Ben Ashcroft, dCS Service Technician
“I am massively grateful for my opportunity”, says Ben Ashcroft. “Some people say that they hate their job, but I just wouldn’t know what that feels like. I’m genuinely content at dCS. I joined as a Production Technician, putting units together, getting it out of the door, learning the new products inside out as I did my apprenticeship. But from the start of this year I am now a Service Technician. I’m working with another technician and learning from him the ins and outs of the products themselves. If faults do occur then I fix them, which is a great learning process for me.”
Ben admits that he “fell on his feet” with his job at dCS – something he hopes and intends to make a career of. He says that he was in the right place at the right time to get hired by the Cambridge company, and isn’t looking that gift horse in the mouth. “I don’t take it for granted. That’s why, when I go to college on day release from the company, I don’t just settle for passes – I do my absolute best. I fully appreciate the extent of the opportunity I’ve got here, and because it’s a relatively small company everything that you do is noticed. I really like that. If I had a job elsewhere then I would be more of a number than a person; I might have just settled for passes because no one would really notice. But at dCS I get a lot of encouragement from my peers, and that’s great.”
Ben remembers his first interview. “I went in and openly said that I have no experience in engineering, and that all I can tell you is that I’m a blank page, I’ve got a good work ethic and I am willing to learn and to grow into any role you desire of me. They must have believed in me and trusted me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I explained that I was massively into music, and everyone who works here is too – I think they could see that I would fit in. It’s a pretty tight knit group of people here with – at the very least – one shared interest!”
Unlike some staff who have travelled from far and wide to work at dCS, Ben is a local guy. He followed a pretty typical path through school, although did very well. “My first full time job was at Sainsburys, something I continued with for a few years while I grew up. I’ve always been very academic, but also very sporty. I used to play football a lot, but got increasingly into music and technology. I started off liking indie bands but started getting into techno around the age of eighteen. It was initially stuff like dubstep and drum’n’bass, but nowadays it’s broadened to the whole spectrum. So, I do DJ-ing and create music myself too. I am so picky, I am very clued up on a lot of it.”
With his love of electronic music, he’s almost in a gang of one at dCS. “No one here shares my music taste I’m afraid, so trying to explain why I love it so much is hard because no one ever really agrees with me. Some people say it’s really repetitive and there is nothing to it. Perhaps I listen differently – I have got an ear for rhythm – it’s hard to describe. When you listen to electronic music it is little tiny details and the intricate things that people put in that just sound incredible, there’s a lot more to it than many think. It’s really layered, and introspective. Still, I am open to music like jazz and enjoy it.”
Don’t ask him to name his favourite artist, for there are so many. He was quite uncomfortable giving just one example because he’s so intense about it. “Well – Floating Points, Four Tet, Bicep – but there’s so much more”, he says. “Many of the people who buy dCS equipment probably won’t listen to the same things as me. But I guess it adds an extra dimension, and this type of music does sound great on our products! I also love making it, and going out to listen in clubs in the early hours at weekends. My friends and I know the DJs we’re going to listen to, we know the music to expect, we’re always on Shazam trying to recognise tracks, things like that. It is all just part of the culture, so to speak…”
Back on to the subject of his career, and Ben elaborates. “I had a good time at Sainsburys, and got recognised for my work ethic. But then it dawned on me that it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, so I searched for engineering jobs. When dCS offered me my position here I did a three-year apprenticeship in electronic engineering, and passed with the best grade. I’m now doing my Level 4 HNC on day release, which is another two years. I’ve not dropped any marks, I’m smashing it basically! When I was at Sainsburys I enjoyed the customer-facing side and going forward that’s something I hope to be doing at dCS. I went to Norway at the end of last year to perform an upgrade for one of our customers, and it went really well – the job was done perfectly and the guy was really happy. It was incredibly satisfying.”
Ben’s definitely a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, with an irrepressible optimism about life and his future in a company he loves. It seems to have reflected back on him, because dCS Managing Director David Steven has been very supportive and given him a lot of freedom to go his own way. “They are never going to hold me back in that respect, I am always grateful for that”, he adds. Meanwhile, he’s just taking in everything he can from his colleagues. “Just because I get good grades doesn’t mean I’m actually good at anything. Actually I’m lucky because I work with so many experienced people, learn a lot from everyone and am always respectful to them. It’s a great place to get trained up – a kind of masterclass, really!”
The Munich High End Show is the hi-fi show that all the others want to be. In the space of thirty seven years, it has grown from a group of hobbyists – Germany’s High End Society – to a large scale international event. For the past fifteen years it has been held in Munich at the large, spacious and very congenial M.O.C. exhibition centre. The HIGH END 2018 show took place from the 10th to the 13th of May – and of course, dCS was there…
The great attraction of this show is that – unlike so many other hi-fi events around the world – it is not held in a crowded, crammed hotel. Instead, the M.O.C. is a proper, purpose-designed exhibition space. Also, it takes place in the beautiful city of Munich – the jewel in Bavaria’s crown. It’s a picture-postcard German city – a tasteful mixture of classical and modern architecture, it is clean, orderly, efficient and polite. There’s great shopping, superb dining and the hotels range from good to excellent. What’s not to like?
The M.O.C. building is large, spacious and easily accessible, with a lovely outside courtyard food and beer garden at its heart. The show gets more crowded every year – with a large contingent of visitors now coming from the Far East. Yet still it’s possible to walk around and see what you want without endless queueing or the feeling of being crammed into rooms like sardines in a tin. The dCS room is traditionally up in one of the atriums – large by hi-fi show standards, it’s able to accommodate a serious sound system with which visitors can hear what a dCS front end is really capable of.
This year, a Dan D’Agostino Momentum stereo power amplifier and a pair of Wilson Audio Alexia 2 loudspeakers were pressed into service. This was driven by a dCS Rossini DAC and Rossini Clock, fed by the new Rossini SACD/CD transport. A range of music was played throughout the show, including recordings made by Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath. Some of these had been Master Quality Authenticated-encoded, and visitors were able to make direct A-B comparisons of the original recordings and their MQA equivalents. dCS also took part in an MQA livestream of six-piece London-based band Misha Mullov-Abbado, streamed direct to Munich from Miloco Studios in the UK’s capital city.
This is the great thing about hi-fi shows. Of course they’re relatively noisy environments, and no manufacturer is ever truly happy with the sound they achieve with the imperfect acoustics of their show space. Yet it’s possible to walk into a room and hear something that no amount of words on a page can describe. The dCS room gave one of the clearest and most immersive sounds of the show. Of course, given the calibre of both the equipment and source materials, anything less would have been a disappointment!
