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Back in the ’70’s the phrase “Mid-fi” was coined. In those days it referred to audio components that could only deliver mediocre sound quality, such as a boom-box or an all-in-one budget-priced “component” system. Gradually over the years, many “mid-fi” brands and types of components improved their sound quality to the point where the dividing line between a mid-fi receiver and an “audiophile-level” one has almost disappeared. But there is a new type of product that richly deserves the “mid-fi” moniker – Bluetooth-enabled smart-speakers.
According to David Sidebottom, media and entertainment Expert at Futuresource Consulting, “It could be argued that the proliferation of smart speakers in the last 2 years has heralded the biggest evolution of music consumption we have seen since the launch of the iPod, iPhone or even CD.” In the United Kingdom alone the amount of money spent by consumer for music and music services has increased 30% in the last three years. What has driven this added growth? According to Mr. Sidebottom, “This audio renaissance has been driven largely by 2 factors – the three-fold increase in streaming music subscription in this period (with total subscriptions exceeding 9 million in 2017) and more recently, the quadrupling in the installed base of wireless speakers, with 16 million units now in UK homes.”
This infusion of money should also be adding to traditional audio equipment manufacturers coffers, but it’s not. Instead, new tech companies like Google, Amazon, and of course Apple, are getting most of this new revenue stream. In many ways smart speakers are the new enemy of higher fidelity, flooding the market with convenient sound that is barely good enough.
But from a music creator’s side smart speakers could be a huge boon. According to Futuresource, “whilst music streaming and selection is unsurprisingly the most commonly used feature, 30% of smart speaker owners use it to discover new music and over three-quarters of these do so every day.” Won’t all these music lovers eventually want to hear their music with a higher level of fidelity? If the answer is yes, high-performance audio still has a future, if not, well…music reproduction quality improvements could reach a dead end.
I’m sure that by this point some readers (the ones who already own a Bluetooth smart speaker) could be feeling a bit defensive. And why shouldn’t they? What’s wrong with using a smart-speaker for background music and for finding out if there’s a tie-up on the interstate? Nothing, but smart-speakers (especially mono, single, smart speakers) severely limit the amount of musical information that can reach your ears. And without a sufficient amount of aural information the ear-brain turns off and deeper levels of listening become far more difficult. Sure, you can enjoy a track coming from a speaker that only produces sound between 200 and 5000 Hz, but in my humble opinion, to be mesmerized requires a full-frequency and dynamically full-range transducer. Could smart-speakers ever get to the level where audiophiles would consider them “worthy?” It certainly happened with receivers and portable playback devices, why not smart speakers?
But, as of May 2018 the vast majority of Bluetooth-enabled smart-speakers do a far better job telling you the weather than reproducing your favorite track in full-fidelity. As Bluetooth codecs improve, the frequency response and overall fidelity of smart-speakers could also improve to the point where the line between them and enthusiast gear could disappear. But as of right now smart speakers are unfortunately still only mid-fi devices that are certainly not the best instruments for leading listeners to more musical enjoyment and better sound.