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The Future of High Fidelity

A lot has changed on the technology landscape since I started writing this column in January 2000. As I move into my eighth year as an observer and commentator on the custom installation business, I want to open this new year with a look at where high fidelity audio now stands in our growing industry.

HDTV is Here
After much hullabaloo, HDTV has finally arrived, though the transition has been painfully slow. Aside from paid programming and sports, HD content is still in short supply for many viewers who have access to only about a half dozen highly compressed HD channels.

After years of waiting for an HD playback format, the good news is Blu-ray and HD-DVD disc players are finally available for under $400. These discs and their players finally deliver the quality of picture and sound that we should expect from HDTVa vital step in the transition.

Remote Not in Control
Now that the TV makers have had years to perfect their HDTVs, you would think that they might better understand the basic end-user experience. The bad news is that manufacturers still dont have a clue about how to properly build remote controls. They are blind to the fact that millions of home theater owners are completely frustrated trying to use their remotes.

HDTV has multiplied the complexity of the average home theater. Homeowners will never understand all of the video and audio formats involved today. Switching video on an HDTV while simultaneously switching audio on a surround receiver is just not possible with supplied remotes. This remote control chaos is a gift to custom installers and CI-centric manufacturers, as it leaves the door wide open for them to step in as heroes and provide intelligent control systems.

The iPod and Hi-Fi
While HDTV is the center of attention in home video, iPods are center stage in the home audio world. They represent a near-perfect user interface, and as system designers, we must fully comprehend the implications of this phenomenal success. The clear message is that a great controller with mediocre sound beats out great sound with a mediocre controller. For home systems this means picture quality is getting much, much better while sound quality is getting much, much worse.

As I contemplate the future of custom AV installation, I am concerned that high-fidelity sound is declining significantly. Just about every maker of audio distribution products has rushed to create installed-iPod solutions. Any installer who can plug in an iPod interface is now selling whole-house systems. This approach has lowered the price for entry-level multiroom music systems and at the same time has significantly lowered the quality of audio.

At the same time, the switch to flat screens has created a trend to downsized plastic speakers for the home that look nice next to a four-inch deep TV. I heard that some industry-leading speaker manufacturers now make more profit selling little plastic iPod mini-systems than they do selling traditional speakers, while stereo warehouse stores no longer carry higher quality brands and have eliminated quality listening rooms where higher-end gear can be evaluated by a serious listener. Tweeter and Ultimate/Sound Track have gone bankrupt trying to sell higher quality gear while competing with warehouse discount stores. This makes it harder for the average buyer to hear and appreciate good-quality components and speakers. Small stereo boutiques that carry high-end gear may be facing extinction in the future. All of this could take down the remaining makers of high-end audio gear.

Then there is the youth factor. Todays young listeners have had less exposure to high-quality music, and it seems that they are content listening to the shallow sound quality of downloaded MP3s on their cell phones.
All of this evolution can have a major impact on the future of our custom installation industry.

Vote Yes
All of us need to cast our votes on the future of high-fidelity sound. It is profitable for us to raise these standards and build the reputations of our companies by installing superb-quality music systems for our clients. There are those among us who love, respect, and deeply appreciate the powerful emotions that can be conveyed through the art of music when it is reproduced to the highest standards. We can and should be the guiding force in our industry as we work with the highest-end customers in the world. It falls to us to educate them and share with them the most artistically satisfying results possible.

The next time you meet with clients, vote Yes for the future of high-fidelity sound. Show them and sell them a system that far exceeds their musical expectations. Vote Yes for the future of your business.