Music Served

I'm writing these words on the flight home from the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, held January 7–10 in Las Vegas. I wasn't sure what to expect at this year's CES. Though the official stats show that the US economy has grown for the fourth straight year, audio retailers I spoke with before the Show feel that that economic growth has not resulted in any increase in consumers' disposable incomes. In fact, with the drying up of credit, retailers are concerned that 2008 may well be a step back from 2007 in overall sales, and that high-end audio—a niche category within a niche category—will be adversely affected by the relative impoverishment of the middle class.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find an overall upbeat mood at CES. Not only was a plethora of new products introduced—you can find our live coverage here—but there was much excitement about the idea of using a file server as the preferred high-end source. Now that everyone and their grandmother is comfortable with the idea of listening to music files via their iPods, synchronized with their iTunes libraries on their PCs or Macs, the high-end community is embarking on a game of "What if?" As in:

What if high-end audio companies got ahead of the curve on the shift away from music stored as atoms (ie, on physical media) toward music stored as bits (ie, as files on a hard drive) and designed their products accordingly?

What if record companies stopped crippling their downloaded files with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and allowed their customers to play those files on whatever device they owned?

What if record companies stopped locking their high-resolution master files up in vaults and made them available for purchase?

What if even 1% of the tens of millions of iPod users decided that they wanted more quality than is available from MP3s and other lossy-compressed formats?

What if this open-ended approach to music playback triggered economic growth in the high-end audio market?

The answers to those last two questions still lie in the land of conjecture, but the others are being actively responded to. The Logitech Slim Devices Transporter, which we reviewed in February 2007, was a bellwether in this respect, and the Linn Klimax DS (reviewed in this issue by Wes Phillips) shows what can be done when a traditional high-end audio company takes it as a given that its owner's music will be stored on a computer network. CES saw the introduction of products from Boulder, PS Audio, Hovland, Resolution, Blue Smoke Black Box, Olive, Sooloos, T+A, Lyngdorf, Kaleidescape, and Naim—all differing in detail and the degree of integration with the PC side of the Force, but all, like the Transporter and the Linn Klimax, abandoning the idea that music need be tied to a physical medium.

And it is even possible that these forward-looking audio companies are lagging behind their customer base. In his CES wrap-up, Jon Iverson, Stereophile's self-described "Web Monkey"—it says so on his business card—declared 2008 to be the Year of the Music Server and discussed the results of a poll we ran on our website on January 5 that asked "Are you ready for an audiophile music server?" The response to the question was the highest we have experienced: 32% of respondents already listen to music via their computer network, many using home-brewed solutions, and 44% intend to. Just 9% said "Probably not," "Never," or plain "Huh?"

Of course, for music to be stored on and played back from a server, it needs to be free of DRM. Ripping the music from CDs you already own is both ubiquitous and the easiest way of ensuring this, of course, but throughout the fall of 2007, major record companies announced that they would follow EMI's lead in making songs available for download free of DRM, at least for some of their catalog. As you will have read in our home page's "News" section, Universal was quick to follow EMI, with Warner Music Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment making similar announcements just before CES. It's true that these companies are still fixated on lossy compression, but if they can abandon DRM so quickly, can their making "Red Book" CD audio available as downloads be out of the question?

But as I wrote in last October's "As We See It," why settle for CD quality when hi-rez audio done right sounds better? In the December 2007 issue, I gave my "Editor's Choice" awards to Linn Recordings and Music Giants for making 24-bit files available at 88.2kHz and 96kHz sample rates. Since then, Mark Waldrep, of specialty label AIX Records, has launched to make available hi-rez downloads. iTrax, which calls itself "the only website to offer real HD in multiple mixing perspectives," offers consumers two-channel stereo, 5.1-channel "audience," and 5.1-channel "stage" perspectives in MP3, Dolby Digital, DTS, WMA Pro, WMA Lossless, and PCM 24-bit/96kHz resolutions.

Joining the hi-rez game, Reference Recordings announced at CES that it was making available for purchase bit-for-bit copies of Keith Johnson's 24/176.4 and 24/88.2 digital masters. How cool is that! These are not yet available as downloads, but in the interim will be sold on what Reference calls "HRx" discs. The price had not been determined at press time, but these are simply data DVD-Rs containing WAV files, which can be copied to your server's hard drive. As far as I am aware, Reference is releasing the files free of DRM. Does that represent a potential piracy problem? It's fair to note that Linn's decision to make its high-resolution music files available without DRM doesn't appear to have had a negative effect on sales, according to Linn's Ivor Tiefenbrun, with whom I discussed this subject just after the Christmas break—in fact, quite the opposite.

I auditioned some of the 176.4kHz-sampled Reference files in the TAD and Magico rooms at CES. Wow! In the same way that the consistency of playback quality offered by CD a quarter century ago drove a revolution in loudspeaker and amplifier design,1 the availability of hi-rez source material such as that to be offered by Reference Recordings could lead to a new renaissance in high-end system quality. I can only hope that American consumers will still have enough disposable income to participate in that renaissance, but that factor is subject to forces beyond the control of the high-end audio industry.

Footnote 1: I am not saying that the compact disc provided the ultimate sound quality, merely that, as J. Gordon Holt pointed out in his August 1982 "As We See It," CD playback removed from the equation the inconsistent balance of analog source components, allowing the designers of downstream components to work with a stable source format.