Completing the circle

May 29, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

What would our world of high-end audio look like if there were only active wireless loudspeakers? If even the half a million dollar mega-beasts were internally amplified and connected via wireless and controlled from an iPad?

No more boxes. No more wires and cables.

Only speakers.

Would we have come full circle, back to the days when music reproduction systems were self-contained?

Would this mark the end of separates and their interconnections?

What would the next generation of sound reproduction systems look like? (Probably nothing because by then they’ll likely be invisible.)

If we look back over the past 142 years since Edison introduced the phonograph there is a clear pattern. All-in-one systems grow and grow until they explode into a multiverse of separates then contract back into a new version of the all-in-one.

The circle is complete.

Telling the future isn’t all that hard if you take a look at the past.

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36 comments on “Completing the circle”

    1. This was hilarious thanks for posting. I have seen a number of other school instrument renditions by these guys and they are all fun. Someone commented that the ukulele was worth $1.70 before Pete smashed it and $1,700 after 🙂

  1. If 2.n channel audio (stereo) is the today’s topic you always will have at least two separate (active wireless) loudspeakers. 🙂 Thus your analogy of Edison’s all-in-one system is most misleading., Paul. However one could “integrate left and right speaker into a console or even better into the wall. And here DSP would enter the game. And here the look at the past doesn’t help because digital offers potential solution not being possible with pure analog components of the past concepts.

    1. I am a staunch advocate of mono playback for recordings that were mono-miked, multi-tracked, mixed and panned. There is zero true stereo information in 99% of recordings since the ’70s. Perpetrating studio tempero-spatial distortion through two speakers grows brain cells that respond to fake stereo, producing “audiophile syndrome” where toe-in, magic cables and micro-scopic room tweaks produce “pin-point imaging”, which does not exist IRL. Imagine complaining to management that the “soundstage” of an orchestra was adversely affected by the second violins pointed away from you, or a woman wearing a hat two rows in front of you!

      Summing left and right into one speaker is more true to the original event in lieu of near coincident pair, zero knob live recordings in real acoustics. Even Blumlein stereo only capture L-R level difference between direct sound vectors and their reflections, a tiny fraction of true stereo.

      DSP can produce an infinitude of artificial wave fields, but it can also to some degree correct bad architecture and interior design that were far more conducive to home music playback in the early 20th Century, whether a Mason & Hamlin with a player mechanism or a Victrola. The DSP correction is better than analog electronics but inferior to the physical analog world of room boundaries, architectural details and furnishings. OTOH, until people re-learn that sound is more important than appearances and that bare walls with uniform color are bad for our eyes, DSP is a useful crutch.

      Flush mounting the speakers in walls is a good start. My first high-end experience was Roy Allison’s AR LST, designed to sit against a wall.

  2. My son has a system which is active pro speakers connected by a phono lead with a Chromecast hanging off the back, he uses Spotify and it all cost less than $200. The Kiii Three pass the signal from one speaker to another using an ethernet cable. It also needs a source (digital or analogue). Both could be done wirelessly. Just as I go round taking photos with an 85 year old camera, there will always be audiophiles collecting boxes, even if there are better, more compact solutions. I have no interconnects in my system, only mains, speaker and ethernet cables. The box count is generally reducing as multi-function devices proliferate.

    For decades there has been a philosophy that audio functions should be separated, for reasons of heat and interference (and making money selling more boxes), so you end up with boxes full of fresh air and heat sinks. Make it more efficient using micro-components and no wires inside or out and you can fit it in a modest sized speaker cabinet. The Grimm LS1 puts the electronics and amplifiers in the hollow legs of the speaker stand.

  3. Of course one of the ultimate disappearing speaker setups, especially in a multi-use shared family space, is the soundbar. A power cord and HDMI cable and you are done, everything else works WiFi. Ha, not much soundfield though and, well, bass is only fair 🙂 It meets the WAF quite well though. The one I was forced to live with in the family room at my new house does have Tidal and other network features though, so, I get by! It’s got an array of 16 speakers and emulates surround sound as well. I would have to check but it’s barely 3” tall. I go to the basement when I want real music though I can set everything up down there with visual impunity! Even there though I switched to an all-in-one box, so just connect the speakers and for the most part am done, no more cables or pieces and parts.

