If one is to believe online audio discussion then good sound is rare, has become far too expensive, and is enjoyed only by 1-percenters who collect status symbols. For playback these geezers have maybe 10 CDs and LPs in their collection, mostly female vocalists and a couple of the “war horse” audiophile demo discs. It’s a dire situation that will only see smaller and smaller interest as these effete old farts die off and the “wine and cheese” audio societies close up shop, long forgotten to the dustbin of audio history.
This is one of the most exciting times in audio. This is arguably the very best time to be a fan of good sound. It is a magical time filled with good music and good fellowship. Heresy you say? I will explain.
A “Golden Age” is a bold statement for sure. After all, families are not exactly gathering around the fireplace at night and throwing a record on the old console stereo. People are not even buying CDs. Times have indeed changed. We are too busy now. Technology has advanced considerably… at times not for the better. When audio does get a cultural reference, it is often parodied like the snobbish, bearded gent in the Acura ad.
But, increasingly, I am seeing glimpses of excitement … of passion for great sound. And all of this passion has aggregated in my crazy opinion that NOW is audio’s true Golden Age. Looking across the landscape, I see some real excitement in three cool areas: portable audio, analog audio, and computer audio.
Travel to the Mile High City in October for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The energy level in the ballroom for “CanJam” exceeds any found on the many hotel floors of high end components and speakers. The young Millenials buying portable audio gear are passionate about what they do. There are so many postings on Head-Fi I cannot keep up. The vendors are highly creative with rapid product releases and really amazing headphones that seem to get more clear with better bass and extended highs every year. Portable DACs now sound as good as a fine set of digital components. Don’t believe me? Listen to the Chord Hugo – reference resolution in a 4” by 4” silver box. Breathtaking. I think portable audio is the single best entry point for people who want good sound.
Grab a happy hour beer at Mojo Vinyl in historic Roswell, Georgia on any given Friday. Old farts buying musty Fritz Reiner recordings? Uh no. My buddy Tim is there picking up a white label promo of Van Morrison’s Band and Street Choir. Some 20 something walks in to buy a new Zeppelin reissue. Some high schoolers inquire about the new Black Lips LP. The Music Hall table is jamming Hypnotic Eye from Tom Petty. Somebody’s mom is looking through the Neil Young bin. Literally every age group is represented. It’s fun. I think the owner Rand has a better job than I do. But I’m happy for him and happy to be at Mojo buying old school vinyl.
Does anyone remember the Sooloos computer audio device with a touch screen where you can select the albums to play by just tapping on the screen? I wanted one of those so badly but at the time it cost around $10,000 which I did not have. Fast forward a few years and now I have a Mac Mini with an iPad and I have the same thing for $1,000. Lately I’ve been using Amarra 3.02 playing high resolution files. It sounds so good. Listen to John Bonham’s drums on Zeppelin II at 24/96. I know my neighbors did. 😉 But the really amazing experience was a DSD file of Elton John’s Honky Cat being played back on a loaner Benchmark DAC2. It sounded so natural and smooth…almost, dare I say, more analog than digital. Computer audio is intriguing. It can be a real pain at times no doubt but properly set up it has a very satisfying sound. A good vinyl record is the only thing I like better than a good “hirez” file.
So what’s driving all of this?
I think it boils down to five factors:
- Price: Audio playback is getting cheaper. I have written previously about direct to consumer business models that allow for cheaper pricing on high quality gear. The Geek Pulse, the iFi product line, and Pono are three examples. DACs are like a “race to the bottom” as Chris Sommovigo says. Better quality in chips at lower prices seemingly every six months. Great sound for $500 is now possible and almost plentiful.
- Social Networks: Our humble audio hobby is “always on” – 24/7/365. News about great products travels at the speed of light. We have our own peer groups or networks of people whose opinion we admire and we find out instantly about great products. We see it first on facebook, twitter, or the Steve Hoffman Music Forums. We read a review about it on headphone.guru. We go to the local audio club meet or dealer to hear it in person. Our local Atlanta store Audio Alternative has a “headphone bar” where you can try many headphones with many different DACs.
- Profits: People are making good money at audio again and that is attracting more people to the business. It’s creating a “virtuous cycle”. Margins are still good on used records. Used record stores can sell turntables or at a minimum create lots of demand for them. Turntable manufacturers are getting creative like VPI’s Nomad which cuts across to the headphone category with its built-in headphone amplifier and Grado cans. Consumers are now faced with a better source. “Gee, maybe it’s time I upgraded my amp and speakers.” The whole industry benefits.
- Ease of Access: It’s simply easier these days to get plugged in. Everybody’s phone plays music and quite well with the right app. Computer audio is a no brainer. Everyone has a computer now. So just add a decent DAC and a good pair of headphones. Or stream lossless sound from the new Tidal Hifi service. You get amazing sound in a compact space that is spouse and small apartment friendly. Want some small speakers for the office? Get some audioengine or emotiva “powered speakers”. Need a system for the road? Attach some quality headphones to your iPhone or Galaxy.
- Technology: Tech is just exploding. So many creative things going on. High resolution audio downloads from HDTracks and others, lossless streaming, FPGA chip designs, DSD downloads, orthodynamic drivers in headphones, new electrostatic designs at much lower prices…too many to mention like a long-winded Oscar speech. And the culture is supportive. It’s pretty cool to get excited about the new iPhone. Having better quality headphones is pretty cool too.
All five of these elements show no signs of slowing down. Things are truly getting better and better. But there are a lot of choices. Headphone.guru can be a trusted advisor that helps you create a personal “short list” of desirable gear and music…and a source of great stories around the gear and the people behind the gear along the way.
And finally, what about that console stereo? Zu Audio introduced one just recently called the Modern. It is beautiful and I’m reliably told sounds great. Perhaps this really is history repeating itself.
Welcome to the new Golden Age of Audio. It’s going to be a great ride.