What is the Future of the High End Part IV
- iFi: the New Gateway Audible Drug & Personal
I can't believe that as I sit here typing this article I'm listening to music and reacting emotionally while it streams wirelessly to my office system from my Macbook. If you told me back in 1996 that I would consider my laptop a high fidelity music source, I would have accused you of being high. But here I am. Thanks to a five hundred dollar piece: the Audioengine D2 24-bit wireless DAC, I can stream all audio from my laptop to my beloved office system (please see associated equipment on the side bar) and I don't feel like I'm missing anything. The rate at which the sonic landscape is changing around us is staggering. The progression of personal/desktop and portable music delivery is perhaps the most exciting segment of the audio industry at the moment in terms of innovation (analog playback is evolving as well, no doubt). I remember addressing a crowd, at the request of Harry Pearson, at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2009 regarding iPods and the proliferation of high end computer audio. I just wrote the second installment of my What is the Future of the High End series for PFO (check it out HERE) and Harry honored me by asking me to speak as the result of that article. There I was, being asked by my mentor and dear friend, to address a crowd that came to see him because of something I wrote!
One of subjects raised in that discussion was the fact that there were millions of iPod and iPhone users out there, and those users also owned a personal computer. At least a small portion would be receptive to better quality sound if you showed them the path to sonic integrity using music they were familiar with in demonstrations, and used equipment they could afford. I made a suggestion that dealers set up computer audio listening stations and display a "good, better, best" scenario, just like they do with high end stereo equipment. Today there are dealers implementing this concept, and even dedicating areas of their stores to computer and personal audio, Gramophone in Maryland is a good example of this practice. They recently opened their iFi Zone, a section of the store dedicated to high end computer and personal audio. Surely they didn't get that idea from me! I don't believe so anyway, but it's a dream to think perhaps we here at PFO have enough of an impact to aid in the evolution of the audio arts! It's just the natural progression of things. On that note: I'm excited to see other magazines, like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, feature important products like the Audioquest Dragonfly and others. It's also nice to see their correlated sites: AVGuide.com and Stereophile.com, have dedicated sub-sites like Playback for personal audio (fellow scribe Chris Martens does a terrific job there) and Inner Fidelity (kudos to Mr. Hertsens and Steve Guttenberg there).
Recently I was approached by an audiophile magazine to write an article about the growing trend of new digital music delivery. They wanted me to break-down music streaming services specifically, and how they worked. I thought to myself: your readers don't already know how streaming services work? Suffice is to say, my voice was not the right fit for them. They wanted less of my authentic voice/style, and more focus on the services and products themselves. Personally, I see this as an alarming sign of a seeming disconnect between their view of reviewers, and their audience. Specifically, I think perhaps they don't realize the radical shift in the perception of critics today from the perspective of the users, and their role in our wholly new interconnected world. The paradigm hasn't just shifted; it has been blown to pieces. There's no more wall between the critic, the artist, and their audience. For a terrific breakdown of this concept, check out Press Pause Play, a revealing documentary on the digital revolution and the information age's effect on art and its accessibility. No more ivory towers. Why do you think user reviews are so popular? Because the average person can relate, and for the most part (with occasional corruption there too) users who take the time to review a product they bought are doing it to share their enthusiasm for that product. They're not looking to raise circulation or ad revenue. Bottom line: today you must be as educated as your audience, and put some faith in their ability to see and know the world for what it is now.
Personally, I don't want to read linear reviews anymore. I want to know about the person writing the review as well: their tastes and their biases. Nobody can be completely objective, especially in this small industry. That's not a bad thing. We're trying to share our collective passion for the art of recorded music and the playback of that medium. Why not let your excitement come through? Do these members of the old guard think Napster changed the music industry forever simply because people got music for free? If they do, then they're not nearly as educated as the audience. People want to be connected to others. It's in our nature to be social creatures. The internets are a digital expressions of that desire. The moment music began to live there it became a part of something that made connecting with other people more fun and exciting! So our job is to show people they can still share, download, upload, stream, and do everything with music they could before, but they don't have to settle for convenience anymore. Part of this process involves giving a bit of yourself over to the audience, just like the artists do with the music and sounds we're writing about. I think it's an essential part of the reviewing process today. Be a part of the tribe; don't try to place yourself above it anymore. The secrets out! Users know more now than they ever have before. Bask in that, and act as a guide. The wonderful thing about all this, what keeps me so enthusiastic, is that music is playing a bigger role in making these connections than ever before!
