Expanse is a new software platform from dCS that reimagines how sound is optimised for headphones. Developed for our Bartók Headphone DAC, it uses a unique processing method to bring the headphone experience closer to the studio listening experience – providing a more natural and immersive soundscape when listening to a wide range of stereo recordings. Here, we take a look at the thinking behind it and how it was brought to life
While more people than ever now listen to music on headphones, most recordings are still monitored on loudspeakers. Artists, engineers and producers might use headphones to check certain aspects of a mix, but in most professional studios, loudspeaker monitoring is common practice.
Yet listening on headphones and speakers are two very different things. For headphone listeners, this can mean that our experience of a recording doesn’t always match up with what engineers or artists heard during the production process. With Expanse, we set out to address this imbalance and ensure that headphone listeners are able to hear music as the artist, producer or engineer intended.
Understanding headphone listening
To understand how Expanse works, it helps to understand the main differences between headphone and loudspeaker listening and the impact this can have on our experience of music. This topic is covered in much more depth in our technical paper but for now, here’s a brief overview.
When we listen on loudspeakers, sound is projected into the room around us, where it reflects off of various surfaces, including the floor, the walls and our bodies, before arriving at our ears. The signal from each speaker is heard by both of our ears, so the left audio signal arrives at our left ear first and our right a fraction of a second later (where it’s also a little quieter) and vice versa.
When we listen on headphones, sound is projected inside our head, where it forms a kind of arch between both ears. The sound from each signal is paired to the corresponding ear, so our left ear hears sounds from the left channel, and our right hears sounds from the right channel.
In a loudspeaker setup, the reverberation that is generated from sound bouncing around and reflecting off of surfaces plays a crucial part in helping us to identify where that sound is coming from. The difference in time between a sound arriving at our right and left ears provides another important clue, as does the difference in the levels of sound arriving at each ear.
When we listen on headphones, these all-important clues aren’t there, and – depending on how sound has been recorded or mixed – this can leave us struggling to pinpoint the location of sounds that we hear. Instead of music filling the space around us, we can end up with an experience where sound appears to come from inside our head, or right next to one ear. For some listeners, this can cause fatigue or even a physical headache when listening for extended periods of time.
Enhancing the headphone experience
Various technologies have been developed to address these issues over the past few decades, including a technique known as crossfeed, which involves blending sound from the left and right channels of a stereo recording in order to simulate the effect of both signals reaching each ear.
While this process can help to create a more natural soundscape – giving the effect of bringing sound out of a listener’s head and into the room, as it would appear when listening on speakers – it often leads to a loss of reverberation, which as we’ve discussed, is key to providing us with a sense of space and depth.
As a result, many technologies designed to enhance headphone listening have to use artificial reverberation to create a sense of space. This helps, to some extent, but as anyone who’s ever experienced the ‘reverb’ button on a 1980s hi-fi system will confirm, it can end up sounding a little unnatural, resulting in a soundscape that feels quite different to that heard when listening on speakers.
Defining a solution
With this in mind, we set out to develop a new approach to headphone processing – one that could optimise sound without the use of artificial reverberation. After extensive research and development and several rounds of testing, dCS Expanse was launched.
As dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg explains, the idea for Expanse was born out of development for our Bartók Headphone DAC. After developing a crosfeed function for the system’s launch, the dCS R&D team decided to build on their work and explore what else they could do to bridge the gap between headphone listening and loudspeaker monitoring.
“We launched with a pretty standard version of crossfeed, which was still quite a lot of work and after that had launched, we thought we’d see what else we could do,” says Andy.
Deciding what this new approach should look like required some careful consideration. While the team wanted to bring the headphone experience closer to the studio monitoring experience, they also wanted to avoid creating anything that might interfere with the sound of a listener’s chosen headphones.
“There are some companies that use things like head tracking to recreate the sound of speakers, so when you move your head, it’s like there’s a set of virtual speakers, and we thought that was quite clever … but we also know that if people wanted to listen on speakers, they probably could and actually, a lot of headphone listeners don’t.
“We thought about this and our decision was, ‘we want to make [the headphone experience] sound more natural, but we know that our customers have picked their favourite headphones, so whatever we do has to sound more natural and still sound like their headphones’” adds Andy.
Replicating studio listening
From research, Andy and the team discovered that maintaining reverberation would be key in helping achieve this. Their next challenge was to work out how to add crossfeed without damaging reverb. After extensive research, they discovered that widening incoming audio signals before crossfeed takes place would allow them to do just this and so, in a dCS first, the team developed a technique that allows us to introduce crossfeed and preserve the original reverberation in a recording.
After developing this process, the team also explored how they could further simulate the effects of studio monitoring, and developed an additional technique that allows us to delay the delivery of crossfeed signals by 300 microseconds, recreating the effect of left and right audio signals arriving at our ears at different times.
This technique, coupled with the process of widening audio signals, helped to bring us another step closer to replicating the studio listening experience. But there was another major factor we had to consider.
When we listen on loudspeakers, sound reflects not just off of surfaces, but off of our head, torso and inner ears. This means that how we experience sound depends not just on the acoustics of the room we are in, but our unique physical characteristics.
In order to mirror the studio listening experience, we had to somehow simulate the effects of sound interacting with both our bodies and the space around us. But as we discovered during our research, trying to emulate this process too precisely based on a particular listener’s profile, or a dummy head, could result in audio that sounds great for some and terrible for others. With this in mind, we developed a method of equalising audio that draws on a vast range of data to provide the best possible results for a wide range of listeners, without favouring one particular set of characteristics over another.
Building a prototype
Using the methods outlined above, we were able to develop a basic Expanse prototype on a PC. The team then had to work out how to run Expanse in the digital domain using FPGAs (the code-operated, programmable hardware that exists inside all dCS systems) and ensure the platform was compatible with the various formats that our systems support, from DSD and PCM through to MQA.
