Disruption in home audio

If you’d like to see the process of a disruptive technology take hold before the disruption, look at the home audio industry.

In the past year or two home audio has taken some interesting turns. Before you basically had two configurations: simpler, inexpensive all-in-one systems or more flexible and expensive separates. Cambridge Soundworks, then Tivoli, erased the difference by bringing us small, high-quality separates mostly by reducing speaker size and increasing speaker efficiency, thereby requiring smaller amplifiers.

Next we saw stereo-computer communication and integration. There’s stereo components with computers inside (e.g. CD+DVD+MP3 for $39) and “sound cards” have turned into receiver replacements. Naturally there’s the next generation of devices that distribute the signal throughout the home. The big question for the consumer amid this mess is: does my computer become the audio hub, do I bridge the computer and stereo together, or do I buy duplicate functionality and keep the systems separate? Expecting the consumer to be home audio network architect isn’t helping anyone, except those who install custom setups for the wealthy.

The phase that’s emerging now is the audiophile killers, true audiophile sound in small packages at previously unthinkable prices. This was started by 47 Labs’s Gaincard amplifier that works not via tubes or traditional solid state circuitry but by using a single chip for amplification. Because it so reduced complexity, the DIY contingent created copies called gainclones that achieve the same sound quality at prices you might pay for an average consumer amp. The next, inevitable, step was to mass produce this approach, which is what Sonic Impact did with the Class T amp ($39, and as low as $19 recently at PC Mall). Audiophiles are going ga ga over it.

The next phase — the distruptive bit — is a when a clueful industrial designer (e.g. Bose, Apple, Griffin, or Taiwan’s BenQ) leverages the chip amp’s low complexity, price and small size to create a $199 stereo system that also solves the audio network architecture problem. The latter, IMHO, means a stereo that is still a stereo (or home theater) that let’s the computer handle the digital audio file part of the equation. This is based on the premise that listening to music/watching television is usually, for most families a different and sometimes simultaneous activity from computing. In this scenario, all the stereo has to do is receive an audio signal over wi-fi and — via a user interface — send some simple signals back to the computer (“Give me the X .mp3 file now”). The computer continues to do everything it does well, with a simple mod to the mp3 player software to broadcast music over wi-fi, as iTunes does today. This results in ease-of-use that crosses the usability chasm, and control over music selections from either the computer or the stereo, something you don’t get with most systems today. All this in a great sounding, small package (chip amp + efficient, small speakers) that will be better than anything home audio can currently offer short of a professionally designed custom system. We could see this by the end of 2005, with competitors playing catch up in 2006.