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…
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…