How to Improve the Moribund Home Audio Market

by | Jul 18, 2005 | Audio News | 0 comments

Pundits’ Suggestions on How to Improve the Moribund Home Audio Market
Number One home electronics interest for the general public is surely
high-definition television and other various video applications. 
Home audio is just creeping along; most people don’t even think about
it. According to a survey last year by IDC, the two preferred sources
of stereo music for most consumers in America are CDs and FM radio. The
popularity of these two longtime two-channel sources dwarfs that of the
high-definition formats: SACD, DVD-A, vinyl and xrcd.  In fact the
rebirth of interest in vinyl has resulted in more sales in that ancient
format than SACD and DVD-A combined. Although there are 4,200 different
titles now available in SACD and DVD-A (without including the new
DualDiscs),  a typical large online CD retailer carries as many as
250,000 titles – and there are untold small artist-owned CD labels that
are not included because they have almost no distribution.

Only the most unreconstructed audio conservatives would deny that even
in stereo the new hi-res formats offer improved sonic quality over 44.1
PCM CDs (the same folks who insist that all disc players and amplifiers
sound exactly alike).  The problem is that for Joe Schmoe this
improvement – at least in two channels – doesn’t hold the contrast and
perceived advantages which were offered by the first compact discs over
scratchy LPs and low-fi cassettes. Additionally, both the mastering of
standard CDs and the playback quality offered by even entry level CD
players has improved in recent years.

At the same time younger people have fully embraced shockingly
data-reduced computer audio files of music via MP3, AAC, Internet
broadcasting, and the now-obiquitous iPod and its competitors. (As a
Mac user, I applaud Apple’s iPod bonanza, but as an audiophle I must
laugh at the its audio capabilities. I could barely believe the
enthusiastic news release I received just before the January CES
promoting a six-figure AV system from a prominent big-ticket high end
brand.  The main point was that one of the source inputs
demonstrated would be an iPod!)  A few audiophiles use the
technology, but without data reduction of the already-compromised
44.1K. They are prevented from storing much music on either their
portable or home-based hard drives because the files take up a huge
amount of space as WAV or AIFF files.  And of course it’s all
two-channel stereo.

The explosion of public interest in surround sound for their home
theaters has brought 5.1 multichannel to the attention of many who had
never before sat down just to enjoy music – without images on the
screen. And the attraction that makes it possible is primarily surround
sound immersion. That’s what sells hi-res to the public’s ears! –
whether it be the recent lossless DTS option, SACD, DVD-A, or the
upcoming hi-res audio standards for hi-def DVDs. But according to Bill
Matthies in a recent TWICE article, dealers seldom make any effort to
get consumers purchasing flat-panel TVs to upgrade their audio system
at the same time. A survey showed that fewer than 5% of customers were
even asked about the audio to accompany their new TV, whereas more than
five times that percentage of computer purchasers were told to consider
buying a set of better speakers for their new PC or Mac.

The average buyer of a HDTV doesn’t know what DTS or 6.1 means.
Matthies says it’s the responsibility of manufacturers and retailers to
help them learn.  [How can manufacturers help?  Well, one
thing that comes to mind is for a couple of high end AV preamp/receiver
makers to cease labeling their two-channel-direct option as being “For
Music,” and surround sound only for movies!]  If the subject of
better audio is addressed when the TV display is bought, that customer
can be invited to return in a while to learn how to further improve the
investment he made in the image side of the equation. In this way
Matthies feels we might “get home audio off life support.”

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