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HiFi Technology Flatlined Last Century

Punter

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Me 209.jpg

On 26 April 1939: Test pilot Fritz Wendel flew a prototype Messerschmitt Me 209 V1, registered D-INJR, over a three-kilometre, closed course at Augsburg, Germany, setting a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record with an average speed of 755.14 kilometres per hour (469.22 miles per hour). The aircraft was fitted with a Daimler-Benz DB 601 engine which was a supercharged, liquid-cooled inverted V12 with direct fuel injection.
db-601aa.jpg

As such, this engine represented the peak of internal combustion engine development. Apart from the use of computerised fuel management, the internal combustion engine has not developed in any significant way since. The engine in a 2024 Mercedes still uses a crankshaft, camshafts, poppet valves, fuel injection, pistons etc, just as the DB601 did in 1939.
I feel there is a corollary between this and HiFi.
HiFi as it stands has developed very little in the last few decades. The stand-out development has been in digital technology but as far as reproduction equipment is concerned, name me one big development. Let's explore this assertion.

Sources:

Turntables.
When did TT technology peak? It’s difficult to say for sure but my assertion is that a turntable has such a simple job to do, the peak must be when super accurate speed and negligible rumble was achieved. I’m sure there will be much controversy here but my pick is the Technics range of direct drive units. Having worked with the SL1000 and carried out repairs on them, the quality of manufacturing and the execution of the design has never been topped IMHO.
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Ridiculously overengineered TT’s have been manufactured by niche outfits but if you take the OMA unit that has been widely discussed on ASR, you will find that the Technics SL 1500 turntable handily beats its rumble figure and is a fraction of the price.

Tonearms. The pivoting tonearm arguably reached it’s present state of technical development with a unit like the SME 3012, introduced in 1958.
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This tonearm had a counterweight, an anti-skating mechanism and a soft lift. No real significant advancements since this model only differences in pivots, bearings and materials. Linear tonearms have made brief appearances but they are niche compared to pivoting arms. Some novel mechanisms have been developed for linear arms with air bearings and so forth but based on popularity, they seem to be a dead end.

Tape. Both analog and digital tape systems are effectively dead. Domestic analog tape reached a peak in the 1980’s with the advent of Dolby noise reduction. This development wasn’t really followed in professional analog tape equipment as it had already reached an optimum probably in the late 70’s when manufacturers like Studer were producing high quality multitrack and stereo mastering recorders.
A80VU-24Ch_Scaled.jpg

However as a domestic technology, the compact cassette was the only tape format that was ever really commercially successful. While DAT and ADAT enjoyed a brief moment in the sun, both are now obsolete thanks to the dominance of HDD and high capacity memory digital recording. I don’t believe that there have been any new tape devices designed or manufactured for decades.

Digital Disk. Since the development of the SACD format in the 1990’s, there has been no significant technical advance in digital disk technology. Even though SACD was a flop commercially, it was a significant improvement on the original Digital Compact Disk from a technical perspective. As the format determines the specification of the playback device, there has been no significant improvement in this technology since then.

Digital file/streaming. From a technical and quality perspective, this is the only source medium that has had recent development. The advent of 32 bit float recording has pushed recording technology into the stratosphere and its capabilities far exceed anything that has preceded it. 32 bit float can record audio data +770 dB above 0 dBFS and -758 dB below. This gives 32-bit float recordings an incomprehensible dynamic range of 1528 dB. This figure is hard to fully grasp because the dynamic range between the quietest sound on Earth (an anechoic chamber) and the loudest sound possible (194 dB) is only 185 dB. With over 1000 dB of headroom above the quietest and loudest sounds on Earth, clipping is impossible. Distorted audio above 0 dBFS can easily be recovered in post by attenuating the signal. So, in theory, digital recording peaked in the last couple of years, certainly with reference to the capabilities of human hearing.

Components.

