Cabled or wireless – high-quality audio is gaining ground

After a long decline high-performance audio has made a comeback

By Morand Fachot

Not such a long time 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 vinyl records and tape or cassette recorders connected to amplifiers and other sound processing devices, and occupied pride of place in living rooms.

Sony portable audio This portable NWA25 digital audio player can play music wirelessly (Photo: Sony Corporation)

Out with the flashy, in with new hi-tech

The introduction of digital TV and in particular of high-definition TV caused consumers to increase their levels of TV viewing as 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.

Individual music listening on the move gained users with the arrival of portable audio cassette 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.

Disappearing from stores… or not

The closure of mass-market stores devoted to hi-fi gear, and diminishing dedicated shelf space in shops gave the impression that high-quality audio was a thing of the past. However, it made a gradual comeback in a different guise. So-called home theatre systems and other equipment such as sound bars connected to TVs, to digital or Wi-Fi radio sets, to home computers or to mobile devices through cabled or wireless connections, have replaced old-fashioned stereo systems. They now form the backbone of high-performance audio.

Some recent high-end digital surround sound systems offering so-called immersive audio, which conveys the fluid movement of sound, can be upgraded through firmware updates.

Wireless sound throughout the house

The gradual adoption of wireless connectivity for high-performance audio 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.

Wireless technology now offers the possibility and flexibility of streaming music and other audio content from TV sets, Hi-Fi systems, computers and mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets over a home Wi-Fi network, Bluetooth or AirPlay to speakers or headphones throughout the home.

The market for wireless audio devices could be worth as much as USD 38,5 billion by 2022 – up from just USD 6,9 billion in 2014, according to a recent report. That’s a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 24 percent between now and 2022.

The main drivers of this growth are wireless speaker systems, wireless soundbars, and wireless headphones. 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.

IEC standardization work supports high-quality audio

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

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, such as MP3 and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), and International Standards on Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) guidelines that allow the design of interoperable devices in the home.

Far from vanishing, high-quality audio, which represents an important segment of the entertainment industry, has made a remarkable comeback in different guises in recent years. IEC International Standards will make a major contribution to its expansion.

Sonos wireless speakers Music can be streamed from various devices to this Sonos Play 1 wireless speaker (Photo: Sonos Inc.)
Sony portable audio This portable NWA25 digital audio player can play music wirelessly (Photo: Sony Corporation)
 7 channel Denon receiver This seven-channel high-end Denon AVR-X1200W AV receiver offers wireless connectivity and support multiple audio formats (Photo: D&M Holdings, Inc)