The muscular D’Agostino amplifier served up vast amounts of clean power, which in turn produced great results from Wilson’s big Alexia 2 loudspeakers; they delivered a strong central image with excellent stage depth. The system was able to reproduce the three dimensional recorded acoustic of an original musical event faithfully, and the room was large enough to let the speakers supply extended bass. Although the varying number of people present in the room actually changed the tonal balance slightly, the system always sounded highly realistic. The dCS Rossini is an excellent DAC, offering much of the flagship Vivaldi’s performance despite being dramatically less expensive. Although it doesn’t have the forensic clarity of the top dCS digital front end, it is still extremely revealing and one of the finest ways to make meaningful comparisons between recordings.
It was an exhilarating week for dCS. The logistics of setting up one of the finest sounding rooms – and indeed systems – of the show were formidable. Yet there was a profound feeling of satisfaction when all was said and done. The MQA livestream was a great crowd puller, while the MQA file comparisons fascinated many visitors who heard them. Yet the Rossini’s sheer breadth of capabilities meant that it also wowed people with its superb silver disc sound, as well as its ability to stream a wide variety of music via its built-in Tidal functionality, and play hi-res music from USB memory sticks. If you ever get the chance to visit Munich one May, make your way to this seriously special show and hear the difference for yourself.
Listen to our top tracks played in our room at Munich this year: https://listen.tidal.com/playlist/25c6f933-975f-4216-b308-bfd424cd00c6
It wasn’t hi-fi that interested Michael Evans from an early age, but mechanical design. “I have always loved taking things apart to find out how they fit together and work”, he says. “From a young age I was fascinated by bikes and cars, so it wasn’t a complete surprise that I ended up at Brunel University reading Product Design, for which I got a BSc for my troubles! It was a four-year course, a really interesting one that covered all things from graphics and branding right up to CAD. We did engineering and the fundamentals of structures and electronics and mechatronics – it was a very good overview of the entire design process.”
Suffolk born Michael found himself on a six month placement in Winchester at a design consultancy. “It was very varied and we worked on everything from recycling units, household appliances to a small swimming aid for children. Then I spent the next six months at IDentity Consulting in East Sussex, who tended to work more in the automotive sector. I actually went back after graduating, and I was there for three years or more. We completed projects for Porsche and Dunlop in the UK, among others. Then I decided I wanted to work for a company that did all its design and manufacturing in-house, so I could gain an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes as a whole. I was designing parts and accessories for Evotech Performance – they’ve got dealers worldwide and grew quite considerably in the few years that I was there.”
Michael was there for three or so years, after which he came to dCS. “That wasn’t before I took a bit of a break, because I wanted to spend a month in Australia and another in Canada, snowboarding. Making the move to this company was as simple as reading a job ad and thinking it sounded really interesting. It was different to what I’d been doing but was about applying very similar design principles. The main change was that – coming from the motorbike side of things – everyone wanted parts to be as stripped back and as lightweight as possible, whereas dCS is almost the opposite, as weight is a sign of quality. Put a unit in front of someone and if it weighs next to nothing, they’re going to question what’s inside. It’s a very different sort of functionality, but again it’s all based on the same sort of design principals just reapplied.”
When not living in a virtual world, Michael does the exact opposite and enjoys material challenges. “I do a lot of cycling – these days more on the road than off – and also running short to mid-distance races. I recently completed the Cambridge Half Marathon, and love snowboarding in the Alps, plus scuba diving and other outdoorsy stuff.”
Dan Thomas, dCS Production Technician
“I didn’t enjoy school very much, I was in a hurry to learn by doing things,” says Dan Thomas. “I taught myself the practical way – everything from welding to playing the guitar. I’m not very good in a classroom, I much prefer real life! I loved music – and still do – but by the time I left school I was getting into marine tanks. It’s a pretty unusual hobby I admit, but I love building and running them. They’re a lot more delicate than a normal freshwater fish tank – there are more things that can go wrong very quickly. But there’s just nothing like having a piece of the ocean in your living room!”
Dan is originally from Swansea – which perhaps explains his interest in oceans and fish – but moved to Stevenage aged eleven. He commutes to dCS in Cam-bridge everyday, and after a hard day’s work there’s nothing he likes more than working on his very own barrier reef! “I have a pretty large tank, about eight feet by two-and-a-half feet by two-and-a-half – which translates to about 1500 litres – so it takes up the whole wall of my Dining Room. I try to be as environmentally friendly with it as I can, so instead of getting large corals out of the ocean I’ll get an aquacultured frag and put that in. It might only be an inch but within a few years you’ll have a football sized coral that you can then pass on frags to your friends.”
He has some very exotic fish, too. “I’ve got one called a Gold Flake Angel which is quite a rare and beautiful fish; my wife gave it to me for my thirtieth birthday. I’ve also got a Regal Angel which is also difficult to keep, and I also love Wrasse. They’re particularly interesting because they actually sleep under the sand. When the lights start dimming down they literally just shove their heads into the sand and then flip themselves underneath it to hide. Every so often you’ll walk past at night and they won’t have hid themselves so well! I have Yellow Tangs that go around eating the algae off the rocks, and crabs and snails that also keep the tank clean. My conches and starfish keep the sand bed turned over, so it’s partly self-maintaining if you get the balance of the sea creatures right. Still, I wouldn’t call it a peaceful pastime. It’s calming after being at dCS all day but I always end up working on it…”
Every man needs a hobby, but Dan has more than one – and there’s a pattern here as he takes them all really seriously. “Yes, you can tell I am quite OCD about everything. I love music so obviously I had to get a full four-box Vivaldi system”, he explains. “I was really lucky to be able to buy it, but it does sound fantastic. It’s not quite as good as what we’ve got in the dCS listening room, but it’s work in progress! I’ve managed to piece together things over the years. I’ve got Pass Labs amps and Audio Physic Tempo 2 speakers, which are pretty good. I’m fortunate with my job that I can borrow different bits and pieces from work, so I’m trying all kinds of exotic cables…”
Dan is one of the only people at dCS who owns the four-box Vivaldi, which betokens a certain seriousness in his nature. “I think most people have got Rossini Players, and some have Puccinis which they bought a while back. Actually I started off with one of these a good few years ago, and then I decided to upgrade the DAC, and it sort of escalated from there. You know, I thought I might as well go for it, if I am going to go for it. It just sounds incredible now.”
Dan “just kind of fell into” working for dCS, as he puts it. “I wanted to do something with my life. When I was about twenty years old, I wanted to get some skills because I wasn’t happy with my life. I had a friend who was working for the company and he said they were looking for someone, so I came for an interview and started when I was just twenty one as a trainee workshop technician, and I have been here for ten years now. Because it’s obviously an expensive product, everything has to be perfect. So I have been trained very well and have got a good eye for detail – which also helps with the fish tanks! I suppose I am pretty meticulous about everything, really. I like to think of every product we make as being mine. I want it to be as good as the one I’ve got at home – I don’t want to see anything that would upset me. I’d love to say that my one at home is put together extra specially, but they really are all the same. They have all got to be perfect, we won’t let anything go that isn’t.”