Running a platform like Expanse digitally is no easy feat, and requires some serious processing power, but it also allows us to exercise a greater degree of precision and optimise sound without introducing excess noise or distortion – something that would be difficult to achieve with analogue methods.
“Expanse only affects the things it’s meant to, so the noise floor doesn’t go up when you turn it on, distortion doesn’t go up. Those requirements – keeping distortion and noise to a minimum – remain,” adds Andy. It also allows us to ensure that Expanse can be easily updated and refined over time.
Once we had an initial version of the software up and running, we invited a select group of audio experts to help us test it. This involved several rounds of listening sessions at dCS HQ, with the R&D team gathering feedback and making further adjustments after each session.
“It was quite an iterative process,” explains Andy. “[After each round], we’d take the feedback, and we’d say, ‘OK, perhaps there’s a little too much of this here, or too much of that there’, and we’d go away and do some more work to get it right.”
While beta testing is a time-consuming process, it’s vital in helping us ensure that our software and products can cater to a diverse set of tastes and preference, and it’s something that forms a core part of the development process at dCS. As Andy points out, “If you’re going to go to the trouble of having people listen to something, you have to be prepared to listen to their feedback and make changes.”
The software was tested on a variety of headphones, with beta testers comparing results on over a dozen models. “Different headphones have different frequency responses and that can impact what you’re trying to do, so we had to make sure we had something that could work on most models,” adds Andy. It was also trialled on a variety of recordings, from live orchestral recordings to multitrack mixes.
The finished article
After over a year of research, design, development and testing, Expanse was launched on December 21 as part of Mosaic 1.1.1 – an updated version of our Mosaic control app.
The final software offers a choice of two settings: while both perform the same core function, Expanse 2 is a slightly gentler setting, which allows us to preserve the timbre of instruments.
“It’s extremely hard to make one cross feed setting that works for all source material and that’s not just down to whether [the source material] is jazz, or techno, or classical – it’s about how it was mixed and recorded,” Andy explains.
“What you’re trying to do [with cross feed] is reproduce a soundscape, but that soundscape could be a natural one, like the soundscape produced by an orchestra, or it could be something that exists in Brian Eno’s head,” he adds. “By having two filters, we can provide a more extreme version and then a slightly more subtle one that might be better for things like orchestral music.”
With its unique processing method, Expanse is able to provide an enhanced sense of realism when listening to a wide range of stereo recordings. As its effects are dependent on how a track was recorded or mixed, it isn’t suitable for all music, but when engaged with the right track (such as those featured in our Expanse playlist, available on Qobuz and TIDAL), it provides a more natural soundscape and a heightened sense of space and depth.
Whether or not the feature should be left on comes down to your individual preferences and musical tastes. As Andy points out, “If someone is listening mostly to classical music, a lot of those recordings tend to be mixed in much the same way, so you might just set it up and leave it on”, while more experimental headphone users – such as those hopping between multiple genres, or between binaural and stereo recordings – might find it works best on a track-by-track basis. With this in mind, Andy recommends that listeners experiment with the platform during playback to find the setting that best suits your music.
Creating a platform like Expanse is an extensive undertaking, but the R&D team at dCS is well-versed in developing new technologies from scratch. In fact, it’s been a core part of our work for over 30 years, from our early days designing digital converters for professional recording studios, to our work creating playback systems for home listening.
By developing our own processes and platforms, we are able to resolve issues that can have a negative impact on playback and present listeners with an immersive experience that is faithful to the music, and the artist’s intention.
You can find out more about Expanse and how it works here.
Expanse is available to all Bartók Headphone DAC owners as part of Mosaic 1.1.1. More information on how to download and use Mosaic 1.1.1 can be found on the dCS forum
Whether you’re looking for in-depth interviews, critical analysis or commentary on the latest releases, there’s a wealth of great music podcasts to choose from online. Here, we take a look at some of our favourite shows to date – from revealing documentaries to series exploring artists’ creative process
For music fans, the rise of podcasts has provided a whole new way to discover new releases and learn more about the stories behind popular recordings. The number of music-related shows has exploded in the past few years, with labels, artists and journalists using the medium to discuss and reflect on a wide range of music and genres.
At dCS, we recently teamed up with journalist Simon Barnett to create our first podcast series, dCS Legends: The Other Side of the Glass. Launched as part of our dCS Legends programme, which celebrates outstanding work in music production, it features exclusive interviews with 11 of the world’s top recording, mixing and mastering engineers about their work, process and the making of GRAMMY-winning recordings.
Making the series was a fascinating process, and we’ve been delighted to see so many of our friends and partners tuning in to listen. You can find the full series over at dcslegends.com – and for more music stories, check out our selection of new and ongoing podcasts below.
Launched in 2014, Hrishikesh Hirway’s series has become one of the most popular music podcasts of all time. The show has built a devoted global following and its creator recently teamed up with Netflix to make a miniseries of the same name.
The format is simple: in each episode, a musician breaks down one of their tracks and tells the story of how it was made, charting its evolution and the thinking or ideas behind it. The result is a fascinating series that delves into artists’ creative process and the careful consideration that goes into making a hit track.
Featuring interviews with FKA twigs, Fleetwood Mac, The Cranberries, Billie Eilish, Tame Impala, Kelly Lee Owens and many more, it covers a wide range of music, and will give you a whole new perspective on songs you might have heard countless times.
Described as “a collection of the greatest music stories never told”, public radio station KCRW’s documentary series brings together an intriguing collection of tales from music’s past.