Amplifiers.
Have amplifiers really advanced functionally since the 70’s? Amplifiers really hit their stride in the 1970’s. Full-bandwidth 20-20khz power at extremely low distortion became commonplace. Whether it was the modest amplifier section in a mid-priced receiver like the Kenwood KR-5400 (35 watts/ch RMS from 20-20kHz at <0.5% THD) from 1974 or the Pioneer Spec 2 power amplifier from 1976 rated at 250 watts/ch 20-20kHz at <0.1% THD, amps in the 1970’s delivered the goods.
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Since then, most development has been incremental based on tweaking circuits and incorporating modern components. Some may say “what about class D, that’s new”. Yes, it’s the latest development of an audio amplifying device that operates in the range of human hearing. Functionally, a modern class D amplifier is so similar to a Kenwood KR5400 that it really only rates as a refinement, not a fundamental redesign.

Speakers. One area of HiFi that has had so much time and effort poured into it for so little effect is speaker design. There’s an ocean of speaker manufacturers and designs stretching to the horizon and apart from some obvious differences, open versus closed for example, speakers from the cheapest to the most ludicrously expensive share the same fundamental mechanisms of operation, the moving coil, cone loudspeaker. The moving coil loudspeaker was developed by C.W. Rice and E.W. Kellogg in the early 1920’s.
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Since then, the basic design has been refined and improved using modern materials as they became available. These improvements have brought the design to a plateau where the physical limitations of the device have been reached. Put simply, moving coil loudspeakers are as good as they will ever be. Someone with more knowledge than me might take a stab at when this plateau was reached but my guess would be the 80’s or 90’s when materials like carbon fibre and Kevlar were incorporated into the construction, thereby allowing the mechanism to get as close to its ideal as is practical. “What about electrostatics?”
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Kudos to QUAD and the others who explored this technology as it was one of the few times that a fundamental change was achieved in speaker design. The shame is that, while electrostatic speakers showed much promise, the reality was that they lacked the properties that were already common in moving coil speakers. Electrostatic speakers did not reproduce low frequencies as effectively as conventional speakers and the SPL that was achievable was well behind also. It’s a bit like the piston engine vs the rotary engine. Rotary engines have some notable qualities when compared to piston engines, simplicity, reduced reciprocating mass and compactness. However, the rotary design has some built-in problems that can’t be refined out like the combustion chamber shape which lowers the efficiency of the engine.

DAC’s. As I pointed out in another of my posts, there are only a few manufacturers of high quality DAC chips for audio reproduction. Subsequently, only the supporting circuitry is different between manufacturers.
s-l1200.jpg

A quality DAC chip costs around US$50 so a $10,000 DAC will have the same practical performance as a $200 dollar unit with the same chip. DAC chips probably also represent another true advancement in audio reproduction technology inasmuch as some of them include digital signal processing (DSP) that can be employed to compensate for room acoustics amongst other things. This technology probably still has some room left for development but for the HiFi stereo crowd, the prospect of digitally processed multi-speaker systems brings out their inner Luddite. The “High End” acolytes will never accept this sort of meddling and just want to slink off and try to tweak their pure two speaker equipment closer to perfection.

At this point in time, just about anyone can have an audio reproduction system that does everything so well that there’s no point in trying to improve it. In fact, for most components, the listener could put together a system composed entirely of devices made last century and be assured that they perform just as well as anything they could purchase in 2024. Without any question, speakers are the last link in the chain and the performance of those components will have the greatest perceivable effect on the quality of the sound being reproduced. Speaker choice has many variables, budget, available space and subjective performance. However, speaker technology is at the same place it was in 1970 in all but detail.

