Hi-Fi+: What do you think the high-performance digital audio marketplace will look like five years from now?
CH: First of all, I don’t have a crystal ball, no one does, but there are some trends that seem set to continue.
I was surprised to see how big an impact the PonoPlayer made. We managed to get a lot of Ayre performance from a small, low cost device. This trend is not going to stop — the Codex is an evolution from that. The continuation of increasing processing power and reducing storage costs that led to the emergence of digital audio players in the first place is certainly going to continue. If Moore’s Law holds true then in 5 years time we will have four times the storage and computing power that we have now, for the same price. Gordon Moore said that “we are on the second half of the chessboard” — the gains are enormous.
Such quantitative changes enable qualitative change too. High res will no longer be an issue, to store, replay, or transport. Lower cost, high-performance systems will be possible and available. We need to work on loudspeaker design though, as improved DAC and amplifier performance needs better loudspeaker systems that match them. I can foresee small powerful systems that have great digital capabilities, don’t take a lot of real estate, and embody the core design principles of Ayre that we have pioneered for the past 20 years plus.
Right now, high-resolution audio is an issue in the mainstream. That will become the new normal. Much more important is that people are finally becoming aware of what we've lost when an entire generation has grown up listening to nothing but compressed digital audio played through a cheap portable player. Ayre is helping to restore that loss.
The job of the designer is to deliver convenience and performance, yet doing so at a reasonable price is the trick. That requires new ways of thinking and new solutions. With technology developments, the possibilities are limitless.
Hi-Fi+: When you listen for personal enjoyment, what types of music do you most enjoy?
CH: I love all genres of music. Further I don't limit myself to ‘Western’ music. I love music of other cultures as well, from Balinese gamelan to Bulgarian vocal music to traditional Chinese instruments to Nubian folk songs. It's all good.
I find I'm particularly attracted to music that has rhythmic complexities and subtleties. I studied African percussion music for a few years, and when you only have percussion, timing is everything — literally! Once I understood what was underneath, I could recognize that it was everywhere in all of my favorite music.
The Beatles were famous for changing time signatures in a song. Listen to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ closely. Not only does the time change, but also everywhere time is warped and twisted in completely unexpected ways — from syncopations in the rhythms to the distinctive drum-work to the orchestral overdubs that cut across the beat. Or any of Beethoven's works — there's always an underlying insistent driving rhythmic force, yet it comes and goes. In Symphony No. 7, he literally pulls the rug out from beneath us in the first movement by stopping the music in what seems to be the middle of a phrase — twice!
Listen to any Hendrix guitar solo and he fluidly and effortlessly moves in a way that is almost free from any rhythmic constraints, and at the same time is incredibly precise. Or enjoy Shawn Colvin's songwriting. She's the only folk artist I know who's written several songs using ‘the Bo Diddley beat (actually an ancient African rhythm), as she did with ‘Polaroids’.
Hamza El Din preserved the unique rhythms of Nubian culture that were nearly destroyed when the High Aswan Dam flooded most of their homelands and dispersed their people. In ‘Ollin Arageed’ he presents us with the complex tapestry of three interwoven tar (frame drum) beats, overlaid with a clapped rhythm of astounding intricacy.
Before I had children I played in a local Balinese orchestra, Tunas Mekar, a gamelan angklung. Our instruments only had four notes, so melody and harmony are clearly limited. That shifts the focus shifts to the other two fundamental elements of music: dynamics and timing. To play the rapid melodies, alternating notes are played by different players on different instruments, creating an interlocking whole.
I've found that our conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time. Expanding your awareness to encompass two things simultaneously shuts off the nagging voice in our heads that is always talking to itself. When you silence that voice, there is an infinite number of things that can be heard.
One thing that is clear to me is the power and importance of music. It always has been clear to me, and why I do what I do. Music is elemental and primordial, healing and inspiring in equally measures. It is how human communication started. Music is sublime and the closer we can get to reproducing how we actually communicate through music, the better we know and understand each other. These are exciting times; we are on the threshold of something wonderful, of that I am sure. Just to be a part of it is a privilege. When I see the look on people’s faces when they hear an album through something as small as the PonoPlayer or as refined as our Ayre systems I know in my heart that we are on the right track. That is the reward for all of the effort. It is truly worth it.