This could be the last year you’ll want to buy headphones — a new audio technology is coming in 2019 that could make them obsolete

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Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

  • A startup called Noveto has come up with technology to deliver sound right to your ears without your wearing any device at all.
  • The technology uses focused sound waves.
  • Noveto brought on Brian Wallace, who helped raise $1.4 billion for Magic Leap, to be CEO and help bring the product to market.

Headphones may start to look like old technology in 2019 when Noveto, a startup based in Israel, showcases its new “focused audio” devices to attendees of the biggest tech show of any year, CES.

Noveto has come up with a technology that can do exactly the same thing as headphones – deliver sound right to your ears without disturbing those around you – except without the headphones themselves. In fact, you wouldn’t need to wear any device at all.

Focused audio can come either from a standalone device, which the company is calling Sowlo for now, that looks like a small soundbar or Bluetooth speaker, or from any device that usually makes sound, like a TV, computer monitor, smartphone, or tablet, or even things like a treadmill with Noveto’s technology built in.

It emits audio directly to your ears – and it’s amazing, quite frankly. During a demo, I was listening to a video clip that I could hear loud and clear, but no one around me could. And I wasn’t wearing anything on my head or in my ears.

A prototype of Noveto's focused-audio device embedded on a monitor.

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A prototype of Noveto’s focused-audio device embedded on a monitor.
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Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

If it sounds familiar, you’re maybe thinking of directional audio, which shoots sound in front of the device emitting it. But if you’re not directly in front of a directional-audio speaker, you’re not going to hear it.

Noveto’s focused audio is different – it’s “steerable,” Tomer Shani, a Noveto cofounder, told Business Insider during an interview. That is to say, Noveto’s focused audio can follow you around as you move, something directional audio can’t do.

To follow you around, Noveto uses 3D-tracking technology to see where your ears are, and it delivers audio right to them.

“I need to know the position of your ears in space so I know where to build my sound bubbles,” Shani told Business Insider of the technology. Shani is one of its main engineers, along with his colleague and cofounder, Noam Babayoff.

The blue X marks the spots.

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The blue X marks the spots.
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Noveto

Not just a cool idea that’ll never make it to the mainstream

Noveto attracted the attention of Brian Wallace, who was brought on to help bring the product to market.

It’s a promising move for Noveto. Wallace, now Noveto’s CEO, has spun the marketing wheels at some of the biggest names in the tech industry. You may have heard of some of those names, including BlackBerry, Google, Samsung, the mixed-reality company Magic Leap, the smartphone company Essential, and, most recently, the musician Will.i.am’s earphone company, i.am+. At Magic Leap, Wallace helped raise about $1.4 billion.

Brian wallace Profile Pic

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Brian Wallace

When thinking about the viability of Noveto’s focused-audio technology to become a mainstream product, my mind went directly to virtual reality.

VR is an amazing piece of tech in the same way that Noveto’s technology is amazing. But VR hasn’t enjoyed mainstream popularity, partially because of its typically high price tags, and the best setups require powerful computers, cables absolutely everywhere, and even some pretty involved setting up – not to mention there’s relatively little content being made for VR at the moment.

Noveto seemingly has fewer pain points that could get in the way of mainstream popularity, mostly because it doesn’t require you to really change anything you’re already doing to listen to audio, nor would it cost you more than you might already spend on midrange headphones; standalone units are expected to cost $249 to $299, which is on the lower end. Plus, the content for Noveto is already there – music, video, games, and anything else that involves audio.

And then there’s the potential for existing products to embed Noveto’s technology. This could be amazing in a car, for example. “Each passenger can enjoy their own audio content,” Shani said. “The kids in the back seat can see a Walt Disney [movie] for the 15,000th time, and in the front you can hear something else or just enjoy peace and quiet.”

Noveto has also attracted interest from Dell for monitors and laptops with embedded focused audio.

noveto in car

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Noveto

How does it sound?

In its existing prototype state, Noveto’s technology may not satiate audio-quality enthusiasts. But the sound quality is likely to dramatically improve as development progresses.

Wallace said he believes Noveto could easily give its devices better sound quality than one of the most popular headphones you can buy today.

“Are we going to replace a $10,000 home surround system? No,” Wallace said. “But can we replace 80% of what’s out there? Yes, 100%.”

noveto focused audio prototype

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Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

For now, the focus is to give you personal, private audio listening without wearing something on your head and ears, all while staying aware of your surroundings.

During the demo in a busy hotel lobby, I could hear the video, as well as the activity around me. The only major issue I have is how it works if you’re perpendicular to the device. At a 90-degree angle, the sound bubble would be able to reach only the ear facing the device.

“We can correct for this by positioning the system above the user, allowing us to track the ears no matter the position of the head,” Wallace said. That could mean some extra setting up on the ceiling for home use if you anticipate you won’t be facing the audio source at all times.

Noveto expects the devices to be ready and available to buy by fall 2019.

“The tech is real, ready, and everything set to go,” Wallace said.