How are we going to be listening to music over the next 12 months? The gadgets and gear from CES 2019 offer some clues.
The way we access music may have changed dramatically over the past decade, but if the huge amount of audio gear on display at the annual CES show in Las Vegas this week is anything to go by, we’re still willing to pay big money for gadgets for listening to it. Primarily, this means headphones and speakers, though the introduction of smart assistants has seen these categories evolve dramatically in recent years.
So what does the next year of music technology look like? Kind of like last year, actually, but with increasingly confusing and more bizarre options. CES 2019’s audio offering was a mixture of incremental updates to existing products, smart assistant overload and wacky speakers that can hold your beer. Yes, speakers with cup holders.
Turntables are more popular than ever
Although growth of vinyl sales reportedly stagnated in 2018, there’s no indication that the accompanying turntable revival is starting to cool. A huge number of record players were announced at CES 2019, from Sony’s Bluetooth-enabled LX310BT to Crosley’s 3-inch vinyl player, though the recently revived Technics brand stole all the headlines with the SL-1200 MK7, its first proper DJ turntable in 11 years.
The price of the new SL-1200, however, proved to be just as controversial as that of the company’s last few ‘audiophile’ turntables – $1,200 for a single MK7, or $2,400 for a pair. CES also turned out a more affordable DJ turntable though – Audio-Technica’s AT-LP120 is just £245. Not at CES but launched this week is the DJ-focused Reloop RP-8000 MK2, which gives you dedicated Serato triggers for $700.
Despite turntables being ‘old tech’, there are still advancements being made in the field. Technics’ new model features a “coreless” direct drive without the iron core than can cause audio quality issues over time. Reloop’s RP-8000 is even more innovative, offering digitally controlled motors that can quickly modify the pitch via MIDI, allowing it to function more like an instrument.
Speakers in everything, everywhere
Multi-room systems such as Sonos have gotten us used to music following us wherever we go in the home, and smart assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant have given us the ability to request songs with our voice. These two developments combined has led to speakers colonising every corner of the home, whether it makes sense or not.
One of the last largely unexplored frontiers for the multi-room smart speaker is the bathroom, but Simplehuman’s Sensor Mirror Hi-Fi Assist has infiltrated even this last refuge of privacy. It’s a bathroom mirror, speaker and Google Assistant in one, which means you can groom yourself while you listen to Spotify and find out the weather while you do it. Fine, perhaps, if your bathroom and toilet are separate, but not if you don’t want Google potentially listening in on your bowel movements.
Simplehuman’s speaker fits into another trend, that of speakers that don’t actually look like speakers. As these devices find a place in different spots around the home, they’re being designed to camouflage with their surroundings. Sony’s LSPX-S2 Glass Sound Speaker, for example, is a device that looks like a candle and plays music by using actuators to vibrate a glass tube. It spreads sound in 360 degrees and even lights up, so it can even be used as the centerpiece for the dining table. As Spotify has turned music into a lifestyle accessory via mood-based playlists, ‘invisible’ speakers like these feel like the inevitable next step.
Headphones are getting more confusing
Buying headphones used to be easy: you’d buy the cheapest earbuds you could find that offered better sound than the bundled pair you wanted to replace, and repeat the process when they inevitably stopped working. Since Apple and every other manufacturer killed the headphone jack however, it’s a no-win choice between buying a costly wireless pair you’ll probably lose or living the dongle life.
If CES 2019 has shown us anything, it’s that buying headphones isn’t going to be any easier in the next 12 months. Thanks to the popularity of Apple’s AirPods, everyone is trying to muscle in on the ‘true wireless’ market. B&O, Klispsh and JBL are just a few of the companies showcasing their AirPods rivals, all with their own Apple inspired charging cases, which means there’s now another category to consider alongside ‘cabled’ wireless earbuds such as the BeatsX or over-ear wireless models.
In the over-ear market, the main development seems to be, unsurprisingly, the inclusion of smart assistants. If allowing Amazon to snoop on your every conversation in the home wasn’t enough, Jabra’s Elite 85h headphones allow you to speak to Alexa wherever you go – not exactly a huge selling point if you’re privacy conscious. For those users, the most enticing headphones of CES 2019 might just be Audio-Technica’s family of affordable noise-canceling over-ears, which focus solely on price and sound quality.
Outdoor party speakers are big business
Either outdoor Bluetooth speakers are huge business or buyer malaise is setting in, because manufacturers are getting ever bolder in this category. Take Sony’s GTK-PG10 speaker for example, whose integrated cup holders takes the party speaker concept to frankly ridiculous lengths.
If that’s not party enough for you, then the latest line of speakers from Anker’s Soundcore brand is literally called Rave. As you might expect from the name, these aren’t exactly subtle – they have their own glowing neon lights to provide all the party vibes you could need at your summer barbeque.
Scott Wilson is FACT’s tech editor. Find him on Twitter