Remember 2006? Taylor Swift released her first single, while Eminem, Beyoncé, Snow Patrol and Keane dominated the charts – and the music industry felt like a happy and prosperous place. Then in December of that year, Tower Records went into liquidation and closed many music stores around the world. Suddenly a chill went through the industry, as insiders feared it was a portent of things to come…
Tower’s demise was a sign of two things, one of which was immediate and the other long term. First, it showed that the economic boom the West had enjoyed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late eighties, was finally drawing to a close. History records that Western consumers were up to their eyeballs in debt, thanks to a decade of cheap money. The end of that year was the beginning of what we now call ‘the credit crunch’, which pushed the economies of the USA, UK and Europe into a tailspin. Tower Records was simply collateral damage, because the first things that over-indebted consumers cut back on are luxury goods.
The events of that year also marked the beginning of the end for physical media – albeit indirectly. Downloads were not making a serious dent into Compact Disc sales back in 2006, but when people started buying music again in serious quantities nearly a decade later – many simply didn’t return to CD. Indeed streaming was appearing on the scene, and that’s what music buyers seemed most interested in. From 2015 onwards, the business began its long crawl back to health – aided and abetted by the rise of streaming, rather than a CD revival.
2019 saw the British music industry finally approach the giddy heights of 2006. Last year was its best in almost a decade and a half. The British Phonographic Institute reports that the equivalent of 154 million albums were bought – up 7.5% on 2018. This rate of growth suggests that next year should surpass the highest ever number of albums sold – 161.4 million in 2006. The BPI also points out the seismic shift in UK music consumption habits. There were 114 billon music streams in 2019, a 3,000% increase on 2012, which was the first year that annual figures were available. Streaming rose by 26% year-on-year, accounting for three quarters of so-called Album Equivalent Sales. Last year was the first ever to see over a billion streams.
There’s a wealth of rock, jazz and classical music on streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal and Qobuz. But it’s mass market pop that’s driving this transition with songs like Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved – which was the most streamed song of last year, played over 228 million times. Other star attractions include Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish and Tones and I. The latter’s hit Dance Monkey spent eleven weeks at the top of the UK’s Official Singles Chart in 2019. In the album charts, Rod Stewart, Harry Styles and Mark Ronson all made their mark.
Beneath the dramatic headlines, there are some interesting sub-plots going on. CD sales fell by 26.5% in 2019, yet the little silver disc continues to be what the BPI calls a “kingmaker” for number one albums. In the majority of weeks last year, physical media formed over half the chart-eligible sales of the number one album. There were, reports the BPI, thirteen weeks when physical media was over three quarters of the sales of album chart toppers. Interestingly then, CD still packs a punch in mainstream album sales – it’s the smaller and/or niche titles where streaming really pulls ahead.
Whilst streaming is an easy and affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ option, physical media buyers are looking for a custom fit. That’s why box sets, or special edition albums, continue to be highly popular with music buyers. The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of The Beatles’ Abbey Road is a case in point here, selling in significant quantities. Multi-CD box sets are things for collectors to cherish, and the music industry is coming up with ever more expensive and elaborate releases. As a sidebar to this, the vinyl LP is continuing to grow, rising for twelfth year in a row, and accounting for one in eight of all albums bought. 4.3 million were sold in 2019, an increase of 4.1 per cent over last year and up 2,000 percent on the format’s low point in 2007.
Given that a rising tide raises all boats, the British music industry’s renaissance is no bad thing for the hi-fi world. As ever, the challenge for the industry is to keep abreast of market trends and offer high quality products that deliver what customers want.
Every new piece of market research that comes out these days, shows that almost without exception the Western world is moving to digital streaming – and away from buying physical music media. Yet this migration is proving far-from-straightforward, because rather like the nineteen eighties when the world shifted from vinyl LP to CD, things are not quite as they appear…
Pop music drives the recording industry – on the surface at least – because new singles and albums sales greatly impact the music business’s bottom line. Yet look closer, and you’ll see the huge amounts of money made from reissuing classic recordings and/or artists from the past. Oddly, this is just as much the case with classical music as it is with rock – indeed the two genres are strikingly similar in this regard. In short, the ‘legacy music’ market makes up a large part of the revenue stream of the music industry, so is taken very seriously indeed.
That’s why the music industry’s ‘powers that be’ are more agnostic about formats than one might expect. Despite having invested heavily to get their wares on music streaming platforms, they remain surprisingly preoccupied with physical media releases – albeit these days in the form of LP records complete with free digital downloads, and lavish LP/CD/DVD box sets for the completist market. The latter often contain an assortment of digital formats, often with Blu-ray-based video and/or hi-res music content thrown in. These are aimed primarily at affluent middle-aged collectors willing to pay serious sums of money for that all-important ‘lost recording’ of their favourite band – especially when it arrives at their front door in a nice, shiny box with a poster inside.
As any subscriber to TIDAL, Spotify or Qobuz will tell you, streaming services still have a fair way to go to cater for this type of muso. Most mainstream music is now available online, yet there are still sizeable gaps in the repertoire. Collectors know there’s plenty of music on LP and CD that hasn’t reached the cloud yet – ranging from fifties jazz rarities to sixties psychedelic classics, seventies new wave gems to eighties indie rock standards.
