Thinking back, looking forwards

What 2013 can tell us about 2014

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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.

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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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