Paradise Lost – High-End Electronics at the Crossroad

In a time where we should be moving towards recreating a live concert or film with high quality sound and a high definition picture, the industry is just dog-paddling. The entertainment landscape has changed drastically in the last ten years. We are living in an increasingly busy world. In Portland Oregon we have lost about half of the higher-end dealers. Music disc stores have had to become more and more pop music oriented. They are downsizing both their stock and the variety of discs. Many music stores depend more and more on DVD sales. Used disc stores are burdened with stock that just sits there and may never sell. Good titles of discs are coming in less frequently and going out almost immediately. Many of the standard stereo stores have been forced to sell slightly higher-priced equipment, because they cannot compete price-wise with the big box chains for standard consumer electronics.

Gaming has grown vastly and takes up much of young people’s spending dollars. Many young people are getting their music by downloading it. HDTV has started to come alive. With it there has been a major growth in surround sound systems. There is a lot more live music going on than there used to be, at least in this area. Television shows have gotten better and there are many more channels to watch. There is also, for most people, less spare money to spend on entertainment. Middle-class incomes have not kept up with inflation.  All these factors make for a very competitive market for the entertainment dollar and time. In the following pages I will attempt to discuss some of the problems facing high-end electronics and recordings and share some of my ideas about what might make the situation better.

There are five main problems facing the audio-only electronics business. The first one is that audio-only is not that involving. Most people listen to music as a background while they are doing something else, like reading, working, riding in a car or exercising. High quality sound is not that important in these listening situations. Video games and television are much more involving. Live concerts have a visual component plus a physical experience that make them more involving.

The second is the increasingly high price of high-end audio. In a recent issue of Stereophile they gave the average price of each type of component they have reviewed in the last couple of years. If you would put together a system from average-priced equipment it would cost about $30,000. You could buy a very nice car for this amount. This price does not include cables, stands, LP equipment or accessories. The average cost per component was $7667. If you eliminate a $350,000 amp from the average, the average goes down to $6204 per component. Probably less than one in a hundred thousand people can afford this type of system. For the price of some of the really highest end systems you could buy a nice house.

With increasing desire for surround sound systems the cost of a quality system goes up even farther. The quality of sound from standard consumer-grade audio gear has gone up and at the same time it has gotten cheaper. Though better, few audiophiles would find the sound acceptable for serious listening. One problem for even this area of gear is that most people are buying cheap all-in-one-package audio gear, which sounds barely better than AM radio. Most young people do their listening on portable audio gear, with downloaded music of their choice on it. High-end sound also takes a room which can be set up properly for audio. Many systems are relegated to rooms that eliminate the advantages of having good equipment. Many systems run into spouse approval problems because of how they look and how much room they take up. It is very expensive to have really good sound, but much more expensive to have it also look good.

The third problem is with dealers of high-end equipment. First, in any one area it is very hard to find one tenth to one hundredth of the high-end equipment that is available. There are over 6000 manufacturers. The buyer must depend on reviews of the equipment. The problem with this is that less than 10% of the possible equipment is reviewed. Many dealers do not either care or know how to set up a system to sound its best. Most dealers do not use tweaks in their systems. Many of the tweaks do not look appealing, and the dealers do not want to admit that tweaks are needed to make their expensive equipment sound its best. The customer who buys an expensive piece of equipment based what they hear in a well-tweaked system is probably going to be surprised that it does not sound that good at home. The customer may be very unhappy if he is then told that he must spent more money on tweaks to make it sound good. There is also the chance that customers may use tweaks to make their system sound better instead of buying new equipment. There is not big money in many tweaks; in fact there are many that cost nothing – for example lifting speaker cables off static-prone carpets with black thread. Dealers also like to carry equipment with big names that help sell the equipment. Smaller companies do not have the name or advertising dollars to help the dealers. They also many times have lower markup for the dealer which is a disincentive for the dealer to sell their products. Yet the small companies often offer more innovation and higher value for the consumer. There are some direct sales companies like Outlaw Audio and AV123 that offer higher value equipment because they do not have a retail markup. But you must order the equipment online to hear it – though there is usually a good return policy.

The fourth problem was alluded to above, and that is reviews. Only a small amount of the total equipment is reviewed. When it is reviewed, it is usually not critically compared with competing equipment. Many reviewers of very high-end equipment make it sound like if you are not listening to the equipment they are reviewing, you can’t possibly be hearing the music. The differences between different high-end gear is usually evolutionary not revolutionary. The problem with reviews is that the three groups involved want completely different things from the review. The manufacture wants a rave review to help sell his product. The reviewer’s boss wants a review that will make the manufacture happy enough to advertise and send future equipment yet not alienate other manufacturers of like products. He also wants the reviews to attract readership. The reviewer wants to review either equipment he wants to buy or that is something special. One of the hardest things to review is mediocre equipment. The reader wants to be told the very critical truth about the product and which is the best product to be bought at a price range. Most of the mainstream publications have become little more than advertisements for the manufacturers. Stereophile reads like Stereo Review used to. It is hard to figure out what the reviewers really feel about a piece of equipment. I remember a review from The Absolute Sound, years ago, that read in its entirety “plainly a piece of s**t”. The review, though very harsh, leaves no question about how the reviewer feels about the product. Those days are long gone. In today are reviews saying, “Should be considered with products in the same price range” or that ilk.

