End of an Era
When I was a teenager, the crowning achievement of audio enthusiasts was to proudly display their HiFi system to their friends. The living room centerpiece was a HiFi tower, built from what are called separates - units manufactured as 19 inch appliances with a brushed aluminum façade. This was the 70s, and the HiFi tower consisted of an amplifier, radio tuner, tape player, and a turntable that took top position in the penthouse suite. For the baby boomer with higher disposable incomes, the tower may also exhibit a pre-amp, and maybe even an equalizer for good measure. In the 1982 the audio industry added a CD player, and the world was introduced to digital sound. Then in 1995 the DVD player joined the portfolio, and digital video moved into the mainstream.
We were proud of our appliances and displayed them as beautiful fixtures in our living rooms. But by the mid-90’s the audio industry began to change. The emergence of the World Wide Web (www) started to affect our entertainment habits. The MP3 format, an audio coding format for digital audio, was standardized in 1993 and soon became a tool that disrupted the audio industry. It allowed consumers to save music onto their computers at a fraction of the size, compared to CDs. Then, Peer to Peer (P2P) networking was popularized by the notorious Napster service, launched in 1999 allowing everyone to share their MP3 music libraries – albeit illegally. Music may have turned digital with the CD, but it also morphed from a physical product to a virtual one. When collections moved to hard drives the CD player began to lose its luster. By the end of the 20th century the portable media player using hard drives or flash drives, began to emerge.
It wasn’t just the audio and video input sources that evolved. By the first decade of 2000, the output changed as well. Active speakers began to eat into the market share of passive speakers, lessening the need for an amplifier. Much of this was driven by the computer industry, where speakers would connect directly to the PC. The cornerstone of the HiFi tower was in jeopardy. But the consumer electronics industry seemingly compensated. They continued to improve on the design of the Class D amplifier, which was more power efficient, dissipated less heat, and cheaper to produce, than their Class A to C counterparts. They also began to support video inputs. With video, this appliance evolved into the Audio-Visual Receiver. This may have extended the validity of the amplifier, but in the 2000’s the HiFi tower began to lose many of its floors.
The turntable almost disappeared once the CD began to reach critical mass. I trashed mine sometime around 1993. But vinyl has had a resurgence of interest from die-hard fans that are convinced that records sounds better. My take on this passion is that vinyl enthusiasts are accustomed to the fidelity limitations that the media imposes on audio frequency and resolution. In fact, that ‘warm’ sound that is much loved, can be easily reproduced through digital filters (please, no nasty letters). Tape decks have long become occupants of landfill. I finally threw out mine out around 2005, even though I hadn’t used it for a decade. The graphic equalizer (or, more likely a parametric equalizer) may still be present in recording studios, but is predominantly a software feature in digital audio. In fact, today’s audio quality is so pristine that the consumer ‘want’ for an equalizer has virtually disappeared.
Most consumers can’t tell the difference between a 192kbps and a 320kbps MP3 track at 44.1KHz and 16bit resolution on a stereo channel. Consider that Blu-Ray tracks can support up to 24.5Mbps, 96kHz, 24bit resolution on 7.1 channels. That’s 76 times more information delivered to your ears! The additional surround channels are apparent, but most consumers don’t hear the additional resolution. Regardless, the audio industry can’t stand still – it needs to evolve. As the video industry begins to standardize on 4K UHD technology, audio giants such as DTS and Dolby Laboratories will need to step up their game and improve on their DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD standards. Possibly Dolby Atmos is the future, which currently supports up to 128 audio tracks and 64 speakers. But how this technology will fit into a home theater set-up remains an open question.
Black Boxes to Virtual Boxes
By 2006, the first Blu-Ray discs were released. It became a new floor in our tower. But many argue that it may be the last, in favor of internet streaming. Online video streaming services have had a negative effect on disc players. Consumers realized that access to a large library at a low monthly cost makes more sense than owning shelves of CDs, DVDs or Blu-Rays. Today’s internet has plenty of bandwidth to support video streaming. As long as subscribers can continue to easily access content through a cloud-based service, then there will be little desire for ownership.
Has the 19″ appliance been replaced by software? The limitation of this audio black-box appliance is certainly apparent in today’s demanding multi-functional world. Today’s consumers expect some combination of Bluetooth, Wireline, WiFi, DLNA connectivity, or Near Field Communication (NFC) in their consumer electronics. For example, a disc player that can’t connect to the Internet has little value to a ‘Net savvy consumer. A console that doesn’t support multi-player gaming via the internet is boring.
Video, Audio, Communication is integral to today’s gamer. My kids connect to Skype and have group chats when playing DayZ, Minecraft, or World of Tanks. They use LogMeIn Hamachi to network their computers. They record their gaming experience with Camtasia Studio, and share it on their YouTube channel. Many games aren’t even suitable for disc release. Assassins Creed Unity for example, is a 42GB download on Ubisoft’s Uplay!