As the streaming services strive to widen their rosters, the record companies continue to grind on with re-releases, reissues and repackaging. Indeed, they’re currently doing it with such energy that it must be a market with great potential. The trouble is that many believe the quality of these limited editions and/or box sets to be patchy. The industry has been here before, in the rush to get CDs out of the door in serious quantities, back in the eighties. Remember their use of sub-par masters when making the first generation of rock and classical Compact Discs? Along with this, there was the incorrect handling of Dolby A noise reduction, and the doomed attempts of some mastering engineers to breach Red Book CD’s 74 minute limit. As for rusting disc surfaces, the less said the better…
History is now repeating itself. The rise of social media – with numerous audiophile and music collector Facebook groups – means that we’re now reading all about poor curation of classic rock reissues, with schoolboy errors in the mastering and authoring of some of them. Some pretty major rock acts’ names have been sullied by association with glitchy Blu-ray discs in their luxury box sets, for example. Others have been let down by poor handling of meta-data in the accompanying free downloads – one recent example saw the bugs going on to appear on every streaming service, too. This isn’t a good look for the industry, to put it mildly.
Much of the music industry’s revenue stream comes from these completist music fans who collect the output of their favourite artists in an almost religious way. And because they spend real money on their hobby, they won’t suffer shoddy products gladly. As the recording industry migrates online, it can’t afford to take its eye of the ball offline – otherwise it risks alienating a band of dedicated and high spending enthusiasts. At the same time, the rise of the premium-priced music box set begs the question, will collectors ever relinquish the idea of having an actual physical product to have and to hold – as well as listen to?
In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote that, “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” – in other words, it’s all relative. This strikes a chord for anyone who has followed the development of digital audio from its consumer debut back in the early nineteen eighties, up to now…
The very first Compact Disc players seemed amazing at the time, not least because they had none of the faults of the vinyl LP format that we had all become so accustomed to. The new digital disc had no wow and flutter, no tracking error distortion, no turntable bearing rumble – and of course the ‘snap, crackle and pop’ from all those vinyl surface imperfections was also banished. Instead, the new format came over as strikingly clean and open, so much so that some critics declared that it was actually too stark and forward to be listenable.
We didn’t realise it at the time, but many complaints about the new format’s bright sound were simply because most audiophiles had built their hi-fi systems around analogue front ends that were rather veiled in real terms. For example, the reference moving coil cartridge of the day was Supex’s SD900, which when fitted to most reviewers’ favourite turntable – the Linn Sondek LP12 – sounded rather warm. To counter this, many opted for forward sounding amplification or loudspeakers. Inevitably then, when you put a new CD player into such a system, it sounded bright.
As the decade progressed, audiophiles began to better integrate digital into their hi-fi systems, building them around their new Compact Disc front ends. The controversy about ‘the sound of digital’ began to subside, and the new format began to gain mass appeal. Then Philips launched its new Bitstream DAC and digital filter, which found its way into countless mainstream CD players from all around the world. It further smoothed out digital sound, having less of the ‘glare’ that characterised earlier generations of multi-bit DACs. By the early nineties, Compact Disc was now a mature technology giving pleasure to huge numbers of people.
There was resistance at the top, though – in the high end market analogue still held sway. Ironically the latter half of the nineteen eighties saw some major leaps forward in terms of pick-up cartridge and tonearm technology, which made LPs sound cleaner and more accurate than ever before. In 1996 dCS launched the Elgar, the company’s first ever consumer digital-to-analogue converter. This proved a major market disruptor, offering more transparent and neutral sound than any other digital source on sale, as many critics attested. It ratcheted up the audio quality from silver disc significantly, finally making digital audio the choice of many high end users.
At that time, Elgar showed that many people using lesser digital front ends had indeed been making “a heaven of hell”, as they hadn’t realised what the CD format was capable of until they heard it. Yet as time went by, Elgar itself was eclipsed. The launch of Debussy in 2008 was a major inflection point, because it offered greater performance despite being the company’s ‘entry-level’ product. Its newer implementation of the Ring DAC was a real step up, bringing more refinement and insight into the recording, and giving a less constrained soundstage.
Due to the unique way that dCS DACs are made, they have upgradeable firmware which allows the company’s engineers to update them with new features and/or format compatibility. That’s why they have far longer production lives than rival manufacturers, most of which use bought-in silicon chips that cannot be improved upon after the design is finalised. For this reason, dCS DACs are not routinely replaced – they stay in the range for a protracted period of time and are only replaced when there’s a comprehensive improvement possible.
Now that time has come for Debussy. The DAC that made the once state-of-the-art Elgar look ordinary, has itself now bowed out to be replaced by the Bartók. It’s quite a thing to compare the two. Separated in time by a decade, the new DAC sports a hi-res OLED display, which is necessary to control its wide range of modern features. This includes full streaming capability and the option of a high quality headphone amplifier – plus of course full app control.
