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What is Future-Fi in 2023?

  • In 2016, on the back of reviewing the LS50 Wireless from KEF, I coined the term Future-Fi. Like the KEF monitors, my concatenation of ‘Future’ and ‘Hifi’ signposted a shortcut to a future where hi-fi racks full of separate components were no longer needed.

    Last summer, I marked Future-Fi ‘s fifth birthday with a podcast discussion with Michael Lavorgna but anyone journeying further back into this site’s archives can easily find numerous articles and videos to which I have lent the Future-Fi label.

    Earlier this year, I resurrected the Future-Fi Now! wrapper that previously ran for six months in 2021 as a way to publish news announcements as YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels.

    But what is Future-Fi in 2023? I invented the term so I should be able to define it.

    The broad thrust of Future-Fi is that it’s an antidote to traditional hi-fi’s more maximalist tendencies: of hi-fi racks accommodating separates; their power supplies and tinker-boxen; python-esque cabling and power filtering/regeneration. Future-Fi’s neighbours are ‘minimalism’ and ‘integration’ who collectively talk to minimalists (and pragmatists!) wanting only two loudspeakers and perhaps one extra outboard box in their lounge room – or headphones that work with an existing smartphone and without the intervention of an outboard DAP, DAC/amp or dongle DAC. All Future-Fi devices are smartphone controllable and configurable to effectively defenestrate the physical formats beloved by so many (including yours truly).

    Instead, Future-Fi locks onto music streaming to be broken down into three strands:

    1. Streaming active loudspeakers. Not just active loudspeakers but active loudspeakers with a streaming module and DACs built into one or both speaker cabinets. The end user plugs each speaker into the wall and connects the system to his/her home network to be up and running with streaming music within ten minutes and, crucially, with no more components to add. (Any in-built room correction software ices the cake).
    2. Passive loudspeakers that are driven by a streaming amplifier. This is the sweet spot for most consumers because it offers a much broader range of loudspeaker possibilities. However, the Future-Fi component here isn’t the loudspeaker but the amplifier as it contains a DAC and a streaming board to allow the end user to hardwire it to his/her chosen passive speakers and be up and running with smartphone-controllable music in minutes and with no more hardware to add. Again, in-built room correction would be a pleasant extra.
    3. What about headphones? Unlike their sometimes (but not always) superior-sounding wired brethren, Bluetooth headphones require no interceding devices to remain fully compatible with modern smartphones (that ship with no headphone socket) and to remain friendly with Mums n’ Dads. Bluetooth headphones put the DACs and amplifiers inside the earcup to mirror the engineering upsides of digitally active loudspeakers. The incoming signal arrives in the digital domain for the manufacturer to exploit DSP correction of the driver’s output as well as add active noise cancellation and transparency modes. Bluetooth audio’s current 1000kbps limitation red cards lossless audio — but for how long? Recent murmurings from the Bluetooth SIG (that controls the Bluetooth Audio spec) suggest that we’ll see lossless CD quality and maybe lossless hi-res audio within the next few years.

    I’m on the train as I write this and on my way to the world’s largest hi-fi show. Munich High-End is a four-day celebration of the very best that the hi-fi industry has to offer in 2023. The irony in the context of this post is that 95% of the show’s exhibitors deal mainly in maximalist hi-fi components: passive loudspeakers, monoblock amplifiers (or stereo power amplifiers) with matching pre-amplifiers, DACs, network streamers, phono stages, turntables plus wired headphones and their amplifiers and hi-fi furniture to house the lot. Nothing wrong with that — but we’ll have to hunt and peck fastidiously in order to locate examples of Future-Fi.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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