I've been interested in hi-fi for about 20 years now, and over that time I, like most audiophiles, have found myself lusting over each new piece of kit, each new advance. My first setup, bought second hand, was so basic that I'm embarrassed to even talk about it, but if I tell you that the woofers had little silver domes in the middle and a knob to adjust mid level you'll get the picture.
Obviously from this level everything would be an improvement, but finances saw me languishing at the "low end" for a scarily long time... But like a kid looking into a sweetshop I gazed at the glossy ads and read the reviews with envy and longing.
A few years of this and a couple of things started to dawn on me. First I began to wonder at my magazine buying habits, a bit of simple maths showed that for a couple of years buying of the "glossies" I could buy something approaching basic Hi-Fi...
The second "dawning of awareness" was more subtle and paradoxically down to the mags I was buying at the time.
I suppose a growing uneasiness began during one of my regular scannings of the "recommended components" lists. The component in question was the Naim 250. It was "highly recommended" in the "stupidly expensive" category of amps (mid 80's "flat earth" period). Being easily led I lusted as required, but hadn't I read somewhere that the 250 first saw the light of day in the early 70's?
A ten+ year old design still recommended? What about all the amps inbetween, each "vastly better" than the last model? Surely the Naim would founder against the latest entry level integrated?
Ah well, perhaps there were exceptions. But as time went by a few other manufacturers brought out long running products, the Musical Fidelity A1, the "BBC" speakers and Rega Planars being good examples.
These remained recommended for years whilst around them other competitors yearly brought out "new improved" models that the press happily concluded were a "vast improvement" on their predecessors. You see the problem?
If on one hand we have components being significantly upgraded/replaced year on year, and on the other, long established components remaining highly competitive despite being unchanged, something doesn't add up.
Slowly I began to feel uneasy as each reviewer gasped at the deeper soundstage, the greater dynamics, the huge improvement in detail, of the Knell 500 MK111 over the MK11 - really?
I know that if I buy a new computer it'll be faster, better than the one I bought six months ago. If I buy this years car it'll be better, faster, more comfortable, more economical than last years. Same with boats, planes, trains, etc etc etc... But hi-fi? I'm not so sure.
So why is hi-fi such an exception? Technology is moving at a blinding rate in every other field and yet a top system from the early 60's, say a pair of Tannoy GRF's, a Mackintosh 275, Garrard 301/SME 1/Ortofon SPU, is definitely "high end" by year 2000 standards 40 years later...
Plus the generally accepted "best format" in sound terms is the microgroove record now 50 years old, some of the best examples of which were likewise made in the 50's...
For the reader expecting a blinding flash of insight from yours truly I'm going to have to disappoint.
I really can't answer the question, just muse on some possibilities. I'm happy to acknowledge that at the bottom end components have become cheaper and more reliable and that the standard of sound system available to someone on the average wage has gone up, but that is the result of mass production and the huge increase in the number of people in a position to afford large numbers of consumer items.
The basic technology of both speakers and amps has remained unchanged, with the quality of components falling in many cases. A recent visit to Cabasse showed them working at cutting edge speaker cone materials, but an engineer showed me some beautiful drive units with alnico magnets and hefty cast frames from the 50's with obvious pride - sure they'd cost a packet to make now but... And the formats since 1960?
Well ignoring the various still-born and dead-end products we are left with the Compact Cassette - a dictating machine format never designed for hi-fi, it's replacement - Minidisc, a lossy compressed digital system specifically designed for portability and of course the CD.
In case you're wondering, this isn't another article knocking CD. In fact CD does what it was designed to do very, very well.
It was never designed to be "perfect sound", but a format to give potentially excellent sound quality and yet be very cheap to produce.
It is the format for the masses par excellence. Go into your local budget store and you'll be able to pick up a CD ghetto-blaster for under 40 pounds, or a CD walkman for 20.
It brought quality sound into many homes that would never have considered spending serious money on a record deck. Add to this the fact that the discs were ridiculously cheap to manufacture, durable and small for a store to display and you had the format of the marketing departments dreams.
But ultimate sound quality was not the prime consideration. If it had been then the discs would have been 7" or even 12" and probably analogue.
What we have now is an industry whose main aim is to shift product - and they'd be fools to do anything else. Sound quality reached a standard good enough for mass-market expectation over 40 years ago. The intervening years have been spent making that quality cheaper, more convenient and more reliable.
I suspect that the quality threshold during the second half of the century may even have fallen as for most people the measure of "real sound" has become the television rather than those lovely old valve radio's. Nowadays fewer and fewer have any idea what live music actually sounds like leaving them no point of reference.
Once that "good enough for the plebs" threshold had been crossed the marketing men could concentrate on features such as flashing lights, timers, programmes, styling and of course cost cutting. So miniature stack systems are everywhere and anyone prepared to spend a four figure sum on hi-fi is seen as a kind of crank.
To put this in perspective, that old radiogram your parents owned probably cost an average worker a couple of months wages. Now most people spend less than a weeks wages on their sound system.
The introduction of new improved digital formats will mean nothing to these people if they are played through tiny paper speakers and amps with postage stamp sized power supplies. The problem is that substantial speaker drive units, speaker cabinets, power supplies and decent components all cost money, they are immune to the sort of cost reduction tactics the electronics industry usually applies.
Unless the home sound system regains its position as one of a families major purchases things will never improve.
So as we enter the next millennium what is the future? Personally I don't see any revolutions on the horizon as far as sound quality is concerned.
My personal bet is that the various "super CD" formats will founder - for most people the CD is good enough, and chip based systems will offer smaller size and greater convenience.
As memory capacity goes up and compression improves, the quality will soon exceed CD anyway. But note - these developments, as with most others in audio, will be convenience and cost led, not primarily sound quality led.
I expect that if you listen to the aforementioned '60's system in another 40 years time it will still be "high-end" and a revelation to the average "person in the street".
So what can we take from this? One - don't expect all those "millennium specials" to sound better than the "cooking" 1999 versions (or 1989).
But much more important is that the only way to get genuine improvements in the hi-fi available to the public as opposed to the enthusiast, is to encourage as many people as possible to listen to live music, and failing that - decent sound systems.
Only by raising the expectation of the buying public, and therefore the amount people are willing to spend, can we alter the prime driving forces of the mass market away from graphic equalisers and the tiniest speakers possible and towards the reproduction of the live event - which is after all, the whole point of the exercise.
Copyright © 2000 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com