  4. If by one box you are talking about ghetto blasters, or a giant console, or something similar where EVERYTHING is contained in one box, then I for one will gladly become the dinosaur of my generation and live in the past with today’s current separates.

    If you mean no external wires and interconnects then I might jump in with both feet.

    Reliability and service will become paramount if amps and their associated digital receivers become standard as an integral part of speakers. One small transmitter to plug a turntable into , if desired.(there will still be some components and interconnects to play with) – where am I going to put the regens? What power cord is best? What happens if an amp blows, can I replace it or do I have to send the whole speaker back? Are manufacturers going to commit to long term parts stocks for repairs like I can get for big household appliances, or are they going to be fully obsolete in 5-7 years?

    As I ask these questions, I’m realizing that like my neighbors cats I don’t like water or wet feet. I think I can feel scales growing now.

    1. Replying to you and Mike above:

      (a) The units will be made by robots using microtechnology and be much more reliable that hand-built. My unit was made that way and in 10 years reliability has been faultless. I’ve not heard of a single failure. Hardware upgrades are by doorstep collect and return.

      (b) My only dislike of the Kii Three is the need for a pre-amp to use a turntable. My unit has the RCA inputs programmed for two phono inputs, there is a brilliant phono stage (in the digital domain) and inductance, capacitance and equalisation can be adjusted on the fly from the remote control. The digital signal can be recorded and streamed.

      Linn do the same with the optional Ulrika II digital phono stage that sits under your LP12 and sends a digital signal to your active Exakt system.

      Ironically, at the low end of the market for punters who want to play records but have cheap digital systems, there are turntables with built in phono stages including A/D conversion. Once that’s done, making it wireless is easy, if it hasn’t been done already.

      Just seen your comment below. The Linn Exakt system does exactly what you want – active towers with a small system control box and an LP12 deck with a digital phono amp installed.

      1. Hello Steven,

        My point was that as systems become all in one and there is a failure (and I’m glad you haven’t one) that unless modular design and long term support are considered in the design then repairs become more cumbersome. For example let’s say your Harbeth’s become all in one. (Electronics become part of each speaker) how are you going to feel if you have to pack each speaker up and return them for repair and shipment back? Only to find out, once they have been received, that the parts needed for the repair are no longer available. Do you buy new or suck it up and pay whatever the price is to repair and get your tunes back in your listening area?

        Modern technology has made for some good improvements in manufacturing costs and reliability but they are not fool proof.

        I have some hand built electronics from the 50’s thru the 90’s… some that have been rebuilt and upgraded with modern components that still work and sound great.

        In what you have posted so far there still is some sort of interconnect involved. (Ethernet cables or speaker wires as a minimum). What I was thinking of is all in one where the only thing needed was a power cord to each speaker (all in one sound box).

        One size doesn’t fit all. I appreciate what your vision for your audio is, my vision for my audio is just different.

        1. Harbeth will never be active because they are soft wall boxes and there is no room. Harbeth is unusual in making mostly passive professional studio monitors, only an active M30 with the amplifier fitted outside.

          Modern manufacture is vastly better than anything that could be done by hand. When do you ever hear of a mobile phone having hardware faults, except for the Samsung that overheated and they withdrew the product. My audio system uses mobile phone technology (it was originally designed by a Nortel engineer), it is spectacularly reliable and is modular. It never crosses my mind that the thing will fail. Because the system is modular, you can do hardware upgrades without replacing the whole unit. It is much cheaper to make and much cheaper to upgrade. I’m not worried about support. My unit is 10 years old and has been upgraded twice (from D-Premier to Le 250 to 250 CI). There is no redundancy, unlike PSA that has recently withdrawn products for lack of parts. I am not worried about a company part owned by the richest man in Europe that recently got a further €100million investment.

          My system uses an ethernet cable but it works perfectly well wirelessly, which my kids do with Airplay and Spotify. I have speaker cables as I have passive speakers.

          If I had an active system, it would be Kii Three. It does need two wires. The Devialet Gold meets Paul’s requirements, no wires except power and up to 8 units can be linked. I consider it audiophile quality, Paul probably does not.

