Serving the music - the future of home audio

By Adam Gifford

The way we consume music is changing rapidly. With CDs and CD players a thing of the past Adam Gifford looks into home audio’s future

Music servers allow you to control your music library from your tablet or smartphone. Photo / NZ Herald
Music servers allow you to control your music library from your tablet or smartphone. Photo / NZ Herald

As you try to decide which media or download format to use for your latest music fix, be relieved that scientists at Harvard Medical School may have come up with the ultimate data storage platform.

They stored the contents of a book on DNA and then reproduced it almost error free. One gram of deoxyribonucleic acid can theoretically store the contents of more than 100 billion DVDs.

That means every piece of music ever made may eventually be inserted into your earlobe.

While it may take some years for the discovery to become useful and the playback technology invented, eventually someone will be touting the need to invest in 3D sound.

For now though it's enough of a challenge to decide what format you want music to come in, let alone what to play it on.

The Recording Industry Association of New Zealand says sales this year are tracking about 50/50 digital and physical media.

On the physical side, while sales of the shiny beer mats are dropping, vinyl is making a comeback of sorts - last year a Toy Love album re-issue became the first vinyl-only release to hit the New Zealand album charts in decades. Even so it's unlikely vinyl will ever be more than a niche product again.

Global analyst firm Ovum is picking the global digital music market to grow at 15 per cent a year, driven by 46 per cent a year compound annual growth of subscription services as consumers switch to picking streamed songs rather than owning libraries of CDs.

People's initial experience of music is coming through computers rather than hi fi gear - which may be one of the reasons overall sales by record companies into New Zealand retail channels has halved over the past decade.

Gary Steel of audiophile web site witchdoctor.co.nz says people are waking up to the limitations of computer speakers and sound cards, and are increasingly turning to after-market solutions like audio servers and digital to analogue converters, or DACs.

"For people who want to hear good sound, it's the way of the future," Steel says.

His fellow witchdoctor, Ashley Kramer, says the trend is definitely that people want to get the music on their computer onto their sound system, and also to get it to play in multiple rooms.

"There is no one way to play those files. There are so many different ways of doing it, there is no standard, so that can be frustrating.

"If you walk into 10 different chain stores you will get 10 different solutions pushed as the best. The confused customer base out there just wants it to be simple.

"It's easiest for people in the Apple environment, but they pay for the experience," he says.

At the higher level, audiophiles are looking beyond the compressed MP3 files on most of the download sites, which are fine for your iPod, but lack the data needed to drive the sound stage of a $10,000 stereo set up.

They are hunting for high definition or high audio files to enhance their listening pleasure.

While CDs store sound at 16/44 or bit sampling rates and 44 kilohertz, increasingly consumers can get files online at up to 24/192 - the same as a studio master.

CD-standard 16-bit/44kHz to native 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution.

Of course it's not so simple. Buyers need to know whether that file did indeed come from a studio master, or is it copied from one that has been compressed for CD.

Stand alone DACs can cost anything from a couple of hundred to many thousands of dollars.

If you're buying a new system, a modern amplifier is likely to have one built in.

Kramer recommends people who want to upgrade their system to be prepared to spend some time looking around specialist hi fi shops to see what fits the budget.

"Because there are so many solutions, people need to find one that works for them."

The poor quality of the headphones that ship with MP3 players means there is a booming after-market in headphones, often driven by their endorsement by some musician or celebrity.

On the analogue side, vinyl sales are up, with more new releases and reissues being pressed in the format than for many years, and more turntables and accessories being sold.

"The quality of turntables has gone up, and as the price goes up, the quality can get dramatically better," he says.

That doesn't mean spending big amounts on components, and other factors come into play.

"It's hard to get the wife to okay a floor stand for the speakers. And as for speakers in the walls or ceiling, they don't work for anyone but the wife."

A shopping tip from Kramer: "If the sales guy tells you the next amplifier or turntable or speaker he's going to demonstrate will make it sound three times better - you believe it. That's how the mind works."

Just don't expect it to sound so good at home.

Anthony Muriel over at North Shore Hi Fi confirms that audio servers or network storage devices and DACs are an increasingly important part of the system.

"An audio server costs more than a laptop, but inside a laptop there are so many potential problems from the power supply, component noise and so on," Muriel says.

Services have sprung up burning people's CD collections to audio servers or external hard drives.

The Naim servers he sells allows people to use wifi on smart phones or tablets to access track information and cover art and control the server.

He expects the wider adoption of servers will make people more selective about downloads.

"Most downloads are compressed mp3 format and you only notice the sound quality when you when put them into a good system.

"If you have a high quality download, you can make a lower quality one for your iPod and leave the original on the server."

That may mean upgrading some favourite music with higher quality versions, and then keeping a close watch on track quality for future downloads.

To hear what's possible at the high end, acolytes will troop out to distributor Jason Parmenter's Muriwai Beach listening room.

What he calls mid-range would probably be considered high end by most dealers, but he says the business is driven by passion for music.

"I like to sit back and listen to music and get lost in it," he says.

That's why he designed and built his Fat Boy speakers, 200kg boxes with 16 inch horns that effortlessly drive the deepest dub track.

"You've got to have a reference point," he says.

"For a 40hz bass note, you need to move a lot of air. That's why it has a big driver. The sound shouldn't be forced."

They're $60,000 a pair and he's recently sold them.

But he hasn't sold any of the solid silver interconnect cable from Australian company PSC Audio that goes for $42,000 a metre - though it's on his stock list.

Most customers are after mid-priced speakers, starting at just over $3000 for a pair of English-made Harbeths, possibly with a Leben amplifier to drive them.

Parmenter will try to talk you into solid maple speaker stands at $1150 a pair, and maybe tube traps and room treatments to turn a corner of your home into a temple of sound.

He'll sell you a new turntable, but he's also a fan of the classics - a Garrard 401 set into a 58kg, $5000 slate plinth with a $6000 arm is on display. "It can sound as good as today's best if it's set up right."

That's not where he starts though.

"Pick the speakers first, find one you like the sound of. Then look at the pre amp and power amp, with the source last.

"If you have a reasonably good turntable on great speakers you can get an incredible sound, but an incredible turntable on average speakers and amps won't give you a good sound. "Once you get to certain level, the system is only as good as its weakest link."

- NZ Herald

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