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2014 high-end audio highlights – and all that!

2014 high-end audio highlights – and all that!

At the end of a year, it’s customary to look back on the past 12 months and look forward to what’s coming in the next 12. Audio is generally a slower moving stream than many consumer electronics streams, and there have been many times where looking back and looking forward is pointless, because there has been nothing to talk about aside from version changes of the same basic product lines, but that wasn’t the case in 2014, and it looks not to be the case in 2015.

The year that is drawing to a close could be seen as the year of digital turmoil. Behind the scenes, there have been some announcements that make the continued development of high-end digital disc players just that little bit more difficult. First, Philips announced it stopped manufacture of the CDM Pro2 transport, that CD player mechanism so beloved by many audiophile brands. Manufacturers using the transport rushed to buy up the last run, and many have stockpiled enough of this vital component to allow for several years’ worth of sales at current levels, and still more for product spares support, but this means those manufacturers who value the CDM Pro2 are currently struggling to find a replacement for the next generation of disc players. Philips has no plans to develop a subsequent transport mechanism, and allegedly requests to custom-build the CDM Pro2 under license have been rejected.

Also in 2014, Esoteric announced that it was to withdraw OEM sales of its VRDS transport mechanism, instead manufacturing the CD/SACD transport mechanism only for its own players in future. Although few third-party manufacturers still use the VRDS mech, those makers either had to invest significant sums in their own future, find a new transport, or leave player making to other manufacturers.

Perversely, at the time when some of the big names in ‘background’ CD and SACD technology are pulling the plug on key components in the manufacture of physical format replay, there has been a move in some audiophile circles to reject streamed, downloaded, and ripped digital files in favour of spinning polycarbonate. In 2012, one of the representatives of an electronics brand told me privately that sales of CD players had ‘fallen off a cliff’; the same maker is now unable to make CD players fast enough. Whether this is yet another short-lived fad, or the start of CD’s comeback remains to be seen.

 

The alternative to physical formats has finally grown on the international market. Once the preserve of US customers (or those with proxy servers) only, high-resolution provider HDtracks began its international roll-out in late 2013, with the service arriving in the UK a few months ago. In addition, high-resolution download and streaming services such as Qobuz and Tidal have delivered real-world audiophile-grade streaming services to rival the likes of Spotify. Granted, much of this new world of audio at your fingertips seems oriented toward rock, pop, and jazz, but these services offer a great deal of promise in an online world more set on quantity than quality.

The widespread move from computer/DAC systems to network streaming predicted at CES 2014 hasn’t seemed to gain the momentum expected a year ago. Yes, the companies who were already heavily invested in networked audio systems (such as Krell, Linn, and Naim) continue to produce system solutions that point to networking as an elegant option for home audio, but a lot of January’s hopefuls remain hopeful. Part of the problem here is the investment needed to distinguish one product from another; recent networked successes such as Primare have spent a great deal of time and money creating an app interface that makes its solutions easy to use. However, a larger problem emerges when trying to introduce networking to people who have a comparatively limited understanding of the topic, and are uninterested in learning even the basics. Tales abound within the industry of retailers only selling network audio during the summer months, when the proprietor’s computer-literate son or daughter is back from university. Networked audio is an excellent way of listening to music, a valid alternative to having a computer connected to a DAC in the listening room, and is fast maturing into a system that sounds excellent, but it will only develop if people are willing to explore what it offers. It will be interesting to see if the excitement over networking shown at CES 2014 continues into this year, or whether we are back to DACs once more.

 

2014 was also the year the digital spec war really took off. Audiophiles moved from demanding 24/96 to insisting upon 24/192 repay in their DACs in about four years, but went from there to demanding DSD, then DSD128, and now DSD256 and DSD512 in the space of about a year and a half. This has also moved across the board; it’s virtually impossible to sell a DAC that doesn’t support DSD now, regardless of price. Some of this demand for DSD comes down to ticking a box and little more; I’m fairly sure that very few people who are about to spend $150 on a USB DAC will ever amass a collection of DSD files for replay, but that seems immaterial next to DSD’s ‘must have’ status among the cognoscenti. Although DSD512 represents the current acme, I have a sneaking suspicion 2015 will be the year people start asking for 32bit, 384kHz DACs across the board, irrespective of whether there’s music commercially available at that resolution. Personally, I’d rather see a ‘stop the insanity’ move in digital audio, but that seems unlikely at this time.