The internet-based magazines can be a little more critical in their reviews. I think the future of all periodic publications is the internet. The costs of publishing, shipping and printing publications are prohibitive. That is why magazines like Positive Feedback have gone from printed versions to internet publication. This allows them to reach more people and be freer with their reviews, including flexible space for copy. Most magazines are at least 60% ads to pay for the publication. This means that they need to keep close relations with many manufacturers. Most magazines become trash in a month or two after received. A good path for mainstream magazines over the internet would be to charge a reasonable yearly fee to read present issues and archived issues. Right now The Absolute Sound and Stereophile ask as much or more than the printed magazine costs, to download the present issue with no archival rights. This is ridiculous because they have no paper, printing, or mailing costs. Smaller and often more inventive manufacturers are often ignored by magazines because they do not have the money to advertise. Magazines like reviewing manufacturers products that are well-known and will advertise with the magazine.

The last big problem is the public’s lack of knowledge of the high-end. A very small percent of people have ever heard a high-end system or recognize the names of high-end manufacturers. Many people that think Bose is the ultimate sound, mainly because they have heard Bose commercials or seen their ads. Most people,  including record store employees, have never heard of SACD or DVD-Audio. They have only heard of DTS as a movie soundtrack option. Almost no one knows how to best set up a system – including tweaks – in order to sound its best.

The software side of the high-end also faces several problems. First of all and most important is the lack of strong pop albums. Most pop albums are based on one good song and filler and only have less than forty minutes of music. The price of CDs is not warranted. They cost less than a dollar per disc to produce. Most discs give you less than 40 minutes of music and only one or two songs you want to listen to. A DVD movie gives you two to three hours of video and audio entertainment for about the same price. It costs much more to make a movie than it does to make an album. DVD concerts face other problems. They have gotten much better at filming concerts for video in the last couple of years and the number of video concerts available has mushroomed. Most music stores are increasingly depending on DVD sales.

The real problem for audiophiles is that the sound quality on DVDs is not very good. Dolby Digital is the most-used format and by far the worst sounding. It may be semi- adequate for movies, but its eleven times compression turns music into Muzak. DTS is better with a four times compression ratio, but still usually only sounds as good as a mediocre CD. Much of the time, a standard PCM soundtrack is the best sound you can find on a disc. It is however not offered very often. [This situation is changing with classical and jazz DVDs more often using the highest-res DTS – which usually sounds great – and the new hi-def video formats will use advanced lossless DTS & DD…Ed.]

When I see a DVD concert disc with DD sound I usually pass on buying it. The companies producing higher format discs seem to be doing their best to make sure these formats (SACD, DVD-Audio, 96 or 192/24 uncompressed audio) do not succeed. First they are releasing a lot of mediocre or unknown albums. They are also reissuing a lot of old 30 to 40 minute albums which people likely have a CD of anyway. The albums are not well distributed or promoted. They also put out new CDs of an album weeks or months before a higher-format album comes out, without letting buyers know it is planned. There are almost no places where customers can go to hear what these formats can actually sound like. In Portland or Seattle there are no stores that I know of that have a high-end surround system set up for audio. Many of the discs of the high-end formats cost about the same as a standard CD. There are however some companies that charge between $20 and $40 per disc with usually a five dollar or more per disc shipping costs. These discs will never be big sellers. Most audiophiles already have expensive discs of the albums already. DualDisc has proved to be a major joke. Most of the enhanced audio sides are Dolby Digital and sound far worse than the standard CD side. Since there is no real video of the performers on the DVD side, it has no advantages and a big deficiency. Many music stores no longer keep a separate section for SACD and DVD-Audio. This makes finding what discs they have available and what is new, very hard. This will drop sales even further. I hardly ever buy new standard CDs unless they are extremely good albums that will not come out on SACD. Tower Records seems to be on their last legs with a much- depleted stock. Most music stores seem to have lost interest in the higher formats, if they had any in the first place. Titles in stores seem to be dwindling even with new titles coming out. Not all of the new SACDs or DVD-As are ever reviewed. Audiophile Audition reviews more of these titles than any other magazine. Probably only sixty percent of the over 3500 issued SACDs are available domestically, with that percent going down. These formats seem to be doing better in Europe and the Orient.

