CES 2020 audio predictions: Expect more noise-canceling headphones and 3D music

CES is always full of mystery. That’s what makes it so much fun — and so terribly difficult to prepare for. That said, while we’re always in for some surprises, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to read at least some of the writing on the wall. When it comes to audio at CES 2020, we can predict the expansion of at least two major trends: True wireless earbuds and 3D immersive audio.

Easy guesses, you say? OK, I’ll give you that, but let’s dig a little deeper into both topics to give a preview of some of the biggest trends in audio that we’ll see at the show in January — and during the next year as well.

Cut the noise

Apple AirPods Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

While true wireless earbuds (that is, those without any wires at all) have been kicking around for a few years now — with Apple’s AirPods often leading the way — 2019 was a watershed year.

As prefaced at last year’s CES, new strides in Bluetooth efficiency saw maximum battery life double across the board for true wireless earbuds this year, from around 5 hours per charge to the new bar of up to 10 hours. But earbuds from the biggest brands that weren’t doubling down on battery life were instead leveraging this new efficiency for an enticing new feature: Active noise cancellation.

Sony’s fantastic WF-1000XM3 were the first pair of noise-canceling true wireless earbuds from a major player to hit the market, and they turned the genre on its head. Others soon followed, including Apple’s AirPods Pro and Master and Dynamic’s MW07 Plus

One of the most intriguing new options to emerge in 2019 was Amazon’s entry, the Echo Buds, which offer Active Noise Reduction designed by Bose (not full-on cancellation), along with solid sound and battery life, for just $130. That’s less than half the price of some of those other guys, and well below the $200+ price tag noise cancellation tech for wireless buds previously demanded.

It’s no stretch to expect many more pairs of true wireless earbuds with noise cancellation to arrive this year in a variety of forms. Not all will be great — in fact, many will be terrible — but the flood of new entries is likely to drive down prices significantly, making 2020 an even more compelling time to get in on the trend. Expect longer battery life, lower prices, and noise cancellation to run rampant in true wireless buds at CES 2020.

3D audio: It’s not just for movies anymore

You’re going to see more 3D music at CES 2020. Yes, just call me Nostradamus.

John Velasco / Digital Trends

I’ll attempt to forecast further, but the fact is that while a more immersive way to listen to your music should be a trend at CES once again this year, the means and methods are … complicated. Let me explain.

Yes, 3D music has been around for years now. Dolby, DTS, and others have attempted to leverage the same height-channel information and object-based mixing technologies that have revolutionized cinema to do the same for music. Essentially, music is mixed using height channels alongside traditional surround channels to make it feel like it’s fully surrounding you. But the format, long banished to Blu-ray discs, has yet to take off due in large part to its lack of availability.

That’s changing now that streaming services are getting in on the fun. Amazon Music launched a hi-res tier in 2019 for just $15 — $5 more than its standard service — which incorporates tracks new and old that have been mixed using 3D audio technology. But there’s still a huge drawback: The service really only works with Amazon’s new smart speaker, the Echo Studio.

Dolby, one of the services helping to pioneer this movement, recently announced that, along with Amazon Music, Dolby Atmos tracks are available on Tidal, Jay-Z’s streaming service. But Dolby’s not the only company doubling down on 3D music.

At CES 2019, Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format proved a force to be reckoned with, especially since Sony isn’t just a software company or even a hardware designer — it’s also a major music and movie studio. The company is using its considerable clout in the music industry to put weight behind its new 3D music format, including loading its own tracks onto Amazon’s hi-res streamer.

At CES 2020, I expect to see both Dolby and Sony (among others, potentially) expanding their foothold in the emerging 3D music arena, as both brands are betting on this new shake-up of the aging stereo-music paradigm. But exactly how this will manifest remains a mystery — especially when it comes to hardware.

Dolby Atmos-ready soundbars and receivers are just aching to add music to the mix, but they’re currently confined to sourcing Atmos content from Blu-ray discs and a few streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+. This also means that the vast majority of the content is cinematic only. Meanwhile, though Sony’s 360 Reality Audio software is designed to work with headphones, we’ve yet to see a mainstream delivery method for everyday listeners.

It’s something of a long shot, but I’m hoping we see more expansion of 3D music into both software and hardware at the show so this new immersive format can finally take flight. (That’s partly my own selfishness, as I’ve heard 3D music in action and it’s pretty incredible.) Either way, expect 3D music (and 3D audio in general) to once again make a splash at the show — and if any new hardware that’s compatible with these formats does pop up, you can be sure we’ll be all over it.

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