The year is 2031. Voice assistants are ubiquitous, invisible, and always listening. They finally understand everything that we say and do as we command, silently. The phone — complete with its radio antennas and battery — has been reduced to an earpiece — there's no screen, obviously — yet it has all the capabilities of a present-day smartphone, and more.
What we just described is of course fiction — specifically the backdrop of the Hulu and Channel 4 original The First, starring Sean Penn and Natascha McElhone, now streaming in India via Amazon Prime Video — but the world it describes could actually be our reality in the near future, believes Peter Ogley, Chief Operating Officer for the consumer electronics business at Sennheiser.
Now to be clear, Ogley didn't exactly namecheck The First when Gadgets 360 caught up with him in Delhi last month. But he believes that if the true potential of 5G is realised, we could all be living in a world that looks a lot like the one we just described.
“I think with the advent of 5G, the opportunity for the computer to sit inside the headphone in more of a wearable concept, and potentially in [being] connected straight to the cloud without needing to necessarily go for a phone is potentially an interesting way that the market could go,” says Ogley.
“With the advent of 5G, the potential is there,” he continues, using the p-word again, stressing that there are still a lot of unknowns as far as 5G is concerned. “If the way as humans we interact has moved [on] from typing and swiping on a phone, and there's a new way of interacting through voice, therefore there's potentially new ways that you don't need to be always connected to your phone to be able to do things you might want to do.”
“5G probably is one of the technologies that enables to help us [achieve that] because you know [it offers a] strong connection, it's low power required, etc. — [all that] gives an opportunity to rethink headphones in a different way.”
“Headphones have always been an accessory to something else — an accessory to your home HiFi, [an] accessory to MP3 player — I think there is chance [that] with more computing power they become more of your mainstream product to do more for you than just purely be an accessory tethered to something else.”
The shift is already underway
While 5G and the full realisation of that vision are still a fair bit away, Ogley underlines how he believes the industry is already headed in that direction.
“Audio, up till now, I think is at a place to kind of cocoon you, and to give you that peace while you are maybe commuting or you just wanna relax,” he says. “I think that's why we we see more and more headphones being connected to smart devices — so you can just relax with your content.”
“But soon the whole connection with really making your life easier, more efficient, through voice access […] gives us a great opportunity with headphones as well to make that connection. So as I think products become more wireless, they are also bringing more computing power, and that computing power [leads to] more smart connected [devices, which] gives us huge opportunity in the market.”
“We were fashionably late if you like with the true wireless”
“So, voice interaction, commands, [other] ways you don't have to pick your phone anymore, and you can get interaction with your headphones as we go forward [in] the next five years, I expect [that] to be a continual trend. So I think that's an exciting time to be in that trend as I think headphones start to do more for you and start to become your constant companion.”
“And then over time — potentially 10 years from now — smartphones are not used as much and we use much more in augmented reality. Again, the blending the physical with the virtual will only become real when you also blend the physical and virtual audio at the same time. So I think, you know, 10 years from now, we are also in a very exciting place. Thinking about how audio can make a difference to people's lives in augmented reality world.”
“So, I think it's three phases that we are in right now — wireless untethering, which is huge; the kind of smart interaction voice service etcetera; and then finally, ten years from now what's the next generation of visual interaction — with augmented reality, work we are doing with people at MagicLeap.”
“They are at very, very early creator stages. We have developed an AR1, Sennheiser AR1 headphones, to work with their goals. For content creator[s], so as they are mixing the real world and the virtual world, they can also mix the real world and virtual world acoustically, which then creates a complete experience that gives us a tiny glimpse, I think, into what might be in the future.”
The new Ambeo sounbdar
At last year's CES, Sennheiser showcased its first speaker, the Ambeo soundbar. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company officially launched the 13-speaker slab of sound at an eye-watering price tag of EUR 2,499 (approximately Rs. 2,00,000). We quiz Ogley about the thought process behind this premium product.
“What we wanna do with the soundbar is actually come to the end consumer and say actually what you can achieve in your home — or eventually on your head as well — in terms of really immersive audio is quite remarkable,” he replies. “So the soundbar actually is a bit of a [product] to show what we can do with Ambeo in terms of how our DSP algorithms.”
“Wireless trend was happening way before the headphone jack was dropped”
“How [the] research we have done working with the content creators can actually benefit a lot of content you stream through your home every day. So it's an exciting way to really try to show that even in a very established category, there is still innovation that can be made, things that can be really done quite differently in audio or video.”
“We are excited — the first reviews we've had from people that listen to it are tremendous — but it's also a very expensive product, it's not a mass product. The question for us will now be if that's what customers value, are we able to do it at a more affordable price and create a similar experience.”
”Fashionably late” to trends
With products like the Ambeo soundbar and AR1 headphones, Sennheiser is clearly working on some really cutting-edge tech. While the company is well respected among audio professionals, a name like Bose — where Ogley spent 23 years before joining Sennheiser in 2017 — probably has more of a mindshare with the average consumer when it comes to premium audio products, especially in a market like India. We ask Ogley if he agrees with that assessment and what the company is doing to change that perception.
He starts off by saying that the company has been "forefront of many big changes" throughout the 70-odd years of its existence, pointing to products like the HD414 — of which "millions and millions" of units were sold — that were trendsetters in their own ways. With that said, Ogley admits that there's room for improvement, especially in communicating better with the outside world.
