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The Absolute Sound
Issue 213   May/June 2011
Future Shock

 

TAS Issue 213 May/June 2011  This issue's special focus on amplifiers and digital products exemplifies the rapidly-widening technology chasm in high-end audio. On one side you've got a product category amplifiers that has remained virtually unchanged over many decades; on the other side are categories that didn't even exist a few years ago.

Our amplifier coverage in this issue lives comfortably on the unchanging side of that chasm, with reviews of two products based on vacuum tubes (and another four on transistors). And although our list of The Ten Most Significant Amplifiers of All Time includes products whose heydays extend from the 1940s to 2011, a hi-fi magazine reader from the 1950s would be perfectly familiar with the functions and technologies of all these amps.

But think how that 1950s reader would view the digital products covered in this issue. We have a USB DAC, a USB-to-S/PDIF converter, a survey of eight computer soundcards, an iPod dock that also receives Internet Radio, an app that turns your iPhone/iPad into a comprehensive audio-testing suite, and two CD/SACD players that include a host of features and capabilities unimaginable to the CD format's designers, never mind to a hi-fi magazine reader from the 1950s.

You don't need to be a putative hi-fi enthusiast from the 50s to be startled by today's digital-delivery technology. I confess to suffering from "future shock" myself. This term was coined by Alvin Toffler in his influential 1970 book of the same name to describe "a personal perception of too much change in too short a period of time." (Toffler also correctly predicted the coming information revolution in 1980's The Third Wave.) Consider this: In this very issue, I had to think about the advantages of playing a mono record with a mono cartridge (Jacob Heilbrunn's Miyajima Shilabe mono cartridge review) as well as this technical comment from a manufacturer of one of the soundcards in Karl Schuster's survey: "You mentioned that you used ASIO with all cards, but we would like to point out that it is ASIO4all, because of the channel change/swap. This means you use WDM, the kernel mixer, and resampler."

Of course, technological change is transforming society in every conceivable way, but in what field other than audio is a there such a wide dichotomy between the past and the present? Between the Miyajima Shilabe and the AudioTools iPad app? Between the Croft tubed preamplifier and the Esoteric K-03? It's not so much the change that's jarring, but the stark juxtaposition of the old and the new. It's ironic that the analog outputs of today's sophisticated digital sources are often amplified by tubed electronics and reproduced by dynamic loudspeakers whose fundamental technology hasn't changed in three-quarters of a century.

Everyone knows that the pace of technological change is increasing, but few truly comprehend the scale of this phenomenon or its implications. At some point computers will become more intelligent than their human designers, and thus able to make more advanced versions of themselves through recursive self-improvement. If the advent of super-intelligent entities becomes reality, it will be impossible to make any predictions about technological development (or anything) from that point on. What we can say with confidence, however, is that today's most advanced digital-audio technology and music-delivery systems will appear hopelessly primitive by comparison. I can envision a future in which humans have instant access to any piece of music, in high-res of course, just by speaking the name of the composition or performance. The technology for delivering that music will be completely transparent to the listener.

But even in that future of digital-delivery systems beyond our comprehension, I'm sure that some of us will still be using vacuum-tube amplifiers.

I'm pleased to announce that Karl Schuster has joined the freelance writing staff of The Absolute Sound. Karl is an industry veteran who is well versed in all aspects of audio, but has particular expertise in computer-based music servers. As you'll see from his survey of eight computer soundcards this issue, Karl brings a deep technical understanding, a love of music, and an engaging writing style to his work. You'll see a lot more of Karl's writing in our expanding coverage of computer-based audio in the coming year. Computer audio is a complex topic, but Karl has just the right combination of skills to make the subject understandable to everyone.

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