I think that this situation has produced all of the laughable tweaks and snake-oil products that are currently swamping the HiFi scene. As there’s nowhere to go as far as the basic equipment is concerned, once you’ve reached the limit of what you can spend on components, if you desire more from your gear, you’re a prime target for hokey products that claim to be able to improve the unimprovable. The old quote “a lie repeated loud and long enough becomes the truth” has never been more accurate when applied to HiFi components and accessories. A lot of time, money and effort has been put into creating products that do nothing but thanks to the malleability of human perception, masses have been hoodwinked into believing that these things are having a positive effect on the performance of their audio equipment. Has this held back true development and improvement in audio equipment? I don’t think so. The DAC chip is a prime example of how there are still genuine, engineering-driven developments going on in the field of audio. Notice though that something like a DAC chip is not being developed by and for “High-End” HiFi applications but for broad application in entertainment devices like televisions and media centres. HiFi equipment manufacturers just ride on the coattails of these developments and repackage them to try to convince the punters that they’re getting something “special” for the inflated price.
 

amirm

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Since then, most development has been incremental based on tweaking circuits and incorporating modern components. Some may say “what about class D, that’s new”. Yes, it’s the latest development of an audio amplifying device that operates in the range of human hearing. Functionally, a modern class D amplifier is so similar to a Kenwood KR5400 that it really only rates as a refinement, not a fundamental redesign.
Class D design is completely and radically different than class AB. The switching power supplies that power it are also the same with respect to linear power supplies. The two combined bring high efficiency, small size and ability to produce a ton of power. And with advent of SMD and better power transistors, combined with proper feedback design, is able to produce an incredibly unique offering than that of the past. It is not at all a refinement.
 

Rednaxela

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Any nice words for Klippel perhaps?

I understand that it’s a tool and not HiFi technology as such. Still I think it’s quite revolutionizing the development of loudspeakers as a whole, and in more than one way. To me this process does not seem to have flatlined at all yet.
 

Sal1950

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I think that this situation has produced all of the laughable tweaks and snake-oil products that are currently swamping the HiFi scene. As there’s nowhere to go as far as the basic equipment is concerned, once you’ve reached the limit of what you can spend on components, if you desire more from your gear, you’re a prime target for hokey products that claim to be able to improve the unimprovable.
I could quibble on a few small details but I think you mostly hit the nail on the head.
I wish the truth wasn't so, if only we had something to look forward to equal to the digital revolution of the 1980s. :mad:

Class D design is completely and radically different than class AB. The switching power supplies that power it are also the same with respect to linear power supplies. The two combined bring high efficiency, small size and ability to produce a ton of power. And with advent of SMD and better power transistors, combined with proper feedback design, is able to produce an incredibly unique offering than that of the past. It is not at all a refinement.
You're completely correct here boss, but they don't sound any better.
 

DWPress

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Digital room correction and DSP are worth mentioning I think. We cannot underestimate the influence digital processing has affected consumer level listening. I run speakers with active XOs, even the tech advancements in the last decade have improved the ease of doing this from miniDSP products to a Raspberry PI or HTPC - HP, LP and peak filters via analog filters - NO THANKS, never again!
 

Sal1950

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Digital room correction and DSP are worth mentioning I think. We cannot underestimate the influence digital processing has affected consumer level listening.
That's a good one he definitely missed..

The next big improvement is probably going to be "directly injecting sound into the brain". Good for people with worn out ears but not sure I want to be an early adopter :)
You will be assimilated.
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OP
Punter

Punter

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I did mention DSP in relation to DAC chips. I did miss a couple of the other items already mentioned though like active crossovers which are definitely an advance over passives:D
 

Philbo King

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I'd say Theile-Small Parameter speaker design was a real breakthrough, allowing speakers to put out real bass without 100 liter enclosures.

Generally, I agree with the OP points; audio tech is a mature tech, with the possible exception of using metamaterials for acoustic room treatment such as thin bass traps, velocity absorbers and diffusers that meet WAF (non-ugly. Meaning the treatments, not the wife...).

I foresee that becoming a factor within 10 years.

 
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Timcognito

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NeFeB magnets did not get into speakers until ~ 2000. They improve performance and reduced heat and weight a lot.
 

