I don’t know about you, but I find myself playing fewer and fewer CDs these days. It’s not that I’m listening to music any less, but rather that I’m accessing that music from a server rather than from physical media. This trend is accelerating as music servers sound better, are easier to set up and use, and have become more convenient.
I was probably one of the first to add iPad control to my music system via Apple’s free Remote app. My server is a bare-bones iMac running iTunes and Pure Music – an app for iTunes. Without an iPad, one has to choose music at the computer with the mouse or via the keyboard if you’re very clever. With my iPad I can sit in my favourite listening chair and access my music library via the iPad’s brilliant interface. I now spend more time enjoying music and less time standing at the CD cabinet with my head turned sideways looking for a particular disc. There’s no going back!
Despite the wholesale migration toward file-based music systems, I was surprised by an incident involving a visiting loudspeaker manufacturer who was setting up a pair of speakers.
After the speakers were roughly in place and we were about to listen to music for the first time, I directed him to my disc player, opened the drawer, handed him the remote control, and invited him to play his reference discs so that he could dial-in the speakers’ positions. “Discs?” he snorted. “I don’t play discs.” He proceeded to pull out his laptop and asked me for a USB connection to my DAC so that he could play his music from iTunes.
The world has embraced computer-based audio systems, but audiophiles have been a bit more cautious. That’s because we refuse to compromise sound quality for convenience, and have generally stuck with the tried-and-true until we’re sure that computer audio can deliver sound quality on par with the best CD. That promise is now a reality: USB interfaces and USB cables have greatly improved; software such as Pure Music that gets the best possible sound from iTunes. Likewise, today’s DACs offer unprecedented performance and value; and storage is so cheap as to be virtually free. With pennies-per-megabyte disc drives, there’s absolutely no need for lossy compression formats such as MP3.
Computer audio is a powerful tool for accessing and enjoying music, not just because of the convenience factor but for two other compelling attributes; the ability to buy music downloads and the opportunity for listening to high-resolution digital. Browsing a music store from your listening seat opens up a world of new musical discoveries, and high-resolution digital offers a more involving listening experience than standard-definition digital. Together downloads and high-res offer a powerful synergy.
Back in the 1990s when audiophiles were hoping for a better-sounding successor to the compact disc, we had no idea that just around the corner lay the potential for bypassing physical formats altogether. Establishing a new packaged-media format is an unbelievably long and expensive process, with no guarantee that the format will succeed in the marketplace. But the combination of computer audio and the Internet has given us access to high-resolution digital audio without the need for a physical format. Instead of waiting for record companies and hardware manufacturers to fight it out, often with competing formats, we can instead download, 24 hours a day, high-resolution music to our music servers right from the listening seat.
If that’s not a revolution, I don’t know what is.