One Small Step...

Screeeeeeech, thump, thump, vroooooom...

That's the sound of another music-lover and potential audiophile taking a sharp turn and jumping the curb just where the consumer-electronics audio highway goes straight ahead. These renegades are four-wheeling into the audio wilderness for a musical joyride through territory not found on most CE industry maps.

This departure from the predictable is part of an ongoing revolution that touches most of this magazine's readers, as well as hordes of yet-to-be-audiophiles all over the world. It's not the audio revolution about quality promised by such hi-rez formats as DVD-Audio and SACD, or the move from two-channel to multichannel music mixes. And this revolution won't be televised either.

This revolt is about access. That's what the computer-based system approach offers music fans. The computer's ability to easily store, sort, and catalog vast quantities of compressed music, and the widespread adoption of the MP3 format and PC soundcards, have made access to music easier than ever. By contrast, high-end audio offers audiophiles quality. So far, rarely do easy access to music and audiophile quality meet.

Why not? While mass-market hardware and software manufacturers are starting to spend millions of dollars to thrust competing quality multichannel music formats on us, the public is clearly attracted, without industry support, to something else entirely: easy access. How can the audio business at large be missing this?

Last July, we ran a poll on the Stereophile website asking how many of our readers listen to music via their computers. While 60% of those who voted admitted to using their computers to play music at least some of the time, half of those, or 30% of the Stereophile faithful, said that they use computers to play music "quite often."

Before some of you dismiss these folks as former audiophiles, let's take a look at what they're really up to.

About a month ago, Corrina and I got to meet our new next-door neighbors. The fortyish techmeister of the house seemed quite eager that we get together—I gathered that he'd figured out that I write for an audio magazine, and he could barely contain his enthusiasm to show me what he'd done with his own audio system when building his new home.

This guy clearly loves music, and, like many audiophiles, has sunk tens of thousands of dollars into his audio equipment. But it's not even close to what you might think an expensive system would look like. He has a computer in his garage with two 80-gigabyte hard drives set up as his "music server." He wired his house with Cat.5 cable and put Ethernet jacks in every room. He's got at least three rooms set up with an Ethernet-connected laptop and an Onkyo outboard D/A converter hooked into a high-powered audio system—and maybe a few more I haven't seen. He stores all of his music from his vast CD and DAT library as MP3 files, which, using a variable-bit-rate converter, he carefully rips onto the music server in the garage. So far, he's crammed over 15,000 song files onto the system's hard drives. He's adding more every week.

When we began talking about music, he walked up to the laptop in the living room and typed in "Basque," the name of an artist he wanted us to hear. Seconds later, the music started, and his display listed dozens of related artists, sorted by musical genre. It also listed all of the Basque albums in his collection, and allowed us to instantly play particular tracks (or all of them) in random fashion for the next few hours. It didn't sound too bad, either. He then told us that his best friend has a similar system throughout his house, one that is entirely wireless.

Corrina was hooked. "Why can't we do that?"

"Well it's that quality thing..." I muttered.

She pointed out that we've got thousands of CDs and LPs scattered throughout the house, but finding anything in particular and cuing it up takes a little time. New music comes in too fast to keep it easily catalogued and sorted. Finding a dozen related discs might easily consume 15 minutes or more, sometimes killing our enthusiasm in the process.

She also reminded me that her younger brother Terrence has been developing a system like our neighbor's for years, and has now graduated to using his PC-audio system to successfully drive a pair of MartinLogans. So I installed on her Apple system the latest version of iTunes, which allows you to rip and control uncompressed full-bandwidth audio files and/or MP3 tracks—the only limitation is the size of your hard disk. Within hours she had several hundred songs arranged into playlists and was soon asking for better speakers and a larger hard disk. We now listen to more music than ever.

I'm sure I shouldn't admit this, but after discovering Apple's iTunes, I, too, now often listen to MP3s on my computer. iTunes changed my view literally overnight about the importance of access versus quality. iTunes' "playlist" paradigm (common to dozens of similar programs) uses the power of the PC/Mac/Palm to build on the collecting mania inherent in audiophiles in order to make music access unbelievably easy.

So much for access. Is it possible to add in the quality that audiophiles demand?

Linn and Sutherland Engineering are two of a handful of high-end audio companies trying to do just that. Linn's expensive Kivor (to be reviewed by John Atkinson in the December issue) can swallow up and store hundreds of your CDs, compressed or not, on its built-in and expandable hard drives. It lets users select and sort tracks, and—unlike some of the cobbled-together computer-controlled/multi-disc changer/homebrew approaches that offer the ability to create playlist-driven systems from existing mass-market components—the Kivor is quick and quiet, with few moving parts. It's much easier to set up than a computer-based system, and takes up a lot less space.

Sutherland Engineering is taking a different but no less radical approach. Ron Sutherland says he loves to use his computer in the office to play music, and decided he needed a great-sounding, tube-based, USB-savvy DAC to go with it. He went to work developing a product that should be on the market as this issue goes to press: the 12dAX7, selling at around $1500. Just add audiophile amp, speakers, and your favorite music-management software, and you're there.

And now that IBM has announced that 400GB hard drives will be available in the next two years, formats of even higher resolution (and multichannel, if you really need it) will soon be practical options for these access-plus-quality systems.

Components like these are a great start for audiophiles who want access and quality in the same system. Are there any other manufacturers out there who want to take a chance on what I reckon will be a much safer bet than hi-rez 5.1-channel audio? Clearly, there's a market among audiophiles to buy this. Will more of the high-end audio industry provide a way?

Sometimes, a short step backward is the beginning of the next great leap forward.