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Future, Past: What Has Come and What Will Be in Hi-Fi

January is often a month for pondering, about what has come before and what the future promises. So we’ll devote this month’s column to just that, a look at where we have been, where we are and where we are going in the world of consumer electronics. To this end, I’ve assembled a virtual roundtable panel to discuss these issues and more.

All the panel members have deep and varied work experience in the field of audio and are all well-positioned to comment on the “state of the union” in regards to the toys we buy for playing the music we all love so much.

Len Schneider is a well-respected consultant and also the author of the Rotel Home Theater and Hi-Fi Encyclopedia. Srajan Ebaen is a classically trained clarinetist with a long track record in marketing various audio companies, including Mesa Engineering and Meadowlark Audio, who now hosts his own online audio/music e-zine at Steven Rochlin, another classically trained musician, has a background in selling high-end audio equipment and currently operates and edits, a Web site filled with reviews and commentary on the industry at large.

Their contributions are informative, sometimes thought-provoking and unanimous on only two points: speakers are the most important component in an audio system and the underlying reason for all of this mumbo jumbo is getting more enjoyment from music.

Let’s get on with it.

It will be helpful for our readers to understand how the industry has progressed in the past 10 years. What kind of improvements have occurred in that timeframe?

Len Schneider: On the equipment side, the biggest change, obviously, is the evolution from two-channel stereo to multichannel sound systems. Home theater-a somewhat derisive term according to some audiophiles-has affected everything from how music is recorded, through how it gets packaged for delivery to your home, to how you play it back.

But still, without a doubt, the most important component in any system, stereo or multichannel, is the loudspeaker. Nothing else comes close-except maybe the room we put those speakers in. And here’s the good news: Today’s speakers are better and less expensive than those of 10 years ago. On a cost/performance basis, today’s speakers are substantially better than their older siblings.

Srajan Ebaen: The most drastic advances have occurred in computer-driven audio, i.e., digital-the maturation of the standard 16 bit-44.1kHz CD format and the latter-day launch of DVD-A and SACD. A $300 CD player of 2003 trounces a $2,000 player of three years ago. The reason for this digital leapfrog phenomenon? The rapid progress in digital signal-processing chips that drive digital-to-analog and sample-rate converters, which pay audible dividends in lowered noise, lowered timing errors from jitter and phase shifts, greater linearity and a more analogue-type presentation.

The second arena of progress is related. It too plays the digital field, albeit in amplification devices. Digital amplifiers reward with operating efficiencies of 90% or higher. This eliminates wasted heat and the nonlinearities that result from thermal stress. They offer resolution, and thus data retrieval, that points toward a new sound which is neither tube nor solid-state. In another five years, expect to see many of the current manufacturers championing traditional amplifiers like Classe and Krell to join the digital-amplifier revolution. Digital amplifiers are intrinsically far cheaper to build and carry the promise of true high-end sound “for the masses.”

Steven Rochlin: Being an audiophile and musician I have to agree with the saying, “The more that things change, the more they stay the same.” Many people enjoy the convenience of the compact disc, yet the little secret about it lacking sound quality compared to vinyl has been kept hush-hush.

In general, stereo systems have not progressed that much. In fact, there are many experts, including myself, who feel that old-fashioned vacuum tubes offer the highest enjoyment over the more modern solid-state counterpart.

Where do you see the industry today? At some sort of crossroads? Stagnant because of a weak economy? Still improving and evolving?

Len Schneider: I think the industry-the audio industry anyway-is in deep doo-doo. Sales are down, but I don’t think the economy alone is responsible. Although I’m not really qualified to make any definitive statements about the psychological or social transformations we’re all seeing, I’ll offer an observation. The days of concentrated listening are over for most of us-we simply don’t have the leisure time any more. Of course, jazz buffs are the exception, no? Like it or not, audio has largely been preempted by video as the medium of choice. A consequence is the number of customers who walk into stores to purchase an $8,000 flat-screen video display and then pick a $399 “home theater in a box” as their audio system!

Srajan Ebaen: The high-end audio industry has been in continuous decline for years due to a number of reasons, the most damaging perhaps the shrinking performance gap between so-called mid-fi and ultra-fi in combination with high-end’s complete lack of broad-based consumer awareness and viable spokespeople. Without Bruce Willis and Cameron Diaz singing the glories of high-end audio as a hip lifestyle on the covers of popular magazines, our enthusiast’s cottage industry remains under the radar of the populace at large. People who can afford fine audio remain ignorant of its existence. It takes no genius to appreciate that owners of Hummers, million-dollar mansions and fine-art collections will continue to shop for audio at Circuit City.

