From the outside looking in, the state of the music industry is tough to figure out. Streaming music was up 54% last year, but so were sales of the decades-old vinyl format. At the CES gadget extravaganza this week in Las Vegas, wireless products have been abundant–Google even announced a new wireless streaming initiative for connected speakers called Cast for Audio–but hardware makers also appear to be doubling down on high-end audio gear. The kind of equipment that’s typically meant for those with supersonic hearing, not average consumers.
Sony is one of the leaders of this trend with its new Walkman ZX2. Jumping into a category kickstarted by Neil Young’s Pono, the portable music player has 128 GB of storage on board and the ability to play lots of high-resolution audio formats, including DSD, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and Apple Lossless. This Walkman isn’t just for solitary audiophile listening, though: It supports Google Cast streaming and Sony’s new LDAC codec, which is said to transmit audio three times more efficiently than Bluetooth.
If you were contemplating the Walkman ZX2 as your next portable music player, its $1,200 starting price may make you think twice. But if it delivers the pristine listening experience it promises, audio cultists may be intrigued.
Samsung not only dropped some impressive-looking new speakers which shoot sound out in 360-degrees, but also announced its new Los Angeles-based Samsung Audio Lab. The company didn’t have much to say about the new facility beyond its role in creating these new speakers, which are compatible with Samsung’s existing whole-home audio system. But Samsung executive vice president Joe Stinziano did say it housed “really smart people doing really smart things.”
Not to be left out, Panasonic is reviving the Technics brand and bring its hardware back to the U.S.. Among the seven Technics products coming in March are a stereo power amplifier, a network audio control player, and a speaker system.
Connected speaker maker Musaic was showing two speakers that it says are part of the first wireless music system to support high-resolution audio as well as integrating with smart-home products. BenQ is also launching an audiophile-level wireless speaker called treVolo, which uses electrostatic technology. At $299, BenQ’s speaker won’t break the bank when it launches in February.
High-end audio equipment isn’t necessarily getting much cheaper, especially in the case of Sony’s new Walkman, but it’s being presented in a way that might appeal to the average consumer who thoroughly enjoys music. The reason manufactures are trying to play up this gear is simple: Higher-end prices allow for higher-end profits.
This type of equipment is also getting simpler to use. Typically cumbersome 1411-kbps FLAC files, for instance, can be streamed from new services like Tidal and Deezer Elite, making CD-quality listening easy. Plus, new Wi-Fi networks provide more bandwidth to reliably stream content.
Even though CD-quality music is much richer sounding than music in Spotify’s high 320-kbps bitrate format, it’s still not up to the standards of the most hardcore listeners. At CES, Pono officially launched its digital music store, offering songs as high as 192.0kHz/24bit.
The portable Pono player was also being shown at CES, and even if people couldn’t actually hear the difference between it and a more mundane player using lower-resolution files, most seemed pleased to be listening to music as good as it could possibly sound.
If the trend in the music industry has been for people to stop paying for music, then the companies selling audio products are going to start targeting the outliers who still want to savor music that sounds like it just dripped from the musicians’ instruments. And if companies like Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic can make high-end audio equipment cool in the process, maybe more people will get serious about music.