A keen guitarist, one of his favourite albums is Guns N’Roses Appetite For Destruction. “There’s some intense playing on that; everything on there is very difficult to play. It makes me feel a little bit sick that all the guys in the band were about seventeen when they wrote that. So, it’s crazy how good they are. That Slash had been playing guitar for maybe three or four years while it takes me months to learn one of their songs drives me crazy. I went to see them live last year when they played in London, and it was pretty spectacular. Best gig I have ever been to.”
“I tend to take everything that I do very seriously. For example, I’m really into fitness too. I started that off because I used to be overweight when I was in my late teens. I began to research a lot about nutrition, and started going to a gym. I’ve done lots of research and nowadays I actually weigh all my food – I record everything that I’m eating, and record my training. If it is something I am passionate about, then I go all out!”
Hi-fi has never had it so good. In 2018 we live in a multimedia, multi-format world with Compact Disc, SACD, low, medium and hi-res streaming and downloads, DVD and Blu-ray. It’s now possible to access staggeringly high quality recorded music. Yet still there’s a sense that the future is constantly being made and remade, with nothing having quite fallen into place. We shouldn’t be surprised however, because when you go back through the history of recorded music – the only thing that is constant is change itself. There has never been a time when things were not in a state of flux.
Right from the off, the quest to get music to the masses has been a Darwinian struggle, where only the fittest formats survive. 1877 was hi-fi’s year zero, when intrepid patent collector Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. This was little more than a cylindrical drum covered in tinfoil, with a stylus tracking across. The first recorded words, “Mary had a little lamb”, would make him America’s greatest inventor of his day. Soon though, a Scot by the name of Alexander Graham Bell was refining his wax cylinder system, which was a more practical way of recording and playing back sound than Edison’s. At the same time, German-born Emil Berliner was hard at work developing a way of avoiding Edison’s patent on cylinders. The gramophone was developed between 1887 and 1893, with the stylus moving across the recording medium, and a disc being used instead of a cylinder.
The turn of the twentieth century was an even more exciting time for recorded music than one hundred years later. Developments in the mastering process meant that by 1901 the system was commercially viable, and soon performances by Caruso, Melba and Patti were on sale, on ten and then twelve inch discs. Electrical recording via the Westrex system made for better sound, and by the end of World War II 78RPM discs were actually quite decent sounding things. It’s fascinating to note that just like LP, Compact Cassette and Compact Disc that later followed, this new music carrier took a good twenty or so years to settle down.
The Long Playing microgroove record was introduced by Columbia in 1948, and offered significantly improved sound, playing time and longevity. It had the same profound effect that CD would thirty five years later – causing an explosion in the popularity of recorded music. The world soon entered a golden age, with practically every household in the West having access to it in some form. Ten years later, stereo LPs arrived and the hi-fi industry as we know it today really began to take off. Pop music became a cultural phenomenon in a way that simply could not have happened without the wide availability of cheap vinyl records.
Compact Disc saw the coming together of Sony and Philips, to bring the next great leap forward. It built on the achievements of LP to a higher level, being more robust and generally better sounding, with over an hour’s playing time on a single disc. From its birth in 1982 however, the race was on to do better. Fifteen or so years later, the format’s co-creators gave us Super Audio Compact Disc; this was a major sonic improvement, backwards compatible and offered multichannel sound too. Had DVD-Audio – a more versatile DVD-based system – not arrived at the same time, we might all be playing SACDs now. The requirement for music retailers to stock three types of disc, two of which were initially pretty obscure, effectively put an end to both new hi-res formats in all world markets except Japan.
The dCS Elgar DAC was arguably the first format-neutral consumer digital front end. No longer did audiophiles need to buy a digital music source that was tied to one particular technology. Its unique FPGA design meant that it could be programmed to work with practically any music codec from standard CD-quality to high resolution PCM and DSD – radical thinking back in 1996. Every time an interesting new format arrived, new firmware was installed to let Elgar play it. This architecture still underpins today’s dCS DACs, which are now being updated to play the new MQA format.
This offers a combination of high resolution sound alongside compact file sizes – and a carefully authenticated transmission path so any MQA file is guaranteed to be delivered in the way that the original recording engineer intended. That’s the beauty of the dCS approach. No longer do people have to junk their equipment when new ways of storing or carrying music come along – our customers get to decide for themselves if they like it. As the history of recorded music teaches us, ultimately the market decides.
dCS products are purchased by music lovers, audio aficionados and people simply wanting the best that money can buy. All three types of buyer go through a process of selection that leads them to arrive at the same conclusion; they may apply slightly different criteria, but all end up being proud dCS owners. Any dCS owner knows that they are not inexpensive; even the Network Bridge or Debussy DAC costs more than most would ever contemplate spending on hi-fi. So to get to the point of considering such a purchase requires prospective purchasers to have been on a journey of sorts. Given that you won’t see a Vivaldi four-box stack system in your local electrical discount shop front window, the marque needs a degree of seeking out. The premium price and limited availability of dCS products means – in effect – that people who discover the brand are actively seeking something very special.
Often customers ‘find’ dCS by personal recommendation; friends enthuse about their new purchase to others. Others discover the brand by visiting a high end hi-fi dealer, or by attending live events or hi-fi shows. Some read about dCS in magazines or periodicals, and/or arrive at the dCS website and want to know more. In all cases, at this point anyone who’s even curious about this enigmatic brand, needs to know why dCS products are different, and what it is that justifies the price.
Listening is the only true litmus test. It’s hard to explain in words just what the feeling of hearing right into a recording is like – the eerie sense of being there at the studio desk as the final multi-track is mixed down to stereo. Many people have the confidence to trust their ears; reading hi-fi magazine reviews is a good way to get people to listen to dCS equipment, but ultimately it isn’t other people’s opinions that count, but your own…
That’s not to say that technical performance isn’t key. People often talk about things in terms of, ‘which is more important – measurements or listening?’ To dCS, this is a false opposition. The company ethos is that technical correctness is essential; there’s no getting around the fact that if a product scores poorly in terms of distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, stereo separation and so on, then it simply cannot deliver the musical goods. Yet that’s just the start; dCS products are carefully – and repeatedly – auditioned during the development process. The senior design engineers know how technical measurements correlate to subjective sound quality; there’s a very complex relationship there and it requires great skill and experience to get the balance right.
