Wireless audio is booming as a consumer category. All one needs to do is walk into a retailer like Best Buy BBY -0.99%and see the multiple rows dedicated to it. Wireless audio benefited from the general growth of the premium music headphone phenomenon, and we have Beats Audio and Dr. Dre to thank for that. The majority of the wireless audio products use either Bluetooth or AirPlay to connect the device to the speaker or headphone. The problem is that both of those standards fall short on quality and ease of use.The SKAA wireless audio standard could solve most of today’s problems and has the potential to disrupt and displace both Bluetooth and AirPlay in the premium sound category. I will outline this below and if you are looking for a deeper analysis, you can find that here.
Let’s start with Bluetooth. Most wireless audio products use stereo Bluetooth. It’s on all smartphones, tablets and on many but not all computers. Bluetooth’s primary use has been simple: connecting one phone to one headset or earpiece like Jawbone so we can talk and drive. But as we have all experienced at some point, Bluetooth is an absolute nightmare to pair and maintain a reliable pairing. To add to the pairing nightmare, Bluetooth-based speakers also face the contention problem, where if multiple family members have paired to the same speaker, they can “steal” control. In my house, we share a wireless Bose system across 4 people. If my wife is connected, even if she’s not using it, I have to ask her or my two daughters to turn off Bluetooth on their phones to let me in. Adding insult to injury, I cannot walk too far from my speaker or else I will start hearing hissing and popping. I literally don’t use my shiny new Bose Christmas present any more and it sits in the corner unused. Then there’s Apple AAPL +0.67%’s AirPlay.
The other wireless alternative is Apple’s AirPlay. I think AirPlay is a very cool feature to mirror my Mac and iPad displays, but it comes with its own set of major issues for audio, too. First, you need a WiFi network to use it. That negates the possibility of taking that AirPlay-based set of wireless speakers to the company picnic, unless you bring a router with you. Secondly, it only works on the iPhone, iPod and iPad. I just recently switched from an iPhone 4S to an HTC One X and my tablet to a Nexus 7, therefore evaporating my AirPlay investment. This is great for Apple, but not for the other 75% of smartphone owners out there.
AirPlay also limits my ability to enjoy certain audio usage models. First, there are no AirPlay headphones. Secondly, if I want to play a game or watch a movie directly on my iPad, I cannot send the audio to a wireless speaker as it will be out of sync with the video over AirPlay and for any other WiFi-based wireless speaker solution. This is because AirPlay uses that oh-so unreliable home WiFi network with higher latency, and if it is 2.4Ghz., it is susceptible to interference from Bluetooth, the neighbor’s WiFi, microwave ovens and cordless phones. There is hope for audiophiles as a new, disruptive standard is coming to market for premium wireless audio called SKAA.
SKAA comes from the professional and pro-sumer music world. The basis for SKAA is a standard called PAW, or Pro Audio Wireless, and powered the wireless gear for artists like Lady Gaga and Keith Urban. They used PAW in concerts because of its high quality with a high bit rate, long range, and because wasn’t susceptible to interference from other 2.4 GHz devices like smartphones and WiFi. SKAA, simply put, is the consumer flavor of PAW, designed for consumer phones, tablets, computers, TVs, and game consoles.
With SKAA, consumers can connect up to 4 speakers from one device, and because it has long range and multi-point capabilities, consumers could have four speakers in the kitchen, living room, dining room, and bed room all broadcasting the same, synchronized audio. The pairing nightmare goes away as it uses small, mobile-friendly, wireless transmitters that immediately start playing the music after pressing one button the first time you get a speaker. Wireless transmitters are currently available for Apple’s 30-pin devices and USB for all computers, Mac, PC, and even Linux. Apple’s Lightning devices, micro-USB for Android devices, and other wireless transmitters are coming soon.
So am I saying that Bluetooth and AirPlay are going away? Absolutely not as these are two pervasive and flexible standards that will be here for a long, long time. For audio, particularly premium audio, I do believe that SKAA-based speaker and headphone solutions will start to permeate retailers, and over time, squeeze out AirPlay from that premium space. This is disruption at its finest.
If you want a deeper dive, you can see more here.
Disclosures: Moor Insights & Strategy provides research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to many high-tech companies, including Nortek, Inc., who licenses SKAA. No employees at the firm hold any equity positions with any companies cited in this documented.