Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
Issue 212   April 2011
Full Circle

 

TAS Issue 212 April 2011  The audio industry is in the early stages of one of those seismic shifts that occurs about once every generation. Previous shifts include the "high-fidelity movement" in the 1950s and early 60s, the rise of Japanese audio in the late 1960s through the mid-70s (fueled in part by military personnel returning from Asia with PX-bought gear), and the advent of the modern high-end industry beginning in the mid-1970s.

Another shift began in the late 1990s when audio became subsumed in the rush toward home theater, custom installation, multichannel audio, and in-wall speakers. When audio became an adjunct, rather than a central, technology, sound quality was an afterthought. This happened just as the housing boom coincided with the availability of new technologies such as DVD, discrete multichannel audio, computer-based home automation, flat-panel televisions, high-definition video, satellite delivery, digital-video recorders, and the Internet. For upper-income consumers, a custom theater room with whole-house automation became the defining status symbol. The custom-installation industry grew so explosively that peripheral players such as security-system and central-vacuum contractors joined the feeding frenzy and found themselves designing, specifying, installing, and calibrating audio systems. Needless to say, these companies were ill-equipped to deliver anything close to good sound for their clients. Consequently, once the razzle-dazzle wore off of drapes that closed automatically when the video projector was turned on, consumers were stuck with audio performance that left them musically unfulfilled. It was not unusual for clients to spend several hundred thousand dollars and not have one room in which the sound quality was equal to that possible from a $1500 high-end system.

It wasn't just wealthy consumers who were short-changed; music reproduction was compromised for everyone by the dictates of sound-for-picture. The same amount of money once spent on a modest stereo system was now spread among six loudspeakers and an AVR overloaded with useless features. Sound quality wasn't the only casualty. The insanely complicated user interfaces of these theater systems, from a $149 AVR to the most sophisticated custom-control system, erected a barrier between listeners and their music.

Concomitantly, the consumer was exploited through planned and stunningly rapid obsolescence of products and technologies. Although many of the technological advances were legitimate (Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio, for examples), some were designed purely to "churn" products. The developers of intellectual property (think decoding algorithms) get paid a per-unit license fee. And chip manufacturers need to keep their production lines running and stockholders happy. A product life of even five years wouldn't create enough turnover to satiate the intellectual property licensors and the chipmakers. The solution was a never-ending series of new surround-decoding algorithms and interfaces (various versions of HDMI, for example) that could render a product just a year old obsolete. Every step in this diabolical progression is documented in the absurd alphabet soup of technology acronyms memorialized on the front panel of every modern AV receiver. And now we have 3-D television that requires new video displays, new disc players, and a new interface.

Although the home-theater boom undoubtedly helped many high-end audio companies, those specialty companies making AV controllers found themselves at a distinct competitive disadvantage. The mass-market AVR manufacturers worked hand-in-hand with the decoding licensors and chip manufacturers in developing new DSP chips, giving them a long head start in incorporating the new chips in their products. High-end companies had to wait until the general release of the chip before even beginning the lengthy product-development process. By the time the high-end product hit the market, the licensor/electronics manufacturer/chip-maker consortium had developed yet another chip that rendered the technology in the high-end product obsolete, in actuality or in consumer perception. The deck was stacked against the high-end.

This unsustainable trend has run its course. The housing market collapse, the rejection of ostentatious materialism, the return to fundamental values, and consumer dissatisfaction with more and more complex technology delivering a less and less satisfying musical experience have culminated in the end of this era. By all indicators, consumers are starting to return to performance-oriented, two-channel music systems. This isn't just my perception; I've been hearing the same refrain from many audio manufacturers over the past two years.

But it wasn't just the economic crisis driving this trend the iPod played perhaps a larger and more significant role. Yes, the device that some audiophiles love to hate was instrumental in the movement back toward two-channel music listening. The iPod not only brought music back to its two-channel roots, it rescued music from AV hardware and made music listening accessible to many people through its simple and direct user interface. Compare the accessibility of music through an iPod with that of an AV receiver remote control and a multichannel speaker system with a subwoofer. Listeners discovered their music libraries anew, unencumbered by surround-sound, gimmicks, a television screen, ever-changing technologies, rapid obsolescence, feature overload, and preposterously complex user interfaces.

The high-end industry, which once eagerly embraced the opportunity to reach a larger market, is similarly turning away from the conflation of music with a film-soundtrack playback system. For example, Parasound recently abandoned work on a 7.1-channel hardware platform and has instead devoted the company's resources to a new CD player, a phono preamplifier, and a stereo preamplifier with some nifty features that enable it to integrate with a theater system. The preamplifier works in conjunction with an AVR in a theater system, but cannot be rendered obsolete by new DSP chips in AVRs. When the AVR's interfaces and decoding technologies are outdated, you simply buy a new (dirt-cheap) AVR. In addition, the preamplifier allows the system to function as a simple-to-use two-channel stereo for music listening. Parasound founder Richard Schram told me at this CES that he's much happier, on a personal level, now that he's devoting his time, energy, and company resources to music products rather than playing the game of keeping up with constantly changing technologies that seem to offer little musical satisfaction. I can relate to his feelings; I made the decision last year to let my book Home Theater for Everyone go out of print rather than constantly update it. I'd rather spend my limited time and energy on music and two-channel technology.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, music listening is finally escaping from the hijacking of the late 1990s and returning full-circle to where it began. 

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