As I sit here on November 23, 2014, writing this editorial, I can say with certainty that this past year has seen a sea change in my relationship to high-end audio -- and I know, from hearing from many of you, that I’m not alone. I’ve been professionally involved in the industries collectively known as high-end audio for almost two decades, and without question, 2014 has been the most enlightening -- and frustrating -- of those years. But, ultimately, I’m less frustrated than hopeful and encouraged, because the advancements I’ve witnessed in high-end audio in 2014 have been unprecedented.
As I write this, I’m listening to Tidal, a CD-quality streaming service that launched in the US just a few weeks ago. (Tidal began in Scandinavia, as WiMP.) What I find so amazing about Tidal is that not only am I streaming an album I don’t technically own, I’m listening to it as if I did own it, and with the same resolution as if I’d bought the CD. Tidal has some glitches to work out -- from the field, I’m still hearing reports of dropouts, and Tidal’s catalog of some 25 million tracks (so far) is far from complete -- but the upside far eclipses the inevitable growing pains. Can I imagine a time when I don’t need my CD collection at all? Yes, I can, and I’m anxious for it. After all, it’s about the enjoyment of the music, not the physical stuff I own. I don’t need the mountain of CDs I’ve collected, and would very much like to rid myself of them and their clutter once and for all. I’ve discovered some terrific music since subscribing to Tidal at the beginning of November -- right now I’m listening to The Band Perry’s eponymous debut album, which I never bought on CD. Tidal has added more to my enjoyment of music than any other product in 2014.
Not only am I streaming Tidal from my wireless network to my computer as I write this, I’m streaming that same music wirelessly from my computer back through my router, and then via Ethernet from the router to a pair of Devialet 400 mono amplifier-DACs. Though not connected to anything with a wire, my laptop computer is the system’s hub, and I’m listening to new music I didn’t have to buy on a physical medium while connecting to my audio system without cables.
A decade ago, I could not have even imagined such a setup. This is a sea change.
Once the signal is streamed wirelessly to the “system” -- basically the Devialets -- it travels a scant 4” through the Devialet 400 before it hits the binding posts of the 400’s outputs and then on to my speakers. You can read my review of the Devialet 400 system right now on this site, so I won’t recap my opinion of it here, but I will repeat that the $17,495 USD Devialet charges for a pair of 400s will buy you the best sound going today.
Another sea change: At under 20 pounds and about the size of a laptop computer, the Devialet 400s are not mere lifestyle products, but a high-performance, all-in-one system that takes a backseat to nothing the high end has been able to dream up, regardless of size, complexity, or cost. In fact, even though you’ll hear about some audio companies adding even more boxes, more connections, more weight, and more cost to achieve allegedly better sound, the Devialets make a strong case that, to raise the bar of sound quality, the opposite needs to happen: use better technology to shorten the signal path, thus avoiding myriad opportunities of signal loss.
Streaming 16-bit/44.1kHz, state-of-the-art integrated components . . . where will this lovely madness end? Well, you’ll have to ask the engineers driving these developments, for it’s they who are making all these advances happen. And that brings me to my next point -- not a sea change, but something that’s subtly but steadily shifting: Audiophiles are relearning that real engineering, not voodoo or snake oil, drives real increases in audio quality. It’s no surprise that the companies that use high-level professional engineering in the development of their products are advancing the state of the art, while the companies whose “engineering” consists of listening to off-the-shelf parts and cobbling them into a finished product, with no relevant measurement data to back up the technical claims of their marketing departments, are falling farther and farther behind. Audiophiles are catching on.
If you’re interested in where this leaves me personally, I’m happy to tell you.
For years now, the only source component in my reference system has been a computer. Like many of you, this meant ripping my entire CD collection to a hard drive, then doing the same with each new CD I bought. And if -- a big if -- Tidal or one of their competitors fills out its musical catalog to my satisfaction, I can envision myself buying no more new CDs. A few select high-resolution downloads and a comprehensive music-streaming service of CD quality would take care of me just fine, thanks very much.
No longer do I see more complex systems seizing the day. Instead, I see more simplification in electronics. From what I’ve heard from Devialet gear, shorter signal paths and more advanced engineering lead to better sound. How long will it take audiophiles to embrace this new philosophy? I’m not sure. There’s intense pushback even now -- not only from audiophiles, but also from the manufacturers and stores heavily invested in the traditional component categories. I get it. I’m having the same internal struggle myself.
Regarding speakers, a favorite pastime of mine to write about -- if your ear is to the ground, the trend is clear: The companies leading the way on the technical side are also making greater headway in sales. All of these companies -- from KEF, Paradigm, and PSB at the lower end of the price scale to Magico, Rockport, and Vivid at the upper end -- are using advanced engineering to produce some extraordinary products. Unlike on the electronics side, these speakers are still relatively large and heavy, and can get pretty doggone expensive. I don’t think we’ll see miniature speakers taking over the high-performance market anytime soon. So I guess I’ll be keeping a big pair of speakers in the listening room.
What will 2015 bring? I’m not entirely sure, but whatever it is, I intend, as always, to call it as I see it, even if that means stepping on a few toes. That, too, is a consequence of change -- and big change is upon us.
. . . Jeff Fritz