Once upon a time, high performance audio was a collection of all separate components housed on pervasively expensive racks, connected together with outrageously expensive wires, dubiously claiming better sound, and housed in a room whose single function was music playback. Today, we have progressed beyond such archaic methodologies. We now have a system in one little rectangular box that does every conceivable thing one could ever imagine. There are no external wires, music magically appears at and through the speakers which are totally concealed and are quite impossible to find in the room. Modern day systems can fill the whole house with music indistinguishable from live. We call them “Lifestyle” products.
Make no mistake, high performance audio, for now anyway, has more than its share of hyper expensive, single purpose components. Six figure amps. Half million dollar speaker systems. Cables that cost more than a family car. All of those things are still readily available. And for the foreseeable future, I have little doubt they will continue to be available. There will always be those who can justify a seven figure audio system.
Our industry is also doing some pretty amazing things in the opposite direction. Perhaps no product in the high end has been transformed more than the integrated amp. For most of the past few decades, integrated amps have not received an equal share of design revisions and therefore sonic advancements. Sure, there have been some nice sounding pieces but they almost always fell sonically short of their separate component counterparts. But times have changed. Peoples interests have changed. Space allotted to a stereo system has certainly shrunk. Manufacturers must keep up with the times to remain relevant. And all of the sudden, the lowly integrated, once the kid nobody wanted to play with, has suddenly become popular.
There are many products in this category at a variety of price points. Two excellent ones that come to mind are from Esotericand Jeff Roland. These are not your budget friendly audio components. These products are pretty pricey. And having heard both, I think they sound really excellent.
Of course it doesn’t stop there. Devialet, the French company, makes a product many swear by and is quite compact for all that it does. They claim to have solved the opposition to Class-D amplification and who knows, maybe they have. What I do know is their size is friendly in a way that almost any family member should not object. Sonically? Well, that’s not for me to say.
Our industry has been tied to a continuing business model for a long time. That particular model has served the hobby well. And developing a different model is not a signal that the past is just that – this is not a sign of impending doom. There are those, like myself, who will always plan to have multiple, single components housed in a large rack in a dedicated audio room. I’m most likely the exception, not the rule. For most audiophiles, there are more important considerations.
I recently met a fellow audiophile here in Charlotte. He was emblematic of what I see is very typical today – mid 30’s, married, small child, average sized house, and a system that must double as a 2-channel system as well as home theater. In the same vein that music is the primary task, hearing the plane fly around the room is also a primary task, maybe just at a different time. For this type of listener, a “Lifestyle” product fits the bill exactly.
For almost all of us, family, mortgages, children and planning for retirement will always come before a stereo system. And of course they all absolutely should. For a lot of us, it is not really a question of affordability, but more of a question of common sense. If a small integrated that can handle a multitude of duties, that doesn’t cost a king’s ransom, that fits nicely out of the way and sounds musically pleasing is available, why not? There is, however, a question in this logic.
Is the classification “high performance (or high end) audio” ceding its heretofore dominance to something loosely termed “Lifestyle Product?” Are the products that have come before something the traditional, legacy, high end enthusiast is willing to surrender? Am I supposed to sell all twelve of my components to replace them with two or three? Will such a system ever equal the sonic excellence I now have? Will my needs change to obviate the need for such a system and usher in the opportunity for a “Lifestyle System?” One wonders.
For the most part, manufacturers are trying to cover as many possible bases as they are able. With determined effort, they are unlikely to ever give up on the idea of high quality sound. Makers of luxury equipment likely will never surrender the common goal of a lifelike musical presentation. However, the need to attract as large a customer base as possible is undeniable. Companies still need to sell something to remain thriving businesses. Yes, there will always be a buyer for a half million dollar speaker system. But at the same time, accommodating the larger market share with affordable, more user friendly systems will very likely continue to increase.
What remains to be seen is when and at what time one will give way to the other.