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September 2016
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Future-Fi 'n' Feeling Fine
Annual Blue Note Awards, technological progress... and memories.
Article By Steven R. Rochlin

 

  Since Enjoy the Music.com's Editor Tom Lyle is on vacation, it is my honor to be scribbling down some of my feelings about this issue, with a bit of industry info and looking towards the future rounding things out. The Review Magazine's September issue once again brings our annual Blue Note Awards, as we celebrate the many great products we reviewed within the past year. With each passing year one can't help but be impressed with the progress of high fidelity audio and the ways in which we can enjoy music. During audio shows it is becoming normal to see turntables and reel-to-reel units along side the latest digital gear. Audio and video via Ethernet could be the connection of the future along side new wireless protocols. The upcoming Bluetooth specification has plenty of data transmission for Hi-Res Audio. Yet what does the future hold and how can we grab a bit of that magic today?

It is my honor, and humble pleasure, to have a great team at Enjoy the Music.com taking a more prominent role. Our annual Blue Note Awards showcases many magnificent manufacturers within our industry. In 2014 our Blue Note Awards we chose 13 products, in 2015 it was a mere 11. There are thousands of truly great pieces of gear and over the years we've reviewed many of them (see our archives), yet being the overly critical types that we are, and avoiding exceedingly long lists with rating, we prefer the less = more. This year we are proud to see the industry as a whole bringing brilliant designs to music lovers, and so our annual Blue Note Awards gives special recognition to 15 fabulous products! Be sure to check it out and see if one of your components made the cut.

 

Audio Evolution
Instead of giving a blow-by-blow of how it all began with tubes and horns, or before that with the Edison cylinder later followed by 78 rpm albums, I'd rather start back in the 1970's as the flow of formats occurred. Vinyl LP, reel-to-reel, cassette, 8-track and the CD to name a few. For the general public, it was only when the CD was introduced that we had a computer of some type within our audio system. This was back in the day of BBS systems running at 1200+ baud (that's 1200 bits per second, not 100 Mbits which is today's norm). CompuServe brought us the first legal MP3 download thanks to Aerosmith, and yes it took about 70 minutes to download a single song in MP3.

 

 

Today we have streaming music in both lossy MP3, Tidal's CD quality and a small handful of niche' sites streaming Hi-Res Music. DSD streaming is possible, too, yet has not gone 'mainstream' at the time of this writing. As an industry, we've been there at the edge-of-the-art and always striving to push the envelope of performance. As we handle the hardware side of things, the record labels and music industry have been working diligently to bring audio to the 'next level' with each passing decade.

While audiophiles are well-aware of the latest developments, we are right now at the cusp of Hi-Res Audio and Hi-Res Music becoming household terms. The really big push forward, (perhaps) by Apple Music, will bring what we've already known for many years. And that is the immense joy brought into our lives via today's highest quality of recorded / remastered music. While some might not immediately hear the difference between MP3 and Hi-Res Music, if I were a betting man I'd give it a year or two for music enthusiasts to intrinsically 'get it'. From acoustic music with very subtle cues to the latest pop tunes, the joy we feel and how we interact with our fave tunes is moreso in higher resolution.

 

The Trend Is Your Friend
Let's take a brief moment to look at the age group of who's increasingly buying audio products versus those maintaining or declining. According to a recent article by Ben Arnold, Senior Research Analyst for The NPD, "A closer look at NPD's Consumer Tracking Service shows those 34 and under accounted for 47 percent of home audio spending (inclusive of A/V receivers, home speakers, home CD players, soundbars and home theater in a box systems) in the 12 months ending in May, up from 38 percent just a year prior." The younger generation, as compared to those of us who have been audiophiles for decades, are indeed investing in audio hardware during the past two year period. The only age group decline, at a substantial double-digit rate according to NPD, are the 55+ crowd. Those 45 to 55 have remained the same over the past year and a 3% loss the year before.