          This video is illustrative of how audio is increasingly been made.

    2. A few manufacturers now are making turntables with AirPlay, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built into them so that the TT can be placed separately from the amplifier and you just pair the table with the amplifier device and play away. No wires needed. Of course, that certainly is not what we would consider an audiophile table I’m sure, but, you can get them with both MM and MC cartridges so, perhaps that part is up-gradable.

  5. By the way, we have a “one box solution” in our bedroom: NAIM MUSO QB! It’s fantastic, Ethernet cable, Tidal and fantastic sound! If vinyl wasn’t our critical listening choice, I could totally go for a main streaming only tower speakers solution!

  6. Imagine a pill that meets all the nutritional requirements of a balanced meal. Feasible? Of course; also fast, convenient, no waste. But what would we give up in terms of enjoyment? Audiophiles may like the idea of simplification in the abstract, but the reality is that we obsess, argue, experiment,, and spend countless hours fiddling with wires and components for reasons that have little to do with a rational approach to music enjoyment. One box? Wait, what color? What shape? Floor mounted or suspended from wires? And what about that power cord?

  7. “What would our world of high-end audio look like if there were only active wireless loudspeakers?”
    It might look like this.

    Predicting the future is almost always a failure and people look back on previous predictions and we often laugh. Yet people laugh at it and I suppose it’s fun to speculate. One interviewer said about an economist he predicted 8 out of the last 5 recessions. Jules Verne got the idea of a submarine right but his concept of a Nautilus was very different from the real thing and what evolved from it. He could not have conceived of such a deadly weapon. There will never be a Journey to the center of the earth. HG Wells amusing story about a shell being shot out of a cannon to the moon with passengers looking down at cows on the moon is laughable and I don’t think there will be any invaders from Mars as he predicted or from anywhere else as so many sci fi movies and stories predict. However Dr. Michio Kaku, a well known physicist explains why everything you see in Star Trek is possible. Highly implausible.

    However one man did see into the future and got at least one thing right, and that was Rod Serling. Here is his take on 5G almost 60 years ago. This may be the seed of my Anglophobia. Sorry for all of the commercials for Unicef, this was the only full episode I found.

  8. A two box design (stereo), the electronics within are all of modular design. Fault recognition is via wifi as is all system updates. Module/s can easily be removed by the user and despatched for repair if necessary. With SMT reliability should be high. The end of other separates and the connecting wires (apart from two power connections).
    I suppose the electronics will need to be well damped from driver vibration and have sufficent ventilation but I think it might work…

  9. Guess I’m an equipment junkie. As a former amateur radio guy, love the magical look of the electronics. My first Halicrafters receiver picking up signals from all over the world. Just imagine what’s inside. All those glowing tubes, meters jumping, special wires moving signals so perfectly. Still amazing to me. Figuring out the next upgrade. It’s at least half the fun. Making the music so perfect to hear.

  10. Based on existing changes in society and advances in technology, I see a future of zero boxes. Unless you count the small box to hold a pair of wireless earbuds.

    In the future real audiophiles (the audiophile Luddites will be dead) will stream all their content from premium services using a smartphone, smart watch or similar user interface. The concept of owning recorded music will be as foreign as owning the land was to the native Americans.

    Earbuds will not only provide audio quality exceeding today’s best headphones, they will track the wearers head position and replicate the sensation of listening to live music in a real world venue. Be it a basement jazz club or a huge concert hall.

    In the future even advanced speakers like Paul describes will seem as archaic as my dark room enlarger.

  11. My vision of “back to the past” is training ears in forests, music parlors, chamber and symphonic halls absent the noise and bad acoustics of “modern” industrial civilization – rectangular rooms with hard, bare surfaces, metal machines, traffic, motorized appliances, and audio all interfere with our 43,000+ year old adaptation of jungle hearing genetics and epi-genetics to music.

    Our hearing came from jungles and forests where apes have the same funny shaped ears that enable sensitive directional hearing in both lateral and vertical axes and similar ability to separate echoes from tree trunks. This was a major survival advantage in catching food and avoiding predation. We are still exquisitely sensitive to location of micro-sounds of forest movements emulated by the scratch of violin bows, the transient impact of percussion, the chuffing of winds echoing in giant caves made of steel and plaster – if we train enough thousands of hours to the acoustic sounds in the acoustic environment intended by the composers.