Season 1 features episodes on Captain Beefheart, cult rock band The Shaggs and WBAD (a pirate radio station which earned a devoted following among New York hip-hop fans in the mid 90s), while season 2’s highlights include a look at the work of pioneering sound designer and synth composer Suzanne Ciani and all-female punk group Fanny, which faded into obscurity after a promising start in the music world.
The podcast’s latest series is more akin to a collection of oral essays than a documentary, with critic Hanif Abdurraqib examining a single year (1980) through the lens of albums by the likes of Grace Jones and The Sugarhill Gang. If you’re looking for lesser-told stories from the archives, or an in-depth look at key moments in a significant year in pop culture, then Lost Notes is a great place to start.
Created by New York classical radio station WQXR in partnership with the Metropolitan Opera, Aria Code brings together musicians, writers and academics to discuss some of opera’s most popular arias. Each instalment is focused on a single work, with host Rhiannon Giddens delving into the stories behind them and their lasting influence before playing an excerpt from the Metropolitan Opera’s archives. Season 1 includes a look at Mozart’s Queen of the Night, Donizetti’s Le fille du regiment and Verdi’s La traviata, among others, while season 2 examines arias by Puccini, The Gershwins, Offenbach and more. Combining friendly discussion with some powerful performances, it’s an engaging series with guest appearances from some of opera’s leading talents.
Also from WQXR, Meet the Composer is an immersive show that explores the work of contemporary classical composers, from Henry Threadgill and John Adams to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. The series was created by Nadia Sirota, a classical violist who has worked with David Bowie, Bjork, Arcade Fire and The National, as well as various orchestras around the world. Blending musical performances with interviews, commentary and evocative sound design, it abandons the traditional interview format in favour of a more experimental approach – one that paints a rich picture of each composer’s work and what makes it unique. With its artful production and detailed analysis, it provides an illuminating look at some of the most innovative composers of recent times.
One of the most talked-about podcasts to emerge in 2020, this eight-part series asks whether one of the biggest selling singles of all time – Wind of Change by German rock group Scorpions – was in fact written by the CIA. Hosted by journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, it investigates a rumour that America’s intelligence agency came up with the song as part of a covert Cold War-era operation to influence people through music and pop culture.
Over the course of the series, Keefe speaks with musicians, academic and ex-CIA staff in a bid to uncover the truth behind the record. The show is as much about espionage as it is about music, but it’s an interesting look at the legend behind a seemingly innocuous power ballad and the role of music and culture in driving political agendas. The show is now being adapted for TV, with Hulu currently developing a miniseries based on Keefe’s investigation.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell teamed up with music producer Rick Rubin and Bruce Headlam, former Media Desk Editor at The New York Times, to create this eclectic podcast, which features some in-depth and thought-provoking conversations with some of the biggest names in music. Described by Gladwell as “a musical variety show”, the series combines wide-ranging interviews with live performances and excerpts from guests’ greatest hits. Guests range from David Byrne to Tyler the Creator, James Taylor and Run the Jewels, with conversations covering everything from politics to personal relationships – and of course, making records.
The Lost Art Of Conversation was created to promote the release of Pink Floyd’s The Later Years box set, which brings together music created from 1987 to 2019. Through interviews with BBC 6 music journalist Matt Everitt, band member David Gilmour reflects on four aspects of the band’s creative output during this period, from studio recordings to live shows, artwork and unreleased material.
In the debut episode, Gilmour discusses the making of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and the band’s desire to embrace new technologies during the making of the album. Later instalments delve into the making of their ambitious live tours and the challenges involved in bringing their creative vision to life, as well as the stories behind their now iconic album covers. For fans of Pink Floyd – or anyone interested in the group’s work – it offers an intimate and in-depth look at a significant era in their history.
One for cinemaphiles, Art of the Score offers a deep dive into a collection of memorable and noteworthy film scores, including John Williams’ work for Jurassic Park and the Empire Strikes Back, Jonny Greenwood’s music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark drama, There Will Be Blood and John Powell’s soundtrack for family favourite How To Train Your Dragon. In each episode, hosts Andrew Pogson, Dan Golding and Nicholas Buc dissect the composition and key themes in a particular score and what makes it so powerful. Episodes are long – with some clocking in at around 90 minutes – but each one offers some insightful analysis of some poignant, uplifting, eerie and unforgettable soundtracks.
From both a commercial and scientific perspective, 2020 proved a strange and fascinating experiment – an unexpected global study of what happens when our usual routines are upended and replaced with long stretches of time spent at home.
Shopping and consumption habits changed dramatically throughout the year, in both predictable and unexpected ways, and recent market research studies have revealed some interesting shifts in the ways that people are buying and consuming music.
The headline news is that there’s been a significant rise in people’s use of streamed media. According to research commissioned by Dolby Labs, people are now focused on getting their entertainment experiences via the internet. This isn’t surprising in itself, but Dolby’s research reveals another interesting fact. Not only are people taking their music and movie consumption online, they’re also seeking qualitative improvements in the way they experience it.
Dolby’s study polled 5,000 respondents from China, France, India, and the United States. That’s quite a large sample size and a wider than average sample base, too. Of those 5,000 respondents, 77% said they’d be happy to pay more for superior sound quality, and 64% said they had upgraded at least one streaming service to a premium subscription in the past six months. The increased spend on digital content has been led by Generation Z and Millennials, with the latter spending an extra 38% in the past half-year. Break down the spending increase by country, and you find it’s gone up by 55% in France, 72% in the US, 94% in China, and 97% in India.
A surprisingly high 64% of people said they were planning to upgrade their existing audio-visual kit – i.e. new TVs, soundbars, speakers, amplifiers or streaming devices – including 73% of Millennials. A dramatic 81% of people who have upgraded their streaming services also plan to upgrade their audio or visual systems, with 62% doing so because it provides an opportunity to relax. Essentially then, the past year has seen more people take home entertainment more seriously than ever before.
