I’ve said it before and I’ll keep mentioning this: we have entered the Golden Age of Audio. Never before has so much great sounding music been available to so many listeners for such low cost. Five factors are rapidly democratizing music playback as they drive innovation and digital music acceptance: offshore manufacturing; empowerment by the World Wide Web; the present heyday of digital music technologies; pressures of the world economy; and rising listener sophistication with insistence on high playback quality.
This mix adds up to unprecedented opportunity for all music lovers. The cost of an audiophile stereo system has dropped dramatically, while over the Internet, music quality has risen. Distribution has widened and high definition files have become more available. Many more listeners can afford to drench their ears and hearts in as much fabulous music as they want to hear. Great sounding music is more accessible and listeners are catching on.
Only a few years ago, you could expect to spend ten thousand dollars or more for even a humble audiophile stereo system. These days, music lovers can find auditory Nirvana for only a fraction of former prices. The scale of this cost change is like the difference between the price of a typical good used family automobile and the price of a set of tires. The audiophile hobby is no longer a playground exclusively for the rich and famous.
Here is an example of how today’s “computer audiophile” is born. Someone who I’ll call Jane is an intellectual worker who spends a lot of time on her computer. Jane loves jazz and likes to meet her friends at a club on Fridays after work. She likes to listen to background music as she works. She plays instrumental jazz CD’s on her computer during the day. She asks around to see if anyone in the office wants to cross-borrow CD’s with her.
A co-worker tells Jane about an online streaming music site that she can listen to at home. Two months subscription costs less than one CD. She signs up and finds hundreds of albums she likes. So much music becomes available that she no longer has to buy CD’s or store them and lug them around. The website finds a lot more music she likes so her listening horizons widen rapidly.
The office music geek tells Jane she can add a component about the size of a USB memory stick to dramatically improve her computer’s sound. He loans her a USB DAC (digital to analog converter) and she changes a few settings on her computer. Jane is stunned to discover the music begins to sound a lot more like what she hears at her favorite jazz club on Friday night.
She’s pleased to get clear, authentic-sounding music. She wonders if she can get even better quality playback. She starts asking her friends and reading about this on the web. She learns to rip high quality digital music files from CD’s.
Now when she has a little cash to spend on something fun and entertaining, Jane upgrades her music. Gradually she builds a home stereo system based on playback from her computer. As time passes, her music sounds better and better. Each time it improves she enjoys that for a while and considers what might come next that she can easily afford. She discovers she can afford to replace those horrid little plastic computer speakers. She adds a quality DAC and a set of powered studio monitors. Next comes a powered subwoofer to fill in the low notes.
Each improvement costs anywhere from under a hundred dollars to a few hundred at most. Jane is particular. She wants great value so each purchase has excellent price-to-performance. Before Jane comes close to investing 1,500 dollars in her system her home music sounds hard to distinguish from live music she hears in the clubs on Fridays.
Music lovers repeat similar development paths in many varied ways. Whatever genre of music you love, if you want great sounding playback at home, it is within reach for a modest cost. Starting at a couple hundred dollars, you can incrementally achieve very realistic and natural sounding music from any personal computer. Instruments and voices can sound very much like their real selves, without noise or audible distortion. Low cost high fidelity has arrived.
Right this moment, I’m enjoying a smooth recording. Vinicius Cantuaria plays guitar and sings Brazilian songs. My iPad 3 is accessing music files on Qobuz, a French website, using the free app they provide. Data flows through the system like this: iPad >> Teac DS-H01 Digital Docking Station >> Bravo Audio Ocean Headphone Amplifier (as a tube buffer) >> Audioengine’s A5+ Powered Speakers and S8 Subwoofer. With some careful shopping, I assembled this entire compact system (not counting the iPad, tax, or shipping) for $1113, in several incremental steps.
I started with my laptop computer as the music server and listening with headphones. Next came a USB DAC and what a difference that made. Then I added high quality powered speakers to get the sound out into the room. Then the subwoofer to extend the range. Eventually, I added my iPad and the docking station/DAC.
Digital music is often criticized as sounding grainy, etched, clinical, too analytic, and fatiguing. I agree it can be like that. But this tube buffer is a crowning glory. Almost magically, it smooths and warms up the sound, overcoming any sense of digital faults in the music presentation. I plan to add a NAS drive (network attached storage) if I ever get past discovering new music on Mog.com and Qobuz.com. I’m also working on a whole-house music setup.
Music is a language of feelings. Realism in music playback is key to receiving the emotional experience composers and performers intend to express and share. Listening to low quality music dulls that experience -- rather like a hearing marriage proposal from someone who mumbles and stutters while talking through a door. Listening effortlessly to high quality music playback is like hearing that proposal cheek to cheek over a bottle of good wine. The gap between a live music experience and home listening can be minimized and nearly erased.
Life is short and sometimes brutal. Be good to yourself. If you love good music you can have it at home and on the go. Don’t let an obsolete image of audio (that high end equals high cost) hold you back. You can achieve the high-end listening experience with a huge catalog of music choices at a lower cost than ever before. Digital music technologies make this Golden Age of Audio a time when artists and their audiences connect more deeply, more easily, and more often than ever before.
© 2013 Joseph Riden. All Rights reserved worldwide.
Contact Joseph at http://iHi-Fi.com/