The key difference is in its sound, though. Major tweaks to the Ring DAC control board, ancillary circuitry and the computer code that runs things have delivered a step-change in performance. Bartók sounds dramatically faster, more open, engaging and insightful than its predecessor. It has a more tuneful bass, superior rendition of the music’s rhythms and greater dynamism – which makes the once-excellent Debussy seem rather laid-back by comparison. This shows two things, the first being that despite dCS having used the Ring DAC for three decades, it has constantly been improved over the years. Second, the things that we think are pretty special at one point in history, are never as good as it gets. “Time and tide wait for no man”, as the saying goes…
Mastering Icon Bob Ludwig announced as Initial Recipient
NEW YORK CITY, NY; October 16, 2019. At a special reception held in conjunction with the 147th Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention, dCS (Data Conversion Systems Ltd.) unveiled today its new dCS Legends Award program.
The award was conceived to acknowledge the outstanding efforts of an elite group of recording, mixing and mastering engineers who have strived throughout their careers to deliver the finest music experience possible. The award also underscores the growing trend towards ‘studio quality’ high resolution download and streaming services for music enthusiasts.
“As a pioneer in high resolution audio and a leading manufacturer of digital converters for more than three decades, dCS is proud to provide both consumers and professionals alike with state-of-the-art audio components” stated David Steven, Managing Director of dCS. “Our mission is to continually develop products that bring listeners closer to the music that the artist, producer and engineer intended. We are pleased to join with the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing today in presenting the initial dCS Legends Award to renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig”.
“A Mastering Engineer’s Engineer”
Often described as “a mastering engineer’s engineer”, Bob Ludwig has been universally recognized for his outstanding talents and his passionate pursuit of the latest recording technologies. With nearly a dozen GRAMMY® Awards to his credit, his work has spanned virtually every music genre, including such well-known recordings as Babel, Beyonce (surround mix), Brothers In Arms, The Layla Sessions, Morning Phase and Random Access Memories.
In addition to Bob Ludwig, during the coming year, the dCS Legends Award will celebrate other recording industry icons for their achievements. Upcoming recipients include Chuck Ainlay, Ed Cherney, Tony Faulkner, Frank Filipetti, James Guthrie, Leslie Ann Jones, George Massenburg, John Newton, Elliot Scheiner, Al Schmitt and Mark Wilder. All of these recipients will receive a limited edition, commemorative version of dCS’ acclaimed Bartok DAC (Digital Audio Converter)
Year-Long Global Campaign
Each engineer’s story will be told as part of a year-long global campaign that encompasses a number of potential elements, including both consumer and trade advertising, as well as dealer materials and event signage that highlights album artwork from their GRAMMYR winning titles. Additionally, the campaign will feature interviews of these dCS Legends Award recipients, which will be available – along with select music clips from their recordings – on a variety of podcasts, websites and social media.
For more information on the dCS Legends Award, contact Krysti Hamilton, Head of Marketing and Communications for dCS at KHamilton@dcsltd.co.uk
Funny how times change. For example, back in 1829, many scientists thought the human frame would not be able to withstand the speeds of Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive. In 1969, the world’s largest computer companies didn’t see the need to make compact models for personal use. In 1991, only a handful of people in the world knew what the internet was, let alone understood its importance in the great scheme of modern life. The is unsurprising perhaps, as the world-wide web had only been invented two years earlier…
dCS started in 1987, launching into a completely different world to that of today. Of course, the nineteen eighties shared many of the technologies that we use now – the jet engine, computers, mobile phones, digital audio, battery powered cars and so on – but they were far less well developed, and nowhere near as common in everyday life. For example, the UK was still running a huge fleet of electric milk delivery vehicles back then, but passenger cars using this technology were practically non-existent. Although consumer digital audio was by then commonplace, it was the exclusive province of Compact Disc – so if you wanted to hear Paul Simon’s new Graceland album, you had to physically go to a record shop and buy it.
Since then, in just three short decades, technology has remade our world. First, online shopping let people buy physical media from companies like Amazon, who delivered Compact Discs to their door. Then music streaming has begun to replace physical media altogether, after a short period ten or so years ago when people thought downloads were the way to go.
In the great scheme of things, the speed of these advances is quite remarkable. The printing press, steam engine, aviation and the atomic age were all of huge importance to our lives, but had long gaps in-between. Now though, the internet has ramped up the speed of technological change across the board, in a totally unprecedented way. As this happens, academic committees, company boardrooms and industry standards groups are writing the rules of the future, setting out the terms and conditions for this new industrial revolution.
The modern music industry began negotiating with the future in 1999, when the Recording Association of America – the US trade body that covers the entertainment industry’s performing rights – fought the makers of a small MP3 player right up to the US Supreme court, claiming it was a “recording device” that enabled musicians’ intellectual property to be stolen. The RIAA famously lost the case, but in doing so forced the music industry to conceptualise a world without record shops and physical media. The greatest threat to musicians’ livelihoods had previously been Compact Cassette – remember those “Home Taping is Killing Music” advertisements? – but now the industry had something much scarier to contend with.
Corporate America came to the rescue in a way that no one had envisaged. The world’s major record companies floundered around for a couple of years at the turn of the new millennium, setting up their own corporate-branded online music stores where music fans could search from their limited rosters and buy an MP3 download for the same price as a CD in the shop. This approach failed on two counts; firstly, people wanting to buy – for example – a Ry Cooder album, had to find out what label he was on before they could download it. Secondly, broadband speeds were as poor as the sound quality of the download. Still, it was food for thought…
Apple came to the rescue. Steve Jobs had always been a disruptor, but this was arguably his finest hour. By launching the iPod on October 23rd, 2001, he cleaned up in a market full of ugly, clunky MP3 players with dire software integration. And he then followed up with the iTunes Music Store on April 28th, 2003 – which made downloading music as easy as buying a physical CD from Amazon. The difference was that via iTunes, you didn’t have to wait a day or two for the postman.