Understandably, there’s a lot of confusion over this. Many hi-fi magazines don’t measure products they review, arguing that technical measurements are at best partial and don’t tell the whole story. Others might agree with the latter part of that statement, but still do and often find measurements instructive in understanding how a product performs. Historically, fashion has veered from one extreme to the other over the years. Five or so decades ago – long before dCS started – British hi-fi magazines were totally preoccupied with measurements. It was possible to read reviews where four fifths of the text discussed the product’s relative merits in terms of signal-to-noise ratio or stereo separation, with just a perfunctory summary of the subjective sound quality at the end.
By the late nineteen eighties however, the UK hi-fi press tended to do long essays about the subjective sound of products, with many omitting technical specifications completely. It was as if there was a backlash against how those earlier reviews had been written, with some people actively deriding anyone who took measured performance seriously. It was fashionable to draw attention to hi-fi products that measured well but sounded bad. Compact Disc itself was used as an example of something that had startling technical performance for its time, yet could often sound very mediocre indeed.
The starting point for dCS products is technical performance. Be it in the digital or analogue circuitry, distortion, noise and other characteristics are carefully analysed on the company’s state-of-the-art test equipment so problems can be designed out wherever possible. The sound is then fine tuned by a combination of listening and measurement; this ensures that improvements are not ‘happy accidents’; every change is repeatable and demonstrable to the development team. After the design phase, dCS products have to be made the same every time, so rigorous testing is essential here too. A highly sophisticated, custom-made, automated test facility is used to ensure that each individual product comes out right. Done this way, prospective purchasers can both hear the difference and be reassured that they will own something with exemplary technical performance that delivers consistently high performance for decades to come.
“Back in the early nineteen seventies,” says Chris Hales, “electronics was very much the future – and that proved to be strangely prophetic. It was really exciting, because back then not so many people were taking an interest in the subject. When I was a teenager I used to tinker about at home and was also an aspiring musician at the time. I loved playing with effects units, making strange noises. I went to the grammar school in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where I was born, and did fairly well in science and mathematics, though not as well as the school’s most famous pupil, Isaac Newton, who was a couple of years above me…”
Speak to Chris about music and he radiates energy. “I loved progressive rock at that time. Pink Floyd was one of the first bands that I really started listening to, and then Genesis and their contemporaries. Then I began to develop an interest in jazz fusion – being a bass guitar player it was very interesting what was going on. My hero is Jeff Berlin, an American electric bass player who is just phenomenal. He played with Bill Bruford – a founder member of Yes, who was a great, very musical, drummer. He released a few albums out on his own. To my ears, even now, that is the pinnacle of sophisticated fusion music.”
Chris suddenly gets very animated. “My favourite album of his is Feels Good To Me, which has got pretty some weird stuff on it. It has Annette Peacock on vocals, Dave Stewart on keyboards and synths, the great Allan Holdsworth on guitar and Kenny Wheeler on the flugelhorn. It’s a bit odd in places but unlike a lot of fusion music it never disappears up its own… It always seems to have a kind of structure to it and a purpose beyond clever soloing. That really got me at the time. I ended up listening to a lot of jazz for quite a few years after…”
He’s also a fan of Brand X, which was his first foray into this genre of music. “Their bass player Percy Jones was one of the first guys to play fretless. For someone who is learning an instrument and trying to make an impression, you tend to gravitate towards those people. In actual fact, I went to see Brand X on tour but it was Bill Bruford’s band, who were supporting, that really won me over. His band had much more focus and – in a way – a pop sensibility. All their songs had tune and structure, a start, middle and an end. That music was so innovative to my ears back then, and it didn’t suffer the somewhat aimless noodling Brand X’s tunes sometimes suffered from”
When Chris wasn’t playing fretless bass guitar, he managed to work hard enough to win a place at York University reading Electronic Engineering. “I studied drinking” he confesses, “and proved myself to be pretty good at it! I did also learn some electronics, but in a way a university education is as much about learning how to approach problems – particularly in an engineering subject. I learned some techniques that I still use today, but equally the attitude of not being daunted by a problem and just figuring out what is going on and sorting it, was the real thing I took from it. Even though I spent too much time in the pub and not enough hours in the lecture theatre, it was still hugely beneficial for me.”
His first proper job was HH Electronics, a large musical instrument amplification manufacturer. “I joined them as a junior design engineer and this lasted nine months, then moved to another company designing power amps and PA systems. I was learning on the job and it was very interesting. Then I went to Neve as an analogue designer, and this was one of the best companies I have ever worked for – they do excellent engineering and it’s very professional. Getting things right is important to me, so that suited me well. I did quite a lot of work on their big recording console at the time. I suppose that was my first exposure to proper, disciplined engineering. Until then I’d made it up as I went along when I was calling the shots, but here was a company with structure and procedures, and it was great to work in an environment like that. Interestingly, several dCS staff are ex-Neve…”
Chris then moved to C Audio, doing big power amplifiers for sound reinforcement. “They had a strong client base in the UK with touring companies – I think U2’s Adam Clayton used our power amps”, he recalls. “After that, I joined dCS as a Test and Verification Engineer. My job was to get things running smoothly; I spent an awful lot of time in my early years testing software, thinking up systems and regimes for testing both hardware and software. This was my first exposure to digital audio so I had no idea about S/PDIFs or similar, so it proved quite a challenge at first! I loved working with some of the great brains of the industry, such as dCS founder Mike Story – he’s a tremendously talented guy, and it was a privilege to work with him. Mike has a highly idiosyncratic approach to things, and his single-mindedness when it comes to observing an issue and doggedly fixing it, is quite inspirational.”
“These days, my primary role at dCS is circuit design, and that includes digital. Because my background has been so varied and multi-disciplinary, I have an interest in everything – still very much with the focus on the test and measurement side. Being able to manufacture something consistently is very important, as is the ability to understand exactly why you’re making it the same every time! Sometimes I think my job needs someone who is just a little bit ‘OCD’ about these things. As an engineer I intuitively know when something is wrong – and thanks to years of embarrassments in my earlier professional life, now realise how important it is to put it right as soon as one can.”
Ray Wing, dCS Quality Manager
“Around one hundred and fifty years ago, I went to Hitchin Grammar School for Boys”, jokes Ray Wing. “I’m a local to this area, born in Royston. I’ve stayed in this area all my life, even with work. I couldn’t leave school soon enough and didn’t go to university. I probably should have done, but I wanted to be a musician as soon as I was old enough to pick up a musical instrument. I travelled around the country in a band for a couple of years, and then finally got a proper job.”
Ray is a dCS stalwart; he’s been at the company longer than most, and has seen it change dramatically over the years. Yet all throughout his life he has had an abiding interest in music, hi-fi and engineering. “I became a fully qualified vibration engineer. My first job had been shaking things until they self-destruct, and so it was good training for working at Neve Electronics, just down the road! They do audio mixers for high end studios and recording studios. I worked for everyone from the BBC to The Kinks, back in the day, designing mixing desks for them.”
