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Thinking back, looking forwards

Thinking back, looking forwards

While Americans break their end of year celebrations fairly evenly between Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year, we English pack them all together into one massive body-busting blitz. This begins half way through Christmas Eve, lumbers drunkenly through the million-calorie Christmas Day feast, crashes through the “you didn’t eat all 25lbs of food yesterday, so let’s fry it for lunch” excess of the Boxing Day celebrations on the 26th, leaving us unable to move until New Year’s Eve, which is the perfect excuse for binge drinking. All the while, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven are duty-bound to appear on TV and – for those few companies that don’t shut down between the breaks – absenteeism and ‘chucking a sickie’ are rife.

But, being unable to blink without medical supervision for several days gives us an ability to go a bit retrospective, and the impending New Year gives us a chance to gaze into the crystal ball.

Here are my personal highlights of 2013:

Vinyl goes from strength to strength

Sales of all things LP are continuing to buck the trend. Where sales of CD and even downloads continue to decline, the vinyl revival continues apace. The market remains relatively small (4.6m LPs sold in the US and 389,000 LPs sold in the UK in 2012) but has continued to increase even in the recent difficult economic conditions. While this is a largely Western phenomenon (the same interest in LP has not spread so dramatically across Asia), the interest in all things vinyl (which is aided and aids surviving specialist record stores) has been recognised even in the mass media. Vinyl-loving audiophiles are expected to be allowed to do their smug ‘told you so’ dance for at least another year or two.

New stores, new possibilities

Despite gloomy forecasts for the future of specialty audio, and the future of retail, this year has seen a number of new audio stores springing up all over the planet. Many seem to have the same outlook – revelling in the ‘boutique’ nature of modern retail, with a small, chic line of products that are in very much in the high-end audio market, but for once providing a service and a portfolio of products that is more geared toward the music lovers in the whole family, rather than the dyed-in-the-wool audiophile in his man-cave.

DSD is back from the dead

Although the format remained popular among some classical enthusiasts and Japanese collectors, the future looked bleak for SACD and the Direct Stream Digital format a few years ago. High resolution audio collectors were switching to downloads, and those downloads were 26/96 and 24/192 PCM in nature. Then, a group of digital experts (including dCS and JRiver) created an open standard that allowed DSD files to be handled as ‘fake’ PCM files, thereby permitting transmission across USB.

While the number of high-quality DSD recordings available are still small in number, this has become the year of DSD, because practically every new DAC priced beyond the bargain basement level now sports DSD replay capabilities. This has had a knock-on effect of making many non-DSD capable products considered ‘dead in the water’ by audiophiles, irrespective of their baseline performance on other formats. Time will tell if this is a fad, or if DSD becomes the de facto standard for high-performance digital audio.

There’s more to life than Beats

Audiophiles frequently dismiss Beats as a bass-heavy fashion-led headphone range, but the wider implications of the brand are beneficial for all. At a stroke, Beats increased tenfold or more the average amount spent on headphones, thereby allowing manufacturers the provision to build up to a quality instead of building down to a price. High performance headphones from specialist brands new and not so new, as well as products leveraging years of loudspeaker-building experience now abound.

Beats star is not exactly on the wane, but an increasing group of good sounding high-end rivals, have challenged its position of absolute dominance. This year may well be looked upon as the year the audio industry fought back the Beats, and the year that every speaker brand suddenly discovered the landscape between the ears.

Small is beautiful

Continuing a trend, 2013 saw wider approval of uncompromising products on a smaller scale. The new trio of slimline, do-it-all DAC/amplifiers from Devialet and the new Wadia Intuition 01, as well as top-line minimonitors such as the Raidho D1 are the latest products in the changing face of audio. While there will likely always be call for large, full range loudspeakers, the demands of the uncompromising city-dwelling audiophile without endless real-estate acreage are now being met, and brands like Wilson with its new wall-hugging Duette 2 are meeting that demand well.