This tallies with new findings from the Recording Industry Association of America – the US music industry body – on consumer behaviour in the first half of 2020. In the US, streamed music made up 85% of total revenue, generating $4.8 billion, compared with $4.3 billion in the same period last year, when its share was 80%. This is yet more evidence of the meteoric rise of streaming, but again shows that people are spending more on it, too. The RIAA says that US music fans are increasingly willing to pay for premium services to listen to music ad-free, up from 58.2 million in the first half of 2019 to 72.1 million in the same period this year – a significant uptick.
Alongside this, it seems more people have been turning to high-resolution streaming to upgrade their listening experience. In the US, Qobuz has seen an increase in the number of people signing up to its Hi-Res subscription service for the first time over the past 12 months, with many of them switching to Qobuz from platforms that use compressed audio streams.
“We continue to grow in the audiophile community; however a big change [in 2020] has been more people trying out Hi-Res for the first time,” David Solomon, Chief Hi-Res Music Evangelist at Qobuz, tells dCS.
In November 2019, Qobuz dropped its monthly subscription fee to $14.99. Since then, Solomon says the company has seen “droves of people” moving from compressed services to Qobuz Hi-Res. Over the past 12 months, Qobuz has also received an increasing number of queries from customers who are new to Hi-Res audio and keen to find out how they can enhance their listening setup.
“We have people contacting us every day with basic high-end audio questions: What’s a DAC or how will it improve my system? What’s a good music streamer that plays Hi-Res? What would you consider high-end speakers?” explains Solomon.
All this would suggest it’s not just seasoned audiophiles who are looking to invest in great sound. Hi-Res streaming is still in its infancy, but Qobuz’s success over the past year points to a growing interest in high-quality audio – one that Solomon believes will continue for years to come. And it’s not just music lovers who are embracing the format. Solomon has also noticed an increasing number of recordings being released in Hi-Res over the past few years, which suggests that more labels and artists are investing in it, too.
“What has been surprising, and even thrilling as a music lover, is that recordings coming out are far superior to the digital recordings of the last decade. And a good 70-80% of albums are all being released in Hi-Res,” Solomon adds.
With internet connections becoming faster and more stable, more consumers than ever now have access to a service that can support the demands of playing large files. Solomon also credits innovations in playback with helping to bring Hi-Res music to a wider audience. “I’ve been using a [dCS] Bartok for the last few weeks and have been astonished at the detail and performance. Companies such as dCS not only take full advantage of Hi-Res content; the music is actually elevated to another level. Huge improvements are taking place on both sides: recording and playback.”
The type of music people are listening to on Qobuz hasn’t changed much over the past year – rock, jazz and classical remain the three most popular genres, with The Beatles, Norah Jones, the Rolling Stones, Diana Krall and Pink Floyd occupying the most streamed artist slots – but Solomon says customers have been streaming music more often and for longer periods of time. They have also been seeking out a wider range of music within their preferred genres.
While 2020 was an incredibly challenging year for the music industry, it also offered a powerful reminder of the importance of music in our daily lives. For millions of people around the world, it provided a much-needed escape from the confines of our homes and the chaos of the past 12 months. The fact that people have been spending more time listening and seeking out new artists, as well as investing in new equipment through which to do so, is encouraging news for both artists and the wider music and audio world – and something that could have an impact on how we listen well after lockdowns and social distancing measures have eased.
Founded by musician Andrea Cockerton, DIUO is a new platform that hopes to support musicians and live crews by providing high quality live streams for audiences at home. We talk to Andrea about the project, and reimagining the concert format for TV
Coronavirus has played havoc with the delicate musical ecosystems of many countries around the world, as artists and venues have had to cancel or reschedule their live performances. Early hopes that lockdowns would be quickly eased have been dashed, as governments continue to limit social interaction in hopes of suppressing the spread of Covid-19.
In the UK, this has had a devastating effect on the live music industry – a sector that contributes £5.2 billion to the British economy each year and sustains almost 200,000 jobs, according to Let The Music Play. The industry stands to lose at least £900 million if it remains closed for the rest of 2020, with up to a half of its workforce likely facing unemployment. British venues are set to lose five million visitors, while many music festivals – a staple of the UK’s music scene, which support 85,000 jobs – are expected to be lost.
While the forecast is bleak, people have been finding ways to adapt to the new normal. Along with virtual gigs and online events, we’ve seen new systems emerge to help feed money back to the creators and producers who have seen their livelihoods assaulted during the pandemic.
Cambridge-based musician Andrea Cockerton’s #LOCKJAM project was a particularly interesting response, providing an online platform for musicians to broadcast virtual performances to audiences stuck at home, and generate some much-needed revenue through a ‘pay-what-you-can’ ticket model. Launched in April, the plaform broadcast a wide range of performances during UK lockdowns, from events commemorating Pride month, to family-friendly sets from local acts.
Andrea has considerable experience putting on live events. As the founder of We Are Sound (a charity which dCS supports), she has organised various gigs in Cambridgeshire and London, including ‘In the Dark’ – an event series that allowed visitors to experience musical performances in complete darkness. As she explains to dCS, her #LOCKJAM initiative was motivated by a desire to help behind-the-scenes workers in the British music industry.
“I know small local production companies – freelance crews – that are stacking shelves in Tescos,” she says. “I can’t quite fathom why really established musicians aren’t doing more to help these people. It may be because record labels can be slow to move and are understandably risk-averse, but it feels like they’ve pulled up the ladder to the live industry. It doesn’t take much to be proactive, I think we can do better.”
Six months on, Andrea is hoping to build on the success of the project and provide a longer-term solution to the problems facing the UK’s live music scene. “[#LOCKJAM] was a bunch of talented but unknown musicians trying to help others and now the concept needs to grow up,” she explains.