Although the world has not – it transpires – ended up walking around with iPods and downloading files, Apple still radically transformed the basic ‘social contract’ between the recording industry and music fans. First, in a world then dominated by Napster’s so-called “free downloads” – in effect, illegal peer-to-peer file sharing – Apple managed to persuade large numbers of music fans to actually start paying for music again. Secondly, it normalised the process of using a computer or computer-based device to consume music – something that the music companies had singularly failed to do. Although the world has now moved to streaming, it could not have done so without Apple’s disruptive iPod hardware and iTunes software technology.
In 2019’s world where streaming services are getting ever more prevalent, where next? Here it seems Amazon is determined to repeat what it did to the book- and then CD-buying world, fifteen or so years ago. It is now offering a wide choice of music download packages, from Amazon Prime Music to Amazon Music Unlimited and now Amazon Music HD – these give access to vast amounts of high quality streamed music in different ways, but all at surprisingly low prices. That’s just one half of it though, because it has invested heavily into voice control technology, and this presages the forthcoming ‘smart home’ and ‘internet of things’ revolution. In short, the ability to access music is going to get ever easier, and more universal.
Music is a universal language, so they say – and it’s as true now as it ever was. As technology moves on, it’s fascinating to watch how different cultures respond to this. When you look at different countries around the globe, it’s soon apparent that each one has its own way of doing things…
Thirty years or so ago – at around the time that dCS started – the world was right in the middle of a three-way split between LP records, Compact Cassette and Compact Disc. Some markets such as Japan had already banished LPs to the margins, being early adopters of CD which was pretty much all-powerful by then. The land of the rising sun was still a big fan of cassette however, but this was used to record CDs that – more often than not – were rented at the same convenience stores that offered VHS or LaserDisc video rentals.
There was a still a major culture of ‘home taping’ there – often for portable or car use – and new formats were being introduced that reflected this. The launch of Digital Audio Tape catalysed this, and then just a couple of years later, the new Digital Compact Cassette and MiniDisc formats would keep the trend alive. CDs were still quite expensive then, and the Japanese government was under pressure from music fans to get the prices lowered, so many audiophiles owned expensive recording equipment…
In the UK, the physical media mix was markedly different. It was still quite normal for people to buy music on LP records – and these tended to be both mass music consumers and audiophiles. Many of the former simply went for the cheapest possible music source, and the latter were not – at that time – convinced that CD was better than LP. In the middle of the music hardware market, CD was growing fast, with half-decent silver disc spinners then on sale for £500 or less. These were still a long way away from giving serious audiophile sound, however.
In the USA, Compact Discs were far cheaper than Japan and Britain – about half the price, considering the exchange rates at that time. In Japan, these import CDs – sold in so-called ‘long boxes’ which were larger and more impressive looking in music store racks – were snapped up simply by virtue of their cheapness. The United States moved to CD relatively quickly, but the sheer size of the LP market meant that then and now, people could still get vinyl well into the nineties if they so wished. Cassette was less of thing – why bother if you could buy CDs so cheaply?
The new millennium was a point of convergence, when all three of these major music markets were heavily CD-based. Cassettes had simply faded away, and instead the talk was now of ‘computer audio’, fuelled by the rise of cheap MP3 players and then – in 2001 – the Apple iPod. This is turn produced the iTunes Music Store, which was hugely important in driving the move from physical to virtual media. At the time, many people simply downloaded music from illegal peer-to-peer sites, but the new Apple website reintroduced the concept of paying for recorded music.
Nowadays, those virtual music files have migrated from people’s own devices and on to the cloud. Huge amounts of recorded music is now streamable via network-attached smart devices, and we’re witnessing what some people call “the death of physical media”. In truth, this is unlikely to happen completely, but silver discs are fast becoming a niche pursuit.
The world’s music market is growing strongly now – up by 9.7% last year according to the IFPI, and more than the previous year’s 7.4% increase, making for a total market of £14.6bn. Global streaming revenue has grown by a third, and last year there was a one third increase in paid subscription streaming, with over 255 million users by the end of 2018; it now accounts for 37% of total recorded music revenue. In no less than 38 countries, streaming now forms over half of all music revenues. CD sales are one tenth down around the world, year on year.
Certain markets where physical media is still very popular are resisting this trend. For example, Japan continues to love Compact Disc and its sister SACD format, which is near-moribund in all other markets. In this country, sales of silver discs have actually risen 2.3%, alongside strong growth in streaming revenues too. Other Asian markets like South Korea and Australia have shown strong rises in streaming, whereas India – still very much a developing nation – is showing strong rises in physical music sales, up 21.2%. Now that YouTube Music and Spotify are moving into this young market however, things look set to turn around. Amazingly, even China – which does not have an established culture of paying for music at all – is now showing significant growth in paid subscription streaming services.
