The enthusiast's audio webzine

The Impermanence of Technology

For longer than I care to admit (OK, it admit it, 38 years) I suppose I’ve been an audiophile. I would not have labeled myself as such until a few years ago, but music, and the faithful reproduction thereof, have been important to me for a very long time.

For most of this time I’ve viewed the technology I use to listen to music as solid and reliable. Changing, of course, but fundamentally consistent. Amplifiers, turntables and speakers have evolved, but the notion of obsolescence was remote: I still use an AR-XA turntable that dates from the sixties; the technology is fundamentally the same as my VPI Classic 2.

The advent of digital has changed all that. Not so much the CD, but the dematerialization of music via digital technologies. Not only has this phenomenon upset the music industry, it has had an impact on the end-user. The pace of change is becoming increasingly more rapid and the fear of obsolescence more acute.

I’m resolutely not a Luddite: Some time ago I ripped all my CDs to a very large hard drive and I use a Logitech Squeezebox Touch front-end to listen to music. On the other hand, I have retained my SACD player (and use it regularly) and prefer my turntable and vinyl for serious listening. Nonetheless, there are challenges to a digital life, as I note below.

DACs are a reality for those of us who wish to play music from a streaming device, or to bypass the internal DAC in our CD players. But the explosion of choices has added complexity to the lives of audiophiles. The profusion of devices available, at widely differing price points (and all offering some real or imagined superiority) is mind-bending. Adding to this is the pace of technological change: these devices are constantly being upgraded, usually necessitating a new purchase (rather than just a software upgrade) to remain current. Last year I received a Cambridge Audio DAC Magic for review; a lovely piece of gear, beautiful-sounding. I was halfway through writing the review when — guess what? — the DAC Magic+ was introduced. I scrapped the initial review and am now listening to the new product.

The other boot dropped when I learned that the manufacturer of my Squeezebox Touch has discontinued the unit, without apparently introducing a direct replacement. If this turns out to be true, it’s a real shame, because the Touch is a marvelous device at a very competitive price (and I shall treasure mine). Having said that, maybe that is what I get for buying an audio device from a company that makes mice and webcams.

The point is, between increasingly frequent upgrades and product obsolescence, the industry risks turning off the people whose purchases sustain it. It’s all a bit like the hysteria over the next iPhone: once launched, sales decline after six months because “the next one” is about to be introduced and nobody wants last year’s technology. Say what you will about my turntable: tt’s as modern this year as it was last year, and next year it will remain equally relevant. And some of us derive a bit of comfort from that.

What is your view? Is technology (or the marketing of technology) simply moving too fast? Or is this simply the new paradigm? Let me know your thoughts.


Image credit

The image shown for this article on the index page is of a magnetic core memory that stores 1024 bits of data.  The image is available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Core Memory from Wikimedia Commons

Readers' comments

    There is definitely a feeling of being “left in the dust” with the rate that companies are updating their products and it does leave an uneasy feeling for someone investing in some of these pricey products!

    I really only officially started my hifi journey about a year ago after literally years of research and playing a game of double-dutch (if you will) with my entry or eventual purchase of some gear. Started off with headphones because they seemed to be the best bang for my buck as far as what it could get out of my listening experience. Then I bought an amp that was really a speaker amp but I got a mod where I could put a headphone output on it (sweet). So I then got some desktop speakers and a good source. Most of my listening has been with CD’s over the years so I figured I’d get a CD player (naturally) but was careful to get one that had a digital input so I could start to download hi-rez music files and hear how I liked them. I had a vintage turntable that had been collecting dust for years that I “resurrected” and also got a nice phono stage to pair it with..

    I tried to get components that had some sort of flexibility like the CD player that has the digital input or the amplifier that has a headphone output. These aspects make me feel like they will help tide me over as I inevitably watch the latest and (supposed) greatest get announced every few months or so. My amp has a lifetime warranty which is super rare and this gives me a feeling of security. Also if there are any improvements made to their product line, many of the improvements are made available to owners. It helps you build a relationship with a company. I like that. There are some companies out there that offer trade in programs for when you want to step-up to a better higher priced model they offer, but don’t want to loose money by selling what you have already to fund the purchase. I WISH more companies would offer something like this. Some of the biggest and fastest changes are happening (as I think you mentioned) in the computer audio world and I feel that this is a particular place that would be smart to invest in if a company offers trade in programs or the ability to send your gear to them for upgrades should you feel the need to. The analogue world does seem pretty stable in regards to innovation, it’s really this digital side that’s moving like crazy. It is exciting.

    I thing one of the best things about a technology advancing quickly, and specifically the digital music playback realm, is that we are seeing a MUCH wider gamut of prices and products that are available. Now someone who has only $100 or even $50 can find a DAC to pair with their computer or digital player. I think this is pretty great 🙂

  • I think you are missing the bigger picture.
    Technology is changing, the population is changing, the focus is changing.
    So what will everything look like in 2030?

    I think the independent audio industry as we know it today is largely gone!
    Augmented reality of all sorts will incorporate all types of human sensoric inputs where sound will be an integral part.
    All sensory stimuli will be controlled by embedded computers and tailored to your personal preferences and environment
    Sound quality and predictability will be better – but not a stand-alone utility.

    Will we still have audiophiles in 2030 – Yes & No – they will mostly be sensophiles.

    In 2030 Audiophiles will be as hip as the few people still do morse code on HF!
    But hey – I might be one of them!

  • Its like getting rid of my 10 yr old cd player. When its all about the la6and greatest. Nevrr again, i did it with a digital amp 10 yrs agp. The sound was so bad i wanted to scream and pull my hair out. NEVER AGAIN. My current cd player is not just good enough, its outstanding. Anyone who says cd sucks,then blame the recording not the player.Ive got a 20 yr old amp,that works perfect, why chase the latest? It just marketing.
    Im still amazed with system i put together many yrs ago.

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