So we seem to have come full circle. We wanted our audio systems and listening to music to be more convenient and flexible for our daily routines so we compressed our music to MP3 for easier listening, we went big with headphones and wireless speakers that can be easily accommodated with at home and beyond, and we even packaged our hi-fi into smaller, more homely packages and called it ‘lifestyle’. As a result, today’s audio systems and listening to music have never been more versatile. We truly live in a golden age of audio, and not just in regards to music: podcasts and interactive audio-guided content are booming in popularity.
And yet there is an ever louder murmur of people wanting some of the quality lost on that journey back. We – no, not everyone but a growing audience – want to hear music in better quality and enjoy that quality offered by better sounding devices. Of course, we don’t want to turn back time to when cumbersome, inflexible audio hardware was all we had. Of course not! We don’t want to sacrifice the convenience we’ve achieved so far. Not really! We want both in big, albeit equal measures – quality and ease. And I think we’re going to get our wish. Because lately there’s been evidence of a push to create better performance with smaller hi-fi and audio, and that’s bound to gain momentum next year.
These improved smaller solutions may never be superior in sound to the best bigger ones, but they can significantly narrow the gap and (ever-present) compromise that exists today.
KEF with Uni-Core
KEF is one of the more established brands that has taken this (loosely termed) ‘lifestyle hi-fi’ to the limit to make seriously high-quality sound output achievable from a sleek, stylish speaker system that either party in a divorce case would fight for.
This is not easy to achieve – if it were, every manufacturer would offer something similar. Simply put, the science doesn’t like it because it states that big bass response and high (distortion free) volume output requires a big cabinet volume and a big driver. Those are the rules. But KEF found a way to bend them with its Uni-Core technology, which was key in developing the aforementioned 13cm-wide LS60 Wireless streaming speakers and its KC62 subwoofer that’s half the size of a traditional one.
You can read all about Uni-Core – our Innovation of the Year – here, but essentially the existence (and success) of that new technology is why we’re bound to see at least one small powerhouse arrive in 2023 to deliver that good and small can go hand in hand better than it already does. I wouldn’t be surprised if other hi-fi manufacturers found similar ways around The Rules either.
Sonos with HeartMotion
One brand also doing this welcome disruptive part of God’s work, but quite different from KEF, is Mayht – a Dutch start-up whose patented HeartMotion balanced diaphragm driver/transducer technology is explicitly designed to provide bigger sound from smaller packages. . According to Mayht, “a 3.5″ diameter Heartmotion driver has the same output as a conventional 8″ diameter driver”, “the enclosure surrounding the Heartmotion driver can be more than 10x smaller than the enclosure of a conventional driver, and the Heartmotion driver does not need more amplifier power to overcome the high air pressure in the enclosure’.
Why is this a big problem? Because earlier this year, Mayht was taken over by none other than Sonos. So imagine Sonos Five sound coming out of a Sonos One body, or better yet that ‘true’ stereo system sound coming out of a humble unit or some super slim cabinets. Sonos is reportedly planning to add four new product categories in the near future – at least one next year, apparently – and more home speakers also seem very much on the Sonos roadmap for 2023. Given that Sonos has sorted its small speaker lineup, I think it’s going to be big. But small. You know what I mean. So that’s at least one other product from a big brand that we’re likely to see unite big sound and small build next year.
Class D no longer a blockhead
Class D has increasingly become the amplification design of choice for most audio kits, such as its efficiency, low heat dissipation needs, and physically smaller and lightweight form compared to traditional Class A/B/AB designs, but it is largely justified by regarded throughout the years as the sonically undersized class. Did it help to make smaller Hi-Fi? Yes. Generally better sounding hi-fi? No. But while the technology has inherent limitations, Class D amplifiers can be seen improving, not least because amplifier manufacturers implementation of class D seems to be improving. For example, Cambridge Audio has done a good job of using Hypex’s Class D amplifier in its Evo streaming amplifiers.
If class D is done right, it can be attractive. Most of the amps we recommend today don’t use it, but if it continues, it could be a more tempting option for amp manufacturers and consumers alike.
Ever smaller to… invisible?
In the more distant future, we’re likely to see a significant increase in “invisible” audio hardware, a concept already prevalent in architectural audio (think speakers installed discreetly in walls) and also popping up in more domestic designs (such as Sonos and IKEA’s collaborations). with speaker lamps). Mind you, whether the sound quality is preserved here is questionable. More achievable in the shorter term may be growing acceptance for a shift from traditional boxes to compact, ‘contemporary’ designs.
Supposing streaming will continue its increasing dominance over physical music (even vinyl’s growth is finally slowing now), which seems to be the case. In that case, of course, our hi-fi source could get slimmer and smaller – just because we can. This is already happening, as evidenced by your Bluesound Nodes, your Sonos ports, and your Pro-Ject Stream Boxes, although there was a reluctance to universally ditch the full-width enclosure that is largely unnecessary for most amp-less electronic components . Unlike CD drives and turntables, streaming products mainly need a small chip (to take advantage of the streaming) and a small DAC (to convert digital music to analog). Indeed, much of the space in many traditional chassis streamers is just that: space.
Perhaps the growing momentum behind sustainable technology will also drive product size reduction where possible.
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