Some of this desire for smaller products extends to sticker prices. Although the sticker price of the top-end of audio continues to soar, we’ve recently seen a slew of high-performance audio products without five or six-figure sums. A system comprising Arcam’s irDAC with the A18 integrated amplifier and a pair of KEF LS50s (for example) produces excellent performance in everything except ultimate deep bass without a price that sounds like it should be someone’s cellphone number.

KIckstart(er) your audio business

Although there aren’t a significant number of projects happening in audio, the rise in crowd-funded projects has seen changes – usually changes for the better in the way audio comes to market. Generally, such projects have been relatively low-cost, popular devices in the headphone and turntable domains, but the speed of funding such projects typically generate shows that audio is not a tired old backwater, after all.

 

Not everything in the garden is rosy, though. And there are some concerns that have developed recently:

Continental Drift

The demands of an audio enthusiast used to be relatively uniform, if sometimes so parochial they bordered upon xenophobic. We all wanted to get the best from our music; the way to that goal might vary as a function of disposable income and room size, but we all had more in common than not.

That could be changing, and changing on a fairly deep level. Just take formats for example – Asia is still very much CD and SACD based, Europe is the home of high-resolution PCM-based networked streaming, while the US is moving toward a computer+DAC DSD replay model. While these are not incompatible with one another, they move in different directions. The vinyl revival, too, varies from region to region, as does interest – or the lack thereof – in room treatment or correction, integrating multiroom or home cinema/home theater systems, and more. Even the size and type of speaker system, and the tubes-vs-solid-state debate take on broadly continental differences.

As we strive to take a global perspective on all things audio, this is a concern. Not just in terms of self-interest, but because right now the pursuit of good audio often lacks momentum in some countries, without some kind of universal appeal we all get that little bit smaller.

Price Myopia

The most common cry in audio today is one bemoaning the increased cost of it all. This is not without good reason, but is also a sign of a blind spot in audio. What seems to have happened in audio is more or less inflation-linked price increases, with two unique twists. First, the economies of scale that used to exist in making good, inexpensive audio have largely shifted to the headphone world, so genuinely value-led, high-performance two-channel audio has become increasingly hard to find. Not impossible to find, but where there might have been a dozen brands competing for that good first rung on the audio ladder, now there might be just two or three.

Second, and related to the first, is the relative lack of interest in that entry-level end by those who are interested in the hobby, and the magazines and websites that support the enthusiasm. This is a function of fewer new people starting on the ladder; enthusiasts who view the first rungs on the ladder in terms of ‘been there, done that’, are not interested in reading about such equipment.

At the other end of the scale, the high-end is now free from the constraints of ‘attainable’ and can pursue the highest possible performance irrespective of price. The difficulty in some respects is those who a few years ago could reach the pinnacle of performance, now look upon today’s acme of audio as completely unattainable, and are (somewhat justifiably) upset at their relegation. The problem with ‘cost no object’ is there is always a point where one objects to the cost.

Obsolescence comes as standard

With many more adopting computers as the source component, audio has suddenly had to cope with the increased speed of the market. Audio is a very mature branch of consumer electronics; we consider products in life-spans measured in decades. The computer industry thinks in terms of months. The concept of something like a Denon DL-103 (which has been in production for half a century) is not simply absurd, but almost unthinkable to those who assume their laptop is out of date as soon as they buy it.

This has changed the fortunes of audio companies, and not always for the better. A product like the Quad ESL-63 – which was in the R&D stage for two decades – is never going to happen again, because the end product might have a year or two of sales before the ‘but what have you done for me lately?’ dip begins to take its toll.

There needs to be some balance. Audio companies are often too small, and the products they make too well established, for massive reinventions of product performance every two years, but that is what is demanded of audio today. We have already seen this change in stance hit the DAC world – audiophiles insisted 24/96 DACs were obsoleted by 24/192 DACs, and now those DACs are themselves rendered obsolete by DSD-compatible devices. The brief popularity of gainclone chip-amps, the ‘special’ first-generation PlayStation as CD player and many more were short-lived audio fads in the first years of the 21st Century. There will be more.

