"All I had to bring was my laptop. That's pretty much what everyone had," says Rubio, who attended Emory University in Atlanta and now works for a local marketing and communications firm. "It was actually pretty good sound. It would get the job done."
"Get the job done"? That sounds like the white flag for an era that used to be measured in woofers and tweeters, watts per channel and the size of your record collection."
I doubt people took their record collections and watts per channel everywhere they went back in the so-called "golden age" of audio. Now you can plug in a Dragonfly DAC and connect a pair of quality headphones and get fantastic sound quality anywhere you can carry a laptop (which is everywhere). Your mobile choices in the past were much more limited. If you were lucky, you had a mobile cassette player that did not compare to the sound quality from this type of setup.
"What's happened in the marketplace, the midmarket for audio has completely been obliterated," he says. "You have this high-end market that's getting smaller all the time, and then you've got the convenience market, which has taken over -- the MP3s, the Bluetooth devices, playing on laptops."
I don't believe that these devices are a compromise as much as they are answering an issue related to portability. Also, most "mp3 players" now handle lossless formats. For the audiophile, this is a better option for portability than wheeling around your components, speakers, and record collection in a wheelbarrow.
Also, I don't believe the midmarket for audio has been destroyed. There are tons of DACs, amps, headphones, speakers, and receivers that aim at the midmarket. In fact, I believe audio quality is improving at lower prices with each passing year.
As an example, I have a $30 T-amp that produces decent sound with a pair of efficient speakers. You could not come close to the price (especially when you use present value formulas) for this sound quality in the past.
The plus side to receivers is that the tech in the high end market of yesterday is now available in the lower priced ( less than $1000 - not sure what is meant by midmarket) market today. I have an extremely cheap Sony receiver (I think it was around $200 when I bought it) in my office that has audio pass through (this is needed if you are using a separate DAC) and can play anything you throw at it. The same features a couple years ago would have been over $1000, easily. Actually, it has features not available in $5000 receivers from 5 years ago....like the ability to play HD audio formats via HDMI instead of having 6 component audio connectors.
"Greg Milner, the author of the audio recording history "Perfecting Sound Forever," remembers the process. There were components. There were boxes of tapes and CDs. There might even be some vinyl.
It could be a pain, no question. The equipment was heavy. There were all those wires, plugs and jacks -- Line In, Line Out, Aux, Phono, CD, keeping track of the positive and negative strands of speaker wire. It was an effort just to break down and set up the stuff, never mind moving it."
Exactly, these things weren't made for portability. CDs and vinyl are both still around and more people are buying vinyl than they have in years. However, CDs are often bought and then ripped to a computer in a lossless format for the convenience of playing anywhere.
"However, we also started focusing more on visuals. Penchansky traces the decline of the stereo system to the early '80s rise of the music video, which brought visuals to the fore. Suddenly, the concert hall in your living room -- or the audio imaging in your head -- was gone, replaced by surrealist pictures overwhelming the television's tiny speaker.
That branch of consumption has helped lead to the home theater.
Penchansky has nothing against HDTVs and 7.1 systems, but believes that, for the most part, it's a "sonic compromise." With a pure audio system, "There was no way that television, even today, simulates the realism of visual experience the way (good) audio can simulate an audio experience."
I agree that the video had a lot to do with the popularity of the home theater. However, I think it had less to do with MTV than Dolby's Pro Logic combined with the VHS tape. This allowed a more immersive experience for movie fans. When DVDs hit the scene, the typical 3 channel setup expanded into 5.1 for Dolby Digital and DTS. The flexibility of listening to a stereo soundtrack and a more movie theater like experience made people move the two channel setup out of their main living spaces. The addition of a subwoofer also added much more oomph to the low end of the audio spectrum, especially when compare to the typical bookshelf speakers many people were using.
Personally, I don't believe this has to be a trade off. I have a vintage two channel Marantz receiver and my Denon surround system blows it away for two channel music and obviously for movies. The Audyssey calibration software built into many receivers addresses acoustical issues with less than optimal rooms. To me, this was a significant step up in sound quality for all audio sources.
The author seems to think this is a sonic compromise, but I don't agree with that assessment. Listen to Dave Mathews and Tim Reynolds on Blu-ray in TrueHD audio and tell me that a video and audio experience combined don't measure up. The flexibility of a multichannel setup also allows the user to take advantage of DVD-Audio and multichannel SACDs. To me, a two channel only setup is more of a compromise. You can't even listen to the great RCA Living Stereo or Mercury LIving Presence SACDs with the third audio track (which is how they were originally recorded) with a two channel only setup.
"Now, why even bother?" he asks. "If you can take your entire music collection and more in something that fits in your pocket, why would you not do that?"
The upside to using audio files isn't just pocket portability (although that is a major factor). It is also about having your entire collection available from anywhere, including every room in your house or streaming it to your computer at work. In the past, if you wanted to listen to a CD in your bedroom, you may have had to go out to your car to get the CD before being able to play it. You may have it on a rack in the living room or in a CD player in another system. Now you can pull the music from a server (computer, NAS, hard drive) and play it without needing the physical CD. I have Airplay devices all over the house and it is great to be able to play a lossless version of any album I own from anywhere in the house or even stream the audio to every one of those units at the same time.
Finally, this may or may not be the so-called "golden age of audio", but I do believe it is the golden age for the music fan. Convenience leads to people listening to more music. Services like MOG and Spotify allow subscribers to listen to millions of songs or thousands of albums. Last night, I was watching Leno on the Tonight Show and he had Gregory Porter as the performer. I had never heard of Mr. Porter, but I enjoyed his soulful performance. This morning, I pulled up his new album on MOG (in a very acceptable 320kbps) and listened to it on my Denon 4311Ci setup. It was great! In the so-called golden age of audio, I probably would have never heard from him again. It was too expensive to spend money on a full album that I might not enjoy and I would have forgot all about by the time I made it to the record store.
When I was a kid, I remember going to library and checking out a couple of albums (I seem to remember a strict limit of a couple of albums at a time). If I wanted to dig deeper into the John Coltrane album collection, I was out of luck because they only had a copy of "Blue Train". With MOG, I can listen to every album (or at least most of them) in his collection. I can also just push a button to take me to similar artists if I want to continue to explore.
I do believe there is a disconnect between the music fan and the audiophile. Many music fans can listen to music on AM radio and enjoy it. It is about the music. The audiophile often listens to their equipment and concentrates on the inadequacies. I admittedly have more music fan in me than audiophile, but I have spent money on DACs, headphone amps, and other things to improve the sound over a standard set earbuds. Unfortunately, I think being an audiophile often leads to discontent and the inability to just relax and enjoy the music. This doesn't mean I don't strive for the best bang for the buck sound, but I don't continually chase sound quality when I am fully aware of the law of diminishing returns.
In short, I believe this is the golden age for music!