Steven Rochlin: We are not in Kansas anymore, and as the Scarecrow says, “You can go that way” as he points in two directions. The weak economy has affected the sales of consumer electronics, yet manufacturers have continued their research in hopes of finding new and innovative products.

What do you see for the future of the industry? Will home theater lead to the demise of traditional two-channel systems?

Len Schneider: First, it’s more than safe to say that multichannel–I hate to call it home theater!–is where things are. Stereo sales, sad to say, are in the gutter.

Does that mean that the future of the audio industry is as bleak as some would have us believe? Not necessarily. I think there will always be a market for better sound. Because the industry has hobbyist roots, we’ll always have a source of good stuff. Maybe not the variety we have now but a decent selection. But we’ll have to work harder to find it as the number of small specialist dealers who really know sound has declined sharply in the last five years. But most of the dealers that have weathered the storm so far probably won’t go away. And as much as brick-and-mortar retailers hate this, the Internet will help. In fact, more and more smaller manufacturers are seeing the Net as a way to reach customers at more affordable prices by bypassing the retailer altogether.

The problem is still speakers. Are you going to buy them “sound unheard” via the Net? Try to evaluate various options at a mass-market mega-store? Or seek out a smaller, dedicated dealer who values your patronage and has the expertise to satisfy your needs? For most of us, the latter choice is a good one.

Srajan Ebaen: Just because people have been told that they must have home theater doesn’t mean they all believe or follow said notions. Two-channel music listening is here to stay, which is especially true for Europe and Asia. The sheer complexity and cost of setting up a properly working multichannel system that integrates unobtrusively into a living space is prohibitive and unattractive to people living in the real, not audiophile, world. What’s more, listening to music is a deeply nourishing experience. Two-channel music is here to stay.

Steven Rochlin: Decades after their prime we still find many people, albeit a small fraction, enjoy vinyl and vacuum tubes. While home theater is now in more rooms than two-channel stereo, it will be hard to completely kill stereo.

Do you see any new technology coming down the pike (or perhaps already here) that may have a serious impact on the industry, good or bad?

Len Schneider: The Blu-ray Disc [a super high-density optical disc format] will certainly hit in a few years. That’ll bring even better picture quality to everyone’s home. And I know some labs are working on techniques to bring SACD/DVD-A audio quality to solid-state media for long-term playback.

And digital amplification will reduce heat to the point that our receivers and amplifiers could be smaller and more compact.

Another huge change, one that will eventually transform our musical lives, is the way music gets to us, the distribution channels. I think it’s pretty safe to say the “record store” as we all know it is on the edge of extinction. Music companies don’t really want to make discs anyway because that kind of capital-intensive effort-the raw materials, the machines, the freight costs, etc.-just doesn’t carry the profit margins that purely electronic distribution does. That means online downloads, obviously. Oh, I’m sure we’ll all have Web-based choices for a physical disc too-hell, look at, it’s finally profitable!-but kiss the neighborhood shops good-bye.

But the biggest improvement we’ll see on the hardware side is the use of high-MIPS-millions of instructions per second-microprocessors to make real-time speaker and room correction a reality. This is the kind of equalization that makes sense-not the “smiley face” settings we sometimes see on a conventional analog graphic equalizer!

Srajan Ebaen: Digital-signal-processor-based speaker and room correction. It’ll take a giant like Harman International or Sony to assemble the requisite-and very expensive-crack team of acoustics engineers and software-code writing experts to do it properly. Smaller audio firms just don’t have access to the brainpower, laboratory sophistication and necessary funding to make it happen.

Steven Rochlin: While this is not a new idea, eventually we will not need to have any hard format [physical] music software. We can simply enjoy whatever music [at high resolution] via an ultrafast Internet-like connection. This need not be limited to our homes as wireless technology progresses. Besides, the small-format compact disc has already killed the wonderful artwork as found on 12-inch vinyl so we may as well continue the downward spiral and completely eliminate the physical artwork altogether. Sad, huh?

What is the most significant real-world tweak you’ve come across in the last five years?

Len Schneider: Position your speakers properly. Doesn’t make a difference if you have two, three, six or even eight speakers. Proper placement is the single most important tweak you can do.

