While advances in audio sometime seem to take a back seat to the hottest new televisions and the latest innovations in computers, the market is still huge. At the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, manufacturers are slated to introduce some exciting new ways to listen to music, from wireless earbuds that channel hearing aids to great-sounding smart speakers.
Here are some of the top trends we expect to see at CES.
1. Advances in Noise-Canceling Headphones
Although active noise-canceling technology has been around in commercial applications since the late 1980s and in consumer-based headphones since the early 2000s, it’s still a technology in transition.
In the past year, Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, and Apple have all introduced new noise-canceling models, many of them wireless. And in last six months, Sony and Bose have added an innovative feature that allows the listener to adjust his or her headphones so that they cancel less noise. Why would you want to do that? If you’re crossing a busy street, this feature can help you hear an approaching truck.
Both the Sony and Bose headphones let you fine-tune the level of noise, by either tweaking the controls in a mobile app or using a gesture-control feature on the outside of one of the ear cups.
We expect to see more developments in noise-canceling technology at CES.
2. More Truly Wireless Earbuds
Companies like Samsung, Bragi, and Altec Lansing have been promoting headphones that have completely cut the cord—meaning there are no wires tethering the earbuds together. But it was Apple’s Airpods, announced in September and just hitting the market now, that have really sparked the public’s interest in untethered earbuds.
We expect to not only see more cord-free earbuds at CES, but models that actually go beyond noise-canceling technology: The next generation of wireless earbuds will actually filter out ambient noise, and function a bit like a hearing aid to help you hear better in noisy environments.
3. Smart Speakers Worth Listening To
Amazon introduced its Alexa voice-assistant just two years ago, but it quickly established itself as a benchmark for interactive wireless speakers. Now, other companies are getting into the act, including Google with its new Home speaker. While these products keep adding new features or "skills," like dimming your lights or managing various electronic devices, one shortcoming of these smart speakers has been the speakers themselves. Compared to conventional wireless speakers, our testers discovered that the sound quality of the Amazon Tap and Echo and the Google Home is not all that spectacular.
Look for audio companies to fill this emerging niche of smart speakers with high-quality sound. For example, Sonos in August announced that it would add support for Alexa throughout its entire line of speakers. We expect to see more wireless speaker and audio companies following suit.
4. Hi-Res and Immersive Audio
In the past year, many audio companies have introduced products that allow you to play hi-res audio files, which are, in effect, the 4K-video content of the audio world. These so-called "lossless" formats allow you to listen to uncompressed music files that feature the subtle sonic details that highly compressed files, like MP3s, tend to lose. At CES, we expect to see even more devices that can play hi-res audio.
Another new technology that's gaining steam is immersive audio, which lets you hear audio from every angle, including above and behind you. We expect to see more consumer-based products using it, including headphones and car stereo systems.
5. Streaming Music Integration
As streaming music services continue to gain in popularity, we’ll be seeing those services integrated into more products. For instance, Sonos announced that it has worked with Spotify to allow a more seamless integration of the music-streaming app into its own app. This means you won’t have to leave the Sonos app to adjust your Spotify playing list. We excpect to see more of this consumer-friendly type of integration in 2017.
Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.