The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference took place March 16-20, this time virtually, instead of as a massive in-person confab in Austin, Texas.
In addition to the traditional music and film segments of 2021’s virtual SXSW, which offered everything from a keynote address by Willie Nelson to creatively rendered musical performances and a headline-grabbing documentary about singer Demi Lovato, there is also a technology conference. Given SXSW’s roots as a music festival, it’s no surprise that audio figures largely in panel topics.
In “Audio: The Killer Platform Nobody Is Talking About,” panelists looked at a dynamic familiar to many in the consumer tech industry: While most technologies have improved considerably over the last 20 or so years, audio has not. The panel was moderated by journalist David Bloom and included Dan Mackta of Qobuz, Ken Randall of Hed Technologies, Jacqueline Bosnjak of Q Department and Mach1, and Ty Roberts of Ty Roberts Innovation.
Randall’s company, Hed Technologies, is focusing on hardware to deal with better-quality technology. Mackta’s Qobuz is a high-resolution streaming and download subscription service and store. Bosnjk is the founder of Q Department, a sound production company, and its spinoff, Mach 1, which concentrates on spatial technology. And the music industry veteran Roberts, who called himself “the virtual Swiss Army knife of music,” is mostly an advisor of audio-related startups, and recently started a company for streaming concerts.
Sound is all around.
The panel was not only about audio quality, but also about what companies are doing with audio media in general, from podcasts and streaming music to new apps such as Clubhouse and Calm. Clubhouse, an audio app for live discussion and even live music, has been valued at over $1 billion, while Calm, an app used for meditation, is available on Sonos products and was valued at over $2 billion as of its last funding round in December.
“Audio is hot,” Bloom, the moderator, said, going on to call it a “Cambrian moment” for the sector.
“Audio has been, I think, a little disrespected, in the past, because it’s been a little too focused on compressing the heck out of it to jam it out on the crappiest headphones possible, and the most limited distribution pipelines available.” He noted that Neil Young, among others, has been sounding the alarm about low-quality audio for years. The rock legend introduced Pono, a high-resolution audio player and music ecosystem, at CES in 2015, but it was discontinued just over two years later.
Mobile users need great sound, too.
“For the audiophile purists who still run the vacuum tube, with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, they have no problems,” Randall said. “In the mobile space, and the digital world… it’s really about how do we take advantage of all the hi-res, uncompressed audio, and all this spatial [content that’s] coming online, all these new technologies.”
Hed Technologies, according to Randall, is at the exact right moment to meet these challenges. Costs are optimized, and computing power is massive.
“We started from the ground up with a new type of headphone,” Randall said. “And we decided we’d build based on mobile computing…. We’re just going to blow up the idea of what a headphone is and start from scratch.” The goal is to bring hi-res audio to both an audience that already knows about it, and also a brand-new audience.
Hed will be announcing new products “soon,” Randall said.
“It’s kind of a brave new world, in which the bandwidth, and the hardware, and the content, are all available and here today,” Mackta said. “It’s not an esoteric, unobtainable ideal like it may have been a few years ago.”
From the promise of new products to musicians recording in higher-quality audio, the panelists were unanimous in their excitement about where sound is growing.
“We’ve had pretty crummy audio for a very long time, but now people are [saying] ‘Oh, this sound thing could be pretty big,’” Bloom said.
Electric car audio
Cutting-edge electric cars will also see cutting-edge audio, the presentation called “Revolutionizing the Future of Car Audio with Lucid x Dolby” revealed.
EV manufacturer Lucid announced that Dolby Atmos will come to a car for the first time, through a deal to bring Atmos to the Lucid Air’s 21-speaker Surreal Sound system.
“As the first car to integrate Dolby Atmos, Lucid Air delivers an elevated, multi-dimensional sound experience on par with the other innovations at Lucid,” Derek Jenkins, senior VP of design, Lucid Motors, said in the announcement. “The post-luxury experience is not just about beautiful design and next-generation technology; it also speaks to an unmatched in-car experience that engages all the senses.”
In addition to the Dolby Atmos capability, The Lucid Air will also offer Alexa voice commands.