It was a great job, but after a decade Ray moved on and ended up working for PA Technology. “They are one of the big consulting groups and they have all the different engineering disciplines in the same building. There are chemists in there, food technologists, mechanical engineers, electronic engineers, software engineers. I ran the electronics design office there for ten years. You could be working on a food mixer one day and a machine for making Mars Bars the next! It was one of those really interesting jobs in which I gained loads of experience. I worked on one of the first ever mobile phones; the team were the best guys in England working on radio technology…”
Ray’s next step was into mainstream hi-fi with Quad/Wharfedale. “I was head of development there for four years, with a team of thirty engineers. When they moved to China, I moved to dCS! All this time, I had been continuing my attempts to become a musician. In a way I succeeded because I am half-decent. I come from a musical family, especially my father who was a drummer in the Army and travelled all over the world. Early on I travelled around Britain supporting big acts like The Searchers, The Kinks and Status Quo – we supported them when they were at Number One in 1967. We were a three – or sometimes four – piece heavy rock band, loud and nasty. We were influenced by the rougher edge of rock, like The Stones and Led Zeppelin…”
Like his idols, Ray still plays today. “We are all of the age now where we’re in the midst of retiring or winding down, and our guitar player is seventy in February so we’re planning a gig. He wants to have a big party and we’re going to play at it. I’ve still got the enthusiasm to turn out on a cold night and actually play. We’ll be doing more middle of the road stuff, like The Eagles. We have three singers so there are a lot of vocal harmony type numbers we do, but I still sometimes play in a nasty rock band.”
Mostly Ray plays bass, but can play pretty much anything if pushed. “I’m fairly presentable on most instruments but love playing bass because you’re the powerhouse of the band, along with the drummer. I like that sort of responsibility. We make the band happen, and the singer and lead guitarist are basically posers! To be honest I love guitars, and have a large collection now – that’s what I spend the money that we make from gigging on. I buy a guitar every so often, and I have now have a nice collection of various Gibsons and Fenders and other things, about twenty in all…”
“My favourite guitar is the one I haven’t got! I want a red Gibson 335 before I finally hang up the boots. To get a nice one it’s about £2,500 to £3,000. This was the thing to play back in the sixties and seventies, most people have had one. Clapton always used to play a 335 and now he plays a Stratocaster. You either play a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Strat, a Fender Telecaster or a Gibson 335. They are the four guitars which people will have one or all of. The 335 is a semi acoustic, rather than a solid guitar. Originally it was designed more to be a Jazz guitar, which it is very good at, and Blues. The difference between a Gibson and a Fender is that Fenders have single coil pickups which give a piercing treble, while Gibsons have humbuckers which have a warmer and more growly sound.”
“I have a really nice Telecaster, a really old one that goes back to the eighties. Both the sound and feel are special. You can go along to a shop and go along a whole rack of guitars hanging on the wall, and one of them will feel better than all the rest. It is a personal thing really. I think any instrument is a bit like that, when you pick it up and it feels right somehow. Pick another one up and it is not. You know when you’ve got the right one. Some old guitars are just right, others terrible. I think it’s the variability of manufacturing back then. Modern manufacturing has taken out a lot of the wrinkles, and they’re more consistent. Some materials have changed though; they are not allowed to use some of those woods anymore. Gibson used to use mahogany from Brazil, but basically they’re still the same as the nineteen fifties…”
Although Ray likes everything from the Bee Gees to Billy Joel – and ELO’s Mr Blue Sky is a particular favourite too – it is Led Zep that sends shivers down his spine. “That is my era. That is when I grew up and the music I played and the sort of bands I saw as I was touring around. It is a lot of memories, really. I have had a huge amount of fun, in music and my professional life. Music has kept me sane for most of my life really – well, fairly…”
People’s understanding of technology comes retrospectively, with hindsight. For example, do you remember how fresh Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) felt, twenty or so years ago? Able to store several times the amount of data of conventional Compact Discs, early adopters of consumer technology were awe-struck. Now though, we donate DVDs to charity shops because they’re taking up too much storage space in our attics – and stream our movies and music direct, or at the very least experience them on old-fashioned Blu-Ray…
It’s sobering to think how DVD has gone from hero to zero in the past decade or so. Once the future not just of vision but also of sound, so many respectable industry watchers predicted that two-channel systems would be replaced with multichannel surround sound within just a few years. Yet by the end of the last decade the little silver disc was losing its lustre, as the shine wore off its high tech appeal. History now teaches us that it largely failed to impact the hi-fi world, which if anything has gone back to purist stereo systems, especially at the high end.
Because we are always right in the middle of technological change, it’s often hard to see the wood for the trees. Two decades ago DVD was all the range, whereas ten years ago music downloads were the thing that would transform our world. Now, it is streaming that we’re preoccupied with, but could it be that this too is something of a sideshow, and that the real driving force behind the next generation of video and music playback will be artificial intelligence via smart control?
The big technology players seem to think so, which is why many are now devoting considerable resources to new types of voice and screen-activated consumer tech. Amazon’s Alexa is now migrating from smart speakers to touchscreens, and doing to smartphones what they did to personal computers ten years ago. iPhone and Android have revolutionised information technology, but still have their limitations. It feels like you can’t make a phone call on smartphones without being assailed by social media apps trying to grab your attention. Nowadays there’s increasing evidence that many want to break free from such distractions; according to ComScore in the USA, more people are now deliberately not downloading apps than are downloading them.
We are seeing an increasing focus on smart, internet-connected devices that make direct communication with people via brief, purposeful interactions. An Amazon spokesman recently said that the company is, “trying to get people away from all the personal electronics and create more of a communal experience, so you’re not just looking down into your individual phones, and instead are actually collaborating with family members.” Amazon’s Echo speaker has proved a smash hit, and now Apple is muscling in on the action with the launch of its new Siri-based HomePod smart speaker, which some say will take music streaming to a whole new level.
Interestingly, while Amazon’s Echo is a kind of home assistant that happens to play music, Apple has chosen to position HomePod as a music device that can help out around the house. Its marketing in the US has focused on music, showing how a massive virtual library of tunes is just one voice command away. It’s a lot more expensive than Amazon’s Echo, but Apple has made an earnest attempt to make it sound good – for an audio product of its type, of course. The interesting thing is that Apple obviously thinks there’s a large, quality-aware, music loving market out there for it.
As is invariably the case for Apple products, it’s very easy to set up and soon gives you simple and direct access to Apple Music. Meanwhile Amazon is trying to make things even easier with Echo Show, which sports a small touchscreen in addition to its voice control via Alexa. The hope is that users will be able to accomplish many of the things they use a smartphone for right now (weather reports, checking the stockmarket, looking up travel information, etc.), without needing to reach for it.