North America’s streaming revenues are up by a healthy 14%, although the rate of increase in music sales is slowing. There has finally been a steep drop in CD sales of 22%, compared to just a 4.3% decline in the previous year – but this is offset by growth in streaming of one third. Europe is showing strong streaming growth, while physical sales fall – and the overall music market remains flat. The United Kingdom’s 3.1% growth in music sales makes it the strongest market in this part of the world.
Overall then, this dizzying array of statistics paints a picture of a very diverse world with its own different cultural factors playing out. There’s a clear correlation between how developed a country is – how mature its music market is – and the growth of music streaming, but as Japan shows, there’s always an exception that proves the rule. One thing that’s hugely heartwarming is that more people in more countries than ever are buying and enjoying music – and long let it continue.
It was forty years ago this month that hi-fi headphones went from a niche product to one of the most mainstream, mass market consumer durables in history. It didn’t happen overnight of course, but that’s when the process began – at the launch of the revolutionary Sony TPS-L2. The ‘Stowaway’, as Sony initially dubbed it, was a small portable cassette player – indeed to be more precise, it was the smallest tape deck ever, outside the world of miniaturised spying devices…
Fascinatingly, Sony had no great expectations for the product. In his book ‘Made In Japan’, the company’s co-founder Akio Morita describes how he instructed one of his top audio engineers, Nobutoshi Kihara, to make a small hi-fi stereo cassette player so that he could listen to operas on his international flights. The TPS-L2 duly hit the market one year later, and the reviews were mixed. Some couldn’t see the need for it, and others didn’t take it seriously as a music player – lest we forget, open reel machines were still viewed by many audiophiles as the only serious tape medium.
Many hi-fi magazines at the time either ignored it or gave it a lukewarm review. Instead, it was widely viewed as ‘just another one of those Japanese novelty products’, like digital watches with games in, or calculators that played tunes. What attracted attention from media watchers was Sony’s naming policy for different global markets – in the UK it was the ‘Stowaway’, in the USA the ‘Soundabout’ and in Japan it had the odd moniker of ‘Walkman’. Legend has it that Morita initially hated the Japanese-market name, but the marketing material had already been made and it was too expensive to change!
Those who looked beyond the marketing however, found hidden treasure. The most surprising thing about the first ever Walkman wasn’t its name, but its sound quality. It was spectacularly good compared to any portable consumer device the world had heard before, and this was all the more amazing because it wasn’t that much larger than a cassette box. There were two reasons for this; first was Sony’s excellent transport mechanism, decent head and playback electronics, and the second was the fine pair of headphones supplied. Fascinatingly though, these weren’t like the big, bulky hi-fi and pro audio designs of the day – enormous, heavy, closed-back designs – they were petite, ultra-light and folding. They looked like a toy, but sounded remarkable for their size.
In truth, the TPS-L2 headphones were the real story – for two reasons. First, the tape player part of the package wasn’t that new; that Walkman was basically just a repurposed Sony TCM-600 mono recorder made for reporters and businessmen, with the recording functionality removed. Second, its headphones offered a hitherto unseen combination of portability and sound quality – they were the spark that lit the fire of personal audio that has burned so brightly ever since. The Walkman concept – a small cassette player with foldable lightweight stereo headphones – went on to be a massive cultural phenomenon that transformed the lives of many around the world.
For the first time ever, it was possible to listen to your own favourite tunes – not somebody else’s on the radio – in high quality stereo sound while out and about. That first Sony Walkman pioneered the concept of music on the move. Life without personal audio is as hard to explain to anyone now used to it, as life without the internet. Yet it had a massive effect on the audio world – arguably greater even than Compact Disc – in the nineteen eighties. The concept of suddenly ‘owning’ your own personal space as you walk the city streets or sit on the train on the way to work was seen by many as personal liberation.
Of course, Apple’s iPod came along twenty years later and rebooted the concept of music on the move, this time with computer audio files instead of more fiddly and fragile cassettes. And now we have a generation of people who constantly use their smartphones to listen to podcasts, audiobooks and streams of their favourite music – all using small, high quality headphones as a critical part of the equation. Hi-fi enthusiasts now buy purpose-designed digital music players and high quality portable phones or in-ear buds, and play hi-res music out and about, just as eighties music lovers used their top spec Sony Walkmans.
Over the past few or so years, this movement towards personal music has accelerated and global sales of headphones have rocketed – from 286 million in 2013, to 400 million this year, according to market research firm Statista. In hi-fi, many people now use ‘cans’ as a substitute for a high end pair of loudspeakers – simply because more ‘sound per pound’ is possible if the right models are used. Last year, for the first time ever, a dCS DAC launched with the option – Bartók didn’t just have a headphone socket, but a specially-designed headphone amplifier stage that had to match the stellar standards of the rest of the product. It has proved a great success, garnering widespread critical acclaim for offering state-of-the-art sound from headphones, as well as through conventional hi-fi separates systems.
Forty years on from when Sony – perhaps inadvertently – created a revolution in the way we have come to use headphones, the personal audio story is far from over. Indeed, you might say it’s only just begun…
As part of our commitment to ongoing product improvement we have updated dCS Mosaic. This update contains minor fixes and improvements that did not make it into the first Mosaic release. All changes are detailed in release notes https://www.dcsltd.co.uk/support/mosaic-1-0-1-release-notes/
The updated Mosaic Control app is available in the App Store and Google Play.
