What’s Next?

I don’t know, but we’re probably not going to blow the lid off of audio in general.

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I get extremely suspicious when somebody claims to have solved a fundamental problem in audio. Mostly, this is because all the basic gremlins have been thoroughly killed and dried. It’s also because sonic physics is a system of laws that tolerate zero BS. (When somebody claims that they have a breakthrough technology that sounds great by way of spraying sound like a leaky hose, I know they are full of something brown and stinky.)

Modern audio is what I would definitely call a mature technology. In mature technologies, the bedrock science of the technology’s behavior is very well understood. The apparent breakthroughs, then, come when another technology allows a top-shelf behavior to be made available to the masses, or when it creates an opportunity to make a theoretical idea a reality.

A great example is the two-way, fullrange loudspeaker. They’re better than they have ever been. Anyone who remembers wrestling Peavey SP2 TI boxes is almost tearfully grateful to have small, light, loud enclosures available for a rock-bottom price. Obviously, there have been advances. We’ve figured out how to make loudspeaker drivers more efficient and more reliable. Commercially viable neodymium magnets give us the same field strength for less mass. The constant-directivity horn (and its refined derivatives) have delivered improved pattern control.

These are important developments!

Yet, the unit, as an overall object, would be entirely recognizable to someone magically transported to us from three decades in the past. The rules are the same. You’ve got a cone driver in a box, and a compression driver mated to a horn. The cone driver has certain characteristics which the main box has to be built around. It’s not as though we’ve evolved to exotic, crystalline sound-emitters that work by magic.

The palpable improvements aren’t really to do with audio, in a direct sense. They have to do with miniaturization, computerization, and commoditization. An active loudspeaker in the 21st century is likely to sound better than a 1980s or 1990s unit, not because it’s a completely different technology, but because the manufacturer can design, test, tune, and package the product as a bundle of known (and very carefully controlled) quantities. When a manufacturer ships a passive loudspeaker, there’s a lot that they just can’t know – and can’t even do. Stuff everything into the enclosure, and the situation changes dramatically. You know exactly what the amplifier and the driver are going to do to each other. You know just exactly how much excursion that LF driver will endure, and you can limit the amplifier at exactly the point to get maximum performance without damage. You can use steeper crossover slopes to (maybe) cross that HF driver a little lower, improving linearity in the intelligibility zone. You can precisely line up the drivers in time. You can EQ the whole business within an inch of its life.

Again, that’s not because the basic idea got better. It’s because we can put high-speed computation and high-powered amplification in a small space, for (relatively) cheap. Everything I’ve described above has been possible to do for a long time. It’s just that it wasn’t feasible to package it for the masses. You either had to do it externally and expensively, shipping a large, complicated product package to an educated end user…or just let the customer do whatever, and hope for the best.

I can’t say that I have an angle on what the next big jump will be for audio. I’m even skeptical on whether there will be another major leap. I’m excited for more features to become more affordable, though, so I’ll keep looking for those gear catalogs to arrive in the mail.