1998 Audio News in the Rear-View Mirror
From our admittedly self-referential point of view, the biggest event of the year was Petersen Publishing's purchase of Stereophile, Inc.---an event that launched waves of speculation throughout the audio industry about the magazine's future. The purchase has been a beneficial venture so far, for both Stereophile and Petersen, who a few months later bought Stereophile's competitor Curtco, publisher of Home Theater magazine. Petersen Publishing was in turn recently acquired by EMAP, a British conglomerate with hundreds of specialty titles in Great Britain and France, in a $1.2 billion deal. The publishing pyramid continues to grow, but it's relatively small potatoes (see: The Abso!ute Sound Revived) compared to the enormity of Seagram's $10.4 billion acquisition of PolyGram, the final loose ends of which are still being tied together. Even Wherehouse's $115 million buyout of Blockbuster pales in comparison.
Early in the year, the audio industry was abuzz over various marriage proposals. Notable among them: the Lenbrook Group's courtship of Sonic Frontiers, an alliance that went sour after SF's shaky finances were exposed to the bright light. SF soon went belly-up, only to be reborn as Sonic Frontiers International under the Paradigm banner. The economic crisis in Asia put a dent in Harman International's earnings and in the bottom lines of other US companies. After a solid 20-year run, Carver Corporation finally ran out of steam, as did high-end stalwart Threshold, whose future (as of a recent inquiry) was still uncertain---although we have been reassured that Threshold will show product at CES '99. Counterpoint sank beneath the waves, but McCormack bobbed back to the surface. PS Audio is also reportedly being revived, although no products are on the market yet. A sad note: great old English loudspeaker makers Mordaunt-Short and Rogers announced the shuttering of their UK manufacturing plants, though a rescue of the former brand, involving UK retail chain Richer Sounds, is said to be in the works.
New advances in digital technology seemed to crop up every week. Most significant for audiophiles was the Sony/Philips announcement in mid-February of their Super Audio CD, a format that offers the highest-quality playback with the advantage of being backward-compatible with the installed base of millions of "Red Book" CD players. Meridian's MLP lossless-compression system was also big news, as was NEC's high-bandwidth data-transfer technology. Chip makers Burr-Brown, Cirrus Logic, and Analog Devices all made huge strides in the development of CD/DVD converter and controller ICs, and Clarion announced the world's first combination personal computer/car stereo---one that will purportedly respond to voice commands. Silicon Valley company Tripath announced its class-T amplifier technology, which promises great savings in weight and energy, and recordable CD became an affordable reality this year.
Internet "radio"---like Rolling Stone's---and music distribution both entered the media lexicon in 1998. The Recording Industry Association of America ran in several directions at once trying to keep up with the developments---especially the emergence of MP-3, a popular data-compressed digital audio transfer technology. Multimedia company Diamond Rio successfully challenged the RIAA's cease-and-desist order, and the two are now working toward an amicable solution. CD pirates and illegal music compilers were pursued with a vengeance in the US, Canada, and elsewhere. Despite that fact that online retailing is only in its infancy, strategic alliances were made almost daily---such as the Yamaha/Liquid Audio endorsement of RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2. Online enterprises jockeyed for position, and the stock market went ballistic for all things Internet---especially Amazon.com, whose stock surged after it began selling the little silver discs in June.
The US congress finally approved the World Intellectual Property Treaty, bringing the country into line with most of the world. The retailing picture in North America was rosy, especially for mass-marketers like Best Buy. After New England-based Tweeter Group expanded into the mid-Atlantic and Southeast states, the company launched a successful Initial Public Offering. Loudspeaker manufacturer B&W leaned hard on transhippers, the MiniDisc finally went mainstream, and Deutsche Grammophon collaborated with Schott Music in creating the CD-pluscore, an interactive disc with more than amusement value. The University of California at San Francisco stirred the wrath of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney with monkey-deafening experiments, and the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association promised the world it had little to fear from the impending Y2K problem. The weapons, ammunition, water, and canned goods you've stockpiled will probably be sufficient to get you over the hump.
Large gatherings were much in the news this year, as they will be next. The AES Convention in San Francisco was marked by thousands of attendees, an equal number of gorgeous products, and rancor between the analog and digital wings of that society. Wes Phillips spent several hectic, music-filled days at the Heathrow Hi-Fi show in London. The DVD-Audio group debuted several promising varieties of multichannel recording and announced the completion of version 1.0 of the DVD-Audio specification.
Most encouraging---and discouraging---were the contributions of our man in Saratov, Russia, Leonid Korostyshevski, whose first dispatch back in March sustained a note of promise for Russian consumers. His second dispatch, which appeared recently, portrayed the ominous cloud hanging over the great nation, whose economy has spiraled inevitably and dangerously downward while American policy makers have focused almost entirely on the comic opera in Washington.
1999 dawns with potential---both malevolent and hopeful. We'll be there to cover it. Happy New Year.