Steve Goldstein: The State of Audio at CES 2021

Steve Goldstein’s Amplifi Media works with media companies and podcasters in developing audio content strategies. Goldstein writes frequently at Blogstein, the Amplifi blog. Steve can be reached directly at 203-221-1400 or sjgoldstein-at-amplifimedia-dot-com.

Going to CES over the past few years was like walking into a candy store for anyone in the business of audio. There were smart speakers, infotainment stacks in cars, and hearable devices on the hardware side of the business. On the content side was an explosion of innovation in podcasting, streaming, and artificial intelligence.  There was even a Disney-like ride from Google.

Of course, everything was different this year.

Last week’s stripped-down and virtual CES experience had a changed feel. Amazon and Google were not on hand (no Disney-like ride from Google), and as one might expect, the car companies had limited participation. All of these factors combined meant audio didn’t have the same profile as years past.

One of the great values of going to CES is seeing where audio fits into the larger marketplace.

Can you hear me now? The MaskFone

Can you hear me now? The MaskFone

C Space, which covers the intersection of entertainment and tech, didn’t have any direct podcast or audio related sessions. This omission was a bit of a surprise but may speak more to the seismic changes in entertainment consumption brought on by working at home, and the ongoing streaming service wars.

That doesn’t mean audio was not on the minds of tech companies. And yes, there are some predictable inventions such as a mask with a microphone built-in.

Podcasts At CES 2021

There was only one podcast session this year from Digital Hollywood, a one-day CES related conference. The session was skillfully moderated by Macmillan Publishers’ VP Podcasting, Kathy Doyle and featured an array of star podcast chieftains who primarily focused the conversation on consolidation and talent acquisition.

Panelists from Digital Hollywood’s podcast panel

Panelists from Digital Hollywood’s podcast panel

A good reminder from Conal Byrne, who leads iHeart Podcast Networks, is while the industry is experiencing significant growth, two-thirds of Americans are not yet listening to podcasts. Panelists also discussed international as a big opportunity.  You can watch the session with Kathy, Conal, and Sarah Van Mosel of Stitcher, Moses Ajibade Soyoola of OTHERtone Media, Hernan Lopez of Wondery, and Chris Corcoran of Cadence13 right here.

In-Car Audio At CES 2021

It wouldn’t be a CES recap without asking, who will control the infotainment stack in the car? That is an ongoing issue. Will it be the auto companies who largely have stumbled for years creating difficult to navigate user interfaces? Or will it be the technology companies simplifying and controlling much of the experience, such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto? There is plenty of tension between the two.

Enter Amazon Alexa. Or actually, re-enter Alexa. Last year at CES, Amazon had a large presence focused on Alexa in the car, either through their own software and hardware or in-car integration. This year Amazon went a step further, announcing they are enabling automakers to build custom assistants. These assistants have elements such as proprietary wake words, custom voices and car-specific capabilities (“turn on the windshield wipers”). Fiat Chrysler will be the first customer.

Jacobs Media President Fred Jacobs, Arianne Walker, Chief Evangelist Alexa Auto

Jacobs Media President Fred Jacobs, Arianne Walker, Chief Evangelist Alexa Auto

Alexa Amazon Auto Chief Evangelist Arianne Walker appeared via Jacobs Media’s excellent private Virtual Tour of CES to add comment and offer details to the group regarding audio and the in-car experience.

On the voice front, smart speaker hype has cooled a bit as companies of all types launched various “skills” only to find lukewarm consumer engagement. It turns out even after several years in homes, people continue to use smart speakers for basic and default actions like getting the weather, streaming music and finding out when Millard Fillmore was president as covered in our recent post with Edison Research Senior VP Tom Webster. Smart device integration is becoming a bigger focus, as are smart speakers with screens.

The ‘New New Thing’ At CES 2021

Shelly Palmer’s always interesting Innovation Summit gathering led off with a female sounding British voice-over announcer introducing the line-up for the event.  Except she was not British, nor female, nor human. “She” was created using AI.

I’ve been pitched artificial voice products several times. You can try one for yourself here.

One of the things I have learned attending CES over the years is to raise an eyebrow or two at the “new new thing.” Sometimes things don’t work. Sometimes they take longer. Sometimes users respond differently than creators intended.

Self-driving cars, for example, should have already been on the road, according to, well, everyone, but it will likely take many more years. There is always some fantasy. GM showed a Jetsons-like Cadillac eVTOL Air Taxi, a drone large enough to transport people.

5G hype is slowly becoming reality. Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg’s CES 2021 kickoff keynote called 5G essential tech of the present and future and no doubt it will be. The keynote covered the capabilities of 5G’s impressive speed. But today’s reality is that these promised speeds are choppy, signals getting through walls can be a challenge, and coverage remains a big issue. You can watch the keynote here.

A “high-five” to CES leadership including Gary Shapiro, President of the Consumer Technology Association and his remarkable team for doing what so many companies have had to do this year – reinvent. It feels like ten years of learning in nine months.  As Gary says, every company is now a digital company.

And an important shout-out to my CES sherpa Buzz Knight.

Steve Goldstein