“Some of those trends have been missed in recent times, the latest one is wireless. The wireless trend started happening six-seven years ago, and perhaps we were a little slower to react,” says Ogley. “But actually it wasn't as though it hadn't been seen. Sennheiser, maybe 10 years ago, launched the very first true wireless product — it wasn't using Bluetooth protocol at the time as it didn't exist (Editor's note: Not strictly true, Bluetooth did exist, but it wasn't as evolved at the time) — and that we showed that the trend was there, but it wasn't followed through.”
“Hardware is still tough to do,” but software is becoming increasingly important
“So [in] my experience was actually [that] innovation at the core of the company was still there. But the commercial realisation there was a gap,” he explains, adding that the right foundations are there for the company to ship innovative products, but "it's just about making the right choice at the right time".
“We have started to see in even in a very short period of time is that the company has everything it needs to really be successful — and maybe talk about itself a little bit more, be a better marketeer — really go and talk to customers directly a lot more. And before I started, I see that [was already] happening a lot more.”
“Hence, I think there is a really great opportunity for the company to actually share with customers more of what we do, but also be faster on trends little bit,” Ogley adds.
“I think was reading one of your articles and your publication said we are fashionably late, Sennheiser is fashionably late, [and it] made me smile. And I think it's fair, you know I think it's fair,” he continues. “We were fashionably late if you like with the true wireless — but ironically, we were 10 years ahead — so I think that's our opportunity. [Wherever] we see the trend to really follow through because we have the ability to do it.”
When Apple dropped the headphone jack
Sennheiser might have been fashionably late to wireless audio, but the company — much like the rest of the industry — has fully embraced the trend, and wireless products now constitute the majority of its sales. With that said, the company also caters to audiophiles, and they are still very much tethered to the cables.
“We have two different customer bases, really,” Ogley reveals. “So, we have what I would say is more on-the-go customers that are tethered to their smartphone — that whole industry is moving wireless, and it's moving very rapidly. So the vast majority of our sales are now wireless sales in that space and it's accelerated enormously in the last two years. So, now the majority of everything we sell wireless.”
“The other customer base we have is an audiophile customer. Very traditional, they still have time to listen to audio at home and that's still very much a wired space. But they tend to be tethered to their sofa and their home HiFi system. It's very different need and that's still a very wired space.”
“So, you know, we launched our HD 820 closed-back audiophile headphone which is wired and our customers love that product. So, it's a very different thought, because of the behaviour that's different — it's not about being mobile and active and having your phone throw in your bag, you [are] sat on your favourite armchair, listening to your greatest piece of music.”
“So, in general, it's all about wireless. But then we have a subset of hardcore home listening which is still wired, and there is no real need to change that at this moment in time. But in general for the masses, it's all wireless now.”
We ask if the trends in India are similar, or if the adoption of wireless audio lags behind some of the more matured markets.
Headphones can “do more for you than just purely be an accessory tethered to something else”
“It's a little bit behind the global lines. Smartphone adoption is a little bit lower that global numbers and it really is going hand in hand with smartphone adoption. So, we saw the wireless take-off seriously when smartphone became heavier and when Bluetooth became stable and good quality…”
“When Apple dropped the headphone jack?”, we can't help but interject.
“That was another big push, yeah,” Ogley says with a smile, “[but] I spent a lot of time in US, and actually that trend, wireless trend was happening way before the headphone jack was dropped. There was definitely a trend that customers wanted to become untethered.”
“Now, whether Apple dropping the headphone jack then accelerated that or not, but for me the trend was already happening. And [it could've] accelerated a little bit more [thanks to Apple's move], but it was already there.”
“So I think it was a natural reaction to what the market was demanding. And once you go wireless, it's just easier, it's better as long as the quality of the connection is fantastic.”
Blending hardware and software — the way forward
Talking about trends, the words machine learning and artificial intelligence get thrown around a lot these days, and we asked Ogley if these are impacting product development in the audio industry as well. His answer touches upon how product development has gone from being largely hardware-based to a process that now necessarily needs to incorporate substantial software components as well.
“So clearly, you know, with the AI and machine learning, these are trends that are happening in the market that are enormous,” he begins. “There's two things that as a company that are really interesting — one is, yes, we have to go from a hardware-centric company to one that blends world class hardware with really great software. That's new value that we can offer for the customer.”
“But we also need deep partnerships — clearly we won't create our own AI or machine learning in that respect — so having those deep partnerships built into our products are also very important.”
“So it's a new era for companies like us, but it's also, for me it's kind of exciting because the 70-odd year history of making really phenomenal engineering hardware, bringing in that new layer of software and cloud application capabilities with some partnerships from big companies as well, can I believe give us the best of both worlds.”
“Hardware is still tough to do, it's really hard to do, and do it well, and I think by bringing those two things together we sit in a very good place to be able to bring really great products. So I think products, as we go forward [need to be] built on the three pillars of still delivering great hardware — it has to work well, look good, great ergonomics, those kind of things are really, really important.”
”[Second], having strong software to understand what we just need to integrate from partners, and where we can really innovate. So things like our Ambeo innovation around 3D audio is a DSP-algorithm type based, it's software-based.”
“And [third], then understanding where we partner to just give customers what they need — they wanna be connected to their assistant, they wanna be connected to artificial intelligence — and those kind of three pillars is what our products will stand on as we go forward.”
”So you know finding our innovation line around audio, we are always going to be an audio company. You know, the future of audio claim is one we'll drive, but the audio experience will change over time. So finding our innovation in that audio space is the exciting future for us.”