End of an era

August 15, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

Equipment has life cycles not unlike our own. They are dreamed up, assembled, brought to life, nurtured, flourish, fade, get old, and die. And, like us, their progeny carry on with fresh ideas, dreams, and new approaches to our needs.

One technology in the getting-old-phase turns out to be the very instrument I am writing this post on: the personal computer—but perhaps not in the way you might think.

PCs have been the core of music playback for decades. In 1991 Microsoft introduced WMP (Windows Media Player), which was eclipsed a decade later by Apple’s iTunes, suddenly available on both a PC as well as a mobile device known simply as iPod. It wouldn’t be long before digital music control was completely ceded to the PC because all digital music had to somehow come through the PC.

In 2008 things began to change when two engineers, Daniel Ek, and Martin Lorentzon—working out of a shared apartment in Stockholm—began changing the world.  Ek and Lorentzon started a company that would soon become one of the world’s largest musical content providers and challenge the reign of the personal computer for music’s playback. The name they chose for their new company, Spotify, was born from a misunderstanding as Lorentzon yelled his choice across the room and Ek misheard.

With Spotify and all its imitators accessible on mobile platforms (as well as purpose-built systems like Sonos, and a growing number of servers, NAS, and other schemes) the need for PCs to play and control music is diminishing.

But it isn’t just streaming services that are freeing us from the tether of big, high-tech boxes tied to mice, keyboards, and video screens. Even physical media like CDs are being controlled and played back less and less on PCs.

Within the next five years, I believe we’ll see PCs fade into the mists of time as the primary interface for our music.

I for one will be thrilled to never use a mouse, keyboard, or video screen to enjoy or control my tunes.

You?

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28 comments on “End of an era”

  1. I thought the game changer was Napster, in 1999. It was the first music file sharing system and broke the music industry’s royalty system. It showed that (1) the future of recorded music was online and (2) a new licensing model was needed.
    Personally, I have never used a computer as a music source and our house has been Apple-only since 2004. I went from a CD player to a Linn Majik streamer and have stayed with streamers since.

    1. A bit off topic, but, geared to you Steven. I got a CD delivered to me yesterday (new Monkees release called “Summer of Love” a collection of their most psychedelic songs ha ha I can see everyone’s eyes rolling now) which came from Chalkys in Banbury, Oxon, UK. Is this place anywhere you have been or near you, I am just curious.

      At any rate, I promptly ripped the CD with my computer (see, I am back on track now) and the CD now goes up on the shelf probably never to be seen again. I am honestly not sure if I could have gotten this CD via streaming or not, probably so, but at $4.99 plus $3.99 for shipping I was more interested in controlling the rip at my end and not relying on Amazon or someone else’s idea of what the file format and rip should be 🙂

      1. Even more off-topic. Banbury is well known in the UK because of the nursery rhyme:

        Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
        To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
        Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
        And she shall have music wherever she goes

        I have stayed there a few times since I had a client located there. Pleasant but unexceptional.

      2. He’s obviously one of the good guys, spent his whole life selling records in a shop then online.
        http://home.btconnect.com/chalkys/
        Watched the Monkees every Saturday morning before Noel’s SwapShop and the Whacky Races. I was about 4 or 5 at the time. Only found out later in life that what I was watching was what would have happened if the Beatles had made a sit-com, except there would have been more drugs involved.
        We actually had a drug-fuelled children’s programme called The Magic Roundabout featuring a spaced-out rabbit called (Bob) Dylan. Dylan, Zebedee and Dougal (a dog and the star of the show) were always high as a kite.

        1. I had to go to YouTube to check on the Magic Roundabout and they have a lot of episodes! “The Film Director”, “The Experiment”, “Fruit Party” LOL. I saved them to browse through later this will elicit quite a chuckle I am sure. I checked my local library to see if they had any episodes and they do not, but, the theme from Magic Roundabout is on a CD entitled “100 Greatest TV Themes” 🙂

          I checked out the guy’s website and it is quite elaborate with a lot of offerings. I will have to shop there again. His link takes you to his eBay store but I got to him via Amazon he sells there too. Not sure how he makes any money selling the CD with shipping for under $10 though.

          As for today’s topic, still not sure how I will manage to give up the computer somewhere in my chain, although after I use the computer to rip the music to my NAS and then play back through the network receiver over Ethernet or streaming, the PC actually is not in the mix any longer. There are still computers involved but specialized ones designed for single purpose, not as general purpose PC/MAC devices.

  2. I encountered two game changing moments: in the analog source realm the laser turntable from Finial, today fro ELP Corp.. It’s a pity that ELP never could offer a record centering device as seen in the big Nakamichi TT. They obviously did not see that the priority of most vinyl aficionados was not the music but the funny game playing with cartridges, tonearms, phono-preamps and different motor-drive concepts.
    In the digital realm: the playback of a RBCD via a notebook’s internal CD-ROM drive sounding different but not worse than being played from the best CD-transport (partly with belt driven drives) via the same high-end DAC. The sound quality was significantly improved when the CD was ripped and played from a computer’s HDD. The decision of LINN, UK, not to continue developing and building CD-transports was another eye opener!