We’ve received very positive feedback so far and we will continue to update Mosaic with new features and improved functionality. We encourage you to feedback via our community site (https://dcs.community/) so we can make meaningful improvements.
Data Conversion Systems Ltd (dCS), the leading manufacturer of high-performance digital audio playback systems for music lovers, will launch their new streaming audio platform at the annual HIGH-END show in Munich on 9th May 2019. Named dCS Mosaic, this new product brings greatly enhanced streaming audio functionality and an elegantly simple user experience to all owners of current dCS products.
dCS Mosaic is a bespoke collection of hardware and software modules which, when combined, provide listeners easy and intuitive access to their digital music. Streaming audio has been a core technology of dCS products since the release of Vivaldi, but Mosaic represents a leap forward in terms of functionality, performance, and user experience.
While the TIDAL streaming music service has long been available to dCS customers, dCS Mosaic will allow listeners to take advantage of the high-resolution offerings of Qobuz as well as the massive catalogue of CD-quality music offered by Deezer. The addition of a library of internet radio stations and podcasts from around the globe enhances the new service offerings with a wealth of content sure to please any listener.
A key element of the product launch – and the one that will benefit every dCS customer – is the dCS Mosaic Control app. Conceived from the ground-up as a truly cross-platform solution, dCS Mosaic Control is a single, unified interface to any current dCS product using a mobile device running iOS or Android.
Complete with extensive array of features for music discovery and playback, dCS Mosaic Control also provides a completely re-imagined interface for dCS owners to manage the settings and configuration options of their dCS product(s) which allows them to tailor the sound of their systems to their preferences.
Customers will undoubtedly appreciate the enhanced functionality and ease-of-use of dCS Mosaic Control, and its cutting-edge technology enables absolute feature parity whether a customer chooses Android, iOS, phone or tablet as the preferred control device.
At launch dCS Mosaic consists of two components: the dCS Mosaic Control app (discussed above) and the dCS Mosaic Processor. The Mosaic Processor component utilises the same network hardware as all currently-shipping dCS streaming products and will be fully realised through a firmware update.
Managing Director David Steven commented, “We’re a small high-tech company and our products have long life-cycles but that doesn’t stop our engineers from innovating and improving our technology every day. As we make real improvements to our designs we strive to make these available to our customers at minimal or no cost. This is the promise we make when someone invests in dCS products.”
All owners of current dCS products (Vivaldi 2.0, Vivaldi One, Rossini, Bartók, and Network Bridge) can take advantage of the advancements of dCS Mosaic through a simple firmware update along with an app download from the App Store or the Google Play.
dCS Mosaic 1.0 is available today (9th May 2019) at 9:00am GMT at no cost to existing customers and will begin shipping with new products at the same time.
Attendees of the annual HIGH-END show in Munich (9th – 12th May) will have the opportunity to experience Mosaic first-hand in the dCS room (Atrium 4.2, room F209) and the dCS headphone listening stations (Hall 4, booth N09).
• dCS Mosaic is a new streaming audio platform from dCS available for all current dCS products.
• dCS Mosaic Control is a newly-conceived user interface available for both iOS and Android with absolute feature parity between the two.
• dCS Mosaic allows a customer to enjoy streaming music from a number of different services and sources including UPnP, Deezer, Qobuz, TIDAL, Roon, Spotify, Airplay, internet radio, podcasts, and locally-attached USB storage.
• dCS Mosaic delivers enhanced stability and performance.
• The dCS Mosaic architecture is flexible and extensible, allowing for significant future enhancements.
• dCS Mosaic is available at no-cost for all owners of current dCS products starting from 9:00am GMT on Thursday, 9th May 2019.
• The dCS Mosaic Control app is available for download from the App Store and Google Play.
Since 1987 dCS has been at the forefront of digital audio, creating world-beating, life- enhancing products that are a unique synthesis of exact science and creative imagination. Each of our award-winning product ranges sets the standard within its class for technical excellence and musical performance. As a result, dCS digital playback systems are unrivalled in their ability to make music.
All dCS products are designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom using proprietary technology, and materials and components of the highest quality. A carefully judged balance of our unique heritage and world-class engineering ensures there is a rich history of ground- breaking innovation inside every dCS system.
Copyright © 2019 Data Conversion Systems Limited. All rights reserved. dCS, dCS logo, Ring DAC are trademarks or registered trademarks of Data Conversion Systems Limited. Data Conversion Systems Limited disclaims any proprietary interest in trademarks and trade names other than its own. All specifications are subject to change and, whilst they are checked for accuracy, no liabilities can be accepted for errors or omissions.
dCS is excited to announce that it will be demonstrating the new Bartók network DAC with Class A headphone amplifier at the forthcoming Munich High End 2019 show between the 9th and 12th of May.
In addition to showing a range of dCS electronics – including Vivaldi and Rossini – in its usual room at Atrium 4 Room F209, the company for the first time ever has a dedicated head-fi room in Hall 4 Stand N09 for visitors to hear the new Bartók for themselves.
Headphone fans will be able to connect their own digital audio players and smartphones, choose tracks from the dCS library or stream their favourite music from TIDAL™. Listening to Bartók via a range of high end headphones will be possible including models from ABYSS, Audeze, Focal, HIFIMAN and Mr.Speakers among others. Four Bartóks will be on demonstration, to allow easy access for audition, with no appointment needed.
