Something old, something new…

Streaming may be making the music world go round at the moment, but hi-fi journalist Paul Messenger believes its future will be shared with vinyl as it finds a new lease of life

As we claw our way out of recession, hi-fi seems to be bouncing back and several different things are happening.

On one hand, ‘audio streamers’, designed to integrate with digital home networks, deliver digital audio from various sources after converting them to analogue for amplification and ‘loudspeaking’. On the other, ‘old-fashioned’ vinyl discs are undergoing significant revival, albeit from a modest base.

The situation for retailers is somewhat confusing. Streaming and vinyl are miles apart, philosophically and in practice, yet arguably represent a dual future for hi-fi. So why is a 65+-year-old analogue music format making a major comeback?

Proponents (myself included) reckon it actually sounds better than digital formats, and while that remains contentious, some incontrovertible strengths also exist. Few would deny the appeal of its packaging, especially for those building a collection of music, and an ancient format has a security that is certainly not found among computer-based digital audio formats.

A final factor in vinyl’s favour is simply that many examples of the software already exist, in the collections of older citizens and many second-hand outlets.

The obvious bonus for the retailer is that many (probably most) customers will have had very little experience of the ins and outs of vinyl replay, which ought to give the people working in shops (especially older ones) some advantage.

Denon Heos
Denon Heos

Styli wear out and cantilever suspensions tend to harden with age too, so there’s plenty of opportunity to sell a new phono cartridge. Much modern amplification also tends to avoid the specialised inputs required for vinyl, so many separate phono stages are now available, at a wide range of prices and flexibilities.

To some extent at least, the advantages of the streamer-based digital audio system is effectively a corollary of those for vinyl. Much greater operating convenience is certainly its biggest strength, though it does rely on the dealer’s ability (and willingness) to get involved with the vicissitudes of home computing. One crucial distinction is that the guys who set the standards for vinyl had no option but to get it (more or less) right first time, whereas today’s computer software is constantly changing through downloaded ‘updates’, which does tend to undermine computer audio as a long-term music storage medium.

When computer audio began, limited storage capacity and internet access speeds meant that it mostly used digitally compressed MP3 files that are decidedly non-hi-fi. As computer technology has evolved, so storage capacities and internet access speeds have both increased, to the point where digital compression is no longer necessary. But old habits die hard, so MP3-coded versions remain widespread – but are happily not universal – especially for music that’s downloaded and/or streamed over the internet.

Live streaming over the internet definitely looks like becoming a major way forward for music, especially as far as mass-market consumers and younger customers are concerned. However, its applicability to the hi-fi-oriented sector remains rather more debatable. Some hi-fi brands remain in a sceptical, wait-and-see mode, but plenty of others have already introduced streamers – Marantz, Pioneer, Yamaha, Denon, Cambridge, Cyrus, Naim, Linn, Bryston, Pro-Ject, etc.

The vague term ‘streamer’ covers a multitude of variations in shapes, sizes and applications, many primarily intended for playing movies, or to operate alongside smartphones and tablets.

The phrase Network Player (or some such) is perhaps more appropriate to serious hi-fi brands, and is primarily oriented towards playing music that’s ripped or downloaded and stored on home networks. Most include UPnP network connections, access to internet radio stations, and DACs for connection to analogue hi-fi systems, and most are controllable via apps on smartphones and tablets, but vary somewhat in their features, facilities and format-handling capabilities.

To my knowledge, among the internet streaming subscription services, only Tidal and Qobuz currently offer superior quality, though that of course may well change. Another digital audio temptation for the hi-fi enthusiast is to download ‘high-resolution’ files, which usually offer a resolution of 24-bits (against 16-bits for CD), and a sampling rate of 96kHz, 192kHz or even 384kHz (versus CD’s 44.1kHz). That said, their superiority is still a matter of some debate, while Meridian’s MQA coding initiative, currently just a good story, also shows much promise.

The bottom line must be that digital audio may well represent the future, and on all sorts of different quality levels. Technology will continue to evolve at a frightening rate, and will undoubtedly be embraced by the younger generation, but that is also why many will continue to embrace old-fashioned but reassuringly stable vinyl.