Most audiophiles are generally loathe to think that they'd run their main audio systems from a computer. Last time we ran a poll, answers such as this one from David L. Wyatt, Jr. were typical: "Why in the world would I hook my computers to my stereo? If I want to make a compilation CD of the music I have purchased, I'll just burn one."
Love it or hate it, MP3 users are a huge new market, as yet untapped by the music industry. Portable digital compressed-audio players, whether employing Flash memory or compact hard drives à la Apple's iPod, are estimated to begin reaching critical-mass sales numbers around 2006, with an installed base of 24 million units by 2007. Most observers agree that this dramatic growth has been driven, in large part, by the vast quantity of no-fee music that is available in the format, as well as the players' ease of use and flexibility.
The music industry repeatedly points to online file trading as the explanation for its declining market. But annual sales are still well ahead of 1998's figures and several analysts note that when you take into account the economic downturn, increased competition for entertainment dollars, high CD pricing, uninspiring new music, and consumer resistance to copy protection, those negative numbers should really be far worse.
Looks like it might be a while before a profitable formula jells for selling music over the Internet. News this week indicates that one of the largest music retailers, Tower Records, is finally ready to challenge the market, while online distribution pioneer N2K will be scaling back operations until things steady a bit.
First with CD players, then digital preamps, and recently amplifiers, digital technology has ground inexorably through the audio chain. Several companies have been developing ways to shorten the analog path or remove it entirely. Meridian's "digital" loudspeakers come to mind, as well as the amplifiers from manufacturers Spectron and TacT.
Last week, Cirrus Logic unveiled two new Crystal digital-to-analog converters that the company says will support both dueling high-definition audio standards: DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). As a result, the new DACs should enable the creation of universal DVD players for both the mass and high-end audio markets. The new DACs are the CS4397 "SuperDAC," which the company describes as a "high-performance audio DAC on a single chip" with 120dB dynamic range performance; and the CS4391, a lower-cost DAC also supporting DVD-Audio and SACD and sporting a 108dB dynamic range.
Although the CD was successfully released into the music industry gene pool 20 years ago, several companies are still tinkering with its DNA in order to assist record labels in restricting how consumers use their discs.
New companies are springing up all around the web to provide songs for custom CD compilations. (See previous articles 1, 2.) You go to the site, choose up to 70 minutes of music from their catalog, and the finished disc is mailed back to you in a couple of days for between 10 and 20 bucks. The challenge for these companies is to have an attractive catalog of artists and songs to choose from.