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The Absolute Sound
Issue 240   February 2014
High-End Audio's Golden Opportunity
Editorial By Robert Harley


TAS Issue 240 Ferbruary 2014  The Consumer Electronics Association, the huge trade group representing the consumer-electronics industry, is throwing its weight behind an industry-wide initiative to promote high-resolution digital audio to the mass market. The CEA joins major manufacturers (led by Sony) and record labels (notably Sony Music, Universal Music, and Warner) in a concerted effort to show consumers that high-res offers a more compelling listening experience than MP3, and even CD-quality audio.

The CEA decided to pursue this strategy based on two studies it commissioned examining consumer attitudes toward the role of sound quality in making purchasing decisions ("Notions of Quality: Audio Expectations of Consumers," July 2011, and "Discovering the Motivations and Opportunities Behind Home Audio Upgrades," November 2012). The studies found that 90 percent of consumers identified sound quality as the most important factor in enjoying music, followed closely by "compelling content." Seventy-two percent said that superior audio electronics are vital to enjoying music. The conclusion was that, after price, consumers identified sound quality as the most important criterion when choosing audio components.

The hardware and software industries view high-resolution digital audio as the platform from which to market better sound to the mass market. They are giving high-res an initialism (HRA, for high-resolution audio) and hope to do for the audio industry what HD video did for the television business. "Adoption of HRA," says the CEA, "offers benefits for consumers as well as new market opportunities for the CE and music industries. HRA offers the highest digital sound quality while retaining the benefits of digital audio, such as portability and personalization. HRA music files provide greater clarity and detail than MP3s and other compressed digital audio formats, resulting in a listening experience that more closely represents the original recording." CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said, "We expect major HRA announcements over the next year and believe that the technology will have a strong presence at the 2014 International CES."

All this is obviously great news for the high-end industry, for a number of reasons. We'll all have greater access to affordable high-res hardware and a broader range of music titles. But in the larger perspective, the concerted effort of the CEA, major electronics manufacturers, record labels, and retailers to promote better sound is the golden opportunity the high end has been hoping for.

However, the high-end industry can't just sit back and wait for the rush of new customers; it must seize this opportunity by bringing the high-end aesthetic to product categories and price points relevant to the consumer stepping up from mass-market dreck. Fortunately, we're not starting from a standstill; many forward-looking high-end companies have been pursuing this strategy over the past few years AudioQuest with the DragonFly, Meridian with the Explorer and music management software on HP computers, as well as NAD and Peachtree with a variety of products, to name only four. Today there are many examples of companies creating components that bring high-end values to the average consumer rather than expecting the average consumer to make the leap into the high-end world on his own.

An overall improvement in sound quality for large numbers of people is a win for music, for consumers, for the industry, and for audio magazines. The challenge for The Absolute Sound is to offer the performance-oriented newcomer a vehicle to discover products relevant to the way he accesses music while also serving our core audience of serious enthusiasts. If the CEA's marketing program is successful, droves of consumers who have never heard of high-end audio will be looking to upgrade. In twenty years the DragonFly customer may very well become a Wilson customer provided he discovers that first stepping stone into the high end in the first place.

As part of our endeavor to expose new music lovers to the joys of high-quality audio we've expanded the full-time editorial team with the addition of Spencer Holbert. Spencer, who joins us as Editorial Assistant, is a self-described "audiophile geek" who at the age of 27 owns thousands of LPs. His system includes products from McIntosh, Music Hall, Rega, Paradigm, Pro-Ject, and AudioQuest. He also has rebuilt a vintage Harman Kardon A500 tubed amplifier. Spencer brings more than youth and audiophile credentials to TAS; he holds degrees in linguistics and history, and is a superb writer and editor. Part of Spencer's charter will be to discover the best entry-level products and write about them in a way that engages new readers. Watch for his first contribution in our next issue.



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