When music began to exist as data files on computers and new portable listening devices that access online content in a few seconds, users began sharing their music discoveries at an incredible pace. People also began to consume music like never before. The quality, the sonic merits of the music, may have taken a backseat to quantity for awhile (and to some degree it still does) but the sheer fact is music became easier to access and share and that is a good thing. After all, isn't that what we're chasing with our audio toys: the music? One of the great things about this massive shift in playback is that some artists and engineers were not satisfied with mediocrity. They weren't content with MP3 files: music that was so compressed it lost its soul. So, high end computer and personal audio (which I referred to as "i-fi" back in 2009) and encompasses portable devices such as headphones, headphone amplifiers, and DACs started flooding the market. Suddenly there were tons of affordable, quality, portable audio solutions for your laptop, iPod, iPhone, iPad, whatever portable you chose! Products of convenience were transformed into high fidelity sources. Now, there are still millions of users who couldn't care less about the sonic integrity of their music. They want to load up their MP3 player and head to the gym. Fortunately, there are also millions of us out there who want to have tons of music on-demand, but we want it to sound good as well. A killer source for information on high end portable audio (or personal audio) is Head-fi.org. Jude Mansilla had a grand vision, and to see what he's built as the result of his dedication to the pursuit of great sound on-the-go is truly inspiring. You'll find a passionate community of personal audio devotees there (including yours truly) if you're looking to get some feedback on this new audible frontier I highly recommend checking the site out.
This a thrilling time for audio! I feel privileged to be a part of it, and you should too. To be brutally honest: I never thought after all these years in this industry (hell I started when I was a teenager at The Absolute Sound) that I'd have such new and exciting sonic frontiers to explore! But I can't keep up with all the cool personal audio products flooding my office. I'm like a kid in a candy store! The best part about all this: I haven't listened to a product in months that has disappointed me! Some may think my standards have dropped. This is not the case. After all, I have a killer reference system that excites me every day, and that is still my first-choice when it comes to music playback—so I have to be pretty damn floored by a pair of headphones, or a headphone amplifier/DAC in order for it to keep my attention. But with cans like the Audeze LCD3's, the best headphones on the planet today in my opinion, and leading-edge DACs/headphone amps like the Audioquest Dragonfly (full review to come ASAP), ALO Audio's Pan Am (a vacuum tube unit), or Rx MK3-B and the HRT Headstreamer; all head-amps/DACs with their own individual sonic signatures and feature sets, I must tell you I have never had so much fun listening to music. I mean, not even with my stereo system! I'm not saying these portable products provide a better listening experience than my stereo, but because the market segment is so fresh and new I feel like I'm exploring new ground. That's a very exciting thing for an audio journalist: finding a new path to sonic integrity!
I'm also finding myself providing demonstrations where ever I go! If that's not a sign of my enthusiasm for this new world of portable Hifi, I'm not sure what is. Take this weekend for example: One of my closest friends got married. His name is Peter Wohelski and he works for Beatport. Peter signed such influential EDM acts as The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim to Astralwerks years ago, so I knew there would be fellow music addicts at his reception. Prime territory to infect people with the audio virus! I came armed w/ my Macbook, iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone 4S for sources. I also brought along my Audeze LCD3 headphones (in their road-case, available for purchase through any Audeze dealer), the Audioquest Dragonfly headphone amp/DAC for my Macbook, and my ALO Rx MK3-B headphone amplifier, which is small enough and battery powered so I could affix my iPod Touch and iPhone 4s to the top of the unit and carry it with me in my backpack! I used ALO cables on the Audeze's and Moon Audio's LOD-3 cables for use between the iPod, iPhone, and iPad and the ALO Rx MK3-B. The name of the gentleman who officiated their wedding ceremony was John-Paul. John-Paul worked in musical theatre for many years. When I showed up sporting the Audeze road-case, and told him these were state-of-the-art headphones, he was dying to hear them. I set everything up in Peter's living room (away from the noise of the party) sat John-Paul down, had him put on the headphones, showed him the volume control on the ALO Rx MK3-B, and picked some of my favorite demo tracks: Hecq's "Bette Noire", James Blake's "Limit to Your Love", and Radiohead's "Everything's in its Right Place" to name a few. Watching his eyes open as wide as quarters when the music kicked in, and the smile on his face, said everything to me. Not to mention the fact that after the demonstration he became my most effective audio zealot for the evening! Following his demo, he kept introducing people to me to hear the Audeze/ALO rig. He would say things like "You must hear these headphones, it's like having a studio or a theater in your mind!" Need I say more? This is perhaps the greatest asset of the evolution of personal audio: You can turn people on no matter where you are! We can all participate in the evangelizing of great sound!
