More Room For Audio
This audioXpress issue was sent to print a few weeks away from CEDIA Expo 2022, which takes place in Dallas, TX. It was already pretty clear to me that this year's return of the most important residential integration show will be different, but I'm curious about the new trends.
Unlike certain buzzwords that seem to appear and fade fairly quickly, "Smart Home" has been an enduring but also somewhat elusive concept that involves a multitude of different disciplines and technologies, and is not always consensual — just ask the kitchen appliance manufacturers what they consider "intelligent."
A few years back, that smart home horizon meant essentially evolving from automation to connected solutions. And with the evolution of smart devices, suddenly the human interface became the center focus, evolving from touchscreens and apps to presence detection and synchronized devices in and out of the home. A frequently cited audio-related example was the possibility to move from the car when arriving home and continue listening to the same podcast or playlist — with "the connected system" simply transferring the content from the car speakers to the multi-room audio system by detecting your arrival and presence inside the home.
Then came voice interfaces, personal voice assistants, connected ecosystems, and AI, and suddenly Smart Home was no longer a concept. Instead it became a target market that appealed to a whole new range of technology players, from Amazon and Google to Sonos. While all this seemed like a great plan for further progress — and it was starting to make sense at CEDIA 2019 — the global pandemic changed our perspectives.
With the whole family suddenly forced to shelter at home, the reality of multiple activities, zones, and users had to be accommodated. And it was as if everything was new, mainly because the technology we all got used to having with us (e.g., smartphones, headphones, and laptops), was what made the difference and allowed us to transform our "home" experience into an extension of everything we did outside — including work, learn, and exercise, for extended periods. Those activities overlapped with our usual home routines and home entertainment opportunities and made us all rethink our priorities. And personal devices such as headphones, headsets, and earbuds, used for all those activities, not surprisingly became the hottest consumer electronics category — something that was never accounted for as part of Smart Home scenarios.
All this had a major impact on the audio industry, which was already at the center of the Smart Home (re)evolution since smart speakers with voice interfaces entered the home.
When we look at it from the residential integration perspective, the importance of the underlying technology infrastructure becomes abundantly clear. And how audio in the home will inevitably be connected to that infrastructure — wired and wireless.
But before we can dream about what the future looks like, we need to first worry about the present, because we are going through a convergence of very unique circumstances. Following a global pandemic that continues to asymmetrically affect different countries and regions, we continue to face rising logistical costs and production disruptions, resulting in cycles of supply chain constraints. That includes severe constraints in access to raw materials and also rising inflation, because of geopolitical tensions.
When I visited the first audio trade shows of 2022, the message about product availability was at the center of all conversations. While many audio manufacturers are downplaying the constraints due to the relatively small quantities involved, it's clear that products are waiting on assembly lines for components that no one had predicted would not be available. The post-pandemic situation evolved with the stock depletion at many major wholesalers that traditionally have supplied common components to audio manufacturers, and the industry in general not being able to correctly predict and manage supply and demand.
These supply chain troubles and imbalances are far from over, and will take years to bring under some form of control. And although many discussions regarding restructuring production, reshoring, and design to availability are being touted as needed solutions, those are long-term strategies.
This is especially of concern for system integrators with project designs that require quantities of certain products. There are many "sold out" items that will never be brought back into production. System integrators will need to put much more thought into what they specify.
We'll also need to accept the fact that products we considered buying before and didn't, might never be available again. Except perhaps in second-hand marketplaces.