diminutive portable product is a near ideal test bed for new audio features. Since the carriers gather substantial information about their customers, cell phone user demographics permit a marketers dream. Now marketers can pinpoint the reasons why groups of users buy their phones. When coupled with the purchase of premium services the combined service and cell phone data permits rapid identification of audio trends, and encourage new ways to deliver audio. Watch for new categories of music delivery to piggy back on cell phones first, followed by diffusion of the combinations of audio capabilities into other portable audio products.
4. Class D wipes out competing amplifiers: Well, not completely. While Class D amps have a many excellent qualities, some of the Class D amps carry with them digital signal processing artifacts. Some of these artifacts can include group delay of the audio signal. Group delay occurs when the signal processing algorithms cause some frequencies to be delayed relative to other frequencies in the audio signal. Class D amps will incorporate more complex digital signal processing techniques to match delays while achieving the benefits of Class D amps.
5. Audio dumbs down: Lazy sound engineers combined with consumer preferences for heavy bass leads to many Compact Discs producing terrible audio. Much of this problem is due to the relative emphasis of the audio track on the higher amplitude audio. Engineers either out of a lack of understanding or sheer laziness create digital audio tracks with little dynamic range but high average amplitude. At the same time, the average audio quality of audio systems hardware has continued to improve each year. Out of the technical fault is emerging a small cadre of audio enthusiasts who want better fidelity. This bifurcation of audio enthusiasts will yield a resurgence of interest in audiophile quality source material, whether CD or other digital encodings.
6. Automotive audio sets the consumer audio quality standard: The speakers are the same, the amplifiers are probably less sophisticated, and passengers are distracted by what's going on outside the car. But automotive audio sounds better than many higher end home systems. This is because cars don't have many straight, flat surface. A better appreciation of room acoustics will develop based on the quality of automotive audio, leading to a whole range of room acoustics-improving products.