New Adventures in Hi-Fi: The Audio Technology That Wowed Your Grandparents Makes a Comeback

LIVING IN STEREO: Onkyo’s M-5000R amplifier does not connect to the Internet, does not have an app, does not stream music, does not have an iPod dock, does not put out 12 channels of surround sound, and does not receive radio signals. It does, however, put out two very clean channels of music.

LIVING IN STEREO: Onkyo’s M-5000R amplifier does not connect to the Internet, does not have an app, does not stream music, does not have an iPod dock, does not put out 12 channels of surround sound, and does not receive radio signals. It does, however, put out two very clean channels of music.

I’ve just discovered the wave of the future: hi-fi stereo. It involves playing pre-recorded music via gigantic metal boxes that send audio signals through cables (actual copper wire!) to two even larger boxes called “speakers,” which emit the sound to your ears without even touching them—no earbuds are involved in the process. Furthermore, these devices are not portable—they don’t slip into your pocket, and they are as heavy as a large child. You have to devote at least a quarter of your living space to properly set them up. And most of them won’t even connect to the Internet.

But they sound awesome. Has anyone else heard of this before? Turns out, hi-fi stereo systems were originally invented a long time ago, maybe in the ’50s, but they’re just now making a comeback with new products from major electronics manufacturers. Could it mean that listeners are ready for music that sounds good again?

For the past 15 years or so, two-channel music playback was considered a has-been in consumer electronics. With the advent of the DVD in 1995, home audio turned into home theater with 5.1 surround-sound systems. The massive hi-fi gear from the ’70s and ’80s that owners took such pride in was traded in for the new status symbols of rear-projection TVs and fashionable mini-speakers. As DVD products got cheaper, the market was flooded by poorly made “home theater in a box” systems, with weak AV receivers nicknamed after their predominant construction material: BPC (black plastic crap). Then came MP3 players, which became a sensation in 2001 with the iPod. Not only did this computerized device make old-school receivers and CD players seem clunky and passé, but it also ignited the “loudness war” among record labels—none of them want to have the one “quiet” song on your iTunes playlist, so they’ve been compressing the music to sound ever louder while losing its dynamic range. So, while crappy sounding MP3s were already a given, now even the CDs are crappy sounding to begin with.

Sadly, that old-fashioned notion of high fidelity—of reproducing music so it sounds as “live” as possible—was largely lost in favor of undeniable digital convenience. Some of the big manufacturers did attempt to turn the tide with new high-res formats—SACD and DVD-Audio—but they didn’t offer them enough marketing support to catch on with consumers. While small audio companies and boutique record labels have long been catering to audiophiles (usually at a price), mainstream music listeners have been living in a dark age of sound reproduction. But things may be changing a bit.

First, on the digital front, there are more options for files with improved sound quality. Online services like HDtracks.com offer high-res 24-bit FLAC files with sampling frequency rates of up to 192 kHz; compared to “redbook” CDs’ 16-bit, 44.1 kHz specs, this offers even greater musical information to (hopefully) capture more nuance. HDtracks’ selections consist mostly of recent remasters of older albums, but some contemporary titles do pop in. Meanwhile the world’s biggest seller of music, Apple’s iTunes Store, has taken a small stab at improving its sound quality with the “Mastered for iTunes” program, which basically helps sound engineers better master their music for Apple’s AAC format. That’s not exactly the same thing as creating a better encoding format, however. For that, we must wait with much anticipation for crazy Neil Young’s mysterious Pono, a new end-to-end music system with its own unique players and download service promising high-resolution, 192kHz/24-bit sound. Warner, Universal, and Sony are supposedly on board. But no precise details on how or when this is going to work have been released yet, which does not inspire confidence.

Second, back in the analog ranks, the surprising resurgence of vinyl records among young consumers is a more positive sign. New vinyl LPs could be chalked up to rampant hipsterism, but I think there’s more to it than that. Beyond materialism (it’s difficult for a music fan to revere a digital file), the rising popularity of vinyl points to a renewed appreciation of how the records sound: much better than lossy MP3s. All of those old-fashioned record players and amps that were abandoned at Goodwill are being hoarded now by twentysomethings who may not have grown up with them, but who have certainly discovered their virtues. That has gotten the attention of several big-name electronics companies, who have been dusting off their schematics for stereo playback with new products in the past few years.

Yes, brand-new, two- (not five-, not seven-, not 12-) channel players and amplifiers that have nothing to do with showing movies and focus solely on playing music. On the high end, Yamaha has gone full-on retro with its humongous A-S2000 amplifier/CD-S2000 player combo that brandishes silver aluminum faceplates and wood sides—just like the ’70s!—and enough poundage to fracture your leg if you drop one of them. Marantz, now known for its pricey AV components, also offers solidly mid-priced stereo amplifiers that out-perform their low-watt specs. In addition to regular ol’ CD players (and record players!), Marantz also dares to produce two-channel SACD players—unusual for a “dead” format that was once known for surround music—that also include USB input for digital files. Even the once-proud Sony has dipped a toe back into the audiophile pond, bringing its renowned XA-54000ES CD/SACD player back into production. And Onkyo has re-entered both the high- and mid-fi stereo amp world with both the ultra-cheap M-282 and the old-school, big-ass, sharp-edged box that is the M-5000R, complete with dual watt meters on the front.

Now, whether you can find these components at your local hi-fi shop is another question—most of those have gone out of business. There’s always the physical-media-killing Internet, of course, but it’s difficult to try out a stereo online.

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