“The problem hasn’t gone away and isn’t likely to in the short-to-medium term at least – the music and the theatre industries are stuffed until we get a vaccine, because the way they do things makes them unviable at the moment, so the only way is to innovate and do things differently, and I think that there’s huge potential to create revenue within the music industry, while supporting the industry.”
Her solution is a new streaming platform called DIUO, which she describes as “somewhere between Spotify, Amazon Prime and Netflix” in its user experience and payment model. The idea is to create a means by which smart TV viewers can access high quality live concerts, either directly streamed to watch as the event is happening, or to stream later on demand. “DI means Direct Input to musicians,” adds Andrea.
The end user will be able to pay to view streams searchable by categories including genre, venue and song. “There’s already a strong group of smart TV technology platforms such as Amazon Fire, Roku, Android, Apple TV, etc,” says Andrea. “DIUO will translate across these different smart TV apps, starting with Apple & Android, and also be accessible online via tablets and laptops.”
Her hope is that the platform will offer an engaging experience for music fans who are missing the sense of connection that comes with attending a live event, while also helping to provide some much-needed income to musicians and live crews. “If you think about music, it’s a shared experience. Most people don’t like watching music on their laptop because it’s insular and alone – most like watching on their TVs, like you would live coverage of Glastonbury, as if it were BBC coverage of a music festival and a shared experience. The difference is that with this system, there will be a charitable ‘kick’ at the end. People pay and the money goes to the artist, but also a share would go to the wider music industry, to musical good causes.”
Curation will play an important role on DIUO: “It can’t be just another YouTube with someone singing in his bathroom,” says Andrea. “Initially we’ll be targeting independent labels & artists, cherry-picking who we would love to have on. The technical quality has to be high, both sound and vision. I think it needs to be done because there’s no place to go for brilliant live gigs. It’s like planting seeds that will help regrow the British music industry; it’s a circular thing.”
DIUO is now looking for 100 artists to sign up to the platform in return for a 10% equity stake – an initiative that Andrea hopes will help get the project off the ground. Over 60 bands have applied so far, including acts from Romania, Ireland and California as well as the UK, and applicants span a wide range of genres, from metal to folk and world music. “There are two reasons for launching it this way – the first is that it fits with our whole ethos, and the second is that we hope it will help publicise the platform by doing it like this”, Andrea explains.
“For the past few months we’ve been intensively talking to the market and now have three world-class and proven tech partners who will be providing DIUO’s backbone,” she adds. “We’re not trying to be all things to all people. Our focus is hosting live art streams and replays, and our value lies in the drawing together and hosting of what we hope will be a growing collection of live material. We’re also partnering with both local and global production companies to provide first class sound and video, should the bands not have their own preferred crews.”
Indeed, Andrea knows the technical side must be spot on – which is why DIUO will be offering specialist production support to performers on the platform.
“The thing about live streaming is you can’t just do a bog-standard gig that works on stage when you have an audience. When you put that on to a screen, it falls dead because there is no audience, so you have to think really carefully about how do you engage through the screen? How do you reach people in their homes and make them feel like they’re part of something? We’re recruiting musicians and crews to do that. Many live streams are static unless they’ve got mega budgets, but your average sort of touring band may not have that expertise [in putting on a great live show]. So we offer that. My background is in performing, so I know what works and what falls flat, and we’ve got a production partner who is based in Cambridgeshire, but covering events all over the country, as well as a global production partner. We’ll work with a lot of freelancers as well.”
Alongside recruiting freelance crews to help with production, DIUO will be employing out of work musicians to compere gigs. Andrea is also keen to introduce interactive elements to performances, such as live ‘question and answer’ sessions or features allowing audiences to go backstage with the band. “There’s much more potential for interactivity than meets the eye,” she says. “The users could even vote for what track bands should play as their encore, or choose the camera they see the performance through.”
Andrea’s experts will also be mixing audio while the performance takes place, rather than just broadcasting a live feed. “We want this app to be first class and nothing less, so that’s another reason for high quality production values. It’s not only got to look good, but sound the part too. This will be achieved by getting the right people in to record it and mix it. Some bands have asked if we can just take a feed from the room, but we don’t do that. We mix for streaming. If you go into the room during a performance, the band sounds really quiet because the only thing you’ll hear is the drum kit, plus the vocalists and any acoustic instruments. Everything else goes straight into the desk, so anything that goes out on the stream has been mastered for that purpose.”
dCS wishes Andrea well. There’s a large demographic of people who want to experience high quality live music in their homes, and DIUO caters for this, while also giving money back to the artists and crew to keep music sustainable. If you’d like to get involved, or know of musicians who might benefit from being part of this project, you can find more information at diuo.io
Recorded sound reproduction is now in its 160th year, and still going strong. It’s been a long struggle though, to raise the bar from Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph – which used paper or glass to mechanically describe a sound waveform – to where it is now, where music is held digitally on cloud servers and beamed around the world via satellites or undersea cables.
The year zero for modern music media was 1982 – the moment when Compact Disc was launched in Japan, while the rest of the world got it six to twelve months later. CD was hugely important for a number of reasons. First, it was the first commercially available domestic digital music format, using a Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) system that’s become the default for how we’ve subsequently done digital. Direct Stream Digital (DSD) devotees may be hissing and booing, but without PCM, digital music reproduction wouldn’t have evolved in the way it did.
It also introduced the idea of random access. Of course, the vinyl LP record was a random access format too – the problem was that it was a little too random. But with Compact Disc, each release came with its own Table of Contents (TOC), telling the disc transport mechanism where to look for the track being selected. Previously, music lovers had to rely on hand cueing vinyl, or on the clunky ‘track search’ mechanisms built into cassette decks, which physically fast wound the tape past the record head in order to find a gap. This worked up to a point, but was slow and trouble-prone, often wearing out the cassette deck’s heads after a year or two of use. By comparison, CD was a godsend.
