Smart is as smart does. That’s not only one of grandpa’s favorite sayings but also a major theme for audio companies in 2018.

Consumers will see even more smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home land in stores next year, some industry analysts say. And the web-connected, voice-activated devices will come from traditional audio companies, too. 

Audio companies are also adding new digital chops to their headphones, with a particular focus on fitness-tracking features. And analysts say we’ll also see improvements to noise-canceling headphones, along with more completely wireless models. 

We’ll get a first look at 2018 smart speakers and headphones at CES, the giant electronics show held in Las Vegas in early January.

Companies including Harman, JBL, and Samsung plan to introduce new products at the show. Some other top manufacturers, including Sonos and Bose, say they won’t be introducing anything new at CES—though they may launch new products later in the year. 

Here are details on what to expect from 2018 smart speakers and headphones.

Cheaper Smart Speakers ...

The audio world is filled with cheap wireless speakers. According to research by the NPD Group, 90 percent of the speakers sold in the U.S. cost less than $100.

In 2018, analysts expect many speakers to add smart capabilities without getting bigger price tags.

The tech giants “are going to make it pretty easy to license Alexa or Google Assistant with an eye toward getting it into as many homes as possible,” says Benjamin Arnold, a consumer technology analyst with the market research firm NPD Group. “There’ll be very little price premium” for adding smart speaker technology, he says.

And that could make smart technology an everyday feature, according to Brian Blau, an industry analyst with the Gartner research firm. “It’s hard to imagine a future in which most devices that have audio capability—speakers, headphones, headsets—won’t get [digital assistant] capability,” he says. 

That change could mean that more portable speakers will come with both WiFi and Bluetooth technology.

Many portable speakers now only have Bluetooth, for connecting to a smartphone. But having both technologies will allow for better smart-device functionality when you’re on your home network and Bluetooth streaming when you’re out of the house.

Consumers could even see two-part designs that combine a WiFi-enabled base paired with a portable Bluetooth satellite speaker, analysts say.

... And Better-Sounding Ones

Until now, many smart speakers have had one big problem: They’ve been fine for hearing the weather forecast but leave a lot to be desired if you’re listening to Wilco or the Brandenburg Concertos.

“So far, the smart speakers we’ve tested from Amazon and Google have been mediocre purely in terms of sound quality, with none of them earning better than a Good rating,” says Elias Arias, who leads Consumer Reports’ speaker testing. “They wouldn’t be your first choice for listening to music.” 

But that started to change late in 2017. Introduced in October, the Sonos One essentially added smart-speaker technology to the company’s widely sold $200 Play:1 speaker without raising the price. Several Harman speakers now have built-in support for digital assistants. And the Google Home Max, which costs $400, is targeted squarely at music lovers with the promise of high-quality audio.

The same goes for the Apple HomePod. The Siri speaker was slated for a 2017 introduction but is now supposed to debut early in 2018. Like the Google Home Max, the $350 device is being positioned as premium audio product, with a premium price to match.

More 'Hearables'

The headphone industry has been rolling out a new piece of jargon in recent years. The word “hearables” isn’t clearly defined, but it refers to headphones that perform digital magic beyond playing music.

A number of these work as fitness trackers. For instance, the Jabra Elite Sport and Jabra Sport Coach both count exercise reps and steps, and talk you through your workout while running through your playlist. Along with several other headphones, the Elite Sport has a heart-rate sensor. And more choices for fitness-tracking headphones are coming in 2018, analysts predict. 

In addition, a number of headphones now offer customized noise cancelation. The highly rated Bose QuietControl 30 and Sony MDR-1000X headphones, launched in 2016, were two of the first headphones to let users adjust the level of noise cancelation, making it easier to hear airport announcements or sirens, for instance. More of these headphones came on the market in 2017, and their ranks are likely to grow in 2018.

A more cutting-edge “hearable” feature is translation between languages. Along with conventional tasks, the Google Pixel Bud can work with the company’s Pixel phones to provide translations of simple conversations among dozens of languages. “And I think you’ll see [more translation products] showcased this year,” says Blau, the Gartner analyst. 

Some manufacturers, such as Nuheara with its IQbuds, also claim their products are useful simply for filtering out background noise and making it easier to hear conversations. Such products “could be almost like hearing aids for people who can hear fine,” says Arnold, the NPD Group analyst.

And they’ll join other products already blurring the boundary between entertainment and hearing enhancement. Some sound bars and TV settings are meant to make it easier to hear television dialog. And many prescription hearing aids can access music streaming services through a Bluetooth connection to the user’s phone. 

Decline of the Wire

If you go shopping for headphones in 2018, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a wireless model, one that connects to your phone by Bluetooth.

“They’re taking over the category, because in 2017 we’ve seen even more companies remove headphone jacks from smartphones,” says Ross Rubin, principle analyst for Reticle Research, a market research firm.

Taking that trend a step further, look for more truly wireless earbuds, such as the Apple AirPod, Bluetooth models where the earpieces aren’t even tethered to each other. There were just a handful of truly wireless models available in 2017, but that’s likely to change in 2018.

“I think we’ll all benefit from fewer wires in our lives,” Blau says. “They get in the way, they tangle, and they break.”

Audio companies hope that new wireless models, along with “hearable” technology, will persuade consumers to amass a personal quiver of headphones.

“I’ve got a pair for my office, a pair for exercise, and a pair for the plane, and they don’t cross over,” Arnold says. “Apple, Beats, and Sony are trying to tell that story that you need different headphones for different listening environments.” 

Whether that’s true, of course, is up to consumers.