    This training can also be accomplished by the original sounds in the original acoustics. I spent my childhood in pine forests of New England, and usually speechless so the world of human constructs did not mask or categorize my experience. We still do not have good vocabulary for aural experience because it is ephemeral and spatially diiffuse so you can’t point at it to align our internal impressions with others.

    We still hear acoustic speech for over ten thousand hours during formative years, so in this respect it makes a better test signal for audio systems. Speech intelligibility studies show that phase is critical for deciphering conversation in noisy and reverberant environments, which reveals the criticality of time distortion graphs to audio systems, perhaps more important that frequency response.

    Interestingly, some pre-electronics researchers reported extended hearing response using tuning forks, as far as 100KHz. Our 20KHz limit may be an artifact of living in harsh, dense and incomprehensible ultrasonic sounds of metal, glass, ceramics, masonry and hissing air flows. This could also be because our ultrasonic hearing does not pass through the ear canals, so it does not appear in headphone tests that have been used since the 1930s.

  12. When we finally nail down the research on how RFI corrupts neural processing, wireless may be obsoleted. Our neural networks run on femto-Watt signalling so electro-magnetic perturbations of utile signal to noise ratio affect them.

    We already know that all electronically transmitted sensory experiences are inherently inferior in comprehension and retention so the cost/benefit ratio is poor measured by experiential quality and the consequent brain development. People have forgotten how to remember sounds and images just as they have forgotten how to do math, and now Google and Wikipedia are replacing memory of higher order facts. It is like we are all living in mental wheelchairs with atrophied mental legs. (“Matrix”?)

    It is worse than this analogy, because memories and thought processes are reinforced by multi-mode sensations, especially tactile and olfactory information. Our skin is the biggest organ with more neural endings. Add to that the proprieceptive sensors in joints and muscles, the balance sensors in our inner ears, the interaction of vision and hearing with micro-motions of subtle and large scale head movements whether ear, eye and neck muscles or whole body movements like running and you can start to understand how the visual dominance and sedentary lifestyle of our post-industrial culture produces weaker brains that come up with inferior solutions for global problems. (Not to mention the loss of dietary and aerobic cardio-vascular health!)

    Our nose has the most direct connection to the brain and is the most persistent memory tag, and for obvious survival advantage.
    We need to learn about the Natural world by walking, running, climbing over, under and swimming through it, touching and smelling instead of sitting in our own stink (or trying to cover it up). We need to shape natural materials like wood, water, rock and soil with our hands to understand them. We need to stop the spew of language through our consciousness and learn the meaning of Natures sounds, the voices of trees, rocks and the oceans as well as vertebrates and motile exo-skeletons.

    Then we can stop dissecting the distortions of audio reproduction in the scalar cyclic frequency domain and solve the many existential problems facing humanity – including the reality that comfort and convenience per se are bad for our health.

    1. Your post got me thinking about things I came to the conclusion mostly ended with my generation.
      As a kid, I spent every Summer day outside. We were in a suburb, so subjected to some traffic noise, but otherwise we had a parkway about 4 blocks away. A river ran through it, and we were on wooded side. So many hours riding our bikes on the paths made by earlier generations.
      Vacations spent on lakes, sitting for hours, mostly in silence. The sound of waves hitting the side of the boat. In winter when we had a heavy snow, all you heard were snow shovels.
      As an adult I spent a couple of Labor Days on an island in the Mississippi river. 26 people on the island, and I knew all of them. Someone brought a generator and a stereo. A roaring fire, no other light. It isn’t just our ears that have been, you might say corrupted. But our vision, if you live in a city, you never really see the sky.
      The only inside activities were slot car racing.
      Now that am old, poor, and have health issues, I do spend most of my days inside. But I have a childhood of memories. You can still get out of cities, but the older kids will still be staring at their phones. I think all of this great technology has deprived children of the innocence of childhood.

  13. Undoubtedly, the current audio technology has opened the range of possibilities for a wider range of enthusiasts of domestic reproduction, for example, today exists in the early 21st century version of the Edison gramophone, for those listeners with a hint of pragmatism, whose preference is the all in one.

