The Tiger Wags Its Tail

This is the story of the tiger wagging its tail. It is also the story of a tail trying to wag its tiger...

We've all noticed that the computer industry, not content with conquering business, industry, and Hollywood, has set its sights on the final frontier: the average family home. Don't think for a moment that the computer moguls are hoping you'll buy a TV with computerlike enhancements. The real goal is for everyone to buy a computer (or three) to watch TV on. In fact, PCs exceeded shipments of TVs in the third quarter of 1996, and have now invaded 40% of US households.

What has any of this got to do with high-end audio?

First we have to realize that, in the computer universe, audio of any stripe is a minor feature. Closer to home, in recent months we've all seen "Home Theater" change more than one high-end audio manufacturer's focus.

Second, high-end audio has historically been the "perfected" or "carried-to-the-extreme" result of whatever mass-market format has already been created and adopted. As goes Sony, so goes the audio industry.

But change is certainly afoot. Computer/entertainment systems will gain more ground in the typical home, and audio and video software will stream in from unfamiliar places. High-end audio will then increasingly focus on finding better ways to make music from computer-based systems. This will not only involve the challenges posed by creating great-sounding digital PC hardware, but also the perfection of the datastream and its attendant software.

Realistically, this won't happen overnight, or even by the end of the century. Rather, this is an observation as to which direction is downstream, where the water will inevitably flow regardless of small diversions or the efforts of a few with wooden buckets. Gravity (the will of the market) will inexorably take over. This tiger is wagging its tail.

However, the flexibility inherent in a computer-based system for processing multiple data formats is where the extreme audio action will be. Already the DVD is being endowed with the ability to store a variety of audio and video standards, even on the same disc. But DVD is a transitional medium. New ways to channel bits into and around the home—such as FireWire and cable/fiber modems, or satellite services such as Hughes's DirecPC, and others yet to be announced—will make any fixed audio standard irrelevant.

Even though they're decidedly lo-fi at this point, the plethora of audio formats available to anyone using the Internet is an example of the future potential. Some would call it a standards nightmare, but others prefer to revel in the rich opportunity for niche markets.

But let's not misunderstand what this is really all about. Consumers are not interested in listening to digital audio streams because they're on a computer—consumers are driven toward whatever brings what they want to see and hear into their homes. If Liquid Audio has its way, in no time you'll be downloading albums directly from independent and major labels at CD sampling rates into your computer. And if the music you want can only be purchased online...

Right now the recording industry is migrating toward higher-resolution digital. Forward-thinking studios are looking at and investing in 24-bit/96kHz recording both as an audio standard to create higher-quality archival materials for an uncertain future.

And for the first time in history, high-end audio has a chance to start creating its own standards from scratch. If a record company no longer has to ship a single-format product such as a CD, but can create multiformat DVDs—or, better yet, download a piece of music at data rates set by the customer—digital formats can better reflect the actual State of the Art, instead of a universal standard that was fossilized in 1980.

One of the primary reasons we still have the 16-bit/44.1kHz CD standard in the High End is the need for a large, established market before a record company will release software in a new (or better) format. But the future should allow high-end audio to tailor a computer-based multiformat approach to its advantage. This could be the beginning of a whole new era in which the audio tweak is continually coddled with real technology upgrades, both in software and hardware. Higher-resolution signals, and even data encode/decode methods, such as future forms of HDCD or DTS, could be assimilated by the perfectionist market much more quickly and completely.

Implied in this scenario is that audio hardware manufacturers may have fewer digital "boxes" to sell us as more of the upgrade path is software-based—expect some resistance from those who have the wrong strengths for succeeding in the future high-end world. There will be grand opportunities, however, for the companies that see the advantages of working in the new environment. Perhaps the pursuit of extreme audio will inspire a high-end home-computer market to successfully develop.

For a glimpse of the potential benefit for the audiophile, look toward the pro-audio world. Witness how Digidesign, a rapidly growing Palo Alto company, has created hardware, software, and—most important—its TDM plug-in architecture. Like the Sonic Solutions digital audio workstation, Digidesign hardware slips into and connects to a Mac PC, hotrodding the onboard audio capabilities. But unlike Sonic Solutions, the TDM standard supports third-party software developers who create programs, and occasionally hardware, that manipulate the signal in the computer.

Imagine running a software room-correction DSP plug-in, or a speaker optimization program. How about a custom noise-reduction plug-in to rid lo-fi sources of unwanted defects? New surround formats could be uploaded as plug-ins, as well as simulated acoustic environments. And, just as in the pro-audio world, plug-in simulations of different tubed equipment can be created to soften the binary bite! The possibilities are endless.

In the end, the high-end audio enthusiast may have a chance to continually redefine the optimum standard for playing and enjoying music, without having to check with Sony first...truly a case of the tail wagging the tiger.