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The Absolute Sound
Issue 229   January 2013
Editorial By Robert Harley


TAS Issue 229   January 2013  This is the time of the year that our senior editorial staff convenes to choose the Product of The Year Award winners. You'll find our final selections in every product category elsewhere in this issue. Considering in retrospect all the products we've reviewed over the past year provides a big-picture view of the industry that we don't always see day-to-day from the trenches. From this vantage point we can more clearly identify technology trends, the market direction, which companies stepped forward (and which stepped backward), and the general direction of the industry.

Here are the major trends of 2012 as I see them:

The growing embrace of computer-based audio. Audiophiles have been a little slower than the general population in moving toward file-based music storage and playback, but that gap is quickly closing. Computer audio is getting better and easier than ever before, and more audiophiles are taking the plunge. One of the primary reasons is my next trend...

Greater availability of high-resolution downloads. Compared to a year ago we have a much larger selection of high-res downloads from a variety of sources. The availability of high-res software is driving the move toward music servers (see above).

Vinyl, vinyl, and more vinyl. The LP juggernaut continues to grow, with an increasing number of titles not just from audiophile labels but from the mainstream record companies as well. Just last week I heard a radio ad for Donald Fagen's new album that the announcer stated was "available on CD, download, and vinyl." When a major record company advertises a new release via the mainstream media and touts the vinyl availability, you know that we've passed some sort of threshold. Moreover, the quality of new vinyl has never been better. Even high-res digital proponent Reference Recordings has begun releasing some titles on LP. Ten years ago perhaps 15% of exhibit rooms at trade shows played vinyl; today that number is at least 85%.

Inexpensive DACs, including those from previously unknown players. The gold rush that is computer-based audio has created a flood of small, previously unknown companies entering the marketplace. DACs are relatively easy to create from a given chipset, lowering the entry barrier for fledgling companies. Promisingly, many of these new companies are run by young audiophile-designers. Will one of them become part of the next-generation high-end establishment?

Greatly improved sound quality from budget digital. A new generation of high-performance chips, increased competitive pressure, and accumulated skill have combined to make today's inexpensive DACs remarkably musical. Witness AudioQuest's $249 DragonFly and Micromega's $399 MyDAC.

The rise of regional hi-fi shows. As it becomes harder to find good retailers, equipment shoppers are turning toward the growing number of small, local shows to audition gear. These shows present the industry with an unprecedented opportunity to introduce a whole new generation of music lovers to high-performance audio provided that they advertise the show to a wider audience and prominently feature entry-level systems that anyone can afford.

The increasing incorporation of DACs into preamplifiers and integrated amps. The digital-to-analog converter has become to today's preamps and integrateds what a phonostage was to 1970s and 1980s products.


The last trend I'll describe is so significant that it deserves it own section rather than a bullet point. That trend is the accelerating advance in the state-of-the-art in music reproduction. Of course we expect products to improve every year, but it seems as though today's very best components are much higher in resolution and more transparent and neutral than those of even five years ago. There's an intense focus on development work at the edge of the art in digital replay, amplification, loudspeakers, cables, turntables, cartridges, power conditioners, and products such as vibration-isolation systems. As long as there are customers for cost-no-object products, designers will challenge themselves to push beyond today's limitations and move the art forward. The parallel side of this story is that the increasing transparency of sources, amplification, and loudspeakers has revealed that our music libraries contain far better sound quality than we thought possible our LPs, CDs, SACDs, and downloads are not the limiting factor in ultimate fidelity.

What trends do I think I'll be writing about this time next year? Let's just say that I think it will include the words "download" and "Direct Stream Digital."


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