Audiophiles Perfect What The Mass Market Selects

As I write this in the first quarter of 2007, CD sales are off over 22% compared to this time last year. The music industry as we know it, based on sales of some kind of physical medium, is over. While CDs and even LPs will remain available—they're so easy and cheap to make—they've become irrelevant to the mass market and to the future of audiophile recordings. The major labels have also become irrelevant (not to mention highly irritating).

However, a persistent number of audiophiles go into apoplectic dysrhythmia when the Apple iPod, music servers, or music downloads are mentioned in Stereophile or on its website. And, trouble-makers that we are, we mention these things often.

Like it or not, iPods, music servers (which is what iPods really are), and downloads are good things. In fact, the long-term health and viability of the audiophile way of life will depend on their growth and continued success. Audiophiles will benefit more from this shift than from any previous revolution in disc or tape media. There are two reasons for this.

First, downloads and music servers are not a format—they are an open-ended sliding scale of resolutions, codecs, and even possibilities for cover art and liner notes. Downloads are not necessarily two-channel or low-resolution. And anyone who has used iTunes 7.1 with Cover Flow has already been viewing art bigger than the size of a CD insert.

The really compelling part: The path to better sound and artwork is largely software-based, limited only by our access to bandwidth and the imagination and desires of the marketplace. Online music distributors offering high-resolution downloads and better liner notes are inevitable, whether it begins with iTunes 10.0, or some small niche player doing it for the love of good sound (footnote 1).

Establishing a new recording format no longer requires a huge engineering staff, manufacturing plant, and distribution/retailer network, with all the attendant risks of large investments in hardware, software, and inventory. The new requirement is a small group of clever software engineers and licensing attorneys.

Second, once the novelty and convenience of downloading have worn off, parts of the market will desire higher-resolution sound, and even bigger and more detailed liner notes and art. This is the richest high-end audio opportunity we've had in years—decades, even.

Here's how it works: Younguns hear lo-rez music they like and put it on their iPods. If they're lucky, they'll find lots of music they really like and fill up their iPods. Then, an ever-growing percentage of them get so hooked by the music/audio thing that they set out on a quest for better sound.

Eventually they start looking for bigger hard drives and better headphones, soundcards, and speakers to hook up to their iPods and computers. Lo and behold, they end up with pretty cool music-server-and-iPod rigs that start to sound alright and are a blast to use. That's when they realize they need higher-quality downloads to take advantage of all this new stuff and push it further.

The cycle feeds on itself: The more kids who get iPods and download stuff they really like, the more eager music lovers enter audiophilia's secondary and tertiary stages. The equation looks like this: More downloads + iPods = more music fans + more potential audiophiles. More audiophiles eventually drive the market for better-sounding, audiophile-grade downloads. Thus, more downloads = audiophile downloads.

This is all based on a trusty, time-proven principle: Audiophiles perfect what the mass market selects. Or: Convenience always precedes sound quality. It happened with turntables and vinyl, it happened with CDs, it happened with solid-state electronics, and it'll happen with downloads and music servers.

Here's a concrete example of how this works today: When the first portable MP3 players came out, they had two major audiophile deficiencies: low-quality file formats and lousy earbuds. Then the iPod and iTunes 4.5 arrived, and users could put uncompressed files from their CDs directly onto the drive. This is why Stereophile covered it.

Then the earbud market saw the audiophile need, and off it went. Shure, Etymotic, Ultimate Ears—even Bose—took the high road first, and, as Wes Phillips noted last October, "All of a sudden, it seems there's a renaissance in in-ear monitors." Now we have the Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro at $900, and uncompressed audio files are common on iPods that have immense storage capacity. Comparisons of $400 earbuds have even shown up in Wired magazine.

Sooloos, Sonos, and Slim Devices all have recently been designing new server and wireless products with an ear toward the networked audiophile. Sooloos, in particular, is strictly a high-end product—if I had the cash today, my disc player would be toast. And let's not forget that Apple's new iPhone is also a wireless music player with an amazing touchscreen. It might be worth buying just as a remote control/music server from which to drive your system. After recently spending several months with a Sonos system tied to an NAS drive, iTunes, and a Rhapsody music-streaming subscription, going back to using discs feels like adding a ball and chain to my music library.

The unexpected benefit of using the Sonos system? Everyone in the house started finding piles of new music through the discovery process encouraged by Rhapsody and iTunes. This actually led to more disc purchases, to feed the NAS drive with uncompressed audio. If we could purchase those uncompressed tracks without the discs (at 96kHz even!), download life would be beautiful. I'd never feed a tray again.

Like the growing army of up-and-coming audiophiles, I'm primed and ready to pay for the future of audiophile downloads and music-streaming servers when it fully arrives. Let's encourage it—all audiophiles will eventually benefit, and our way of life will be preserved for another generation or two.

Footnote 1: Music Giants has already started offering hi-rez downloads, but we have not as yet checked out what they are doing.—Ed.

Dom Perignon's picture

Happy thead your trademark.. What do you know? After killing the forum I have no doubt that you will kill Stereophile.