With the CES / T.H.E. Show 2012 now in our collective rear-view mirror, it is always interesting to see the ebb and flow of technology and its implementation. With this New Year, 2012 and the Year Of The Dragon, we may want to take a step back and look at the many new products. It seems that USB DACs, networked players and the like have firmly reached high-end audio shores. We are now seeing more 32-bit/384kHz DACs for audiophiles while many mainstream products now feature multi-room digital music distribution capabilities. Of course there are many new tube amplifiers, including those from the legendary designer Bob Carver, plus more new speakers than can easily be listed here.
As Kodak, a company with over 100 years in businesses now struggling under bankruptcy, realizes... if you don't embrace new technologies you could find yourself in difficult financial times. Many audiophiles i know are also camera buffs. Sure we love our Cannon, Nikon and of course Leica cameras, with the occasional Hasselblad and Rollei thrown in for good measure, yet virtually no one covers audio shows using analog cameras today. i remember back in the late 1990's using my then new Kodak DC40 digital camera to cover the Philly Tube Audio show and the WCES 1997. Sure the photos lacked resolution, with the then state-of-the-art being 756 x 504 pixels. As i recall, the DC40 cost me around $600 back then for this utterly primitive by today's standards camera. Still, it was a marvel in that you did not need to get film developed/processed and printed, then digitally scanned. By comparison for those wondering, today's $80 8MB cameras have a resolution of 3264 x 2448. So as you can see, being an early adopter was expensive and the unit lacked resolution. Did Kodak actively develop digital photography as other manufacturers have? Where is Kodak today?
Moving on to more recent technologies and products, the original $5000 Sony SACD players sold only a handful of years ago are (arguably) now easily superceded by the $500 universal disc players from Oppo. As a guy who was once always an early adopter, you pay the fee and take your chances. Sure you enjoy limited capabilities of early models and might have limited use, yet us early adopters get to play with 'the best of the best'. Of course being the age of technology, today's 'best' only remains that way for about, oh, a month or three. The lifespan of the -state-of-the-art tablet is a mere month or so! Things are moving so fast that many high-end audio manufacturers have smartly made their DACs easily upgradeable via firmware. Some manufacturers have gone so far as to have their products modular, so that you can easily remove sections of the electronics and replace it with new boards as technology advances.
Of course all this advancement cuts both ways. Sure it is easy to upgrade the CODEC or firmware, which is free of cost, yet new hardware (boards) will of course mean more investment (costs) by audiophiles. On the other hand turntable technology has been very stable and while there are advances, the basic song remains the same. Thanks goodness you never need to flash the firmware of your turntable... because there is none! At least not yet, but that day may be coming! How many 32-bit/384kHz musical recordings are available to those with state-of-the-art DAC players? How many vinyl records are available worldwide? My point being is that actual content available to early adopters of SACD players were only a small handful and it took many years to get a half decent selection. Still, SACD never really 'took off' like DVD-Video for videophiles and vinyl LP when it was in full swing, thus the selection of music titles in that format are not as widespread as other formats. If i was a guessing man, i'd say that there are more new releases available in 2011 on vinyl LP than there were on the SACD format (!).
So is newer better? Well, in ultimate sound quality generally yes it is. Still, with new technology comes the waiting game and who here really thinks that we audiophiles will see 32-bit/384kHz remasters of music we can enjoy right now in 24-bit/192kHz? Is there some point to where the numbers game becomes moot? Will 64-bit/768kHz finally mark the point where we audiophile reviewers have to finally admit that we can not hear a difference? You know, we hit that sound quality and resolution proverbial wall, a resolution limit to where humans can not detect any further improvements. Who is to say, as no one i know has a wide variety of 32/384... and as for 64/768 in today's marketplace... forgettaboutit!
There are times i truly do wonder if vinyl enthusiasts have it right. Forget all the numbers and simply put the needle on the record. Then sit back, relax and enjoy the music. Vinyl enthusiasts care not about CODECs, firmware updates, DAC chipsets, resolution numbers and sampling rates. Of course vinyl was never touted as 'perfect sound forever' either, yet with so many great vinyl LPs in the market sound truly outstanding. So, do we really care about perfection in crunching digital numbers? As an audiophile reviewer i sure do, yet vinyl has a way of reminding us all how far we have come and how far we may need to go with digital. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...