In the last six weeks, I’ve been to two audio shows -- High End, in Munich, and the Los Angeles Audio Show -- while fielding my usual volume of new-product announcements and visits to manufacturers. In that time I’ve witnessed the debuts of hundreds of audio components. What strikes me, though, is not the large number of products I’ve seen, but the extremely small number that I remember.
I’ve just reached a milestone: the first time in my life I can recall passing an independent record store without going in. I did give the shop -- in downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia -- a good once-over. But faced with the prospect of missing one of Ljubljana’s other attractions because of the 30 to 60 minutes I’d spend browsing the store’s racks, all to acquire more records that I wouldn’t be able to play except in my listening room, I kept moving.
Last November, Samsung announced it had purchased Harman International, parent company of AKG, Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, and other audio brands. Most observers speculated that Samsung made the move to get into the automotive electronics business, where Harman is a powerhouse. But a recent report from A/V industry insider website Strata-gee.com speculates that much of Samsung’s motivation springs from the desire to use Harman’s audio technology to improve its smartphones.
Since I began measuring the performance of headphones six years ago, it’s been quite a journey. Not a journey through a picturesque mountain landscape dotted with rustic inns, but more like one through searing deserts and freezing snowscapes packed with predators and empty of civilized comforts. The prevailing standard for headphone measurements, IEC 60268-7, was originally published in 1984 by the International Electrotechnical Commission, “a non-profit, non-governmental international standards organization that prepares and publishes International Standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies,” per Wikipedia. It’s an in-depth and well-considered standard, but most of it is now more than an entire human generation old -- in technological terms, perhaps ten generations. Some of its recommendations have been called into question by more recent research, and some reflect limitations and conditions that time has erased.
We’ve heard a lot of debate recently about the value of science. As I write this, marches are being planned in which tens of thousands of people are expected to express their views on the subject. In audio, though, this is nothing new. For decades, we’ve witnessed arguments -- often shockingly acrimonious ones -- about the value of science in audio.
My assignment at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, was to cover headphones -- a chore I thought might leave me plenty of free time to check out new speakers and subwoofers. But so many new headphones were launched that covering the category took up almost all of my time at the show. Much as I love high-end, audiophile-oriented headphones -- and there were plenty of new ones at CES 2017 -- I was just as excited to see promising new models at prices as low as $14.99. In fact, the most important trend was the introduction of many new headphone models that combined noise canceling with Bluetooth wireless operation, neither of which would be considered an audiophile feature, though both are vital to those who rely on headphones to keep them entertained as they wander the world.
As this column posts, the editors and writers of SoundStage! will be packing their bags for Las Vegas and the 2017 International Consumer Electronics Show. I’ve already received embargoed information about many of the products to be launched at CES 2017, and based on that (sorry, can’t reveal specifics until the show starts) and information I’ve picked up from talks with manufacturers and engineers, I have six predictions about what we’ll see at CES and in the rest of 2017.
A pro-audio company recently asked me to run measurements on a prototype recording monitor -- the kind of speaker recording engineers and producers use to listen to what they’re recording and mixing. I thought the task would be simple. I own a pair of Genelec recording monitors, and they measure almost perfectly: nearly dead flat on axis, with a smoothly increasing treble rolloff as I move off axis. But the job turned out to be quite complicated, and it raised some questions about what, exactly, I should be listening for when I test speakers and headphones.
The No.1 speaker brand in the US is now Amazon, with a 26% market share. It took Amazon less than two years to attain this rank.
Those shocking facts should tell you where audio is headed. While the AmazonBasics line of cheap Bluetooth speakers does well, Amazon’s meteoric success in audio is due in large part to the Echo, a voice-command speaker that has sold some five million units since its launch a year and a half ago, and is expected to sell twice that in 2017.
One of the most dispiriting events in an audio reviewer’s life is when a reader sharply disagrees. It’s one thing if the reviewer praises, say, the AKG Q701s and the reader says, “Those headphones sound too bright to me.” Fair enough -- and useful feedback. But when a reader describes a product that the reviewer raved about as “awful,” or says that “it sucks,” that’s different. That’s a criticism not only of the product, but of the reviewer’s competence and judgment.