Saving the World From Bad Sound One Earful At a Time…
After years of living in a desert of low-res MP3s, crappy white ear buds, wafer-thin flat-panel TV speakers pointed away from the listener (come on!), and increasingly anemic AVRs, there is a revolution afoot. I can’t quite explain it—perhaps it’s a grassroots backlash against uninvolving, emotionally void music and muddled TV dialogue. Or maybe it’s just a fashion trend as the giant headphones and vinyl LPs that geeks like me thought were cool in the ’70s have oddly gained new traction as status symbols. Whatever the genesis, there appears to be growing demand for high-quality audio.
The evidence is everywhere. Thanks to Dr. Dre’s success with Beats, a huge market has emerged for premium earphones. Virtually every major speaker manufacturer is now participating in this category or planning to. Some of the best ’phones have been around all along but are just getting discovered now by young listeners who don’t mind strapping big cans around their necks like a piece of jewelry. The side benefit is that they can actually hear detail and dynamics in their favorite music for the first time.
Then there’s the soundbar phenomenon. “Volume grew 68 percent from 2011 to 2012 and is quickly starting to erode traditional home theater audio system categories,” noted Quixel Research principal Tamaryn Pratt in the company’s recent study. Part of what’s driving that is a new premium segment. In today’s market, “consumers can buy a simple 2.0 soundbar for $49 at Walmart or spend more than $2,000 for a luxury-branded 2.1 soundbar with an external subwoofer at their local custom installer,” Pratt said.
And how about the emergence of Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers that let consumers enjoy impressive audio from their smartphones or tablets? Like soundbars, streaming tabletop speakers are a stepdown alternative for audio enthusiasts, but they directly address the way most consumers store and access their music at home today. Groundbreaking products like B&W’s Zeppelin proved there was a market for a $600 music system that wasn’t a Bose Wave radio. There are now a bunch of competitors in that high-end space, and I’d be happy to live with most of them based on the demos I’ve heard. I spend way more time now listening to music through speakers like this around the house than I do in the sweet spot of my theater space.
If you’re still serious about sound, there are more options these days for audiophiles, too, thanks to the Internet and how it’s changed the face of retail. Web-direct companies that specialize in great sound for a good price are increasingly watching the world catch up to their way of doing business. Aperion, Axiom, RSL, and Hsu Research come to mind for speakers; Outlaw and Emotiva for electronics; Oppo for disc players. There are still some great “value” brands using two-step distribution as well—the Def Techs, Paradigms, GoldenEars, and Atlantic Technologys of the world (as an example) whose very best products achieve real high-end sound at a fraction of the price. But I dare say the audio world will be blessed if the day comes when these respected brands go the way of the Web and are able to lower prices further.
We’ve still got a long way to go. Low-resolution downloads remain the mainstay of most digital music libraries, and more needs to be done by the likes of quality advocates Neil Young and the Recording Academy before there’s mass demand for lossless and other high-resolution files. The Website QualitySoundMatters.com, a microsite of Grammy.com, was recently launched by the Recording Academy in association with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) to help drive awareness.
But all in all, there are some very positive signs that good sound may be coming back around. And that’s a blast from the past that needs no introduction.