Digital Audio in 2019 – Where is it Going in 2020?

Looking back on 2019, I think it’s safe to say high fidelity as we know it is being forced in a different direction, generationally, as 2020 peeks around the corner.

The continued dematerialization of content is, like the tying of branches on a bonsai tree, altering the growth pattern of hi-fi; how we listen to our music and the way the next generation of music lovers views hardware/software interaction.

I think the entire concept of how audiophiles currently view connectivity, and how that view could radically – and exponentially – change the hardware landscape for audiophiles in the coming years, is reaching a point that would see the hobby slice off into two large groups. And I’m not talking about analog and digital.

Because of my exposure to more wireless technology in 2019 than any previous year, this line of thinking has percolated to the surface, influencing my long view on the hobby over the past several months.

Due to the intrinsic structure of the historical hi-fi system (separate components) the traditional link bridging source/amplification/transducer since the control grids of thermionic-valve amps and preamps modulated the flow between cathode and anode has been cables. Cables connected boxes. Over time, with advances in technology, cables went from a necessary, but drastically undervalued link to becoming almost as important a component of the audio-signal chain as a turntable or monobloc to many audiophiles (count me as part of this group). No one is spending $10k on an integrated amplifier and throwing in $15 speaker cable off a spool at Radio Shack. Cables matter. But, what about a world where high-quality cabling was no longer necessary? Would you go wireless? I ponder this scenario in my piece Hi-Fi 1999.

And while that is no doubt part of the abstract I’m mulling over today, what if – never mind the cables – we got rid of the boxes feeding the transducers entirely? What about the schism dematerialized content is creating in how we grok what constitutes transmission of signal. And even more importantly, what will the next-generation of audiophiles consider traditional high fidelity during the decades to come.

Currently, it seems two camps of connectivity are gaining traction with digital-audio consumers/audiophiles and music lovers. They can be described as; those who prefer passive loudspeakers being fed their signal via streaming DAC/source/integrated amplifiers, etc., and those who eschew hi-fi box counts altogether and want only streamer/DAC/amplified loudspeakers being fed via wi-fi/Ethernet.

The former camp seems to still be the suit many wear as traditional audiophiles who came into the fold by amassing one coveted box at a time – usually in service to a growing music collection of either black or silver discs. The footprints of these stockpiles usually dwarfed that of the stereos designed to play them, but that generation embraces the box and collecting physical media. The current generation and the ones to come, will no doubt look upon those with sprawling physical-media collections as archaic. Why would you want to deal with the all hardware required to play a CD, when with one click, you have music from your mobile device?

Which brings me back to dematerialized music and the latter camp: Will the idea of what comprises a high-quality sound system evolve into something else entirely? With physical media being shunned by consumers on the whole (the vinyl, CD, cassette or tape collectors will always remain) and traditional bricks-and-mortar record stores usurped by cloud-based subscription-music services allowing for the streaming of millions of albums, what does the future of high-fidelity actually look like? If the very medium being used to store and playback music has become ethereal, how can that not effect how people view playing it? If personal audio is a gauge to read the trends by, wireless headphones seems to be where the predominant focus of manufacturers is, because that’s where the money is. But will two-channel follow?

Will connectivity in high-fidelity transform from technology-adroit, physical-transmission of the audio signal between boxes to an accepted metric of proprietary high-resolution wireless protocols that replace separate components/cabling altogether? Will the powered/DAC/streaming loudspeaker be the only truly physical component left standing in two-channel audio? Will the present tiers of extreme bandwidth be the new boxes/cabling and then be priced accordingly as status symbols of quality sound?

Imagine a future where the quality of your bandwidth is the true arbiter of how good your computer-audio based sound system really is. You shouldn’t have to imagine too hard, because that future is already here. Bandwidth is the determining factor to what type of music file you can stream regardless of how expensive your hi-fi is, or isn’t. If you start from there it isn’t difficult to imagine the rest because in the end how you access your music is all that will matter. If you no longer have physical media in proximity, and the hardware to play it, then you’re at the mercy of those who do have all that dematerialized music. I think being free of boxes, cables, CDs and LPs is a wonderful thing and a reflection of how we’re changing as a culture when it comes to our perception of what constitutes playing music, but I don’t think I could ever wholly embrace the dematerialization of music. Not in some ascetic embrace anyway, no, it would merely be fear.