My audio-visual setup is quite unusual. I don’t have a living room in the traditional sense. My computer has evolved as the center of both my work and entertainment world. I sit two feet away when I need to type on the keyboard. Then move ten feet away to watch movies. My office is my living room, and visa-versa. I appreciate that this is not typical for the majority of households, but certainly some level of convergence is happening on a larger scale. TV’s are now Smart, and connected to the Internet. Computers, tablets and mobiles are being used to watch entertainment. Gaming consoles are used for social networking. Many consumers don’t realize that their Set-Top-Box (STB) from their cable provider is a PC.
Where does that leave us? For starters, let’s accept that the beautiful HiFi tower, as we once knew it, has virtually disappeared. Millennials don’t even know what they look like. (Case in point: I mentioned to my 12 year old that I was writing a new article where I’ve mentioned him called, “Whatever Happened to the HiFi Tower?”, and the first thing he asked was, “What’s that?”). My tower was dismantled shortly before my kids were born. Even the receiver, once the cornerstone of my HiFi tower was shelved, in favor of active speakers.
Modern living rooms still have their appliances. Somewhere in the house is a WiFi router. The STB may sit beside a gaming console, and maybe a connected Blu-Ray player. A select few will have a media player, or a home theatre PC (HTPC). But each one will have a different shape, size, and color. Nothing in this setup has the elegance of HiFi tower. Even though some manufacturers try to maintain the 19″ form factor, it doesn’t quite have the same ta’da’ enthusiasm from my youth. If a HiFi tower does exist, they are found in high-end home theatres, hidden behind walls, cabinets, or doors. A large number of living rooms need to also check the spouse-acceptance-factor box. Only a privileged few are lucky to have their very own man cave.
Thanks for the Memories
Today’s digital society was elegantly summarized by Cory Bergman, from Lost Remote:
“Apps become the channels. Google and Apple
become the gateways, not the MVPDs. Screens become seamless.
DVRs become pointless. And the internet becomes the cable.”
This touches on the sensitive topic of how the entertainment industry has succumbed to applications and the internet.
The excitement of the HiFi tower is now separated by a generation gap. For those that attended high school in the 70’s or 80’s, remember when you bought your first amplifier and the focal point of discussion with your buddies started at the back of the unit? The more connections the amplifier had the more beautiful it was. These days, showing all of your music and movies through the window of our computer monitor doesn’t quite have the same excitement as displaying hundreds of CD’s and DVD’s on a shelf beside a HiFi tower that is taller than a six year old. Such is progress. I may no longer re-live the enthusiasm of showing off my HiFi tower. But I’ll make that trade-off, if it means having my entertainment library accessible with only a few mouse clicks.
Over the span of two decades entertainment has evolved from a physical to a virtual industry – From a black-box appliance, performing a specific task, to computing devices running applications that serve many functions. What happened to the prestige of the HiFi tower? Did it disappear and we didn’t even notice? This article explores how our world of entertainment has evolved, and what happened to that beautiful HiFi tower.
This article was originally published on redsharknews.com.
• About Gabriel Dusil
Gabriel Dusil was recently the Chief Marketing & Corporate Strategy Officer at Visual Unity with a mandate to advance the company’s portfolio into next generation solutions and expand the company’s global presence. Before joining Visual Unity, Gabriel was the VP of Sales & Marketing at Cognitive Security, and Director of Alliances at SecureWorks, responsible for partners in Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). Previously, Gabriel worked at VeriSign & Motorola in a combination of senior marketing & sales roles. Gabriel obtained a degree in Engineering Physics from McMaster University in Canada and has advanced knowledge in Online Video Solutions, Cloud Computing, Security as a Service (SaaS), Identity & Access Management (IAM), and Managed Security Services (MSS).
Gabriel Dusil, Smart TV, UHD, Ultra HD, Ultra High Definition, DTS-HD, Napster, Class D Amplifier, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Atmos, Digital Living Network Alliance, DLNA, Near Field Communication, NFC, DayZ, World of Tanks, Hamachi, Camtasia, UPlay, Wife acceptance factor, Spouse acceptance factor, P2P, Dusil.com
 Portable media player, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portable_media_player
 “Audiophiles: Can humans hear a difference between low bitrate and high bitrate MP3s?”, by Eric Dykstra, http://www.quora.com/Audiophiles/Can-humans-hear-a-difference-between-low-bitrate-and-high-bitrate-MP3s
 “Some will thank computing for staged a coup d’état on the entertainment industry. Others will blame the internet for killing it.”
 Digital Living Network Alliance, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Living_Network_Alliance
 Near Field Communication, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near_field_communication
 DayZ, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DayZ_%28video_game%29, http://dayzmod.com/
 LogMeIn Hamachi, Wikipedia, https://secure.logmein.com/products/hamachi/download.aspx
 Wife acceptance factor, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wife_acceptance_factor
 “How Chromecast fundamentally changed how my family watches TV”, By Cory Bergman, Lost Remote, 3 September 2013, http://lostremote.com/how-chromecast-fundamentally-changed-how-my-family-watches-tv_b38639