It’s fair to say Anders Knutsen’s time as CEO and president of hi-fi firm Bang & Olufsen was a success. The figures speak for themselves – record-breaking profits and a soaring share price – but under his leadership B&O managed to turn round its slide into irrelevancy and become that rare thing: a truly cool technology brand. By which I mean that even if you couldn’t afford to actually buy any of its hi-fis, you could at least dribble over the pictures of them in magazines.
Anyway, Knutsen doesn’t have anything to prove after his time at B&O, so what’s he doing joining the board of Brit startup Sonaptic, which makes 3D-audio technology for mobile phones? He spoke to Tech Digest on why he made the leap into the world of mobile surround-sound, how it will shift more high-end handsets, and whether mobiles could eventually displace the humble hi-fi from your living room.
Let’s start with Sonaptic, which recently announced that its Sonaptic Sound technology is now inside more than 10 million mobile handsets through its partnership with Texas Instruments – even if many of those are in Japan. Over here, you might have seen (or rather heard) it in the Sharp 903, which came out on Vodafone last year (left).
Surround sound for mobile music and TV are the main draws, although it can also be used to make mobile games more immersive. So what hooked Knutsen?
“I didn’t know the company before they contacted me, but they gave me a demo on a phone, and I was really impressed with how much better it was than listening to music with a normal headset,” he says. “It reminded me of when at Bang & Olufsen, we said instead of standing outside the concert hall, we were going to move into the concert hall and sit in the middle. That’s how Sonaptic’s technology sounded to me too the first time I heard it."
One of Knutsen’s main jobs at Sonaptic will be to get the firm’s technology installed in more handsets in Europe and North America. But do mobile users really want surround-sound in their phones? After all, decent stereo would be a start for many handsets if you’re listening to music.
Knutsen is even-handed, admitting that mobile music has always been about convenience rather than quality. However, he believes that’s beginning to change, albeit slowly. It’s a sales problem more than anything though – how do people know they want 3D sound until they’ve heard it?
“Never ask consumers what they would like, as they really do not know!” says Knutsen. “They want what they have today, and are very seldom able to express what new features they would like. But there have been a few articles on headsets and mobiles, and how important sound is, on the basis that 3D sound is better, so some customers will ask for it.”
Knutsen doesn’t think people would buy handsets today solely because they offer 3D sound, but says it can become one of the expected features on top-end handsets, including those focusing on music. One intruiging question is whether mobiles will ever be used in the home to play music, as well as out and about. You can already plug some phones into your TV to watch video clips full-screen, so will the same thing happen with your hi-fi?
“Mobile playback devices are going to play a bigger and bigger role in the future,” says Knutsen. “You can imagine that one day you’ll simply use your mobile device as your domestic playback device too. You can never have as good an experience as with fantastic loudspeakers, but you can get close to it.
But wait a second before chucking your B&O speakers in the bin. Knutsen says the focus of Sonaptic’s business will continue to be mobility, rather than trying to kill off the hi-fi manufacturers’ business.
“I don’t feel the target group is what you call the hi-fi nuts, the audiophiles who are really passionate about movies and sound,” says Knutsen. “You cannot get the same quality experience when you are running around as when you are sitting quiet in your room. But it’s about the convenience.”
Rather cheekily, I wonder whether Knutsen thinks there’s a role in the mobile space for traditional hi-fi firms like B&O, maybe with super-high-end music handsets? Of course, that’s a road B&O has already gone down with Serene, a concept handset announced last year together with Samsung (right). It promised to offer "the purest relationship between function and form" – with a £1,000-plus price tag to match.
“Well, I’m not that fond of it,” says Knutsen. “It has two names, Samsung and Bang & Olufsen. That would have never happened in my time. But it does show that design elements can be very important.”