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Friday, March 27, 2015

Sound Advice for a New Gear Year

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2015 at 11:56 AM

  • © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki (Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)
So, you exited Christmas flush with gift cards and $12 checks from grandma. You poured over all the “Best of 2014” lists and hit up iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc., to cherry-pick albums you missed. As one of your New Year's Resolutions you rededicated yourself to discovering fresh favorites, so consider extending that from downloads to upgrades. In January, as gear announcements flooded social media during the Consumer Electronics Show and National Association of Music Merchants trade show, it wasn’t hard to realize that new music could use some extra get up and go while on the move.

Now it’s a few months later, a lot of the previewed gear has hit the market, a lot of future classic albums have been released and it’s a great time to invest in some full-bodied, full-featured audio accessories. To make sure you’re ready for every surprise midnight iTunes drop and that those playlists never start sounding stale, I’m going to offer up some hardware suggestions for the year(s) to come.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to tell you about personal monitoring devices that can maximize playback, starting with headphones with noise reduction and military-grade specs, in-ear monitors with pioneering crossovers and innovative drivers, plus much more. Before long we’ll get to digital audio converters, Bluetooth speakers, wireless headphones, and that's just the beginning. But before I start running down contenders for your new favorite ’phones I want you to chew on one fact: Dr. Dre was the highest paid “musician” of 2014 according to Forbes magazine, which reports he earned over $620 million before taxes without releasing one song or playing a single show.

The Reason: Beats by Dre headphones (as well as the brand’s speakers and streaming service), and the sale of the company to Apple for $3.2 billion. Say what you want about the exaggerated bass and artificial response of Beats (and over the past few years I have said plenty of negative things), but the demand for its products has cemented higher-priced headphones as far more than the niche hobbyist market it once was.

Banking on a potential sea change as headphones became a $1 billion-a-year market, the Consumer Electronics Association declared 2014 the first year high-resolution audio existed as an officially designated market segment, with “HRA” branded components debuting.

Neil Young pushed for high-resolution audio with his Kickstarter-funded PonoPlayer/PonoMusic ecosystem, finally launching the the high-fidelity music store alongside the 2015 
click to enlarge pono-players-yellow-blue.png
Consumer Electronics Show (the $399 hardware followed a week later). People are already decrying PonoMusic’s prices, though they are in sync with other similar services. In the recent past the TIDAL subscription service also went live to woo Spotify users away with “lossless,” CD-quality streaming (albeit for twice as much a month as competitors). It held so much potential that none other than Jay-Z purchased the company for over $56 million and has struck a deal with T-Mobile to allow the carrier's Music Freedom plan customers to stream its catalog (including anti-Spotify Taylor Swift) without taking a data hit.

Selections from Pono, TIDAL, HDtracks, etc., definitively provide more rich harmonics and nimble transients. They deliver less tizzy snares and other distracting compression artifacts than the more popular, lossy platforms. You might not think the surcharge for higher bitrates is worth it, and that’s okay; some people think cucumbers taste better pickled.

I’m a believer in high fidelity, but when a company like Sony previews its latest digital Walkman, the ZX2, I see the $1,200 price tag and I recognize they’re feeding the niche not nurturing the market. Luckily, you can get improved sound without such premium prices. Even MP3 can sound better when you optimize your signal chain! So, with CES and NAMM reports and that future of audio talk behind us, let’s look at some sound investments for your listening pleasure.

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Tony Ware


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