Magazine article Gramophone

How the Hi-Fi Landscape Keeps Changing: Unlikely Alliances, Takeovers and New Products Have Shaped the Audio World in 2014: Where We Go from Here Is Anybody's Guess

Magazine article Gramophone

How the Hi-Fi Landscape Keeps Changing: Unlikely Alliances, Takeovers and New Products Have Shaped the Audio World in 2014: Where We Go from Here Is Anybody's Guess

Article excerpt

However you assumed the hi-fi market would develop as we went into 2014 is probably wrong by now. A massive computer company has bought a leading headphone brand; one of the most specialist British hi-fi names has launched an all-in-one system, on sale in John Lewis; a famous Japanese name has returned, citing its view that the way we listen is changing--again; and Chinese companies continue to make inroads into the world audio markets, through both manufacturing and acquisitions.

For all that, the shape of the audio landscape is as unique for what hasn't changed as for what has. At the beginning of the year, the smart money would have been on the rise of streaming services making the CD, let alone the LP, all but obsolete, the rise of iTunes looked unstoppable, and the whole world--well, the audiophile world anyway--held its breath to see how the much-vaunted Pono system would change music for ever.

Yet in the past 12 months, or at least in the 10 months up to the date when this is being written, none of that has really happened. True, we've seen the rise of streaming services, both for music and for video content, but nothing has yet emerged to bestride the global music market as does, for the sake of argument, Apple's iTunes. Instead, a vast array of music services have sprung up or developed their offerings, meaning audio hardware manufacturers have been forced to adopt a whole load of systems, software and licences, and hope that they've done the right thing by backing Spotify, or Qobuz, or Tidal--or whatever. As one said to me the other day, 'Wasn't it all a lot easier when we just had to make a thing that played CDs?'

He's right; for while the audio industry, and indeed the consumer electronics industry as a whole, seems to love a format war (think Betamax/VHS, MiniDisc/DCC, Blu-ray/HD-DVD), the state we're in at the moment, with a stack of incompatible streaming services and devices, and a choice of systems defining what you can and can't watch, is as destructive as any hardware format battle of the past. Depending on which TV series you want to watch, you buy a set-top box from Google, or Apple, or Amazon; depending on the music you want to enjoy, the format(s) on which you want to hear it and more specifically the labels from which you want to hear content, you choose an AV receiver or a network player or similar device.

It's a nightmare, as big business dinosaurs battle for their share of the content territory, and a very long way from the 'one size fits all' standard of CD: buy a disc, pop it in your CD, SACD, DVD or Blu-ray player--or even your computer--and it simply plays. …

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