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Audio / Video / Cars / Gadgets

Audio progress over the last 20 years
(1989 - 2009)

We've seen lots of progress in the past 20 years.

I’ve been following this hobby for 40 years now, and trying to stay at the bleeding edge as much as I could afford to along the way.

So here is my take on the various areas that have seen the greatest progress in that period:

Sources

The rise (and occasional fall) of high-resolution multichannel digital : SACD / DVD-A / BluRay

Jitter-free linkups like DenonLink 4 allow all the above to be sent to a suitable preamp with no degradation.

Ever since CD-4 / SQ back in the 70’s I’ve lusted for better surround sound, and it finally has arrived in the past decade.

Now, with access to ultra-high quality multichannel, it’s the rest of the system that labors to keep up.

Server based music is a huge step in terms of convenience and with Preamps that decode inside (e.g. Denon AVP-A1HD), transports are no longer a concern.

Amps

New topologies refined, such as the Sunfire class G and many variants of Class D

We now have amps that can produce huge amounts of power (and current in the case of Class G) that don’t heat up a room and run up your power bill. 

Speakers

Much could be written here, as the explosion of DIY has lead to many interesting designs. But primarily it’s the funded R&D at leading speaker manufactures the world over that is truly amazing.

I’ll select a few of the most significant that I’ve seen:

Coincident drivers, like the KEF UniQ and Vienna acoustics and Thiel, are all great improvements for point-source designs.

The use of computer-aided virtualized design, and high-resolution real-world testing (e.g. laser vibrometry) have allowed not only tremendous driver design improvements but introduced innovative speaker cabinet designs (e.g KEF Muon, Blade, B&W Nautilus)

Line sources have also progressed, with Wisdom audio providing good examples with a completely vertically integrate Sage line. Scaena has a great product as well. Unfortunately, this is a niche market due to size/price, but performance is out of this world.

Since I'm a fan, I’d need to talk about Electrostats.

I’d say the MartinLogan DualForce bass driver (in the CLX) is a truly innovative design that has yet to see its full potential exploited.

Other ESL progress, such as the Xstat microperf panels are more evolutionary. Cool, but not radical.

The rise in powered bass driver amplification is also notable as a major improvement in the line, allowing external amps to deal only with the panel.

Room Acoustics

While it’s been known for a long time that acoustics are important, I feel that in the past 20 years we’ve seen a much greater emphasis on small room acoustics and the art of room tuning.

Accessible solutions like Realtraps, GIK and others are allowing more of us to tame the beast that is the small room.

Knowledge and research has also exploded on this topic, with introduction of books like Floyd Toole’s – Sound Reproduction a major landmark.

Much more accessible end-user tools for acoustic measuring are another huge boon. Laptops that run REW and other measurement software open up a whole new world of insight to individuals, providing problem identification and improvement validation.

Room Correction

If I had to pick only one item as the most significant progress in the past 20 years, it would the arena of room correction.

Not only have the hardware solutions improved, but much of the research behind technologies such as Audyssey have been ground-breaking in terms of how to measure and how to integrate all that data into meaningful and accurate correction profiles.

While spectral domain corrections (e.g. parametric EQ) have been around forever, the true innovation is the ability to now integrate the temporal domain as well into the speaker/room correction models.

Again Audyssey is the ground-breaking tech here, with their convolved FIR-based corrections, they address critical issues such as delayed reflections and provide vastly improved soundstages.

On top of room correction, rides a whole new wave of dynamics management solutions:

Dynamic loudness compensation (e.g. Audyssey Dynamic EQ, DBX AutoWarmth, etc.) that provides spectral and relative-volume rebalancing as a function of the master volume level.

Dynamic Volume compensation (e.g Audyssey Dynamic Vol, Dolby Volume) with provides users with ‘smart’ gain riding and dynamic compression to equalize program material volume transitions and to allow for improved low-volume speech comprehension while maintaining a limited max level for late-night listening.

While all of the above is absolutely flabbergasting in terms of the audible, as well as usability improvements, we’ve only started to see what these and related technologies can provide. Stay tuned …

 Communities

 One of the biggest improvements has been the Internet and the rise of online, collaborative (OK sometimes combative ;) ) forums such as MLC, where we can all share our knowledge and experiences.

These highly focused verticals are enabling more people to enjoy better sound reproduction and definitely improving the economics of the vendors (how many $’s have you spent due to someone posting about a piece of gear?)

So, lot’s of progress IMHO.

 

Links

Various forums, sites and other places I hang out in and that I think are neat places to visit.