Thinking back, looking forwards

What 2013 can tell us about 2014

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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.

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