The Rising Tide: Audio trends in the Second Decade of the 21st Century

By Chuck Hawks

A surprising trend is the reemergence of analog music reproduction in the LP record format. Once given up for dead, the introduction of new LP releases and new audiophile turntables is steadily increasing. Some recording artists are now insisting that their new albums be released on LP as well as CD, MP3, etc. This is not the place to debate analog vs. digital technology, but the increased viability of the analog LP record is a notable trend when CD sales are suffering from the proliferation of MP3 and other digital music downloads.

An important alteration in the cosmic order of things is the acceptance of MP3 technology and computer music storage systems. Music servers eliminate hard copies of music (tape, CD, record and even sheet music). This is a good thing in terms of storage capacity, but very bad in terms of longevity, or "archival-ness," if you will. For this reason, conservative music lovers prefer to own hard copies of their music in the form of LP records and CD's. (I have vinyl records that are up to 60 years old and CD's that are 25 years old; do you really believe the music on your computer or server will be viable that far into the future?) However, the emergence of digital music storage systems is a major, and ongoing, change in the way consumers listen to music in their homes.

Perhaps the most important trend for the music lover is the movement away from home theater surround sound (5.1, 7.1 or whatever) and back to two channel stereo. The fact is that music reproduction is of secondary importance (basically just background sound) in theater sound, which is designed to render dialogue and special effects, but accurate music reproduction is the whole point of two channel stereo. Multi-channel audio is at its best and most realistic for special effects, but very poor at lifelike music reproduction. This reality is finally sinking home with an increasing number of consumers: music sounds better, more realistic and more lifelike in two channel stereo. The return to two channel music is undoubtedly fueled in part by the popularity of MP3 downloads. Fidelity is compromised by MP3 compression and the format is scorned by audiophiles, but MP3 represents a mass-market return to two channel (stereo) music reproduction.

The simplicity of installation, set-up and operation of a conventional stereo system, compared to the extreme complexity of a home theater system, is another factor in the resurgence of home stereo. Cost is another important factor. There can be no doubt that, for any given monetary investment, you will get better quality sound from a two-speaker stereo system than from a multi-speaker home theater system. Your dollars are buying two better quality loudspeakers, rather than six or eight lower quality speakers. The same advantage applies to the amplification system, where an honest two channel amplifier will always outperform a multi-channel amp in the same price class. Less is more. This ultimate reality is what killed quadraphonic sound (remember four channel quad?) and it is now putting the blocks to multi-channel theater sound, at least in home music systems.

In terms of the music itself, the rise of New Country to prominence and even dominance in the popular music field is noteworthy. New Country is a big departure from the traditional country and western (Buck Owens, Patsy Cline) type of music. It actually marks the re-emergence of the rock ballad, with tuneful melodies, a strong beat, gorgeous production values and lyrics to which people can relate. ("This is real, this is your life in a song" -Brad Paisley.) Truly talented performers, such as Taylor Swift (2010 all genre Grammy winning album of the year), Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Martina McBride and groups like Lady Antebellum (2010 performers of the year), Sugarland, Little Big Town and the Zac Brown Band, backed by truly accomplished musicians, have raised the popular music bar.

Finally, a prediction: Consumers will figure out that "audiophile" connectors and speaker cables are a gigantic hoax designed to fleece the ignorant and impressionable. At some point, speaker wire will return to being, well, speaker wire. Ditto for patch cords.

These are significent trends in music reproduction that bear watching in the 21st Century's decade of the teens. It looks like an interesting, even invigorating, decade ahead in which consumers insist on more meat and less sizzle for their hard-earned home entertainment dollars.

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Copyright 2011, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.