A Year of Audio In Review
The end of the year always catches me by surprise. After all the craziness of the holidays suddenly–poof!– 2019 is upon us. A time for reflection, and what an amazing year it was for REL, setting records all over the world. Through our outreach like the article before you, we added roughly 7,000 new friends around the world. People who seem to like the qualities we stand for and appreciate our efforts not just to design and build what many believe to be the finest subwoofers, but who genuinely appreciate that we freely lend the vast bank of experience we bring to all manner of audio challenges.
Let’s take a look back at trends that continue to reveal themselves in our industry in 2018.
Hotter Than Ever
Analogue continues on a torrid pace, if perhaps ever so slightly cooling off among the analog dilettantes who wandered into the shallow end and then discovered that it takes a modicum of coordination to cue up a record and lower the stylus into the groove.
I counted over 130 brands of turntables in a brief 45-minute search among US and European brands just rummaging around the internet. Hell, there are at least 15 different professional archival quality record cleaning machines to choose from. And there are quite possibly more truly great quality new records being reissued now than at any time in history and while $30-40 for these fantastic 180-200 gram works of art seems high, adjusted for inflation compared to the $3.99-6.99 prices we paid for absolute crap back in the mid-70’scurrent pricing seems like a bargain with quality right through the roof. At the other end of the price scale, I still prefer to crawl through used record stores looking for bargains, although they now cost about 3 times what they did just five years ago.
BestBuy announced in September that they would be deleting CD’s from their mix (a mistake, more on that later) but would continue to offer vinyl records; something not even the staunchest analogue devotee would have offered as a remote possibility back in the mid-90’s when those of us who preferred the simple, human experience of vinyl records to digital of any kind. These days, CD’s too sound incredible, sound quality unimaginable back in those dark days of early digital and we have a cornucopia of sonic excellence to choose from.
With analogue having taken off on a seven year flight of greatness, it’s worth looking at the incredible quality that has been wrung from a medium many, myself included, found disappointing for much of its history. And I was there at the beginning when the store I worked for (db Audio) run by one of the smartest audio retailers of the 1980’s Doug Blackwell, introduced the CD player to North America. Doug, always looking for an advantage, had been invited back to a launch event in Japan as we were a hugely supportive Denon dealer. Doug managed to work himself into the good graces of Denon’s Chairman of the Board and the result was that 30 days later, we were loaned the first compact disc player in North America whereupon we set about performing countless public demonstrations of the then-new technology. It was great fun and Denon’s brilliant American president Robert Heiblim schooled us up on the technology (“If a bit encoded on the metallized surface of a cd were the size of a grain of rice, the disc would be larger than the Coliseum.”). Problem was, the sound quality was tepid, to be kind; compressed, thin, edgy, the truth is it was pretty awful.
Fast forward to 2018 and products like PS Audio’s Directstream DAC/Transport and DCS’s latest transports and DACs sound nothing like those early efforts and set a new standard, which can only mean one thing; we are in the long tail of a technology much like analogue was in, say, 1992 when it was struggling and digital was taking off and we all expected records to die a death. Is this a downer? Nope, it means that the best performance is yet to come. When a technology slides into its descending sales phase, history teaches us that the most rarefied design works rises to the top and thus it will be with the compact disc. Never have there been more great turntables than now, years after we were told “Analogue is Dead”. And so it will be for the now disregarded CD player.
I’ll make a prediction; in the next 5-10 years BestBuy will announce that its stores will begin selling new ultra-high quality compact discs using metallized substrates of triple alloy 8-nines copper, clad in German optical glass made by Leica. Enthusiasts will have tired of having mediocre sound from soulless, wireless servers and crave the satisfying tangibility of inserting a disc into a drawer, hearing a satisfying clunk followed by the certainty that comes from pushing Play and seeing the disc initialize.
Yawn. No issue, since the days of reel-to-reel tape, the quality playback of music has always been subservient to convenience. Just as that cumbersome format yielded to cassette, and cassette enjoyed a rebirth from the portability of the Walkman, followed by CD, itself yielding, briefly, to Discman and in car CD players, so now digital playback has become about storing data on servers and playing them back wirelessly through an endless parade of streamers. But it requires 2 additional layers of data transfer to burn and store, then playback, and never in the history of audio has data transfer not lost something in the doing. Convenient? Sometimes, hey, they’re computers and given to being balky at times. But the ability to pull up tracks from one’s cell phone has its attraction. Being honest, these are of largely about convenience, not performance.
In the end 2018 was a strong year for the industry, certainly a fantastic year for REL and we promise that if you liked our efforts this year, you’ll love what 2019 has in store for us all. Thank you for your support, thank you for allowing us to do what we do and continue to move forward, relentlessly honing this craft of building the finest subs we possibly can.
Enjoy the music! Few things in life are as satisfying as music and film (and video games for those under 20, in truth or in spirit) and we love bringing you better ways to enjoy all of these experiences.
John Hunter, Owner & Design Director