    1. Paul s. A few comments why would any one continue to produce a product with diminishing needs. Think buggy whips why ?
      Not eye opening to most all else. Ultra high end buyers like simple regardless of sound
      So a button wins over a disk.
      Next your commnet on spinning drives over ripped cd I feel is inaccurate in a few ways. First off what laptop or typical desktop ever played cds well and it has little to do with the drive and almost all to do with what happens after the data is read.

      Next I don’t know what hi end cd payer you are using to compare your commnet too. There is a huge improvment in quality from a laptop disk player to a hi end one like Paul’s. Maybe I am
      Misunderstanding your commnet if not I don’t see it as correct.
      Paul’s concept of his memory
      Player was his attempt at
      Improving the sound and it did his new one takes that further.
      Ripping cds requires software so whom ever designed it made it sound as it is. I have ripped hundreds of cds and sacd s. The software to rip matters the software to
      Convert the image to tracks matters.
      The software used to playback matters. It keeps going. A hi end cd payer like Paul’s is the simplist way to get a consistent sound from a disk.
      Now regarding your opticle cartridge that I too thought would be great mostly stinks for a few reasons one you stated it’s the disk not being perfect in shape. It this is just the start. To do so there is two roads one is digital and all it’s decisions to make and again it’s not analog anymore. The second is doing it in the analog domain yields
      Mixed results and almost any vinyl junkei hates them
      I don’t play vinyl but I have asked your question on many forums
      They don’t like it lol.

      1. Most interesting questions and statements! What do you think is needed in the architecture of the memory player in order to get the bits stored in it’s RAM to be played? A specific software? Concerning the laser turntable maybe you should better complement your knowledge first visiting this page: http://elpj.com. Have fun!

        1. lol I read a few of them on the web and I for one believe no contact is better but there are others that do have contAct and vibrate to a led
          There are also some that are digital as well. Haveing said this they all still an riaa to balance the EQ of what I feel is very flawed medium that has a cult like following to the grave
          When I was thinking of getting into analog again it was vinyl
          And tape
          This quickly faded as it became more about finding the music I liked and the. Having to get the right pressing or label or run. Maddening
          A very big price to pay mentally where digital takes mins to acquire.

          I have no desire to hold any of the few thousand disks I have stored and I should sell them but don’t. I figure it’s an investment of sorts.

          A forums I go to that is analog mostly none of them an optical cartridge
          And I think it’s not the sound either it’s more of it not being real as in full attachment to how it should
          Be played. Spinning vinyl is an event not just playing music. A digital disk does not hold this value and perhaps paul thought it did.

          Digital people like me are somewhat removed from the art of playing music and more of hearing it. Of that makes any sence.

          1. Do you remember that there existed a player for digital discs from Telefunken I guess where the pick-up had mechanical contact to the disc? Similar as on a tape deck’s reading head. Thus indeed read-out without mechanical contact as on CD-transports, HDDs etc. is a big progress! Except for vinyl and tape aficionados of course.

            1. Wow I never knew of that. NIce info to read up on. The ones that will not change are stuck in the past and. Are the same ones who will never except digital as an equal but different.

              Some also have a very poor example of Digital and claim that analog is better as they point to it.
              One of the forums I go on is mostly analog people very nice group.
              But quickly point to digital being flawed and it is in many ways.
              Then I ask what dac or method do you use when you play digital this
              Shows me none of them has a good enough setup To lay claim.
              Thanks for your reply.

  3. Music streamers are very much like the taxi services we have.
    At one time you called a cab
    Then a yellow cab and now a green cab
    Then like Spotify came urber they seemed to be the next gen killing off the other services. But the other services still survive somehow.
    Now in nyc we have all of the above and one more called via
    5 bucks flat no tips allowed I go from wall st to HARLEM that’s all I pay. For the Avg cost of parking my truck at 7 per hour I can now take a via from an app on my phone
    Gps enabled so I know when they are there even where there coming from. And texts too. If someone is making money providing a task more will come.
    Our lives are always In an evolution of sorts and paul we don’t get old
    Like an machine. We are alive it never was. The desk top will be here for a while longer just not playing music from it as some don’t use it now like me. The tought of a desk top playing my music equates to bad sound . A server is what the next gen is doing and when are you producing one. We are getting old waiting lol.