Where does this leave us here in the hi-fi world? Well it’s too soon to say, but it is clear that innovators are now looking at a new generation of smart control devices designed to take the strain off your smartphone, and which offer a newer, fresher and more intuitive control interface. The obvious question is, when is all this going to reach specialist audio? Smartphone apps are now becoming common but we might soon begin to see other, more intuitive ways of interacting with our sound systems. In truth, it’s early days yet and not even the leading tech giants have figured out a roadmap – yet it’s something that’s going to become increasingly important to us all. As DVD showed us, what a difference a decade makes!
Ever wondered what type of people it takes to create a world-class product like dCS? In this new series we will be introducing our exceedingly talented team.
Our first introduction will definitely not disappoint if you are a dCS and Star Wars fan!
There aren’t many people in the hi-fi industry who started their careers as a trawler fisherman, but Colin Barker is one. “Believe or not, it’s true”, he says. “I left school from Kings Lynn in Norfolk, and that was the local trade. Although it wasn’t my dream job; as I child I was always passionate about model making. I always dreamed about designing creatures, working in the movies. Unfortunately in the nineteen eighties, career advice wasn’t very good so I followed some friends into fishing and chose that path. I did it for a few years but it collapsed, so I decided to dip my toes in electronics…”
Colin found himself doing all sorts of work in this field, and then got a call from an agent he was working for. A company called dCS was looking for someone. “I loved it. The company was great, the people were fantastic, the products were a pinnacle even then. It was like building Ferraris and Rolls Royces – really prestigious stuff! Being diligent and organised I have slowly made my way up from being effectively an assembler to now being Production Manager. It has been a case of sticking to the top and trying to be the best I can be, and being recognised by the company and being promoted as I have gone along.”
“Nowadays,” he continues, “my role entails keeping products flowing through the factory, keeping the team motivated and making sure we are getting what we should be getting out of the door. I’m also responsible for much of the inbound quality so am directly responsible for a lot of the suppliers – especially, currently, the special finishes, the nickels and golds that we are putting on Vivaldi One. I get to scrutinise a lot of these finishes out in the field with the suppliers and also when they arrive back at the factory. If they fail to meet our standard then they get rejected out and we put them through a rework loop. The results have to be one hundred percent perfect so it’s pretty hard work! Quality is absolutely key as far as we are concerned. We would never willingly or knowingly let something substandard leave the factory. That is unforgivable as far as we are concerned.”
Colin leads something of a double life, however. As well as being known for the quality of his work during office hours, he’s famous for the things he does out of hours too. “I love miniaturisation. I love small things. I have always enjoyed making my own – for want of a better word – toys. It gives me something to pour my creativity into. We all love our job, but sometimes it can be hard work and there is a lot of pressure there. So when I get home I switch on some music and depressurise, and then I feel the need to make something! I have made all sorts but a few years ago I decided to build an actual Star Wars R2D2 scale model from scratch. It took me about nine months to build the first one, and it got a great reception. I used to take it to conventions, hospitals, and so on for charity use.”
Colin took his R2D2 to a large Star Wars convention run by Lucasfilm, designed to promote the film franchise. “In a rather tongue-in-cheek way, our builders’ club approached a company representative, none other than Kathleen Kennedy, and offered to build some new R2s for the next Star Wars movie. To our total surprise we ended up doing this for The Force Awakens. In Spring 2015 I found myself signing a non-disclosure agreement, and they invited me to Pinewood Studios. I took my droids down and they absolutely loved them!”
Colin says it was very emotional because he met people there who – as a child – he had looked up to. “They were telling me how great they thought my builds were, and I was blown away. I was so humbled by that.” He spent the next couple of months doing various scenes and shots for the forthcoming film. “It was a completion of the full circle of my dream”, he says. “I dreamt as a boy, of wanting to work in creature effects and there I was. I spent a little bit of time working in the creature effects department of Star Wars, The Force Awakens!”
“Fast forward twelve months and I got another call to go back, and this time it was to go and work on Rogue One. Again, I was very lucky that I had made a good impression and subsequently I keep getting calls now – but unfortunately work is busy and my priority is always dCS. That is where I am really needed. But when it is calmer and I think I can sneak away for a few days then, well you never know! Maybe in the future I’ll go and help another movie, that would be great…”
So anyone who owns a dCS product will have had its final quality control and checking done by the same person who builds robots for Star Wars? “Yes, that’s right. I love building things and have always loved these films. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘superfan’ but I am a huge fan of modelling and electronics and like to push my limits. I love asking myself, from literally where do I start building one of these things? I go and do some research, and then get on the path never knowing if I’m going to have the skills to pull it off. You end up learning entirely new skill sets as you go along. I’ve learned about plastics, painting techniques and how to ‘age’ things to make them look like they’re really old and dirty – not something I will ever need at dCS, I hope!”
Colin does take his androids into the office every now and again. “I have actually got three of these things at home now. I did take one into work when we had the launch for Vivaldi One. Every now and again I bring things in to show the guys what I am up to, and it just so happened that a load of international distributors had turned up on one such day. They were absolutely blown away that a real, actual R2D2 was rolling around the factory before their very eyes!”
Going for Gold – Part 1
In the first of a four-part feature on the gold-plated dCS Vivaldi One, we meet FH Lambert, specialist electroplater…
“We have done a few components for other hi-fi companies, but out of all of them this is surely the most demanding – probably the most demanding that we have ever done.” So says Jamie Lambert, managing director of FH Lambert Ltd., one of the UK’s most esteemed metal plating specialists. He’s referring of course to the striking gold finish option on the new dCS Vivaldi One – the limited edition flagship one-box dCS digital disc player, streamer and DAC. Designed to celebrate the company’s illustrious thirty year history – it had to be extra special, and gold is just that. “It’s because of the large surface area that we have to plate – it’s extremely difficult to ensure we get it to a very high standard…”
Jamie recounts the first contact with dCS: “To be honest with you, I can’t even remember how they got our name, how they first found out about us. But they came over and inspected our facilities; a few guys from dCS including designer Ray Wing. And so we went through the fundamentals of how we do parts – how we jig, how we measure, surface areas, everything – and I think it ticked all the boxes on their part. It was almost like we were reassuring them that we approach this accurately. I kept saying that it’s all very well but at the end of the day I can sit here and sell the company and do whatever, but the proof is in the pudding. So we did the first one, and they couldn’t believe how good it came out. They thought that they were going to have problems with the plating, but they didn’t.”
