To a certain extent, we are all faced with some version of the same problem – space. To us audiophiles, the salient issue is space to house an audio system. When playback systems began the onward push towards higher and ever higher levels of quality, system design moved inexorably towards separate boxes that, over the years, have become decidedly robust and heavy. This makes perfect sense because one of the things separate componentry brings to the party is a reduction of vibrational (mechanical) energy being converted into electrical energy ultimately manifesting as distortion. Let’s face it, our components are a swirling derby of things that vibrate and make all sorts of noise. It became almost the norm for high performance manufacturers to increase the weight and heft of enclosures, separate duties into individual chassis, increase part quality and become innovative in product design all for one single goal – better sonics.
As this trend advanced and source components increased in number, as digital became more widespread, sole purpose components, housed in heavier and larger boxes, took up more and more space. Audio racks also saw a significant up tick – so much so that today, any world class system not housed in some type of rack might not even be considered by many as world class. And the resultant space to house such systems became more and more of an issue, and harder to find.
Designers of audio components are nothing if not observant and one trend now seems to include returning to a one or two box solution. Why? Go back to the first sentence – space. Many residences these days have a common wall. Developments are planned with maximizing the number of houses on the available land and potentially reduced average square footage for each home. “Bonus rooms,” historically the preferred location for audio systems (including mine), once the province of almost any decent housing development, has spuriously yielded to larger great rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and the ubiquitous “open concept” floor plan. I can’t think of anything more sonically challenging and less audiophile friendly for a system than “open concept.” Not to mention almost total abstinence by housing developers, and architects, of even a hint of consideration for anything resembling a properly sized and shaped audio room. It therefore becomes obvious the difficulty in housing a high-end stereo system. So, it seems to make perfect sense that manufacturers are now making components smaller, lighter and have offerings with multiple functions. What is being done about that vibrational energy being converted from mechanical into electrical energy and polluting the musical signal? Good question. Because in this day and time, I wonder if form unceremoniously wins out over function. Hopefully, family friendly will not eventually supersede sonic excellence.
Another factor in all of this is system cost. Many audiophiles refuse justifying or simply cannot afford to devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to something to play a song. Which of course makes perfect sense given the more important goals of raising children and preparing for retirement. Our hobby is, at its core, one of “disposable” income and any monies spent on a system is money not especially needed elsewhere. So again, recognizing this, manufacturers in ever increasing numbers are offering components that are very likely better designed and certainly smaller, lighter, multi functioned and hopefully less expensive. Such design features and cost parameters make justifying and housing an audio system far simpler. Because in the end, product needs to be sold to keep manufacturers in business.
When we look at the consolidation of equipment today, it’s quite evident how component design is evolving. Integrated components, once the kid on the playground no one liked, are now very popular. Devices are currently available that include streaming, storing music files for playback, a full featured DAC and even volume attenuation. All one needs is an amp and a set of speakers and a complete audio system is assembled. Best of all, such systems are most likely convenient to house and easily space friendly. Space, I might add, that might be critically limited in the first place. Systems like mine, ten box plus a turntable behemoths in a rack with a total weight of over a thousand pounds, sixty four inches tall and some fifty five inches long are going the way of the Edsel. Younger audiophiles just do not want to spend the money, possibly don’t have the room for huge systems and are quite possibly very content with the sonics the more modern, single box offerings create. And that’s all fine and good. To each their own. I have only one question – when does such a system stop being what has traditionally been considered high-end audio?
Beauty is and has always been in the eye of the beholder and audio is certainly no exception. We all have our own level of temperance when it comes to a sonically pleasing stereo system. Multi hundred thousand-dollar, world class systems are not going away. Ever. There will always be a market for such equipment. If, however, you are a manufacturer trying to appeal to the audiophile masses, it seems in modern times such goals are increasingly more easily accomplished with smaller, lighter, cheaper, more all in one box solutions. While the sonics of such audio systems can be debated at will, these products very often satisfy an inclusionary goal – the desire for higher performance coupled to a space friendly design. Perhaps several as yet unanswered questions are – when does a one box solution become more mid fi than high performance? Secondly – are better sonics something audiophiles care as much about today as in times past? When, and at what time, will function become less important than form? And lastly, are we there now?