Back in the early days of Hi-Fi all audio gear was, at best, plain. The chassis and cabinets for most early power amplifiers, preamplifiers and even loudspeakers were utilitarian, designed to serve their primary function to hold all the parts and pieces in one container. Also in the early days most audio gear was housed in a cabinet, console, or some kind of piece of larger furniture so that you were spared the misfortune of having to actually look at it.
Contrast the stealth visual style of early Hi-Fi with what we see in “high end” audio set-ups today where audio gear is displayed on minimalist racks and arranged so that upon entering “the listening room” you can’t help but be impressed by all the shiny metal and the gleaming displays. In the world of Oligarch audio it seems as if the thickness and percentage of gold in your preamplifier’s faceplate has become the new badge of “ultra fidelity.” But is this really what most of us want in our listening spaces?
Historically, the beginnings of the trend that removed hi-fi gear from the dark recesses of consoles and cadenzas began way back in the mid 50’s when Sydney Harman did something rare in business – he took his wife’s advice. Jane Harman was an interior designer who suggested that the faceplates for the new Harman Kardon Festival receiver be made available in more than one finish. Customers could choose from several options and could even change the faceplates later, if they wished. While this may not sound like a big deal nowadays, but for its time this was a revolutionary concept. It presupposed that owners would actually not mind looking at an audio component.
From this first idea, that owners wouldn’t object to having an audio component out in the open, came the flood of new designs and new “looks” for audio gear. Some designs were elegant and understated, such as the Quad 33 preamplifier, while others were big and visually disruptive such as those 19″ wide receivers from the 70’s. But all these designs, whether big or small, fancy or plain, presupposed that audio gear would be out in the open for all to see…
Flash forward to today…
I’ve been receiving a steady stream of emails from CES exhibitors. Many of the new products that are being pushed at me are “lifestyle” oriented – Bluetooth speakers, architectural speakers, personal speakers, and of course lots and lots of earphones. While the fidelity of many of these new products may be questionable, their small size and rush toward physical stealth is quite obvious. The message that marketers have digested is that most folks don’t want big, physically imposing technology in their living spaces. They want stuff small. But why is this any different than the trend toward “wife appeal” gear twenty years ago? Because the current wave of music consumers and gear buyers simply don’t have the space in their 1,200 sq. foot condos for large-footprint gear. It’s not merely a question of wanting to keep their significant others happy, it’s about giving them enough space to make it through the front door and turn around in the room.
A goodly number of older audiophiles will argue that it’s simply impossible to make top-performing audio gear in miniaturized packages. And if you are a dedicated tube-based system person, unless you favor hyper-efficient transducers that can be driven by 3-watt and under fly-weight amps, you’re going to have an amplifier that requires a certain amount of real estate. Same if you demand class A solid-state amplification – the amp will be hot and need space for ventilation. Digital amps require far less space and energy and can be placed into remarkably small enclosures, but for some audiophiles they simply aren’t an option. But if you don’t have the space, a component that uses a digital amplifier may be the only option. And with the right high-performance digital amplifier it can be actually be a darn good one.
Housing prices in desirable urban areas, whether in the US or elsewhere, will, in all likelihood, continue to rise, while the size of the average urban dwelling will continue to shrink. The writing is on the wall – folks want smaller stuff to fit into their smaller homes. Audio gear will be following this trend.
In the end the hobby of audio is about listening to music via high-performance audio devices – and unless the device fits both physically and ergonomically into your lifestyle, it will not even be considered as an option.
Music was designed to be heard, but audio components don’t need to be seen to be heard and that is why the most successful new products will be heard, but in all likelihood, not seen…