    But likewise, it has brought the technical means (for those with sufficient knowledge) to design and build multi-way sound systems, based on DSPs, which allow the construction of audio equipment in which the imagination is the limit.

    These DSPs allow to integrate in a single device in addition to the essential DAC, a pre-amplifier, an electronic Xover, an equalizer, time delay, correction of the listening room (of course, with the corresponding programs) and other functions, all in the digital domain, and in real time, that only a few years ago you could not even think about it.

    The current DSPs allow you to design and build the enthusiast, systems of 3, 4, or 5 ways (without having to use the obsolete passive Xovers) with as many drivers and amplifiers as you can, also allows you to choose the type of speaker that best suits your preferences (Horn, direct radiators etc.)

    All this constitutes a great simplification, without having to renounce flexibility, versatility and pragmatism, allowing the enthusiast to explore fields that were previously complicated, such as the incorporation into the sound system of his own audiogram, this only as an example of a greater degree of personalization, which is not possible with commercial audio systems.

    An objective example of what is exposed here is the system built by Sebastian Schlager, as it appears in number 85 of Copper.

  14. I count today’s post as another vote for an active AN speaker version 😉

    IMO everyone who doesn’t use a full tube amplifier for his passive speakers would be clearly better off. Those using full tubes may have advantages and disadvantages.

    1. @jazznut, It’s a bit presumptuous on the actives as I haven’t heard a floorstander like the Dynaudio Focus xd60 @ $13k or the Kii’s @ $15k, in person, although ELAC ARF-51 @ $4k is BOTH active/passive with Xlr inputs and the option to turn streaming off. It’s hard not to see this option as a future consideration. Dynaudio goes to great length to claim they have elevated digital SQ streaming, @ $13k. food for thought.

  15. Why does the audio universe keep contracting and expanding ? Therein lies the secret. As for all in one systems as described in the post amps are still needed. The question is whose amps ? What make ? Whose preference ? Boils down to a form of well meaning benevolent dictatorship. Sort of it’s good for you because I feel so. Good idea for low fi and mid fi all in one systems but not at all good for the discriminating. Regards.

  16. Except it wouldn’t be no more boxes, wires , and cables and only speakers.

    The speakers require power cables and some require a wired connection between a master and a slave speaker if you want stereo.

    There’s still boxes involved such as your computer, its router, possibly a separate music server. You can move them to a different location so that you can’t see them but you still have boxes in the system and you’re not going to have music without those boxes. Then you’ve got the power cables for those boxes and the network cables connecting them though you can double up with ethernet over powerlines and use the power cables for 2 purposes. Don’t try using your Power Plant with those boxes if you want ethernet over powerlines, however, because your Power Plant will do a great job of removing the data stream from the power line.

    As for getting rid of interconnections, wifi is still an interconnection.

    It’s still a system of separate devices no matter how much some of the devices and interconnections seem to disappear. It’s all just smoke and mirrors which isn’t to say that it’s not a good idea. It’s just that we’ve just changed to different boxes and cables.

    If you really want music without boxes, wires, cables, and interconnections there’s still only one way to do it: start making it yourself with an acoustic instrument of some kind and your voice. Add some friends as well for more fun.

  17. As long as we are dreaming, wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to have loudspeakers at all, and there were a way to transmit recorded music signals to small, lightweight receiver/converters connected directly to our auditory nerves, by-passing the inner ear parts altogether. Room treatments would be unnecessary, and headphones would become obsolete.

  18. My understanding is that high end loudspeaker company Estelon is working on powered loudspeakers which include “power DAC” architecture. So only a digital source component would be required to feed them, like an Ethernet Renderer, and the signal path will be very short. Digital right into the (switching) amplifier modules. Estelon makes very advanced high end speakers, so I am very interested in how this approach develops-I know there are some very, very bright folks working with them on this as well…

  19. Being active you would still need to plug them in the wall outlet so not completely wireless, unless someone finds Tesla’s lost or stolen blueprints.

  20. I’m not computer illiterate but I cannot figure out how to add a photo or image to my profile. There is nothing in my preferences that enables me to do it.

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