The video industry also faces some big problems now and in the future. Presently there is a battle brewing for the High Definition Video market. The Sony-based Blu-ray and the Toshiba based HD-DVD are both coming out. This battle is all about licensing fees and copyright protection. Anyone building a piece of equipment or making a recording using these standards has to pay a licensing fee to the owner of the standard. Sony first came out with the Blu-ray technology. Then the competing companies wanted to get their fingers into the licensing pie, so they came up with a HD-DVD standard. Different studios are signing up with one or the other to put out their movies in HD. There was a stab at combining the formats about six months ago, but the talks fell apart. The problem for the consumer is that neither is compatible with each other or with playing CDs. This means that the consumer will have to buy one or the other player. If they want to play a large number of movies they will need to buy one of each.  Universal players that will play both hi-def formats have been announced but are not yet out. Also the consumer will have to buy extra cabling and accessories for the new players while still keeping older players. The audio standards for each are not included in any preamps or receivers at present. There is also a problem with inputs on receivers and preamps. Most only have one 5.1 audio input. They might have 2 HDMI inputs. HDMI connections might be alright for sound to a TV set, but inadequate for audio to high-end audio system. The advanced audio parts of high definition discs will probably be decoded in the player and output via 5.1output. SACD, DVD-A and DVD also like using 5.1 inputs. A 5.1 analog switcher may become necessary. [Zektor makes a remote control one, but it is $450…Ed.] Then there is the expense of the players. Blu-ray players initially are going to cost $1000 to $2000. HD-DVD players will start at $750. Initial disc offerings are rumored to cost $20-$30 each. Both media will have a very limited number of releases. Disc manufacturers will limit the number of titles they make until there are a fair number of players out there. HD-DVD has announced they are cutting back the titles originally announced for initial release. For most viewers DVD is good enough and I expect that the change to HD video will be a slow starter. It will take a couple of years for the players to come down enough to make any real sales numbers.

There is also a problem with the connections for HD on TVs. There is only one commercial TV monitor that I know of that takes a 1080P input. This year’s generation of higher end TVs give you an upsampled 1080P picture. They could have easily made the TVs so they could input a 1080P signal. But fear of pirating and not having copy protection for 1080P, they did not include the input capability. This means that all current TVs will not be able to use a 1080P signal. Some TVs have a FireWire input for 1080P, but other than HD camcorders there are no output devices that use FireWire. One problem that users have encountered with HD-DVRs is that they fill up quickly and there is no way to archive the shows. I would like to archive some of the concerts and nature shows. High Definition offers a significant improvement over DVD quality. The bigger the screen you are watching, the bigger the difference. Many darkly-shot movies however eliminate much of the advantages of HD. One of the keys to having a large number of high definition players out there is a rental market. Most people only watch a movie once. If it is really good they might watch it every couple of years. This doesn’t lend itsself to having people pay over $20 a disc to buy it when they can rent a DVD for $3. Concerts are the one video type that people can watch over and over again. The problem is can the discs produce high quality enough sound to make the music listener buy them? DVD concerts have done only a mediocre job of this.

I see the HD disc situation the same as SACD when it was launched. It will take much better promotion and smarter decisions by the industry to have it not meet the same fate as SACD. I have talked to a few people that have seen both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and they say that Blu-ray is the superior medium. I would suspect this is true because of less compression needed by Blu-ray to get a movie onto the disc. I do not think I will be replacing my 5000+ DVD library in the near future. When I get a player I will only replace a few of my favorite discs that I would watch a fair amount and maybe some new movies if they were really good. Movies in general would have to compete with buying previewed DVDs for about $8.50 each. They have announced that the initial number of HD-DVD releases has been cut in half. The initial release list for Blu-ray is not exciting. There is also a problem with broadcast HD. There is simply not enough HD material out there. Discovery and PBS HD keep airing the same shows over and over. On the major networks most of the prime time shows are in HD however. When I first got my DVR, I recorded a fare amount of HD material but I haven’t recorded anything in about six weeks.

To be a service to the consumer review magazines need to search out the higher value products that represent good sound at a price that the non rich can afford to buy. I may casually read reviews of very expensive equipment, but they are irrelevant to my life. It is like reading reviews of a Maserati – yes it a great car, but I will never own one. Reviewers need to make their opinions about a product very clear. Reviewers also need to more accurately describe the differences between components. 

I feel that there are a number of steps that can help improve the standing of the high-end audio market. First of all I figure that audio with video – providing good sound is incorporated – is the future of the industry. This is needed to make it more involving for the listener. Blu-ray offers the ability to put down high definition video with SACD surround sound for a disc. This is not planned in the near future however.

