What Will Be New, in the New Year?

Written by Bill Leebens

It’s been 141 years since Bell’s first call over the device that became the telephone. 140 years ago, Edison’s phonograph became the first device that could play back recorded sound.

Has there been anything truly new in audio since those days? Is it likely that we’ll see anything earth-shaking in audio, come 2018?

I would argue that the answer to both questions is a guarded “no”.

Hardware has changed through the years, as has software (assuming one could say that “software” existed 140 years ago; I suppose Edison’s cylinders and the discs that followed qualify for that label), but the signal-paths and flow-charts have remained remarkably unchanged. In moving sound from one place to another, there are always two transducers involved, one at the source end, one on the receiver/reproducer end. A transducer is, of course, something that changes one form of energy to another: on the source end, the microphone/transducer converts the physical energy of sound into an electrical signal, and whatever there is on the other end of the chain—-loudspeaker, headphone, whatever—reverses the process by converting the electrical signal back into physical energy. As is true of every conversion process, something is lost (signal strength) and something is gained (noise, distortion) along the way.

That process is largely unchanged from the sender/receiver chain of Bell’s first ‘phone. Edison changed the sequence by adding a storage method that could be played back: bizarrely, others had created methods of recording sound, but no one had previously created a recording method that could actually be played back. Weird, no?

These days we have a variety of record/playback mechanisms. Edison’s method was essentially mechanical, in that a signal groove was etched into the foil/wax cylinders, and that same groove was traced by a mechanical sound-head. Early acoustical disc recordings were made in a similar manner; electrical recordings added microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers to the process. The type of microphones, amplifiers, and speakers have evolved through the years, but the process is largely the same.

The link in the chain that has evolved the most is that of recording/storage. We’ve gone from mechanical to electromechanical to electromagnetic to digital electronic storage, with a bewildering array of formats, codecs, whatevers. At this point music can be stored in a NAS, on a variety of cards, hard-drives, solid state drives…and the list goes on and on. But the chain is still basically the same.

As we enter 2018, can we expect to see anything there that will shake the fundament of the audio world? That’s highly doubtful. Most changes in audio these days involve user interfaces and how we access and use our media—not changes to the media or the means of reproduction. The world of iPods and computer audio brought major changes to the way in which we can move, store, and access our music, but subsequent changes have largely been incremental, evolution rather than revolution.

I’ll take a look around CES for signs of anything revolutionary in audio—but I expect the show to be dominated by drones, soon-to-be-forgotten gadgets, and much hoopla regarding autonomous autos. I fully expect this CES to be my last, because of that.

But if I’m wrong, and the Next Big Thing in audio is right there, hidden away on the 29th floor of the Venetian…rest assured that you’ll be among the first to know!

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