Compact Disc effectively moved the goalposts. It offered high quality digital audio – the 16-bit, 44kHz Red Book standard is still the one most people use today, surprisingly – and random access, making it the world’s first truly convenient music carrier. It was only then that people began to realise its potential, and companies such as Philips, Sony and Panasonic pushed to make portables and in-car players. This brought another benefit – portability – and by the end of the 1980s, the idea of having easy to use, high quality music was no longer enough. People also wanted to have it wherever they went.
This was one battle that the novel CD format just couldn’t win. It’s fascinating to think that in the UK, the bestselling year for the Compact Cassette wasn’t some time in the 1970s – which is when everyone seemed to be going cassette-crazy – but 1988. This was the high watermark of so-called ‘music cassette’ sales; people were buying a 25-year-old Philips-designed ‘dictaphone’ format in droves, in order to listen to their favourite tunes in their Walkman portables or in-car cassette stereos. Portable ‘Discman’ type CD players were on sale by then, but they never eclipsed the humble cassette Walkman in this role.
This proved something of a sore point. Sony knew that CD just wasn’t portable enough for a generation who’d grown up owning a Walkman, and MiniDisc was its response. Looking at it through today’s eyes, it seems quite an odd contraption – basically a miniature CD enclosed in a cartridge that’s hard to damage. The latter is good news, but because this 16/44 format has less data storage capacity, the music itself had to be shrunk down in order to fit on the disc. MiniDisc brought us compressed digital audio for the first time, and set a rather worrying precedent as far as audiophiles were concerned.
One year later in 1993, the MP3 format was born. Few realised it at the time, but this was a huge game changer. It was the missing link that enabled digital audio to attain true portability and compactness, bettering – at least – the by then wonderfully sleek and slim cassette Walkmans on sale. It took a long fight for supremacy though, and the US music industry association – alarmed at the rise in pirate downloads and poor quality files being shared online – even tried to litigate it out of existence in a famous court case filed against Napster in 1999. Nasty as MP3 sounded, it got people used to the concept of music as computer file that you could store in RAM or on a hard drive. Once MP3 arrived, music was no longer dependent on a format designed by a large consumer electronics company.
One little thing that slipped by without much fuss during this period of innovation was the official invention of the WAV file in 1988. a year after dCS was founded. This, along with 1999’s FLAC format, made high resolution digital music possible and ushered in the contemporary era. Today’s world is as it is because of these two music carriers, and dCS has arguably done more than any other hi-fi manufacturer to legitimise and popularise these two file formats, among others.
When it comes to recorded sound reproduction, the future is an open book, and we’re now looking ahead to ever higher resolution digital music. DSD has migrated off SACD discs and come along for the ride as a file format too. It’s been a long journey, but perhaps it’s only just begun?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the strangest events in recent human history, as we have witnessed a completely new and – initially at least, very poorly understood – virus spread around the world with alarming speed. Like many pandemics before it, it spread via trade routes, moving from China’s Wuhan province to the world’s top western travel hubs like New York, London and Paris for example – then beyond. Although it is now receding in the West, South America is currently under siege and there’s even been a minor resurgence in Beijing. It’s clear that the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
The human effects of this pandemic have been terrible of course, but its impact on world trade have been no less significant. Given that ‘the wheels of industry’ must keep turning to pay for the world’s healthcare systems – in one way or another – it’s impossible to estimate how many more people have or will be indirectly affected by the coronavirus. This isn’t just because large parts of the global manufacturing sector had to shut down for several months, but also because the customers who normally buy its wares were ‘locked down’ – socially distancing themselves at home – and therefore not out consuming. In the UK for example, GDP in April 2020 was around twenty percent down on 2019, which is a staggering figure – and not an outlier from other advanced economies.
Most Western countries are now cautiously moving beyond this and business is returning to normal, with governments fully aware that the measures now being taken will have a major impact on the wider recovery. New consumer data from the US is encouraging, with retail sales for May 2020 up by over seventeen percent, for example. Here in the UK, the first retail sectors allowed to re-open last month were garden centres and car dealers. This is because it’s widely believed that the virus best spreads in confined spaces, rather than outdoors. The scientific consensus is that at least fifteen minutes exposure to an infected person indoors is needed to catch Covid-19, and they need to be less than one metre away. This naturally makes conventional hi-fi retailing a particularly difficult proposition.
During the lockdown, many hi-fi dealers have shifted their business model towards online sales, or mail order via the telephone. That’s meant plenty of long, in-depth phone, FaceTime or Skype consultations with prospective purchasers, with customers buying on the strength of dealer recommendations and/or magazine reviews. It’s meant careful attention to detail ensuring that safety is maintained regarding courier deliveries and fulfilment parters, following all the government guidelines. All this has been done whilst implementing social distancing in the workplace, often with staggered start and finish times and working remotely when possible. Many dealers have offered free drop-offs of products, too.
Customer loyalty has helped good dealers. If buyers have got sound advice from them in the past, they’re likely to trust them with purchasing recommendations now – and that has helped top-tier hi-fi retailers all around the world. Such trust extends to letting people have products on approval to audition at home in many cases, too. A strong customer base has proved invaluable to long-established and highly respected dealers – precisely the sort that sell dCS products. Certainly at the upper end of the market, there’s a really important bond of trust, built up over years of good relations with customers, that pays dividends in a time like this.
