2020 — the year that wasn’t. December means it’s time to celebrate some of the most impressive hi-fi products of the year. Not just for me but for many other listeners. And yet to make a big noise with a 2020 end-of-year list would be tone-deaf to how the Coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted so many of us. Let’s dial down the celebration to simple acknowledgement. Where this year’s award assignation differs to previous years is that it’s coming to you in video form.
I’ll step over the toxicity of ‘best’ (“best for whom?”) to clarify two points: products up for consideration this year, as with years past, 1) must have passed through my house and 2) must have been released in 2020 (or the very back end of 2019). Think about it: the album of 2020 wasn’t released in 2016 or 1997 and no music writer worth their salt would call a top pick without first dedicating some serious time to listen to it. Why should hi-fi be any different?
Of course, no one writer/YouTuber can hear it all. There were no doubt some excellent products released in 2020 that I missed due to time constraints. I’ll not bore you again with the specifics of video production and the time it devours. Instead, I’ll add a few thoughts to complement the video below.
That the future of hi-fi will be dominated by streaming even my Mom could see. Maybe less obvious to casual observers is the increasing use of DSP: for the active noise cancellation that now dominates the entry-level headphone and earphone space; for phase-error-free crossovers (KEF LS50 Wireless and Buchardt A500); for loudspeaker re/voicing according to taste or room (KEF and Buchardt again), for room correction (Dirac, Lyngdorf and Buchardt again) and for Fletcher-Munson-derived low-level listening compensation (Buchardt…again).
On hardware boxes, I see two distinct strands of Future-Fi: (Digitally) active loudspeakers and – for those who prefer to choose their own electronics – passive loudspeakers connected to integrated amplifiers that do everything else. 2020 saw even more manufacturers announce super-integrateds that pick-n-mix from a list of optional extras like a network streamer, a DAC, a phono stage or a headphone amplifier.
Whether we’re into active or passive loudspeakers, Future-Fi means fewer boxes that do more, even if our choice comes at the expense of functional flexibility or absolute audio performance. It’s clear that many consumers will take a small hit to sound quality (over and above separates housed in a hi-fi rack) if it means their hi-fi system can become less physically intrusive.
Future-Fi isn’t only about hardware. Streaming (and DSP) necessitates software. And experience tells us that software presents more of a challenge than hardware, its development often putting a (financial) strain on any manufacturer bringing a streaming product to market. We can count on one hand the number of streaming products whose in-house developed apps are slick enough to cause some users to park Roon. Auralic’s Lightning DS and KEF’s Connect are two shining examples. BluOS is very good. As is dCS’ Mosaic. These are the exceptions. Many manufacturer-supplied apps when used in isolation could best be described as ‘good enough’. But sat next to Roon, Spotify Connect, Plex/Plexamp or Tidal Connect, that ‘good enough’ quickly turns upside down to become the opposite.
Manufacturers often ship UPnP-based apps with their products so that users can stream Internet radio or music from a storage device directly-inserted into the unit’s front or rear panel or from a NAS. But are these apps really worth the cost of development (or white-label app re-branding) when those costs heavily impact the hardware’s retail price and the end result often delivers as much frustration as it does utility?
Furthermore, we continue to see hardware manufacturers take a serious reputational hit because they didn’t get the software right at (or close to) their streaming product’s debut. Complaints about KEF’s Control and Stream – for use with the LSX and original LS50 Wireless – continue to come thick and fast. Forum chatter tells us that Chord Electronics’ GoFigure app has caused many of its users a serious headache. Naim’s Uniti Series’ Google Chromecast glitching has been a two-year irritation. Hegel’s Roon implementation is still not with us well over a year after first being mooted. Peachtree Audio took the painful decision to abandon midway a project to put network streaming inside their latest range of integrateds. Software is hard.
With their digitally active A500 loudspeaker system, Buchardt shows a way forward for risk-averse players or those with shallower pockets. Their Platin hub, that talks WISA to the A500 loudspeakers themselves, comes with no apps of its own. It’s an off-the-shelf solution that relies wholly on third-party apps, hooking wirelessly into a home network via Google Chromecast before offering up support for Roon, Spotify Connect, Airplay and UPnP/DLNA — a streaming support set that no doubt freed up funds that might have otherwise been sucked into a black hole by in-house software development. I’d imagine it’s only a matter of time before Tidal Connect is added to the feature set.
Our final Future-Fi thought relates to how hi-fi is sold. Buchardt shows us a crystal clear future for hifi retail where international distributors and dealers (and their profit margins) are passed over in favour of a worldwide direct sales model. Buchardt’s webstore price puts the A500 at your door for a 45-day home trial, shipping and duties paid, irrespective of where you live in the world. A return sets us back only €50 — the effective price of a home demo. Bravo.