Issue 229 January 2013
Editorial By Robert Harley
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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