The audio world is in something close to turmoil. On the one hand, it is seeing marked downturns in sales of CD players; on the other, it relies on high-quality audio to ply its wares. If the CD market goes away, few people will invest in high-end audio if the sound files they play through the system are of relatively low quality. Fortunately, there are some glimmers of hope for audiophile life after CD.
Although still not available in the UK yet (you need a US billing address), HDTracks announced that the ABKCO 24-bit remasters of The Rolling Stones first 27 albums will be available to download online. Priced between $20 to $30, the albums are taken from the now-unavailable SACD remasters of these albums released between 2002-4. Meanwhile, Apple is strongly rumoured to be in discussion with key players in the music business to release 24-bit files on its iTunes service as premium downloads.
As with all things music-related, this has drawn praise and hatred from the chattering e-classes in equal measure. Apple, it seems, should be simultaneously praised for making a step toward better sound quality, and be drowned in bleach for ripping us off yet again with a format that cannot sound any better than MP3. And we 'audiophools' are once again 'suckers' for daring to ask if there's anything better than 128kbps AAC.
We need not to be tied to physical formats; trying to second-guess the future is a futile exercise, but both CD and CD players sales are already in decline, and the Bristol Show & Vision Show highlighted yet again just how many companies are pinning their hopes on a computer or network streaming solution. Whether built on a foundation on market data, idle gossip, empty rhetoric or late-night drunken pontificating, the view held by many is that the war for tomorrow's front-end is almost over, and we lost; audio companies must concentrate on making good products that make the most of music delivered from online suppliers, rather than hope that people will continue to buy discs in the long term.
I still maintain that the computer-side products add to the pantheon of products in our audio systems, rather than necessarily replace CD. In part, for me this is because the disc ripping process is so daunting when you are faced with hundreds and hundreds of discs staring back at you. There is also the joy of holding a physical format in your hands, something that LP remains so good at capitalising upon. And some still prefer the sound of CD, even when compared to the uncompressed files stored and played through a hard drive. This is why we won't be giving up on CD just yet.
But fortunately, it looks like the future of high-quality downloads might prove promising, after all...