 

Next, here’s what may just be the important audio trends of 2014:

Active monitors

The close of this year saw Quad announce its Compact 9AS active monitor loudspeakers. These join models from ATC, AVI, Audioengine, Bryston, KEF, Linn, Meridian, PMC and more who now form the domestic active speaker club.

Actives have seldom had a place in the audiophile’s listening room, in part because many audiophiles prefer to pick and choose their own amplifiers, rather than be forced into using the in-speaker amps of the manufacturer. However, the move toward smaller, desktop-oriented audio and semi-pro musicians has created a groundswell of active users, while the increased use of DSP at the top end of the domestic active market looks set to make 2014 a big year for powered speakers in all shapes and sizes.

The year of the headphone amp

The last two years have seen a plethora of loudspeaker brands turning their respective hands to headphones. Now it’s the turn of the electronics companies. An increasingly rich and diverse aspect of audio, the combination DAC/headphone amplifier is a market well tapped by specialists in the field, but recently more traditional brands better known for high-end separates have started making high-grade products in this field; Naim, Meridian and now Chord Electronics have already stuck their flags in this fertile ground. They will be joined by many.  

Elsewhere in the on-ear world, the trend in top-end headphones will be definitely geared toward planar magnetic designs, with hopefully more brands joining Abyss, Audeze and HiFiMAN at the top table. The in-ear world has possibly seen its peak with the $1,000 AKG K3003, but devices like this and the Sennheiser IE800 set a high price bar for non-custom IEMs that the custom market is rising to meet.

Taking the room seriously. Again.

The drive for improved room acoustics in the domestic environment is a cyclic thing. Enthusiasts invest in room treatment and correction for a while, then blow cold on the whole thing for a few years. It could even be argued that interest in room acoustics is inversely proportional to interest in cables. However, currently it seems as if the interest in room treatment is on the upswing.

Part of this does come down to more domestically acceptable room acoustic treatment and less confusing interfaces for DSP-based solutions, and part comes from the relative ease of introducing DSP room correction at source when that source is a computer, but it seems the room is returning to its rightful place as being an important consideration in the selection and enjoyment of music in the home.

All quiet on the Loudness front?

Although many chart recordings arrive pre-ruined with virtually no dynamic range and peak volume content delivery, the tide seems to be turning for clipped and compressed music. Some of this is a reflection of the music business trying to understand why people born years after vinyl should have been dead and buried prefer to listen on LP to downloads, because it’s all but impossible to cut LPs at 0dBFS without groove collapse. Some comes down to discussions and even legislation against peak loudness music, for fear of damaging our children’s hearing. And some of it is ‘an artist’s response to justified criticism’, but without Shostakovich’s equally justified fear of the Gulags.

Whatever the cause, the result has been an increasing interest in delivering music with something closer to a workable dynamic range. There’s still a long way to go, but the chances are stronger that if you buy an album recorded in 2014, it will be more dynamically acceptable than if it were recorded two, three or even five years ago. And with that increased dynamic range comes increased interest on playing the music on something better than the lowest common denominator of audio equipment.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the end of this year is when the last of the Baby Boomers turn 50. And traditional audio has been in lock-step with the desires, demands and requirements of Baby Boomers. Although there’s a whole new world out there – one that is being met by good vinyl and headphone systems – we Boomers are known for being self-obsessed and entertainment led, which may continue to cause a dichotomy in audio design. As Baby Boomers continue to age (dis)gracefully, will we allow what’s next in audio to thrive, or cast it out because it doesn’t fit our requirements, especially as increasing numbers of Boomers move into a post-consumer lifestyle.

And have a Happy New Year!

Do you agree, or is this complete nonsense? Will Pono revolutionise music in 2014, or will next year be a year of Nothing Special, with no great changes in the way music is heard? Your thoughts and comments are welcome…

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