Whether they are component, circuit, or system designers, engineers are used to striving towards better and better performance, towards that unattainable goal of perfection. Error sources are analyzed, then designed around, designed out, compensated for, cancelled, whatever it takes.
So it was quite a shock when I read a Wall Street Journal story “Over High-Fidelity, Companies Attempt to Refocus on Sound” (March 1, 2006). Unlike most news stories these days, which rely on a few casual observations and anecdotes, plus personal examples to support their contention of a trend, this article had some solid numbers as well. (Side note : I find most of today's so-called “reporting” style deplorable and meaningless, you can always find anecdotes and someone to support any contention.) Sales of high-end audio equipment (aka “high fidelity” or “hi-fi”) dropped, in units, by 18% between 2004 and 2005 to 10 million units, while portable digital player sales (iPod, MP3, etc) tripled to 22.4 million units in the same period.
Even allowing for some error in the data, the direction is pretty clear. Vendors of high-end “stereo” systems are cutting back on their offerings, or discontinuing those lines, and instead focusing on auxiliary systems for the portable players: amplifiers, speakers, and interfaces. Audiophile publications, too, are feeling the change, and re-directing their content.
What this says is that our goals of perfection may not align with the broad public, who are saying that the convenience and capacity of the compressed digital format used for the portable players is good enough. Sure, a conventional CD has better sound, technically, but difference is either too slight for most people to notice, or the standards of the average consumer have been degraded by the ubiquitous compressed format. It's likely some of both, depending on the listener and his or her ears. Or maybe it's a subconscious revolt against the audiophile mystique, with all that talk of tube versus transistor sound, the need for oxygen-free high-conductivity speaker cables as thick as your thumb, and more?
But regardless of the reason, it's a reminder to designers that simply striving to improve fundamental performance specifications may not be the best thing to do, for many applications and markets. Lots of applications don't need the ultimate in pure performance, they'd rather have longer run times, or lighter weight, or greater capacity.
Disruptive technologies have a lot of unexpected ripple effects, as well. I recently read about a house for sale that had a very expensive, recently installed, custom-built CD changer, to hold and manage the owner's 1000+ CDs. Unfortunately for him, rather than being an asset to the house's sale, it was now regarded as a detriment!
Bill Schweber , Site Editor, Planet Analog