Moving away from digital, analogue continues to go from strength to strength. These things are relative – new vinyl sales continue to increase, but still represent less than a two per cent share of total music sales – but refreshing. Granted most of these LPs are being played on relatively low-end turntables, but the high-end turntable market has also increased in sales and value year-on-year-on-year. And this shows no signs of slowing; in fact, we are seeing increased interest in bringing 21st Century technology to turntable design, with technologies like VPI’s 3D printed arm, a return to direct drive from a number of manufacturers (sometimes well executed direct drive, too!), and Kronos’ counter-rotating platters all point to continued development long past LP’s supposed End of Life.

Developments in amplifiers and loudspeakers move at a relatively slow pace, in part because much of the fundamental development in these technologies requires big budgets and was performed decades ago. Nevertheless, changes are taking place even in these mature sectors. Audiophiles traditionally discounted active loudspeakers and digital signal processing, but inroads are being made here. In part, this comes down to improvements in processing power, meaning the speed of DSP systems can keep up with the material. Acceptance is still low, but gaining ground, especially as a new generation weaned on tiny loudspeakers corrected by DSP begin to move up the audio ladder.

 

A recent development in this is Devialet’s SAM technology, which maps the sub-200Hz region of a loudspeaker and provides an optimal passive amplifier output for that design. In smaller loudspeakers in particular, this form of correction works wonders, and the list of loudspeakers that have been mapped by Devialet grows week by week. Whether variations on this idea begin to appear in other amplifier designs remains to be seen, but this seems to offer a valid way to help improve the performance of systems in the home.

The headphone market has cooled somewhat since its significant expansion five years ago, but ‘cooled’ is a relative term. While it’s true that certain sectors of the in-ear world are over-subscribed, key parts of the headphone and CIEM market appear to continue to grow. Those people who went from $20 earbuds to $200 Beats are now increasingly looking toward high-performance headphone and CIEM solutions costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This is accompanied by improved DAC and amp systems, and – more recently – high grade cable systems, too. While it seems the loudspeaker brands turning to headphones are no longer growing in number, there are a number of high-end cable brands now delivering high-end headphone and in-ear systems, as a result of discovering the headphone market is open to such opportunities.

There are also changes (good and bad) happening outside the world of audio technology that have their influence on our little world. We lost one of the industry’s greats in the passing of Harry Pearson. We have seen small indicators that some of the worst excesses of ‘the loudness war’ are behind us, with tracks even from mainstream artists having more dynamic range than previous years examples. There is still a long way back, though, but it seems music companies are beginning to return to considering sound quality, at last. Pragmatism rules here; labels are motivated by financial considerations, and if people buy more albums if they sound good, but only listen for free on YouTube if they don’t, the record labels will make better sounding material, and that is beginning to take effect. This can be placed firmly at the rise in interest in vinyl, but we are buoyed by record company interest expressed in Tidal and MQA as an indicator that things might be swinging back in our favour.

On a geopolitical level, sanctions imposed on Russia, the fall in the price of oil, and the value of the Rouble have all caused a fairly significant drop in the sales of high-end audio to the important Russian market. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s anti-graft drive in China is taking its toll in the audio business, but is more directed at Rolex-wearing Communist Party functionaries than the country’s burgeoning middle class and its aspirations. Nevertheless, there’s a very real concern that two of the most important markets for audio in recent years have suffered a ‘wobble’ and that this may continue. This may prove a benefit for those seeking more value-driven audio products, if the focus moves away from the demands of the super-rich in Russia and China.  

Next time, what we hope to see at CES 2015 and what a difference a decade can make!

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