This pandemic has forced hi-fi retailers to adapt, and those with expertise and passion for customer service during the good times, have been better able to respond in the bad times. If anything, recent events have simply underlined the fundamental importance of great service. In these trying times, we have been attempting to replicate the traditional model of retailing as much as possible – whilst obeying social distancing. Trusted and knowledgeable dealers have continued to dispense old fashioned advice, but are no longer standing next to the customer in a dem room. If anything, this whole experience reinforces the need for expert guidance, something that simply isn’t there when people click ‘Buy it now’ online.
Overall then, the coronavirus crisis has underlined the basic need for high quality service. Yet there is still a large question mark over how quickly things will get back to normal. We’re now seeing effective new treatments for Covid-19 such as Dexamethasone – with successful clinical trials just completed by Oxford University – but until a successful vaccine is found, we just don’t know the answer to that. Indeed, it’s even possible that we may never get such a thing. Meanwhile, some audiophiles may be reluctant to visit hi-fi showrooms for the foreseeable future, and so-called ‘bricks and mortar’ shops in general. The in-store experience of a top-flight dealer demonstration is a truly special one, and – as this terrible pandemic teaches us – is hard to replicate in any other way.
The advent of Covid-19 – officially declared a global pandemic on March 11th, 2020 – is already having effects that run far beyond the tragic fatalities that the media is currently focusing on. The mass social isolation needed to suppress its spread is beginning to cause problems for most sectors of the world’s economy, as it becomes apparent that it could take years and not months, for normality to be restored…
Although the coronavirus outbreak is affecting different parts of the global economy in different ways, it’s now becoming clear that the music industry has already been hit hard. In the UK for example, we know from several sources that CD sales have dropped by around a half in the past month. In recent years we have witnessed a clear move towards music streaming, and the coronavirus pandemic will surely have accelerated this. Yet the music business still gets much of its revenue stream from physical media sales – which are now drying up.
This is down to both the traditional high street music retailers being closed due to the lockdown, and their online equivalents being unable to get discs delivered due to logistical reasons. For example, Amazon – which sells around fifty percent of all Compact Discs in the UK – reportedly hasn’t restocked many titles, having perfectly understandably chosen to concentrate on delivering home essentials instead.
If you sympathise with the major music retail chains struggling to cope with the lockdown, spare a thought for the smaller independent music shops. Arguably, these are more grounded in their local community – so the prospect of being shut down will have come as a terrible surprise. Historically, they’ve played an important role in the British music scene, with many great band members whiling their younger lives away in iconic shops like Rough Trade and Honest Jon’s. As such, it would be a tragedy to lose them, not least because they’ve been a social and creative hub for so many great recording artists over the years.
Geoff Taylor of the British Phonographic Industry recently said that, “the BPI is determined to help protect the sector as much as it can, but revenues will obviously decline in the short term, and we are concerned that the crisis may threaten the ongoing viability of some physical music retailers.” It’s becoming clear that the government may have to look at innovative solutions to get people back into shops such as these, once the lockdown is over. The BPI suggests a temporary freeze on VAT for physical music once stores reopen, to help the sector get back on its feet.
There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, as some good comes out of this terrible pandemic. For example, Sony Music’s parent company has just announced a $100m global relief fund to bring help to those impacted by Covid-19. The One World: Together at Home Special event – held in association with the World Health Organisation – saw The Rolling Stones perform a socially distanced rendition of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, with each member of the band playing together from a separate location (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7pZgQepXfA). Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Lang Lang, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Sam Smith also took part, among many others.
The hope is that the lockdown will begin to be eased in mid-May in the UK, but other countries that have already begun to do this are staging it in a way that large concert gatherings are pretty much at the bottom of the list. Major music venues may be able to weather the storm, but it’s less certain that small independent ones – effectively the grassroots of the industry – will be able to survive this seismic shock. The Music Venues Trust, which represents 670 grassroots live spaces across the UK, has said that over three quarters face imminent closure, due to not being able to pay their rent. Some types of government help may be available, but again the worry is that many venues will fall down between the cracks, so to speak.
The only small crumb of comfort is that before the pandemic struck, the UK’s music industry was actually in very good health; this country was the second biggest music exporter in the world after the USA, and revenues climbed by 7.3% per cent last year – which was the fourth successive year of growth. Because the fundamentals are basically good, the hope is that the 72% of British musicians who are self-employed can start performing and recording again in some capacity, soon.
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”, John Lennon famously said. In the past few weeks, the world has changed in a way that no one has experienced since 2008’s sudden credit crunch – and that’s possibly a conservative estimate. The human race now finds itself in the eye of a perfect storm – a global pandemic for which there is no known cure, and the resultant seismic economic shockwaves that are now battering the world.
The Covid-19 crisis pretty much came from nowhere, to grab at the throat of the world economy. It started back in November as a cluster of five hundred or so cases in one of China’s many vast provinces, only to spread all around the globe. It’s now overrunning the health services of western countries, and understandably the world’s economy has taken fright – causing stock market collapses all around the globe. The fact that such dramatic events on the international markets have gone relatively unreported by the media, is a testament to the terrible human toll the coronavirus is taking. Within the space of just weeks, governments have introduced stern social distancing measures, home working initiatives and emergency medical packages, the like of which we have never before seen in peace time. On top of this, the finance ministers of economically stable and prosperous countries – the USA, UK, France and Germany, for example – have announced huge financial aid packages to businesses and citizens. The problems which manifested themselves in 2007 and 2008 leading up to the credit crunch have taken place in the course of less than two weeks, this time round. Governments have been forced to come up with immediate policy responses as stocks plummet faster than during the dotcom bust and Lehman crisis. In less than a month, major indices have fallen almost thirty percent, with stocks in sectors such as oil and travel down by eighty percent. By any measure, March 2020 has been a remarkable month. Until a vaccine can be found, the only way to deal with the threat from Covid-19 is suppression – which is to say social distancing and home-working. This amounts to partial, self-imposed quarantine at home, so much of the world is now effectively hibernating, keeping their distance from other people. Unsurprisingly we have seen the Geneva Motor Show, London Marathon and Euro 2020 cancelled – to list just a few. There’s no understating just how disruptive this pandemic has been, on so many levels. Effectively then, the coronavirus has produced a dramatic and near instantaneous change in people’s behaviour, and we’re already seeing the results.
