Back with a vengeance!

High-performance audio is making a remarkable comeback

By Morand Fachot

In spite of the widely held view that high-performance audio was losing the prominent position it had in the entertainment sphere a few decades ago, it has been making a significant comeback in a different guise with connected and wireless devices. Many aspects of IEC standardization work underpin the current renewal of this significant segment of the consumer electronics industry.

High-performance audio equipment requires good connections (Photo: Yamaha) High-performance audio equipment requires good connections (Photo: Yamaha)

High-quality audio everywhere is nothing new

Not so many years ago high-fidelity, or hi-fi, stereo sound systems, which first started appearing in homes in large numbers in the early 1970s, were considered the ultimate in home entertainment. They provided the best possible sound from sources as diverse as FM radio, LP (long play) vinyl records and tape or cassette recorders connected to amplifiers and other sound processing devices, and occupied pride of place in living rooms.

The introduction of better picture and HD (high-definition) TV caused consumers to increase their levels of TV viewing since it provided access to a greater choice of channels and improved video experience. As a result, high-quality audio seemed to lose its aura in the home environment. This impression was confirmed by a diminishing selection of audio systems and the commensurately increasing range and availability of video equipment in specialized stores.

Audio on the move gained users with the widespread introduction of car audio systems, initially with AM then FM radio and later the addition of car tape and cassette players. Individual music listening on the move also gained momentum with the arrival of portable audio cassette players.

Back from the brink?

Contrary to the impression that might have been given by the disappearance of mass-market stores devoted to hi-fi gear, and diminishing dedicated shelf space in shops, high-quality audio never really disappeared – it just made a gradual comeback in a different guise. So-called home theatre systems and other equipment such as sound bars connected to TVs, and more recently to digital or Wi-Fi radio, the internet or home computers, have replaced old-fashioned stereo systems. They now form the backbone of high-performance audio.

Car audio systems are another manifestation of the trend. They may now be connected to digital or satellite radio in some regions, and are equipped with CD or digital audio players.

Portable audio systems have also gained in terms of listening quality and ease of use. Personal mobile digital music players and mobile phones are now in widespread use, replacing portable cassette players.

The recently held Las Vegas CES (Consumer Electronics Show) offers evidence that high-performance audio is a vibrant sector, even if it didn't make the same striking headlines as ultra HD TV, connected appliances or 3D printing. No less than 565 out of over 3 530 CES 2014 exhibitors classified themselves as "high-performance audio companies".

New possibilities, such as live streaming of concerts or music, open up further opportunities for the sector.

This renewal even concerns, on a more modest scale, what many thought was a disappearing and "old" analogue technology: LPs, which have found a second life of a sort with global sales growing nearly five-fold between 2006 and 2012, exceeding the volume sold in 1997.

Cutting the cord

One of the well-established issues in quality audio systems was – and still is – connectivity of certain cables. Reconnecting all the cables of the numerous components of stereo systems after a move used to represent a challenge. However that is receding, with the gradual adoption of wireless connectivity for high-performance audio.

The wireless audio device sector is a fast-growing market with one recent report expecting it to achieve a 24% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the 2013-2018 period to reach USD 13,75 billion. Although this report covers all sectors, including defence and automotive, it gives useful indications regarding the most significant and the fastest growing segments, all of which are connected with high-performance audio.

Wireless headphones accounted for the largest market revenue at USD 1,25 billion in 2012, and the wireless sound bar market is expected to show the highest CAGR from 2013 to 2018.

Wireless audio technology represents a revolution in audio experience as it allows users to enjoy high-quality audio from a variety of sources – including small portable devices – and locations, even on the move, without the inconvenience of being tied to cables or confined to a fixed location. Industry experts consider that wireless technology in audio devices will contribute significantly to the growing audio industry.

IEC standardization support for high-quality audio

IEC standardization work for audio equipment predates the 1995 creation of TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment. TC 100 was formed from the merger of several existing TCs and SCs (Subcommittees).

Its contribution to audio standardization includes the IEC 60268 series on sound system equipment. This covers many audio components and applications, including amplifiers, loudspeakers, headphones and earphones, automatic gain control devices and the application of connectors for the interconnection of sound system components and for broadcast and similar uses.

Countless other IEC Standards cover various characteristics of audio equipment.

IEC standardization concerns a wide variety of aspects that make high-performance audio and its plentiful availability possible with Standards that focus not only on equipment but also on the software that is required. These Standards include advanced digital compression coding/decoding standards for audio and video content (see article in this e-tech on the latest digital audio / video compression coding) and International Standards on DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) guidelines that allow the design of interoperable devices in the home environment (see article on the latest Standard on DNLA Guidelines in this e-tech).

What was foreseen by many as the impending demise of high-quality audio a few years ago appears now as a mere blip that heralded a remarkable renewal of this important segment of the entertainment industry. IEC International Standards will make a major contribution to this expansion.

High-performance audio equipment requires good connections (Photo: Yamaha) High-performance audio equipment requires good connections (Photo: Yamaha)
SRS-X9 high-resolution wireless speaker system (Photo: Sony Corp.) SRS-X9 high-resolution wireless speaker system (Photo: Sony Corp.)
High-definition headphones (Photo: Philips) High-definition headphones (Photo: Philips)