FH Lambert is a family-run business, second generation now, based in Watford. “Basically, the company started in 1963, primarily to design and manufacture watches and jewellery”, explains Jamie. “My father Frank Henry Lambert’s initials gave the company its name. Then, around 1986 the company took the decision to diversify solely into the electroplating market. The reason for that was the market dropped for watch and jewellery manufacturing in the UK and Europe because the Far East became very cheap to manufacture things, especially China. Obviously everything got moved over there, but we still kept the electroplating side of the business. We only had very, very small plating tanks to plate watches. That’s how it started, but then we ventured into the aerospace sector…”
This was a turning point for the company. “We began to get calls from very high end clients, wanting us to start plating private aircraft. I took over from my father fifteen years ago; at that time we had around six people, but we’ve now grown to thirty-one. Demand for decorative precious metal plating has soared, and we now do metal plating, finishing and surface coating. Metal plating obviously consists of dCS-style gold, along with silver plating, chrome plating, nickel plating, copper plating. Metal finishing includes polishing to get to a mirror finish, and then we offer surface coating on top of our metal plating where we clearcoat as well, in different varieties of lacquer. It is mainly small-to-medium volume, we don’t do high levels of production because we have exclusive clients such as dCS.”
Jamie cannot mention many of his other clients due to non-disclosure agreements, but suffice to say it is mainly for airlines, and tends to be the super first-class suites of the world’s top airlines, and also for royal families. “We also do quite a bit with the super-yacht marine industry as well. It is quality over quantity,” he says. “That’s it in a nutshell. A lot of people can do plating, but we work for a very, very demanding clientele – and dCS is a perfect example!”
Going for Gold – Part 2
In the second of a four-part feature on the gold-plated dCS Vivaldi One, we look at how it receives its immaculate finish…
FH Lambert is the specialist electroplating company that does the sublime gold finish on the limited edition Vivaldi One. dCS chose them for the quality of the company’s work, which is done in low volumes and to aerospace standards. Managing Director Jamie Lambert explains that, “we are basically an aerospace company, what you would call an AS1900 company. That itself is a quality management system or framework built around the aerospace sector. In terms of our aesthetic, visual inspections, it is set at every process, every process step. It’s not a case of completing the work and then finding there’s an issue with it – the way we do it, every step of the way there is an intermediate inspection that it has to pass.”
Like cooking, it’s all in the preparation, says Jamie. “You have got to make sure that is all right and that isn’t easy, and it is a very skilled job. It’s something that we do and we train people here to do. You’ve got to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – and fortunately many people who work here do! It’s about understanding that quality makes our business. We are a tier two business; there are manufacturers like dCS and wider supply chains that sit above us. You could say, as a plating plant, ours is one of the cleanest you’d ever come across. We want to set a professional image about ourselves because we do get audited regularly by our customers. We get this all the time…”
When a dCS Vivaldi One part arrives at FH Lambert, it comes in a specially designed box which is padded to protect the component. “Then, they’re all unwrapped and accounted for”, says Jamie. “We book them all in on our system and everything is fully traceable. The part is not just received and plated, we have to build it as specified. The steps and sequence are all on the actual job card. We engrave a unique identification number on to the part, the reason for this being traceability. This is a huge thing in aerospace. Every step of the way we can always find where it is on the shop floor. Even if it goes back to the customer and, let’s say something happens later on, we can ask the customer to read back the identification number on the part (obviously we engrave it in an inconspicuous area which is not seen by the customer) and can pull out from our system when it was done, who it was done by, where did it go in the process. Effectively this means we can rebuild this part at a later date, in the exact same way as we did before.”
After this, the part is linished. “This basically when it is sanded, and the reason for this is to remove any machine tramlines or marks. Then it is polished on a spindle mop to a very high mirror finish. Once it passes inspection it is now jigged, then you clean the part and go through various etchers and cleaners. Then it is nickel plated – the nickel having been laid down on the surface it is then copper plated. The reason for this is copper is a very soft metal which you can polish very easily. Then it’s nickelled again and finally gold plated. Obviously, between these layers there is an inspection. Once it is gold plated it’s got to go through a final inspection and then it is wrapped in a special material that we use here which prevents scratching. Then they are inserted back into their boxes and returned to the customer – in this case dCS. So the Vivaldi One isn’t just dipped in gold, if you know what I mean!”
Going for Gold – Part 3
In the third of a four-part feature on the gold-plated dCS Vivaldi One, we look how a perfect finish is obtained.
There is more to getting an immaculate gold finish that just dipping something in gold, says Jamie Lambert, managing director of FH Lambert Ltd. – one of the UK’s most esteemed metal plating specialists. “What ultimately counts is the nickel”, he explains. “Take for example, a beautifully chrome plated car bumper. Most people think that lovely finish that you get is produced by the chrome, but it isn’t. What gives you that mirror-like, highly reflective finish is actually the nickel. Nickel is the key element in most decorative finishing. Chrome is simply put on top of the nickel to seal it, because nickel tarnishes over time, it goes yellow. Think of an American quarter, the coin. Over time they start to yellow off. So, chrome is applied on top to keep it from tarnishing. In the case of the gold-plated parts for the dCS Vivaldi One, we are putting gold on instead, to get a beautiful colour.”
Each dCS part is polished, etched, cleaned and then nickel plated. Then it gets copper plating before the final nickel layer for a deep mirror shine, and then gold. The reason for the copper before this, says Jamie, is to seal the aluminium. The gold at the end seals the nickel, protecting it with the atmosphere. “Gold is perfect for this,” he adds, “because it’s one of the most unreactive elements around. It really is very, very good. It isn’t just used for decorative applications – because it’s a very good conductor of electricity, and a good heat reflector as well. NASA use it on a lot of their satellites for insulation and various spacecraft because it reflects heat very well, it reflects light very well. It is a very good element in so many ways. These characteristics are why it has such allure for so many people, I think…”
Silver tarnishes with the sulphur in the atmosphere, of course, as does copper. Nickel doesn’t tarnish as much but does “yellow off”. Chrome and gold are the best for longevity. “There is a kind of natural selection in materials,” he says. “Automotive loves chrome and jewellery sees gold as one of the great materials – surely because it is beauty and longevity, which is a rare combination.”
The lucky owner of a gold-plated dCS Vivaldi One will not need to clean his or her machine. Gold, done to the standard that FH Lambert delivers, only needs very light dusting – not polishing. “Ultimately, the only problem with gold is that it scratches quite easily, so handling is paramount. dCS includes soft cotton gloves with each piece, so it should be installed wearing these. After that, it only needs the occasional wipe with a microfibre suede cloth to lightly dust the surface down. Microfibre suede is better than the standard non-suede variety because there is no pattern in the manufacturing process. Sometimes, under pressure, these patterns can scratch any material – it doesn’t have to be gold. Suede however, because it doesn’t have a pattern to it, is very silky and practically slides over the surface. Every type of cleaning cloth abrades ever so slightly, but suede micro fibre abrades in a random way and doesn’t leave swirls or marks like conventional cloths.”