There is a big problem in how music is recorded presently. First of all, close miking does not give the recorder any sort of natural sound. The sound from close miking needs to be played with to make it decent. If a listener puts his ear a couple of inches from a voice or instrument he would not like what he hears. The next problem is that much of studio music is done with the instruments in separate small rooms. This does not allow for the natural blending of the instrumental sound that you have in a live non-amplified concert. In many live concert recordings the sound is confused by delayed stage monitor and concert amplification sound being picked up by the mikes. On several DVDs I have noticed that head set mikes that are worn on the side of the cheek are used. This location eliminates any chance of natural sound. On the Andre Rieu DVDs his sopranos use this type of mike. There is no real dynamics, tonality or extension to the voices. It makes them sound like you are hearing them through AM radio. The last big problem is that of summing to mono the low bass. This causes a bloated atonal bass because each mike in a session is getting bass note at a slightly different time and all these notes are summed together. This is why very few recordings have real bass. I feel that the recording industry needs to pay more attention to the sound quality.

Both the high-end software and hardware industries need to do a lot better job of promoting their products. There needs to be much more coverage in the mass press of the new audio and video formats. Manufacturers need to promote retailers to properly setup and demonstrate their products. Traveling demos would probably be a good idea. Manufacturers need to concentrate more on equipment that is high value for the dollar. Equipment that pushes the technology at a high price may be somewhat interesting, but in the long run irrelevant to most people. It is like a really expensive car – people may enjoy its styling, but very few will own it. I think that the recording industry needs to produce much better albums or lower the price of most albums. Labels need to release new SACDs simultaneously with the CD release, or even better: put out a hybrid SACD of the title. It will play on a standard CD player and would eliminate pirating. It would mean that stores would not have to carry two different media of the same title. It will start a consumer’s collection of SACDs so that when he buys his next player he might think about one that plays SACDs.

On reissue discs give the buyer a reason to buy the disc other than better sound. Almost all albums can be doubled up – combining two albums on one disc. Mercury Living Presence, RCA Living Stereo and the Vanguard twofers series are good examples, and all have sold well. This saves storage room, gives the listener more time between changing discs, lets the buyer sell two albums to help pay for the new album and a better value for their dollar. Producing greatest hits albums, with at least 60 minutes of music, on the higher-res formts is also a good idea. They will greatly outsell single albums except in rare cases. There is one tendency that really gets my goat: That is putting out two disc sets that could be put onto one disc or adding a useless bonus disc. Two examples of this are Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and The Who’s “Tommy”. Neither bonus disc adds much to the value of the disc. The upcoming release of five of the Moody Blues albums are all two-disc sets. Their price is $35. These individual albums could be doubled up or a fair amount of the bonus material could have been added to the primary disc. This is also scheduled as an import-only album – an example of corporate greed and short- sightedness. They will probably only sell a third of the discs that they would have sold with a single disc, and probably less than one-quarter the number that they would sell of a double-album disc.

In case any SACD producers are reading this I will present a few ideas for what I would buy on SACD and I feel others may also want to buy:

Greatest Hits:

The Fifth Dimension
Doors
Neil Diamond*
Jefferson Airplane (early stuff)
Janis Joplin
Cheryl Crow
John Denver
Bob Seger
Billy Joel
Dire Straits
Barbara Streisand*
Willie Nelson*
Johnny Cash*
Cosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Fleetwood Mac
Eagles
Three Dog Night
Emmylou Harris*
Kingston Trio
Brothers Four
Leonard Cohen*
Alan Parsons Project
Patricia Barber
Jacintha
Casey Chambers
Cat Stevens
Frank Sinatra*
Ella Fitzgerald*

All albums should fill the discs with music (70-80 minutes).
* = Artists deserving multidisc greatest hits

Doubled Albums:

Joni Mitchell (early albums) (Miles of Aisles)
Linda Ronstadt (early albums)
John Denver
Simon and Garfunkel
Leonard Cohen
Joan Baez (Vanguard Years)
Peter, Paul and Mary

Collections:

Doo Wop
60’s Acid Rock
Folk Rock
Broadway Show Tunes
Movie Themes
British Invasion

My fears for the future are that there will neither be audio or video discs and that all music and movies will be downloaded in a compressed form on demand via the internet. I also fear that commercial radio and TV may go away and be replaced by monthly pay-to-view service. It would be nice to see and hear programs without commercials, but the service would probably cost hundreds a month. Keep in mind that over 80% of what is on cable or satellite is still paid for by commercial advertising. The other alternative is far less programming. If SACD fails, it won’t be because it is not a big improvement, but because of the industry’s complete failure to properly promote and utilize the format. [Much of the blame should be Sony’s, who early on shot themselves in the foot by issuing only non-hybrid discs themselves while promoting the format’s compatibility as one of its chief attributes; and then recently cutting off all financial support of the format and issuing almost nothing on SACD any longer…Ed.]

— Clay Swartz

 

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