Issue 181 March 2020
High-End Audio Is Evolving
The evolution of audio is a fascinating subject in and of itself, because sometimes it takes unexpected turns. Back at the turn of the century, people in the audio press were constantly discussing 'final vinyl' – that last turntable that manufacturers were hoping you would buy to play those LPs in the loft. But, secretly and in quiet moments, we would turn to makers, distributors and retailers and ask, "when did you actually last sell a record player?"
Today, sales of vinyl and all things turntable are doing well, far better than they were at the turn of the century, when most of the music business had all but written off the format in favour of the CD. While CD sales still outsell LP by a significant amount, the CD has seen a marked decline and has become so unfashionable that its numbers are no longer included in annual statistics published by the music business. Put a question about CD sales figures into Google, and vinyl figures pop out. It's streaming and vinyl please... let's forget about Compact Disc.
All of which means for the last few years, when we have those quiet moments, members of the audio industry turn to one another and say, “but when did you actually last sell a CD player?” Meanwhile, in the topsiest of topsy-turvy events, we have all-in-one systems that feature streaming alongside vinyl and valves, as if 1960 and 2020 collided into one another. Even open-reel and cassette have seen something of a comeback.
CD, on the other hand, remains the red-headed stepchild of audio.
It's hard to imagine a CD revival aping the success of the LP revival to the same extent, if only because the start of the vinyl revival coincided with the retro-obsessed hipster movement. And to most people, CD is as 1980s as big hair and shoulder pads. It seemingly has no place in modern life.
In among some audiophile groups, the CD is still desirable and collectable. It's the way people acquire and listen to music. Some as a reliable one-time digital delivery format, as they rip it to FLAC or WAV. But still more have walked away from streaming because they feel CD sounds better. And, in fairness, many of the listening tests are compelling.
We are remaining firmly unpartisan on the subject. CD is a very mature digital format now, but streaming is improving as we learn more about the infrastructure and methodology; an 'everything matters' approach is rewarding. But maybe, just maybe, there's still life in the polycarbonate disc.