Thinking back, looking forwards

What 2013 can tell us about 2014

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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.

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