Speedskater

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I think that the members of many auto racing forums, would have a different viewpoint about internal combustion engines.
Heck there was a 807 horsepower 6.8 liter underhead cam US stock car for sale last year.
 

Blumlein 88

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Don't really agree with the premise all that much. However, once everything easily reaches beyond audible limits then what is left? Like in cars or engines improved efficiency etc etc. That 2024 Mercedes engine is much more different and advanced than you portray it. It produces more power, in a lighter package with far less pollution and far less fuel thru dozens of technological improvements. Yeah it is still a piston engine, but so what?

Everything other than transducers has been audibly perfected. Transducers and even how they should act have a ways to go. It is the sort of thing I think seems stalled, but in 50 years time I bet current transducers will be un-competitive.
 

JP

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Having worked with the SL1000 and carried out repairs on them, the quality of manufacturing and the execution of the design has never been topped IMHO.

There are four versions of the SL-1000 - the original, MKII, MK3, and MK3D. The image you posted is a MKII. Under the criteria given I think the MK3 easily bests the MKII.
 

Pretorious

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This impression is likely not aided by sites like this that don’t appeal to the general public or average consumer. I don’t say that as a negative against Amir or ASR. Here, we rate almost exclusively classical speaker after classical speaker, along with the other types of classical components that go along to building a system.

However, the vast majority of people that listen to, and enjoy, music every day do so on popular consumer gear. Things like ANC headphones, soundbars, smart or Bluetooth speakers, or dare I say lifestyle components. All the real development by major companies seems to be going more towards making consumer gear of an exceptional quality. There may be more to say about equipment that delivers great sound quality for an average listener, that would also satisfy an audiophile, and that is much easier to setup and configure than a traditional component system. Do we see this trend reflected here? Not as much.

Applying the scientific measurements while talking about the technology that makes this all happen would be something very interesting, I think, rather than the inaudibility of a tenth of percent of distortion measured between speakers. Who really cares? I mean, quite honestly, that’s just picking nits at that point. I do believe your average consumer gear is where we will all be seeing innovation and development in the future. It’s happening right now. The gear that can be bought off the shelf is so far ahead of what was available even a decade or two ago in terms of sound quality; there’s no contest.

There’s a larger world of ”HiFi” out there then what this site reveals. It would be a boon to it to expand that definition and include quality components of a different nature.
 

Robin L

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Tape. Both analog and digital tape systems are effectively dead. Domestic analog tape reached a peak in the 1980’s with the advent of Dolby noise reduction. This development wasn’t really followed in professional analog tape equipment as it had already reached an optimum probably in the late 70’s when manufacturers like Studer were producing high quality multitrack and stereo mastering recorders.

Digital Disk. Since the development of the SACD format in the 1990’s, there has been no significant technical advance in digital disk technology. Even though SACD was a flop commercially, it was a significant improvement on the original Digital Compact Disk from a technical perspective. As the format determines the specification of the playback device, there has been no significant improvement in this technology since then.
Dolby A was adopted by many major recording labels in the 1970s and used with those high-quality recorders you mentioned. Of course, one can now record high-bit wide frequency response recordings to Micro SD chips, smaller than the fingernail of a pinky. That Micro SD chip can record hundreds of hours of multi-track recording, a major uptick on the recording side of the equation. This development happened in this century, SD cards first appeared in 2001.

Of course, digital disk technology had an uptick with Blu-Ray discs, invented in 2005, which can be used for audio. This can result in a much longer playing time, or uncompressed surround recordings in multiple configurations.
 

Chrispy

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How can this be? The reviewers keep telling us even wires are improved model over model over model! Amps every year are even better sounding model over model over model. Vinyl has somehow elevated itself, too! Will wonders ever cease? :)
 

Sal1950

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How can this be? The reviewers keep telling us even wires are improved model over model over model! Amps every year are even better sounding model over model over model. Vinyl has somehow elevated itself, too!
They all full of BS. ;)
 
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