Is This the Future of Hi-Fi?

07/09/2014

Writing at The Computer Audiophile, Chris Connaker has an article laying out what he sees as The Future of HiFi. As always, he presents a number of interesting points, explaining why the future of digital music is in the cloud, by subscription, and lossless quality or higher.

But Chris is wrong when he suggests:

All music is sent directly from the Cloud to a HiFi component without traversing through the remote control iOS or Android device.

Oh, my, this is the last thing we need. In fact, if this were the case, it would kill music streaming.

There are two reasons why this is not a Good Thing. First, hi-fi manufacturers may be good at hardware, but they’re certainly not good at software. Have you ever seen an AV receiver, or a Blu-Ray player, with a good interface? These devices are clunky and hard to navigate, and the last thing I want is my user experience dictated by companies who know a lot about sound, but not about software. These companies could hire teams to develop software, but the fragmentation would be horrible.

Also, these companies will probably only offer updates to their devices for a few years. They won’t want you to update a five-year old receiver; they’ll say it can’t support new features. I’m not planning to update my hi-fi equipment every few years, and it makes a lot more sense for the streaming to come to the device via a cheap, dedicated device, not directly to the hi-fi device. The only other alternative is having all the hi-fi manufacturers in the world agree on a standard platform, and we all know that’s never going to happen.

The intermediate device makes the most sense, whether it’s an Apple TV, a Roku, or some new, dedicated device that only handles streaming music. But there is a real risk that this platform may not support all streaming services; just look at what exists now. No matter what, this device has to be a low-cost, easy to use device, one that users can update every few years without it being a major expense.

Chris goes on to say:

AirPlay is dead. Streaming through one’s iPhone eats up too much battery and depends on the state of the iPhone to continue playback.

Again, Chris misses the mark when he says this:

In AirPlay’s current state it just can’t compete. Routing music through a mobile device for playback on a HiFi system doesn’t make sense, unless it’s for casual group playback with friends. AirPlay diminishes battery life, requires the iOS device to be on or in a certain state, requires open source “hacked” software or Apple certification, and is as closed as any platform available today. AirPlay is dead without a serious overhaul.

That’s just wrong. In fact, the best device, currently, for streaming content is the Apple TV. It can stream from the internet or from a local computer, and music streamed to it from a local computer is in Apple Lossless format. You can stream any audio or video content from an iOS device, and AirPlay can stream any audio or video from a Mac as well, though remotely controlling that audio isn’t always simple.

However, the Apple TV is currently not an open platform. I don’t expect this to last for long, though it may not happen tomorrow. Apple currently adds “channels” to the Apple TV according to individual agreements, but it’s likely that they will open up the platform to apps in the future, even if this competes with Apple’s own content services.

Even if they don’t, AirPlay is a fine way to stream, and it can be controlled with any iOS device (yes, I know, there are people who don’t want to use iOS devices). If you’re a serious music listener, you could dedicate an older iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to serve as a streaming remote control, or even buy a cheap iPod touch and use it just for that. All the major streaming services have iOS apps, and it’s not that much of a problem to use such a device.

Another thing that Chris assumes is that everyone has the bandwidth, and data contracts, to support such streaming. I won’t go into that here, but we’re still far from having ubiquitous, unlimited internet access, even in the developed world. Heck, here in the UK, where I live, I get 2 Mbps on my DSL connection, and my cell contract is limited to 750 MB per month. I could pay (a lot more) for an unlimited cellphone contract, but the coverage where I live is so bad, that a lack of limits wouldn’t make things any better.

In his conclusion, Chris highlights the price attraction of streaming:

Services such as WiMP and Qobuz are strongly rumored to be coming to America and other countries this fall (2014). … In a few months these listeners should be blown away with access to over 20 million lossless tracks for the price of purchasing a couple albums.

Perhaps. But just this morning, I had an email exchange with someone at a classical record label, who told me the following:

They [streaming music services] are going to destroy recorded classical music. It’s just a question of when.

It would be nice to have everything in the cloud for a low monthly fee, but if that means that new recordings aren’t made, because of the paltry amounts of money record labels and artists earn from streaming, then what’s the point? Streaming certainly sounds good to users, but for the music makers, it leads to a very dim future.