 

 

Hi-Res HD Vinyl LPs Redefine What Is Possible Via New Hi-Tech Solution
Of course vinyl LP lovers may soon benefit from the upcoming Hi-Res Vinyl LPs that benefit from modern tech. It has been claimed that this new format is backward compatible with current turntables plus there can be 30% more capacity stored within this new vinyl LP format. To make a vinyl LP, manufacturers must first start by cutting the metal lacquer, which is usually done by placing a lacquer blank on a record-cutting machine and using a master audio source in analog form to then physically cut the metal grooves. This process is time consuming and can be fraught with cutting errors. By changing the way lacquers are produced via the High Definition Vinyl process, it reduces the overall costs and time to ensure a quality product. A pulsed high-energy Femto-laser is used to literally burn the music on a stamper. Distance between the grooves and depth adjustments happen automatically, with a carefully calculated 90-degree burning angle eliminating possible distortions. By reducing the effort needed to make a lacquer and other steps to finally produce a stamper, overall costs in this process is said to be reduced by 50%. "We adjust the distance of the grooves, we correct the radial/tangential errors, and we optimize the frequencies," said Rebeat CEO Guenter Loibl "You could say we 'master' the topographical data, which is a totally different approach." Another added benefit according to Rebeat is that this new process doubles the audio fidelity of most LPs currently sold within stores. This newly patented process of creating HD Vinyl begins by employing 3D-based topographical mapping and then the Femto-laser inscription technology. This digital process allows for a more accurate cutting of the lacquer and can easily be repeated time and again as new lacquers are needed. Furthermore, the original digital source file can be seamlessly tweaked and tuned to ensure a top quality end result. HD Vinyl, which is said to be the working name of this new format, provides additional features that future turntable setups can take advantage of according to Digital Music News.

 

Future-Fi
Before I get into any predictions, a few disclaimers are in order. First is that I'm not at liberty to discuss some things. Sorry and all, have to put food on the table and all that. Yet I can generalize. Of course my own personal vision of the future will break 'audiophile rules' in some regard, yet also follow the natural (boring) evolution in others. So what's the future going to be like? Is audio and video via Ethernet going to play a key roll, or will next-gen wireless be the go-to choice for a majority of music lovers?

Many of us remember in the 1980's the then new CD format sounded, well, not all that particularly great. Sure it was easy to use and very portable, yet audiophiles still loved their vinyl LP because it sounded better. If we follow the same train of thought, we are right now at the beginning of Hi-Res Audio and Hi-Res Music. Just as the CD sounded in the 1980's, perhaps what we hear with 24-bit/192kHz and DSD today is 'as bad as it gets', and many agree these formats do sound very impressive right now. If i were a betting man, there'd be a $1,000,000 bet that ten years from now we'll be discovering things within our Hi-Res Music we never quite heard before as audio hardware evolves. DAC chipsets will be processing at multiples of what is possible today and clock accuracy will become less of an issue too. There is no doubt we'll be eclipsing what we theoretically felt was possible today.

Audio personalization will play a role. What I mean is that your audio system and music will indeed be a closer reflection what you want to hear within your listening environment. At home, on-the-go portable, your automobile, yacht, etc will more closely reflect not just the songs you hear, but in the way you hear it. Without going into deep-thought details, it is along the lines of decades ago when I was with Bill Burton, technical editor of the then leading car audio magazine, and I bounced off him my idea about active adaptive bass DSP due to the changing airspace/environment within cars. Not just the obvious convertible car with top up or down, but with sunroof and when you open a car window, and by where and how much that opening is in how it alters the listening space. It is really nothing that magical to employ DSP that seamlessly adjusts to environmental situations to ensure a human's perception of audio. Your music playlists and 'radio stations / channels' will be far more intuitive and personal.

So how much more personal can audio get? Very! There is so much untapped possibilities that have yet to be implemented given even today's digital processing and algorithm usage, let alone what technology will make available in the future. Today we are barely scratching the surface in personalized sound quality and fluidity of enjoyment of music within our ever-changing life on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. Sure we've come a long way since the Edison cylinder, yet we still have a long way to go.

Humans always seem to cherish things of the past, just as there's always a renewed versions of classic audio gear, old video game system formats becoming newly re-released in smaller case designs, etc., yet what will our music experience by like in 2020, or 2040 and beyond? And what will we make of virtual and/or augmented reality to the point in which it, too, becomes seamlessly customizable? Go ahead and enjoy Dave Brubeck at the Lincoln Center playing the latest pop tunes, or Daft Punk at CGBGs, or... At some point the music we choose to enjoy will seamlessly blur between what is real and whatever it is you can imagine. Welcome my friends to truly personalized audio. 

 

 

"We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems."

Ode by English poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, originally published in 1873.

 

As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

 

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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