Some people think all of this innovation is a step backwards in fidelity. I wholly disagree. Sure, there are plenty of users who couldn't care less about the sonic integrity of their music. They appreciate the convenience factor more than anything. Being able to transport thousands of songs in a tiny box in their pocket is all they care about. Those users will always be there. I'm not concerned with that demographic. I'm referring to the music addicts, the guys who were building their own products in garages (like headphone amplifiers for their iPods) in order to get closer to the music they love. These users are no longer the silent majority. Just look at the blazing success of Head-fi.org for example. It's currently the world's largest audio website (in terms of traffic and members).
I recall a statement from Mike Hobson (founder of the late Classic Records label, and partner in High Resolution Technologies) about computer audio playback. He said: "This is not a step backwards in fidelity, but a step forward in digital playback." He went on to say, and I can't remember his words precisely, that we "used to rely on clunky mechanical transports reading optical discs" in order to convert digital back to analog, and many of those devices were "highly prone to jitter". I couldn't agree more. That is an area where we have taken advantage of something that almost everybody is already familiar with: their personal computer. It's a much easier sell: Showing somebody how to increase the playback quality of a component they already own! Since the computer is a very noisy environment for music playback, visionary audio engineers have begun mastering the art of taking the audio signal "outside the box," just like they've been doing in recording and mastering studios for decades using DACs and A-to-D converters.
This is the reason for the explosion of affordable USB digital-to-analog converters for computers from such companies as ALO Audio, Headroom, High Resolution Technologies, Audioquest, Schiit Audio, Ray Samuels, NuForce, Audioengine, Alpha Design Labs and Music Hall, just to name a few! These products turn the computer into a high fidelity playback device. Now, instead of telling the user they have to start from scratch, we get to tell them they already have the most important part of the system: the source! We get to show them how to get the most out of it.
We can even enhance the audio quality of an interface the user has grown to love. Take iTunes for example. With accompanying software for Mac, companies like Amarra (who lowered their prices considerably, now offering a basic version of their critically acclaimed software called Amarra Hifi for $49.95) and other products like Pure Music (also very affordable) you can use iTunes as the interface and cataloging software, while leaving the sound processing to the experts. Both Amarra and Pure Music can work in tandem with iTunes so the user doesn't have to re-learn how to use their beloved music playback software. The learning curve has been blown apart.
PC users have other options as well. JRiver has a splendid software package for those looking to squeeze out more sonic integrity from their laptops and desktops. A bonus to using these programs is that while you're playing your tunes, the companies are always working towards increasing quality, and can send you product updates as they make new discoveries online! Their software is becoming more refined and easier to manage as the days go by. This is great news for end users! There's nothing worse than a convoluted operating system. Now all these digital tools are becoming more intuitive, making things a pleasure to navigate. After all, while we care about music and sound quality, there is something to be said for the convenience factor when it's a compliment, not the focus!
Today it seems we're getting the best of both worlds in personal audio/iFi: Ease of use and quality at real-world prices. In the next column I'll focus on some of the hardware needed to process the audio signal once it arrives at your computer, iPhone, iPod or iPad. In the meantime, go and find some terrific new music! We've got all-access passes unlike any other time in our history. So go find that rare album you've been thinking about for the last twenty years. I'm sure it's alive and well on the internet. Don't be afraid of the new, the un-familiar. Because these products also build a bridge to the younger generation better than any audio segment before them! Sure, products like the Sony Walkman come to mind – but it was limited by the music you had on the cassette inserted into the component. Today our portable devices (most of than anyway) are always connected to the internets. You can find out about a new album on MOG for example, and download it instantly in CD-quality through their iPad or iPhone app! If you don't like it, erase it and look for another album! It's a brave new audio world out there. Don't be afraid to get out and explore! I'm having more fun than I ever have. You can too. Happy listening, on whatever you may be using!