Fear of not being able to listen to music if the Internet wasn’t there.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

You know what Yogi said,' It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

So, here goes...

Put me in the wireless camp.

More Hi Fi built into autonomous speakers with built in amps and DACs. They will automatically pick the highest sample rate possible and play my tunes.

The only other thing I will need is my smart phone as a source, and it will stream to the speakers in whatever the highest rez is that I can source.

I am fine with streaming.

That's all almost implementable.

Somewhere down the line: add to the speakers the ability to toss them around a room to be discrete in appearance, blend in to the decor, and once placed, they will all 'talk to each other' and group equalize for dedicated listening in any given spot, 'party atmosphere,' etc.

Two speakers, a hundred, whatever, they will 'drone swarm' my room and house.

Maybe I can wear a pin that tells them where to image at any given moment.

That would be cool.

_

A weird add on, that wouldn't really interest me, but augmented reality glasses where the performers could really appear in my room, or I could appear in a performance space. Tha's just a gimmick, so not high on my list.

Bottom line: more automatic for the people.

Happy new year, man!

Rafe Arnott's picture
– where you're coming from Anton. And yes, predictions are difficult, but when I interact with young people I can see that the perceptions around the way music is experienced now is very different than what I grew up with. Are we close to a paradigm shift? Maybe. What's the old saying? "The only constant is change."
audx's picture

We can probably agree that all audiophiles are humans, while most humans are not audiophiles.

Do we consider iPod, Beats, and AirPod/Pro owners to be audiophiles? If so, then add more to the audiophile category.

Are we going to separate those who have the means to buy what would be understood to be audiophile equipment from those who buy it because they're actually audiophiles?

Anyway.

I can't account for everyone's listening habits, but long before there was the Internet there was this wireless technology called Radio. Even though I've had physical media throughout my lifetime, I've likely spent more time listening to this Radio.

Many years ago, I had a separate component that just did Radio. Even so, even then, even now, I haven't considered listening to Radio as being an audiophile activity. But I did it a lot and still can't help myself from time to time.

The Internet arrived. Is it audiophile approved? Yes and No. As with Radio, does it really have to be either/or?

audx's picture

In my prior post, I was mostly discussing how much of our listening isn't "audiophile" and obviously doesn't use/require "audiophile" technology.

My wishlist for audio streaming would be 192/24 support for both Bluetooth and WiFi. Whither DSD? I'm not going to suggest that either represent the end of technology (MQA :) ) but what's the point in talking wireless speakers that can't deliver the goods?

Cout's picture

The decision to go with active speakers involves a tacit acceptance that DACs and Amps have been largely commoditized. Do AB amps and R2R DACs bring enough to the table to justify their price, even their existence? As one who has recently purchased a Topping DAC and a Hypex amp, this is a decision I could easily make but there are a lot of audiophiles - and an entire industry - that may not be ready.

PeterInVan's picture

I am now in my seventies, and have been a wannabe Audiophile since I was 14. I believe that the trends will depend on the generation listening. I have settled on my end game LS50W speakers with a small sub situated right behind my La-Z-Boy. Love to feel that bass. For portable I use a HiBy R6 and Shure SE535. I attempt to show my teenage grandkids how to listen closely and pinpoint all the instruments on the sound stage. But what I observe is that younger busy people use music as wallpaper background. I guess I am privileged to have the time to sit and actually listen to albums the whole way through.

dysonapr's picture

Objectively, if I could send 16/44 wirelessly from my streaming-service app to my powered speakers, I would not need anything more elaborate. Maybe we'll see Motorola or LG branded speakers, being sold as a package.

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