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Where Exactly Is Audio in 2005?

Back at the turn of the millennium (remember that?), I did one of those smarmy Fugawi columns where we took stock of where we were and made some brave, brash and perhaps foolish predictions about where we were gonna be. Well, five years have gone by, and it's time for a fresh look.


In 2000, we were all in quite a lather about improved resolution. We were getting really worked up about the threat/promise of 24 bits and 192,000 samples per second.

Oh, the recordings we'd make! The clarity we'd hear!! The accuracy!!! The accuracy!!!! The accuracy of it all!!!!

In 2005, hi-rez audio formats like SACD and DVD-A now serve an elite niche market. Their future is not secure. A check of reveals that fewer than 100 DVD-As or SACDs are for sale. Not a boom. Not even a boomlet. Could be a bustlet!

Meanwhile, lo-rez is getting a little more respectable. Thanks mainly to the iPod and its AAC data-compression algorithm, we've come to love our lo-rez. Similarly, satellite radio is achieving considerable acceptance with comparatively little whining about poor audio quality. All this suggests that we've found a point of lo-rez acceptance that seems viable. It's here to stay, at least for the short term, and maybe the midterm.

In 2003, I suggested that hi- and lo-rez formats were splitting the market into two distinct social groups--the high-end elite segment and a low-rent, hi-noise brutally commercialized mass-market segment.

The former is certainly in place (and unfortunately, way too small and elite), while the latter seems to have spread out into a more general middle-class segment whose taste for resolution seems to be converging with our middle-resolution format, the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz Fs CD--not quite so low-rent, high-noise or brutally commercial as we might have expected.


A couple of trips to the audio store this Christmas made it pretty clear to me that hi-fi is definitely out and home theater/HD has definitely replaced it. It's not clear to me what people actually do with this stuff when they get it home, but they must be buying it, because that's what the stores have in inventory, along with clock radios and "media" speakers, (those tiny speakers designed to spice up your computer, sort of).

With HD video now beginning to show up in programming, I suspect there is also a growing set of enhanced expectations from our lo-rez consumers. When you wander into the audio store and the salespeople sit you down and play a good demo of home theater with an excellent DVD, a nice big HDTV screen and a moderately good 5.1 loudspeaker array, it's a little hard to go back to what you currently have disgracing your living room. So, you plunge for one of those HDTV flat-screen beauties and begin to expect that same visceral thrill that you got at the demo, even when you tune in network or cable offerings.

Uh-oh, that's us!

I've written about this before, but it's no longer just early adopters who are buying HD home theater systems. The expectations of those customers will drive demand for improved and expanded audio production values over the next several years. You heard it here first (several years ago, in fact!).


To my ears, the quality of audio production seems to be up and good enough so that I don't snarl back at the TV much anymore. I hear comparatively few truly boneheaded moments in live video these days.

Volume levels are still all over the place, but they seem to fall into two tiers--the analog tier of real-time broadcast and cable offerings versus the digital tier of movie, pay-per-view and music offerings. The analog tier seems to have somewhat improved stability and consistency. It's better, but not good yet.

So I'm happy to report that, in general, the quality of audio delivery via broadcast and cable television has gotten better over the past five years. Spectrum, signal dynamic range and linearity (tone quality, loudness and lack of distortion) all seem to be generally better, with fewer embarrassing lapses either in production or transmission.

On the other hand, I'm sorry to report that audio seems to be poorly understood by TV production people (in general), based on things people have told me during a couple of educational forays I've made. The serious audio people are really sharp, but in production overall, there is generally poor understanding of the audio aspect of video production, which limits what we can accomplish. I hope that during the next five years, audio manages to get on everybody's radar screen as a critical quality item. That would be cool.


In 2000, I had a list of stuff that I thought wouldn't change very much, including microphones, loudspeakers, cables, grounding problems, acoustics, balanced lines, hard disks, system crashes, DSP, ASP, interface problems, the cost of patchbays, client complaints, salaries/lack thereof, unreasonable expectations, not enough time, control rooms, vocal booths and so on.

This list has held, though I'm pleased to say that I think my work on acoustic lenses has made at least a little improvement in loudspeaker technology and that acceptance of them will continue to grow (to date, I estimate that several tens of thousands of loudspeakers with acoustic lenses have been sold)--but enough about me.

The point remains valid. A great deal of our audio world, within and beyond the video business, remains stable, known and reasonably predictable. The same conditions for obtaining excellence apply. As always, if it were easy, everybody would do it!

I'm looking forward to the next five years. See you there!

Thanks for listening.