Knowing the future of anything would be a worthwhile enterprise. Imagine knowing who would win the big game, or which stock will quadruple next week? Knowing these things could allow one to head to Las Vegas to place a bet on a team or call the stock broker and tell them to BUY! Unfortunately, life just doesn’t work that way. Not even for audio systems. For all of these things, and more, we do what anyone has always done when predicting the future – we speculate.
We can look at past trends and possibly relate them to current times. We can ask a lot of questions of those who are in some way learned on any particular subject. Regardless, it is mere speculation even if those speculations manage to ring true.
For the past few years, component sizes have grown steadily smaller. This is perhaps due in part to better designed internals that do not require as much space. It also may be partially due to one design aspect always highly regarded – minimalism. Having less in the signal path not only improves sonics, it takes up less room. On a concurrent related note, overall system sizes are getting smaller due in large part to component consolidation. We now have available more multi-function devices that reduce the number of components necessary in an audio system.
I predict this trend will continue. We already have DAC’s that can provide volume attenuation but now we are also seeing them have streaming built in as well. This allows the user to only have three components in their system, an amp, a streaming DAC, a set of speakers and “voila,” audiophile grade music. An all in one would allow the number to be reduced by one, the integrated and a set of speakers and “viola again,” music. I think this will be a design goal for high performance systems classified by sonics and cost as “mid-level” and down. And because this is where the bulk of sales volume is located for most manufacturers, it makes sense the road towards more feature laden, minimalistic signal path designed, lower cost componentry will continue to evolve.
What about wireless? What might happen there? Certainly, we could see speakers utilize wireless technology but that needs to advance substantially and far beyond where it is now. Audiophiles, generally speaking, are not willing to cede musical excellence for convenience. I do not think I will live to see a day when a wireless speaker will sound as magnificent as my speakers connected to my amp with world class cables. I may be proven wrong, but I doubt it. For one, wireless technology in the high end would require a huge investment. Wireless works best with lower fidelity applications where the customer base is hundreds of times larger than the audiophile market. That said, wireless might become somewhat of a factor in high performance audio systems, even if on a limited basis.
What about music? It seems certain digital will continue to advance. I see no reason to doubt there will be future technologies that will ultimately augment, or even perhaps completely replace current formats such as Hi Rez, SACD, and MQA. Those technologies, however, do not yet exist. I also see no reason to suspect the preferred delivery method for any format will be some sort of streamed signal. Streaming is very likely the future of how digital music will be delivered. That said, I don’t see physical media ever fully going away. Anyone who remembers the birth of CD’s in the 1980’s knows that the vinyl LP, the king of music at the time, was predicted to be forever lost. It did, in fact, become far more difficult to find a place to buy an LP. I didn’t purchase any for about twenty years. Still however, they never fully went away and if one looked in the right place, LP’s could be easily purchased. I don’t think we will lose physical media in the foreseeable future. I hope not, it is my preferred format.
What about the upper tier of audio? Those systems with a stratospheric cost? What happens to them? Well, better electronics for sure. I would also speculate that instead of a consolidation of the number of components we will see an expansion of components. Right now, today, DAC’s are available in dual chassis configuration. We have any number of components with separate power supplies, aimed at the reduction of distortion borne vibrational energy. My system, including speakers, has sixteen separate components that must be connected somehow and housed somewhere. I could, right now today, increase the number of components I have to nineteen or twenty without even trying hard. Of course, the cost for all of this becomes rather pricey. And even though my system is quite expensive, it is not anywhere nearly as costly as it could be. Not by a long margin. In the end result, however, the expansion of the number of components in a system raises the price and makes finding a place to put everything more of a determined effort.
So where will high performance audio go in the decades to come? Who can tell? None of us has an eye into the future. We can conjure and speculate all we like, but in the end, like with stocks and sporting events, we will have to wait and see. We can try and remain on the cutting edge by continually trading in a current product for the latest and greatest. We can take more of a wait and see attitude and operate on a reactionary position. And regardless of where any of this “stuff” shakes out, my one fervent hope is that we don’t lose what we all care about most – unbelievably reproduced recorded music.