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HiFi Technology Flatlined Last Century

Access to 60M+ songs on demand makes it a little different than the radio imo, especially if you like to listen to genres that aren't super popular. But yeah, I guess it's sort of like the radio, but perfected.

It’s also somewhat of a “careful what you ask for” scenario, in some ways.

I remember when we mostly just had radio and when a song you liked came on it was a bit of a thrill. “Yay, I love this song!” And there was a certain communal aspect to radio, that it was a public thing, you were listening along with thousands of others to the same songs.

When you have essentially any possible song at your fingertips at any time, and you were the only one listening, it’s not the same thing.

Of course, this is an individual thing. I love the convenience of streaming and my music server, but I do recognize some of the things that are lost in the experience compared to some of the aspects when I was growing up.
 
I've noticed what you describe with TV for sure. Back when there were 5 options, it was easy for everyone to just pick one and watch something, and there was more community around it. Now, we end up spending an hour surfing through 100 possible things to watch, can't decide on any of them, and end up not watching anything...
 
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Good points, but I must differ about your overall conclusion that audio improvements have flatlined - speakers designed to have diminished interaction with the room such as Kii, BeoLab, D&D, and the latest Genelecs are a major breakthrough technology for audio and have improved home sound as much as any technical change in years.
 
Good points, but I must differ about your overall conclusion that audio improvements have flatlined - speakers designed to have diminished interaction with the room such as Kii, BeoLab, D&D, and the latest Genelecs are a major breakthrough technology for audio and have improved home sound as much as any technical change in years.

I can see why you’d say that.

But personally, having heard speakers like the Kii (and some Genelec) I didn’t find anything paradigm changing it all about the sound.

I can certainly see how the design could show a major advantage in set up situations that would challenge normal passive speakers. If you’ve got the space to dial in passive speakers then I think the advantage is not necessarily big. (the degree, and value of the difference will be subjective - For instance I compared the Kii 3 to similar sized passive speakers in the same store and preferred the passive)
 
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Good points, but I must differ about your overall conclusion that audio improvements have flatlined - speakers designed to have diminished interaction with the room such as Kii, BeoLab, D&D, and the latest Genelecs are a major breakthrough technology for audio and have improved home sound as much as any technical change in years.
I wouldn't call them major, incremental steps maybe.
They didn't invent active speakers, DACs with digital crossovers, or DRC.
They may have been one of the firsts to put it all together in one lifestyle box..
Maybe just splitting hairs ??
 
I followed that for a bit and DMLs inherently have problems at the high and low ends so multiple exciters mounted different surfaces are required. They have very wide dispersion patterns which can tame large and complicated spaces like convention halls and churches, etc. The Philharmonic BMR seems to have successful design for music but it is hybrid.
I built a DML speaker using a 48”x24”x1/4” 9 ply birch panel and four 4 ohm exciters arranged in a parallel series fashion for a 4 ohm speaker impedance. The exciters were arranged in a pattern suggested by Monacor. This arrangement was found after much experimenting. I put it near the corner of the room, and it had a high spousal approval factor. I used a minidsp 2x4 to equalize it. It is very enjoyable to me, and I have had many people give positive comments. Here’s a plot of before and after eq.
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Not great but not bad. The great thing about this speaker is that it sounds the same all over a big room. It’s fun to play it for people and watch them look around the room for the speakers.
 
Sounds intriguing :) Picture of speaker?
 
Sounds intriguing :) Picture of speaker?
Not much to see from the front:
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It’s hanging from the ceiling. I don’t have a photo of the rear because, having just moved, it’s in a box. The rear looks like the front except their are four exciters, about three inches in diameter, near the middle of the panel.
 
There are literally tens of millions of Airpod Pros in use around the world.

This is more accurate tonality than most peoples Hifi setup

That seems like a step change to me considering the scale listening to excellent SQ. And no cable

AND protects your hearing with advanced ANC
 
It’s also somewhat of a “careful what you ask for” scenario, in some ways.

I remember when we mostly just had radio and when a song you liked came on it was a bit of a thrill. “Yay, I love this song!” And there was a certain communal aspect to radio, that it was a public thing, you were listening along with thousands of others to the same songs.

When you have essentially any possible song at your fingertips at any time, and you were the only one listening, it’s not the same thing.

Of course, this is an individual thing. I love the convenience of streaming and my music server, but I do recognize some of the things that are lost in the experience compared to some of the aspects when I was growing up.
I have thought about this a lot (no I'm not trying to hijack this thread). In the US, up until cable and streaming, certain shows and artists were known by everyone, whether they had seen the particular show or heard the specific music. No one knew who shot J.R., but they knew who J.R. was. People liked or disliked the Beatles, but no one asked who they were - they had conquered the pop world.

Now we've lost that commonality as we are culturally atomized. We've lost more than that, really.
 
I have thought about this a lot (no I'm not trying to hijack this thread). In the US, up until cable and streaming, certain shows and artists were known by everyone, whether they had seen the particular show or heard the specific music. No one knew who shot J.R., but they knew who J.R. was. People liked or disliked the Beatles, but no one asked who they were - they had conquered the pop world.

Now we've lost that commonality as we are culturally atomized. We've lost more than that, really.
Covid didn't help. Now more people work at home. Going to work was a place to socialize and have a meal with other people. In my family, next generation, two of married couples met on the internet. When younger, I worked in large organizations twice, and man there were a lot attractive and fun people. I knew their personalities and interacted every working day, sometimes after. I feel sorry for those looking at the same four walls at home everyday. Once again nostalgia colors ones perspective.
 
Covid didn't help. Now more people work at home. Going to work was a place to socialize and have a meal with other people. In my family, next generation, two of married couples met on the internet. When younger, I worked in large organizations twice, and man there were a lot attractive and fun people. I knew their personalities and interacted every working day, sometimes after. I feel sorry for those looking at the same four walls at home everyday. Once again nostalgia colors ones perspective.
Absolutely - Covid aggravated things. But we were being atomized long before that. Now commonality survives, to the extent it exists at all, through sports and politics.

As a former bartender, I am quite sure sports and politics will greatly promote brotherhood and tranquility. I mean, what could go wrong?
 
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