The special dCS head-fi room is enclosed to reduce the ambient noise of the show to a minimum, and dCS staff will be on hand to demonstrate the wide functionality of this new network DAC with headphone amplifier and to advise on headphone matters.
The cost of the headphone amplifier equipped version costs £11,999, and features a custom designed Class A headphone stage that works extremely well with both high and low impedance headphones and IEM’s in balanced or unbalanced formats. Bartók also comes with a crossfeed option as standard.
Bartók supports all major music codecs including high resolution PCM and DSD, with user- selectable upsampling. Great care has been taken to minimise jitter at all stages with the dCS ‘auto clocking’ architecture. The network streaming section currently runs at up to 24-bit, 384kS/s and DSD128, supporting all major lossless codecs, plus DSD in DoP format and native DSD.
Bartók plays music through an array of industry-standard USB, AES or S/PDIF digital inputs. It streams over Ethernet from a NAS drive or online music services, and from Apple devices via Airplay. Its network interface performs full MQA decoding and rendering. With its award-winning Ring DAC digital processing engine – shared with the flagship Vivaldi DAC – it offers unparalleled performance at its price.
Since 1987 dCS has been at the forefront of digital audio, creating world-beating,
life-enhancing products that are a unique synthesis of exact science and creative
imagination. Each of our award-winning product ranges sets the standard within its
class for technical excellence and musical performance. As a result, dCS digital
playback systems are unrivalled in their ability to make music.
All dCS products are designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom using proprietary
technology, and materials and components of the highest quality. A carefully judged
balance of our unique heritage and world-class engineering ensures there is a rich
history of ground-breaking innovation inside every dCS system.
Copyright © 2019 Data Conversion Systems Limited. All rights reserved. dCS, dCS logo, Ring DAC are trademarks
or registered trademarks of Data Conversion Systems Limited. Data Conversion Systems Limited disclaims any
proprietary interest in trademarks and trade names other than its own. All specifications are subject to change and, whilst they are checked for accuracy, no liabilities can be accepted for errors or omissions.
As the new year’s latest British Phonographic Industry data shows, the UK music industry continues to be in a good, healthy place. This is great news in itself – and all the more so because it’s steadily transitioning from selling its wares on physical media to a streaming-based income model. The internet is one of the most disruptive technologies – in a good and a bad way – and it has certainly changed the music industry’s life forever, all around the world…
However, amidst all this grandiose talk of the move from physical to streamed media, there’s a risk of forgetting what recording artists actually feel about things. They’re at the ‘coalface’ – a hit to their record company’s bottom-line is survivable but for recording artists, technological and demographic shifts are life-or-death issues, career-wise. That’s why it’s interesting to speak to Simon Toulson-Clarke – the key creative force behind the band Red Box. Famous for his nineteen eighties smash hits Lean on Me and For America – he’s a music industry veteran who has experienced life as an artist both before and after the ascent of the internet. He has worked both as a creator of music and in a backroom capacity in A&R, signing up new talent.
Simon says there’s no doubt that things are different to his formative years in the mid eighties, when he was delivering a string of hits for Warner Bros. “One thing that’s hugely better than before,” he proclaims, “is the fact that we artists can now make and distribute our music without a major label. This is particularly the case if you can connect directly with your fan-base through social media, as well as generating new fans.” So the idea that the music business of the eighties was some kind of golden era for artists is, he says, too simplistic.
He points out that an “old school record deal” would offer a band between 12% and 14% of net profit, “depending on how good your lawyer is… So before the band are paid their cut of sales, the label first recoups the advance, all studio recording bills including costs for producers and engineers, plus video production, promotion, marketing, all transport – that’s minicabs and limos for the band and label staff – radio plugging, artwork and advertising. And this doesn’t come from total sales income, but from the band’s 12% slice of the pie. The result is that many bands never recoup enough to make money, even though their label is making money out of them.”
That’s not the end of it. Simon points out that with a traditional deal, the record label also exercises – or at least tries to – a lot of control that cramps the style of the artist. “Majors know what they are doing in terms of getting music out to people, but with majority ownership comes majority decision-making, meaning this can leech into an artist’s creative decision-making process. That’s simply a step too far for many artists. Much as I love many of the people at Warner Music in the eighties who we worked with, we had a rocky creative relationship with the company, with real artistic differences.”
These days, as well as getting the vast majority of all sales income and attempting to take control of the creative process as much as they can, major labels also want to take a cut out of touring and merchandising too – as well as ownership of the master tapes. This is all the harder to bear for artists, as much of their income is now derived from this. “It’s called a 360 degree deal”, says Simon. “Sometimes a new artist can get favourable terms – up to a 50:50 split with the more enlightened labels – it may still make sense because they are going to need help making an album, but it’s by no means a simple decision because the label will own the master rights forever.”
