Coming fresh back from holiday, it allowed me to clear my mind and take an assessment to the vibe of where the industry came from, where we are at, and better focus on what direction things appear to be headed. With many of our reviewers having also relaxed last month, you can expect quite a few new reviews to appear within our July edition. There is so much going on within the world that it can be hard to sift through the noise and hear the signal. With all that said, it is time to dig in and appreciate our past, present and future.
Early high-end audio was really more a DIY and interesting mix of things with Dynaco, Heathkit, McIntosh Laboratories, Acoustic Research, Klipsch, Altec, Eico, Electro-Voice, Fisher, Bozak, Fairchild, EMT, Wharfedales, Quad.... plus perhaps Lafayette and Radio Shack though maybe not. Eli Rochlin covered some of this within his Old Timer's Corner (click here). As i was far too young, his article is truly a first-hand look of the early days of 'modern' development within high-end audio.
In 1991 the Harmon owned -- who also owns Harman Kardon, JBL and Infinity) -- released the Mark Levinson No. 30 preamplifier and in 1992 the No. 31 Reference CD transport. Many reviewers felt that these two products were a huge leap forward in achieving the very best in music reproduction. Moving forward, in 1993 Theta Digital had just launched their DS Pro Generation II that used high-speed logic ICs, two field-programmable-gate-arrays, then improved PLL circuitry to handle 32 and 48 kHz with the then new Burr-Brown 20-bit DACs (PCM 63). This truly was state-of-the-art in its time. And a few years later came a brief bump in the road per se.
Fast forward to circa 1997 and the Japanese financial crisis was felt hard for many audio manufacturers. The then highly thriving country eager to purchase boutique high-end goods dried up. Before this downfall our industry was experiencing some great growth in technological advances, new manufactures entering the industry and improvements in digital replay happening almost as fast as home computer processing speed. Of course this was early digital, which like any computer technology grows at a fast pace.
It is also interesting to note that amplification products that use vacuum tubes were growing in popularity during this time period and still thrive today. Like many vinyl enthusiasts indicate, newer technology is not always perceived as better. Another factor within amplifiers is that many of those 'good' solid-state amplification parts have become unavailable and, thus, many high-end companies have horded such bits. Even today i get press releases from companies where they say how they have this magic batch of devices used within their products. Speaking of unavailable, the very popular Black Gate capacitors also have now virtually disappeared from normal stock shelves and so manufacturers have been hording these are, at times, trading their backstocks between one another.
Today audiophiles have a wide array of choices for enjoying music, including CD, DVD-Audio, SACD, Internet music downloads, vinyl and to some extent reel-to-reel. In addition, many of us have discovered that it makes no sense to keep physical digital media discs and, instead, rip them to a hard drive and then convert the digital bits to an appropriate DAC. Speaking for myself, and other reviewers appear to agree, this path simply sounds better plus managing the many thousands of songs is far easier than having to hunt/seek for the disc within a large storage case.
As for the future, at some point i see all physical digital media discs being a thing of the past as we have stored music on hard drive or simply stream it from the Internet. Perhaps HDtracks or others will offer an all you care to enjoy monthly subscription. Hopefully online 'radio' services like Pandora, Last.fm and MOG will stream uncompressed high-rez version of music. For in-car enjoyment, guys like me have to 'hack' in such radio services using the analog output of our cell phone, as the highly limited satellite service XM/Sirus are so cira 2000 and 'HD' radio still has those annoying commercials with no way to pay a fee to opt out of the SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY MONSTER TRUCK MADNESS....
It is interesting that within my interview at TNT Audio (circa 1999) that i was discussing digital music via satellite, as a company called Teledesic was going to put many birds in the air to offer commercial broadband Internet. Anyone who has struggled with Hughes for their Internet connection knows the extreme limitations of what that technology currently offers. Of course i have a feeling Teledesic would be more like XM/Sirus, but then how would it handle transmission back to the birds? Good thing is we now have cell carries providing reasonable (still not fast IMHO) Internet. As speeds ramp up over the next decade or two it would be easy to have car radios and portable devices handle high-rez Internet music. Yes, we right now have the ability to access our home network anywhere in the world and, thus, our hard drives with audiophile quality tunes. The limiting factor is the wireless Internet speed for mobile devices (car, portable, etc). Am a huge lover of music services as they allow me to discover new music. So who will be the first audiophile company to offer high-end mobile systems with such high speed wireless Internet capabilities and, dare i ask, digital audio output? Sure we have Linn, Burmester, Infinity and others with car systems, yet they do not have the added capability of hooking into the Internet. So the future, as i see it, is truly high speed wireless bandwidth capability coupled with audiophile quality online services plus the ability to use the music within our home system/network.
As i virtually always end my prediction articles... The future is what we make of it, so make it a good one (nod to the movie Back To The Future).