Any line-up of source components in the early months of a year gives one chance to see just what changes are taking place in the wider audio world. More than any other aspect of the audio chain, the front end – digital and analogue – reflect the ways we listen to and acquire our music. It allows you to see trends in the buying habits of audiophiles, and see just how those habits reach out to the wider music loving world.
We have long since stopped being surprised by the vinyl revival and how the format that was supposed to have been supplanted by CD back in the 1990s has come back with some considerable force. Reports of the death of CD are greatly exaggerated, however, and even though every day sees yet more people discover the joys of home and online networked audio, there is still life in the old digital dog yet.
For the most part, however, audiophile listeners are staying with at least two sources, and neither of them are CD. LP and streaming now dominate our world, and while downloading has fallen away in the mainstream, audio enthusiasts remain keen to download good music, if both the sound quality and the resolution of the music files are good enough. In fact, one of the more surprising rebirths in audio is the rise of the reel-to-reel deck. Or perhaps it's not so surprising – open reels were always considered ‘cool' (otherwise Quentin Tarrantino wouldn't have used one in Pulp Fiction), but despite the passing of several decades since tape, tape heads, and tape machines were commonplace, a growing sub-culture of open reel cool has emerged and is growing.
On the digital side, things are changing, and changing for the better. With the wider acceptance of streaming, the technology and the programs that support it are better than ever right now, and the domestic products that occupy that digital landscape are sounding really, really good, too. A world where every day features a new learning curve makes it hard for people to keep up with the changes, but the reward is audio is the move from good sound to great sound.
The other big change is actually a little change. High-end, high-tech no longer needs to be jumbo-sized or jumbo-priced. Some of the most inspiring components we've seen today are designed to bridge the gap between personal and domestic audio, or bridge another gap between digital audio's past, present, and future. I hope that's a trend, because it's a force for good in hi-fi.