So why did bands sign up to this sort of contract – one that has seen a number of artists over the years end up in court suing their record companies? He points out that it was once the only way to succeed, because few aspiring artists could afford to do it themselves. “A master-quality studio cost upwards of £3 million to set up and equip – but these days, with ever-improving digital hardware, you can get a good result in a studio for as little as £50,000. And if you can’t set that up yourself, it can be hired at a fraction of the cost of Abbey Road…”
That’s why these days, many artists are becoming their own record companies, with a do-it-yourself ethos that picks and chooses what’s best for them to get the job done. “This is now how Red Box are now doing it – we have a following, a few supporters in radio and are distributed worldwide by Right Track through Universal Music on far more generous terms than we would otherwise get if we had a conventional, all embracing deal from a record company. With our new album Chase the Setting Sun we’re using them for the bits we can’t do ourselves – the distribution – and we’re sorting the rest.”
Streaming platforms can be very helpful here, but not in the way you might think. The revenue is low, so in effect they become a way of spreading the band’s name and sound. They’re seen as a promotional tool as much as an income path. “They allow a more direct route for bands to access fans and casual listeners alike”, Simon says. “Artists now earn much of their revenue from touring, so streaming becomes a kind of marketing tool for the tour. In many ways, the likes of Spotify are providing the tools for people to be adventurous musically, with well-curated playlists and entry points to new music. Radio’s influence is waning, slowly but inevitably, but streaming is finally making up for it.”
Mat Taylor, dCS Product Manager
“I’ve always liked music,” says dCS Product Manager Mat Taylor, “because my Dad used to drag me along to see The Sisters of Mercy. That was quite an upbringing for someone who spent their childhood in the sleepy county of Buckinghamshire, around Aylesbury. “Yes, my Dad influenced me and directed me onto certain music I shouldn’t really have been listening to. But I was always fascinated by sound. For example I was involved in amateur dramatics as a kid and loved helping out with the sound effects – you know, creaky doors and that sort of thing! I liked lining up the cassettes and pressing play, and then one day I thought I could do it with my home computer. I started sampling sounds and allocating them a key on the keyboard. Suddenly I was writing industrial ambient music…”
At the tender age of fourteen, Mat joined his first Death Metal band, as you do. “It was quite cool, being that age and doing gigs. I used to take my computer with me; I didn’t have enough money for a keyboard stand so I used to borrow my mother’s ironing board! I was composing electronic music from around 1993, which was the golden age of all that trance and electro like The Orb and Orbital, that kind of stuff. I always believed I needed to do something related to my passion, which is electronic music. Then I saw B&W’s blue Pod loudspeakers, and they really inspired me. I got interested in the idea of doing speaker design, so I went to university and studied music technology. This was a combination of acoustics, electronics and other all-round things like composition and mathematics…”
At that time, Mat was playing many live gigs in Cambridge, and at Anglia university. “I got quite active in the local scene around the city and got playing at Strawberry Fair. Then when I graduated I worked for hi-fi multimedia company iMerge doing software tests on their music server. Then I moved to NXT, and stayed for eight years, including a three year stint as an acoustic engineer. It was great because I was working with some massive brands like Apple and Blackberry. One of the coolest things I did was designing a speaker system that went into a Terence Conran sofa; it was great to be able to hang out with Terence, working on that sofa with him and making it boom!”
When Matt went to Hong Kong to do some special projects, from iPod docks to putting a transducer into a Hallmark Christmas card. “I had to do some clever audio processing on that and as a direct result it arrived working perfectly on budget; the lady responsible for the managing the project duly got a massive promotion! They sold over ten million of these things, which is not to be sniffed at. After this, it was back to the UK to work at B&W for six years. I worked on the headphone and wireless speaker products, as the Product Marketing Manager. Then it was off to Cambridge. I wanted to try working for a small, ‘family feeling’ company, so in 2016 I joined dCS as Product Manager. It is totally different because of the size. Things are more direct and everyone knows each other. I love it…”
Although finding his time very precious, he does still have time for the love of his life – which is music. “These days I am a total modular synth addict. I have always loved synthesisers because when I got involved it was all about twiddling knobs and making noises. Back in the early days I bought some classic synthesisers like Moogs and Sequential Circuits, and I am fortunate enough to own a Roland TR909 drum machine and TB303 bass synth. These days I don’t release anything, but I make noise and dance around with my little boy, so it’s not just sitting in my loft! And now over the past three or four years I have been investing quite heavily in the Eurorack modular synth world. I love my modular synth stuff. You start off with an idea and you end up somewhere totally different. It is a proper TARDIS of time when you start playing around with stuff like that. You always ask yourself, where has the weekend gone?”
“The great thing,” says Mat, “is that modular synths are broken down into separate components. In a traditional synthesiser you have some oscillators, some envelopes, some filters, some kind of modulation LFO generators, but in a modular synth they’re all standalone components which you have to cable up to one another. It used to just be in an analogue world but now it has crossed over into the digital world as well. So, people have got really creative on the type of things you can do, and it is just bonkers. It is quite expensive and highly addictive. You end up buying new racks and filling them up with new modules…”
Synthesiser-mad Mat finds it hard to name his favourite band. It’s like asking him a deep, profound philosophical question that he cannot just answer off the top of his head. After much soul-searching however, he volunteers Wendy Carlos as a great inspiration. “She innovated so much. She was most famous for the soundtrack to the nineteen seventies cult classic Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, which was extremely cool at the time. These days I am massively into industrial music, so the likes of Skinny Puppy and Psychic TV are very important to me. I get so much enjoyment out of this music, which is so off-the-wall and creative.”