Of course, the hi-fi industry has not gone unscathed. The Munich High End Show – traditionally an international rallying point where new products are launched to press and public alike, from all around the world – was cancelled at the end of February. Manufacturers who rely on global parts supply lines are having to rearrange them, and shortages of some components are beginning to appear due to China having to shut down parts of its economy. More important even than this is the threat to consumer confidence, which may cause people to postpone purchasing decisions.
There’s no doubt we’re entering an unusual period for a while at least, where people will be more home-focused – but perhaps this isn’t necessarily a bad thing? The music industry may have lost its big set-piece events this like Glastonbury Music Festival, South By Southwest, Coachella and Record Store Day this year, but there are signs of individual artists already responding to ‘the lockdown’ in innovative ways. Rock artists like Coldplay and Kodaline for example, are stepping into the void by streaming live music direct from their studios. Instagram is playing an important role in the pop world, with Charli XCX, Christine And The Queens, Diplo, Kim Petras and Clairo all live-streaming content. Rita Ora’s latest single, How To Be Lonely, is perfectly timed!
Of course, any global pandemic is a terrible thing – but it isn’t so much shutting down human activity, as moving it online. There are early signs of this as broadband providers report a major upswing in demand. Music is of course perfect for this moment, being one of the greatest ways to keep people calm and emotionally fulfilled during such a challenging period. Stay safe!
Just over a decade ago, the music industry was in dire straits. The credit crunch was crippling sales in many western countries, and the way that people consumed music was changing apace. Indeed, for a short while it began to look like content producers and distributors were losing control of their product. For many industry watchers, peer-to-peer sites like The Pirate Bay gloomily foretold the future – where everyone was downloading music for free and spreading it willy-nilly. Given that the hi-fi industry was still largely CD-based at the time, that didn’t bode well for hardware sales either.
Then, in April 2009, things began to change. In The Pirate Bay’s native Sweden, its founders were convicted of assisting in copyright infringement, fined and sentenced to a year in prison each. Soon after, many countries’ Internet Service Providers switched off access to block the website, and then later its proxies. This was the first of a chain of events that began to rehabilitate the music industry, and in turn transform the hi-fi world…
The law of intended consequences kicked in. The Pirate Bay’s five year ascent caused mayhem, almost completely wiping out that country’s physical music market. Indeed, one could argue that it lead the birth of Spotify in 2008, which was the world’s first major streaming service and also Swedish. Next door, its Norwegian neighbour saw the appearance of WiMP – launched exactly a decade ago this month – which branched off to form Tidal. From then on, Scandinavia was seen as a trailblazing music market, one that industry watchers look to as the shape of things to come. It’s widely regarded as a sort of crystal ball for the wider streaming phenomenon.
To illustrate this, IFPI figures show that the British music industry’s revenue from music streaming in 2018 was – in percentage terms – only slightly higher than Sweden’s back in 2012 – it accounted for 61.5% of trade value. In 2018 however, Sweden got 89.4% of trade value from streaming – while its Norwegian cousin was even higher at 90.5% – which is close to saturation point. In the past few years, this figure has only been inching up slowly, after what was previously faster growth.
The fear is that – while the UK and other mature global music markets are currently experiencing heady rises in streaming – the good times won’t last forever. As any economist will tell you, product sales traditionally follow a ‘bell curve’ – where there’s slow growth from a low point, then steep growth, then slow growth at a high point and then growth stagnates at the top of the ‘bell’. It then drops down the other way in an inverse pattern. Scandinavian music streaming now seems close to its peak, so people are wondering how long the good times can last?
One important factor that the music industry – traditionally a ‘software’ provider – often overlooks is the hardware side. dCS was of course very early to market with streaming functionality on its DACs, but these are by their nature premium-priced specialist high end products. More mainstream manufacturers have followed with budget priced music streamers, and these are becoming more widespread. At the same time, the fall in prices of broadband and mobile phone data services have further fuelled streaming growth. In short, experiencing music this way is getting cheaper and easier.
This likely explains why the British music industry had its best year since the credit crunch in 2019, and also why the hardware market is moving away from physical media so rapidly. However, some industry insiders are now fretting about what to do when things begin to run to out of steam a few years down the road. Indeed, there have recently been stern warnings from the business side of the industry about streaming revenues dropping off, as the market gets close to saturation. Warner Music’s CEO Steve Cooper recently said that so-called ‘Average Revenue Per User’ from streaming services needs to start rising again. While there are an estimated 200 million people now signed up to streaming services around the world, ARPU has been falling on services like Spotify.
The worry is that if streaming service providers raise their prices to push profits back up, it’s going to blunt the take-up of streaming. That’s why there’s now a debate going on behind the scenes at these service providers about how best to package them to potential customers. There’s a feeling, for example, that ‘family plans’ that allow up to six users on £14.99 subscription could be hurting the industry’s bottom line.
It’s fascinating to watch the transformation of the world’s music business to an online streaming model, one that’s just as intriguing as the shift now happening in how we all consume television and films. Each market has its own particular characteristics, but the trend is clear wherever you look. It’s still relatively early days, because as yet streamed music accounts for just 3% of the world’s population. Back in Scandinavia, revenues are rising solidly, so even in super-mature markets, it appears there’s still a fair way to go. That’s why some in the music business are now thinking about a post-physical media world – it may be just around the corner.
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…