Lounge speaks to the CEO of Sennheiser on the evolution of headphones, and the link between sound and AI
Andreas and his brother Daniel assumed responsibility of the German company in 2013
When German entrepreneur Fritz Sennheiser founded Laboratorium Wennebostel in 1945 (the company was renamed Sennheiser Electronic in 1958), he was creating things, according to his grandson Andreas, in the age of inventors. “His time was focused on pure research, ground up innovation and things that were needed after the war," says Andreas.
Tube voltmeters, stereo microphones, open headphones and mixing amplifiers, among other things—the trail of inventions kept getting longer as the years went by. But when Andreas and his brother Daniel assumed responsibility of the company in 2013, the age of inventors had long matured into the “age of innovation". Knowing what the customer demands is one thing, but staying in tune with the technological advancements of the current world is another.
“We put a lot of emphasis on innovation in a more collaborative context. All our innovations are embedded into ecosystems. It’s nothing we can do solely by ourselves. We have to connect to the rest of the tech world," explains Andreas.
If answering machines were the big thing in the 1960s, then the convergence of audio with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is what’s turning heads in 2019. In an interview with Lounge, Andreas Sennheiser, who was in Delhi this month, speaks about the relationship between Artificial Intelligence (AI) and audio, the role of sound in connected homes, and why headphones will become the central man-machine interface for the Internet of Things (IoT). Edited excerpts:
Sennheiser has been in India for more than a decade. What have you learnt about the sound preferences of Indians and the headphones market here?
India was one of the markets where we learnt a lot for the rest of the world. When we entered the market about 12 years ago, headphones were non-existent as a product category. We built that category. This helps us when we want to build a new category.... In the headphones space, it was really more about the journey from how to develop and build the brand, and develop something from a very entry-level market. We had to first explain why a (pair of) headphones should cost money at all and that it is not just an accessory to a cellphone.... That is what we have really learnt from the Indian market: how to go (through) this entire journey—which may take four decades in Germany—in less than one decade here.
In 1968, your company launched the world’s first open headphones, the HD 414. Since then, the world has gone from 3.5 mm analogue audio to wireless tech. We are now in the era of USB audio. Where do you see headphones going from here?
I see headphones becoming the central man-machine interface for the Internet of Things. That’s because, on the one hand, we have voice-enabled IoT devices, which need input, and, on the other side—I call this AR for audio—you get the reality. Plus, you get the assistance from IoT—information, directions, translation services, and so on. We probably won’t call them headphones then, maybe a wearable.
We got into AR while talking to the founder of MagicLeap, Rony Abovitz. He had the same vision on the visual part. He said, what if you could reproduce a light field as if it were reality? That’s when we joined forces and said if he could do this on the visual part, we could do it on the audio side. This how we got into the idea of AR.... But we have just scratched the surface with the possibility of AR and Ambeo. The first real product was shown at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2016. At the time, the idea behind the VR Mic was to create a counterpart to all the 360-degree cameras coming out, because there was no audio coming in a 3D format.
Algorithmic composition—the technique of using algorithms to create audio and music—is said to be gathering pace. How important do you think the relationship is between AI and audio?
We see Artificial Intelligence as a strong support for many applications, like translation services, but also context-sensitive filtering, especially when I speak of the man-machine interface: The product looks at your behaviour and what you say to give you advice and suggestions. I see very strong applications there.
I also have my reservations there when it comes to the intelligence.... AI is just high-performance pattern recognition. Therefore, it can only recreate things that existed already. What is missing—where I think humans have an advantage over any kind of technology—is unforeseen creativity.
The HD 414 was something that could not have been extrapolated with any other algorithm from the past because it was just an idea.... That’s why I think AI is a strong support for many applications, but I would never see it as a replacement for the true creativity of mankind.
What is the future of audio?
One of the core parts of the future of audio is the connectivity part. By that, I don’t mean just the Bluetooth connection. I mean being part of the cloud, getting services back and feeding data back to the cloud; which means that the future of audio for us is highly application- and context-sensitive. If I am a hearing- impaired person who needs to catch a flight and I need to hear the (airport) announcements well, then the curation of what I hear must be completely different than for an audiophile who just wants to listen to classical music. To use technology to enable those curated individual hearing experiences is, for me,the future of audio in general.
You mentioned the link between connected homes and audio.
As far as connected homes go, everyone is looking for 4K, 8K (visuals). What’s completely missing is that the audio is adding the emotional part to the picture. If you watch a scary movie and if you turn out the sound, it’s no longer scary. But if you turn off the picture and you still have the sound, it’s still pretty scary. For me, picture is information, audio is emotion. More and more people understand this relevance. What makes up the quality in people’s lives is the quality of their emotion and not necessarily what they see. That’s why I believe bringing better audio to people’s homes can have a significant impact on their well-being.