Finally, says Jamie, “one of the most critical things is that you store the cleaning cloth away in its container – because if you put it down on any type of surface it can pick up what in aerospace jargon we call “FODS”, fine object debris. To you and me this is called “dirt”. Once that is impregnated or locked onto the cloth, when you then come to wipe the part, you are then pushing that debris against the surface. So, handle with care!
Going for Gold – Part 4
In the last of our four-part feature on the gold-plated dCS Vivaldi One, we look at aftercare and quality.
Those fortunate enough to invest in a gold-plated, thirtieth anniversary Vivaldi One have the ultimate dCS product in the most unique and bespoke finish. It does need just a little more care and maintenance than the standard version, says Jamie Lambert, managing director of FH Lambert Ltd. Gold is a beautiful finish, and as a metal is ultra stable so doesn’t tarnish with the atmosphere. However, because it is relatively soft one does need to take care handling it. As we have heard, Jamie recommends moving the product wearing soft cotton gloves, and dusting it infrequently with a suede microfibre cloth. This done, no more attention is needed – but if the worst happens and the machine gets damaged, there is no need to panic…
“If the owner of the Vivaldi One damages a panel, then dCS will be able to order a like-for-like replacement from us, done in exactly the same shade of gold in exactly the same way”, says Jamie. “When I say exactly, I mean exactly. Every process is logged and repeatable. For example, we’ve riveted a plate one year and riveted another one a year later, and the colour is guaranteed and the process guaranteed. We can do this because it’s built into our system – we guarantee the colour and consistency because we use photo spectrometry here. We have machines which measure the lightness and darkness and the colour. This is serious stuff – even many of our suppliers from whom we source the solutions and the metals cannot believe that we take such trouble.”
Jamie says he feels the same way about dCS. “Fantastic! They were kind enough to show me around their facility. What blew me away was just their culture, the passion that they all had, their staff had. It is very similar to my staff I have here. There’s great passion, positivity and drive – they all really believe in what they are doing, like it is part of them. What really did it for me was right at the end, they took me in to their demonstration room. They had asked me to bring some music, and we plugged it in and I just sat there on the sofa whilst they played it, and it is phenomenal. I really enjoy my music – I play piano and I love it.”
“The great thing about our involvement with dCS is that everyday we do products that I or my staff never get to appreciate”, he adds. “When they’re all put together, we never get to appreciate them in the field, so to speak. Yet here we’ve been able to see the end product complete, as a working entity – and the gold Vivaldi One is a thing of beauty. It is nice to see that, and it is very much appreciated. What I am going to be doing soon, when I’ve got some time, is to bring some of my staff who work on the parts up to dCS, so they can get a sense of where their work is ending up. It will be great fun for us all and makes everyone feel special – and rightly so.”
Jamie says the desire for special finishes is growing ever stronger. “These days, because we live in such a commercial society where everything is mass produced, I think people like these special one-off type objects. Also, the story behind it, of how it gets to where it is, is actually really important. In our business with the ultra-luxury end of commercial aviation, that’s what people love.” To that, he can add another object of beauty – surely the finest single-box digital music source yet made – the limited edition dCS Vivaldi One.
In 2017, the United Kingdom’s music business had its best year for a very long time. 1998 was the last occasion that sales rose as fast, according to the latest research published by the British Phonographic Institute (BPI). Back then, when the charts were full of Britpop bands like The Verve and Massive Attack, a sense of confidence abounded. The country was going through its ‘Cool Britannia’ phase, where the likes of Blur, Oasis, Portishead, Goldie and The Spice Girls were shining beacons of the nation’s creative success. Noel Gallagher was taking tea with Prime Minister Tony Blair in Downing Street, and the Mercury Music Awards was the place to be. Gomez had just won, showing the strength and quality of new home grown talent.
Sometimes you can be too close to something, to see the big picture. Last year, the UK music industry posted a staggering 9.5% increase in sales over the same period in 2016. This musical tidal wave was driven by streaming – which increased by a massive 51.5% last year to over 68 million albums. This was more than enough to offset the falling sales of something that a decade ago was seen as the future of music – digital downloads – which tumbled 23.4%. Compact Discs also dropped by 12%; this is a lot but the format still isn’t falling off a cliff, as some had predicted. Indeed, you might argue that rumours of CD’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
2017’s soaring amount of streamed music meant that – thanks to the likes of Spotify and Apple Music – British music fans bought the equivalent of over 135 million albums across all formats. This works out in value terms to £1.2 billion, which is a rise of almost 10%. The total value of Britain’s entertainment market is now at an all-time high of £7.2 billion, and it’s the third year in a row that it has grown, after a decade of decline previously. It is clear that technology is finally catching up with the way that people want to consume music – quick and easy without being burdened by physical media, or something that they have to download and manage. Last year was the first time that over half of all albums purchased were streamed. Top titles included Ed Sheeran’s Divide, Rag’n’Bone Man’s Human, Sam Smith’s The Thrill Of It All and Little Mix’s Glory Days.
Barely had the dust settled on last year and Spotify declared it had reached a cool seventy million subscribers. Four months earlier, it had boasted sixty million. This puts the Swedish company well ahead of Apple Music, which in September 2017 told Billboard that it had over thirty million paying accounts. Spotify’s good news comes on the back of its announcement that the company is planning to list on the New York Stock Exchange. Valued at over £14 billion, it will be one of the biggest consumer tech companies to go public for a long time.
This good news points at the direction of travel for the global music industry, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear that things are very much still in state of flux. Despite all its subscribers, Spotify is still struggling to make money from its model; in 2016 it turned over £2.5 billion, but still lost £475 million, it is reported. The company says it has been investing heavily in product development and personnel, while cutting new deals with major music labels. Over at rival Apple Music, it is bringing far more revenue from a far smaller user base – and this is just a small proportion of Apple’s overall income. This means Apple is under less pressure to make money from streaming.
British music buying trends are all the more interesting because 2017 witnessed soaring vinyl LP sales, according to the BPI. They’re up by 27% to 4.1 million, which is of course just a small fraction of digitally streamed albums, yet it shows that there’s a still dedicated audience for physical formats. This echoes the slower than anticipated decline in Compact Disc. Vinyl sales are now the highest since 1991 when Nirvana’s Nevermind was released, which makes one reflect that – as veteran BBC motorsport commentator used to say of Formula One racing – “anything can happen, and it usually does…”
So, digital streaming is soaring but still not quite paying its keep, physical formats remain a substantial £2 billion business and the British music buyers are the hungriest they have been for music in a generation. That’s why all dCS digital players offer deep integration with popular streaming platforms, state-of-the-art silver disc replay and the best sounding electronics to play music of the past, present and future.