With everyone having computers, mobile phones, and MP3 players, is there a place for home audio systems in our digital age?
Music has always been a huge part of my life. I listen to it every day. My parents were heavily into music and still are – my dad favoured the electronic synth era surrounding me with Gary Numan growing up, while my mum took the more pop route with Steve Harley, Elvis Costello, and Dr. Hook.
In the late 80s, my dad had a Sharp home stereo system with record deck, AM/FM radio, and twin high-speed dubbing cassette deck. The record deck featured state of the art linear tracking and could play the other side of a vinyl without needing to flip it. It was amazing to see the arm go across and then rotate and disappear underneath and then start playing. Skipping forward/backward and play/pause was done via ‘full logic’ buttons rather than manually lifting and placing the arm.
I remember him buying a CD player for it, that came from a friend. It didn’t match the rest of the entertainment system; it plugged in to the auxiliary jacks on the back of the stereo and was the first CD player I had seen. I was still a pre-teen then, and I didn’t own any compact discs, just a few vinyls my parents sent my way: One Step Beyond by Madness, One Small Step by Apollo II, and Too Shy by Kajagoogoo to name a few.
I was under strict instructions not to use my dad’s entertainment system. It was his pride and joy. Of course when my parents were out I had a play – who wouldn’t. The lure of the magical silver discs was too strong.
A few years on in the early 90s I got my own CD player, a little all-in-one boom box, and I started building my CD collection. It mainly consisted of acid house, early dance, and 80s new romantic stuff. The love of decent sounding music saw my equipment grow to a mini Aiwa hi-fi with wall mounted speakers and then connecting my computer to it.
The start of the MP3 era was significant. Music no longer needed to be in physical form. Tracks could be stored on your computer and instantly played, with WinAmp ruling the media players. The MP3 scene started the highly controversial illegal file sharing saga with the likes of Napster taking the limelight.
Portable music was even more important to me – it was a means of escaping when doing my paper rounds, walking to work, and now in general day-to-day use. From portable cassette players to CD players to MiniDisc recorders and then to iPods and finally the shift to music on my phone.
Over the next decade, I got married and had kids. My CD collection shrank, as did my audio equipment. I went from a giant Kenwood stack system with speakers that could clear your cobwebs for you, down to just a computer with decent speakers, and then further down to a laptop. My shelves and shelves of CDs turned into disc space on an external hard drive.
Music downloads became legit, and record companies got in on it. It was suddenly the likes of Apple taking charge of music distribution. Record stores began to close as physical sales dropped in favour of downloads, streams, and online videos.
I no longer listen to music pounding out on a stereo. I listen to my music on my Mac or via earphones on an iPod/iPhone.
The Kenwood system went in my young son’s room as his interest in music started. Living in the digital online and YouTube age, he quickly moved from the CDs he was given to having music on his computer and phone too – although played through the system to sound better.
A few months ago, the large Kenwood system was sold off due to lack of use and taking up too much space, and for the first time ever there was no longer a decent high quality standalone music centre in our house.
My CD collection is down to a few gems that I don’t want to part with for nostalgic reasons but rarely come out – as I have nothing except a DVD player or the external drive on my MacBook Air to play them on.
It’s a Generation Thing
Even my dad, who once prided himself on his home audio system in its own glass fronted cabinet, no longer has a giant entertainment system, instead opting for a smaller all-in-one audio dock with CD/DAB. He gets on fairly well with technology and tends to use his phone and car for music.
My generation seems to be the last who has a relationship with physical media for audio. My son of 13 doesn’t own a single CD, while my son of 11 and daughter of 9 have a few – but all of them prefer to use their mobile phones or just stream music or watch them on YouTube.
My youngest of 5 is likely to grow up never walking into a shop and buying a CD. Everything will be digital, instant, and disposable. He will look at my CDs like my older ones looked at me when showing them a personal cassette player or when my dad pulled out a reel-to-reel player in our garage.
Vinyl might be making a comeback, but CD sales are in serious decline. The vinyl resurgence is likely to be short-lived, a strange niche. For some serious audio lover, CDs lacked that warm feeling that a crackling 12” with its immense sleeve artwork gave them. Nothing physical overtook CDs – we entered the download and streaming era. While I am happy to download music, I don’t like the idea of streaming. I like to have something I can control. A disk full of MP3 files (with the option to redownload if needed) is a happy medium for me.
There does seem a lack of sound quality or perhaps a lack of interest in sound quality since MP3 players and mobile phones had the ability to play back MP3. The files themselves can be very high quality, but it is the equipment used to play them that lets it down. There is nothing worse than someone sitting their phone on a desk and playing out music on it – all flat, bassless, and interrupted by Facebook notifications every other song. Devices are too small to reproduce quality music no matter what audio technology or speakers are placed in it.
The best you can hope for there is to link it to an audio dock or decent Bluetooth speaker.
Just because I don’t own a hi-fi anymore doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good sound quality. My audio collection might be stored on my iPhone for convenience, but I rarely play it directly from the phone. I have a decent pair of EarPods for personal listening and a good quality Bluetooth audio speaker for when I feel I want to hear music out loud.
Writing this article on my MacBook Air, it is connected to a Bluetooth speaker and I have iTunes running in the background banging out some speed garage mixes.
Ten years ago I would still be using my computer for music, but attached to a hi-fi sound system.
Ten years before that I would have popped a CD in my hi-fi.
However times change.
Buying Audio Equipment
Whilst writing this article, I went online and looked in Argos – a long established UK catalogue shop – at their home audio section. It is dominated by iPod docks, Bluetooth speakers, and small portable systems. Even their hi-fi section looks nothing like it used to, filled with micro systems aimed at offering a glorified CD player with USB, Bluetooth, or audio dock obviously aimed at pleasing both markets.
There are, of course, dedicated audio equipment stores and websites, but even these are being taken over by the docks and mini systems in a bid to keep up with the modern world – and of course to stay open. Individual components all linked together or giant hi-fi systems seem to be a thing of the past or a thing for audiophiles.
Most people these days have no need for a tape deck or record player, and some don’t even need a dedicated CD player, so while the age of the dedicated home stereo system might be a niche market nowadays, most of us still like quality playback when it comes to our music.
Portable music quality and music on your computer is vastly better than it was ten years ago, but we have lost the golden age of dedicated equipment and the act of sitting down and listening to a new album. Everything seems much more busy. More portable. More instant. More disposable.
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