Some folks just plunk their speakers down where they drop the boxes after buying ’em or where the dog won’t topple ’em after they’re connected. Do more. There are a lot of guidelines out there for proper placement. Some knowledgeable effort here will undoubtedly improve your sound-and often substantially.

Srajan Ebaen: Resonance control and power-line filtering, in that sequence, but only after you’ve properly matched the speakers to your room and-this is free-set them up properly.

Steven Rochlin: Cigars, espresso and driving a Ferrari. Think far outside the box! Seriously, it is not always about the music per se, but one’s attitude toward it and life in general. How would one know the difference between a good music-reproduction system and a great one if all you heard was at your local Super Ultra Value chain store? Once I came to expect great things in one part of my life, then it was natural to extend this attitude toward other parts. Call it “enhancing life’s enjoyment.” Great music, like cigars, espresso and a Ferrari, allow me to enjoy life while knowing there is indeed a difference.

What argument would you use to convince JazzTimes readers that it would truly make a difference to upgrade their 20-year-old system?

Steven Rochlin: Do you enjoy music? ‘Nuff said. I tend to be very direct and to the point. No need to argue.

Srajan Ebaen: With a good system you can re-create the emotional/spiritual experience of a truly inspiring live concert with the whole-body afterglow of the real thing, in the comfort of your own home any time you wish. Such an experience-and I assume every JazzTimes reader knows exactly whereof I speak, hearing your favorite singer or trumpeter live at Birdland such that you have goosebumps and leave with a contact high-such an experience can be created by a good audio system that’s been properly matched to the room, professionally put together and expertly set up. It’s like legalized dope.

If a reader can only upgrade one component at a time, which would you suggest they start with, all things being equal?

Len Schneider: If the electronics you now have work for you-in particular, if they handle all the sources you want to listen to-then just enjoy the music! If you think you’re missing something, play with speaker placement. If that still leaves a gap between your expectations and the acoustic reality you’re experiencing, think about new speakers.

The bottom line here? If we all paid more attention to our speakers-both in choosing them in the first place and then positioning them properly in our room-we’d all have better sound. In fact, the room and its influence on what we hear is probably the last great frontier in audio. The relationship between speakers and rooms is amazingly complex. I’ve occasionally challenged audiophiles to make any improvement in a system that’s more immediately audible than moving their speakers 12 inches! Funny how that always leaves them staring blankly and muttering under their breath.

Srajan Ebaen: Everything is not equal, Mike! The speaker always is 85 percent of the sound because it’s here where the electrical signal is converted into physical motion that interacts with an unpredictable three-dimensional environment. It’s not size or number of drivers that matter, but whether the speaker is appropriate for the size of the room, the type of music fancied and the average playback levels desired.

Steven Rochlin: The biggest improvement made within a system is the loudspeakers. If there is one place to never skimp out, it is the loudspeakers. Sad to see so many people buy those dreaded “home theater in a box” units. They usually have these horrid little loudspeakers and a small bass box, mistakenly referred to as a subwoofer. Another factor is the acoustics of the room and where the loudspeakers are placed within it.

OK, here’s your soapbox to address the JazzTimes readership about anything you wish regarding audio and video equipment.

Len Schneider: If there’s anything I would emphasize, it’s that the acoustics of your listening/viewing room and where you place your speakers in that room are the keys to better sound. Forget the hype-get back to basics. Above all, enjoy your music!

Srajan Ebaen: I should impress upon your readership the following notion: Unless you’ve heard a true high-end system properly dialed-in-which isn’t a function of expense, size or complexity-you don’t know what you’re missing. It can be as communicative, devastating, inspiring and flat far-out as taking a time machine and nestling up to Satchmo and Ella blowing their hearts out, live and in the flesh. Goose bumps. Tears. When everything’s said and done, that’s what it’s about. If you eat good food, enjoy good company, read fine books, watch superior movies, cherry-pick your vacation destinations, then why the heck would you put up with listening to a mediocre audio system or be too uninspired to explore what kind of great, even affordable, systems are out there? Music’s food for the soul and sometimes more important than bread.

Steven Rochlin: In the end we can sum it all up with three important words: Enjoy the music. So if your readers enjoy music and are willing to spend money for this magazine, naturally they would also extend this to their music system. Consider how many years you keep your stereo system after purchase and the initial expense probably becomes less than $1 a day. Think about this fact, dear reader; how much money do you spend per week on coffee, wine or other enjoyments in life? In the end what really matters to me is that we all enjoy the music.

Originally Published