  4. I Agree that music being streamed from a Mac or pc using a program like Amarra or Pure Music, with the server sitting in the audio room hooked up to the dac using USB is history. When I moved to using a dedicated streamer, I just repurposed my Mac mini to be a whole house server running OS X Server. All my ripped music is on this server. I pointed the dedicated music server that sat in my audio room to the OS X server using the network, nice increase in SQ. Then when I got the DS with the bridge ii, then I got away from using USB which was another increase in SQ and I cleaned up the OS X server by dropping the minimserver and bubbleupnp apps that were needed by the old dedicated server and went with Roon. Now things are much simpler and SQ is at its best. Tidal and others don’t have all of the music online that I have ripped so it’s still necessary to have your own server.

  5. I never accepted to use a PC for music, especially not as a front end and standing around my stereo setup. I come straight from physical CD and moved to the Bridge/DS/Jriver, which was a bingo experience to me. You might say it is based on a PC, but I run Jriver on the NAS (well which is a small PC eiter) and only my iPAD is involved in listening to music. No need for a PC in daily operation.

    I’m just using the PC to background adminstrate the library in case of certain service measures.

    In case the application/library would reside inside the Bridge instead of inside my NAS and in case I could administrate it by web interface (instead of remotely going on my NAS over PC), I probably would still do it by PC and not by tablet. Simply because it’s more convenient and because the administration workspace, when having required functions, is usually more complex than just a play now screen. Administration is usually easier with a mouse instead of fingers.

    So while I understand that the new era of Bridge III will be a major advantage for anyone coming newly into streaming and require no IT skill I needed to setup the remote PC/NAS/Jriver stuff, it would be no major change for me personally from the pure lack of a PC for music playing.
    I would just hope, that such a new simplified Bridge III setup with the new library server would still cover the most important demands I have and maybe bring in some new benefits when it forces me to migrate.

    I think the new era will be interesting and challenging from a strategic point of view for PSA, as PSA runs into serious software business with a broader effect than just supporting own narrowly defined hardware interfaces with PSA SW. It then competes against a strong evolving market with open interfaces and lots of programmers and ideas.

    I think PSA will succeed with a proprietary library software and the comprehensibly reasonable Apple-approach, when trying to cover all major demands the competition covers and be a bit better than the rest in terms of user interface and convenience and besides Bridge (which to me is preferable for PSA DAC’s) also offers a server as well as separate Bridge/streamer boxes for use with 3rd party DAC’s. If the Octave SW’s success shall be based on its reputation as the most convenient for streaming newbies, it will have to be available for everyone, not only complete PSA system owners and in different price categories.

    I don’t have the neccesary market overview, but what I think is…to offer a closed and proprietary music server appliance without further need of a PC (even for buying/transferring music), without difficult setup procedures and trying to be the best is probably not new, but to offer it integrated as network card or small separate streamer is new. Correct me if I’m wrong and if there’s no complete music server unit without need of a PC on the market yet.

    1. To add this:
      IMO the main “downside” of a library instead of physical media is, that people collect more and loose overview and therefore relationship to certain music. They simply have too much, even too much good stuff. Same is valid for streaming services. It doesn’t always help to have thousands of albums available, sometimes it’s hard just to select the right one for breakfast, dinner or party background.

      There’s a good chance for a new library application as Octave. When there’s a good quick option to rate or flag songs and albums (or other more creative ideas) in order to improve a special relation to them or to tag moods, certain events (i.e. breakfast music), ratings of matching owns musical taste etc., this would be inovative IMO. For sure it can be edited already know, as I partly do, but it’s a manual setup matter and could be supported better and more intuitively.

    2. I have a tiny SonicTransporter i5 from Small Green Computer that doesn’t even have USB just Ethernet. It uses a LINUX OS is headless (meaning no Monitor keyboard or Mouse) and we added a 1 Terabyte SSD drive to it. It comes already loaded with Roon… we backup to Dropbox.

      It’s really small and runs on a 12v power supply.

      We can bring “our entire music library” into my RV to the ski condo or cabin and use Roon Remote. I only need to have a Wifi network. “Ripping Disks” is the last need for a PC in my audio world. Soon someone will have a headless device that does that.

      But the Discs are very much in play at home with the PSA DirectStream DAC and DMP

  6. But in the workplace I am grateful that I can use the mouse, keyboard and screen to access all of my purchased music via my choice of storage/streaming options. Just add a Dragonfly and decent speakers and I can enjoy my music with the hardware I am using on my desktop. Let’s not bury this too soon. I can’t justify a second DMP/DSD setup for the office . . .

    1. Chuck929 I am with you on this one as well. A good set of speakers at the office (I use Audioengine) with DAC (in my case it is a third party DAC but many companies make powered desktop computers) and in my mind this takes all the load off the computer while I stream or access my home music server via JRiver remotely. At the end of the day, all the streamer devices and the phones and so on have processor chips in them and are computers themselves in a way, just not multi-use devices which is why they seem to be preferred.

  7. Never used a PC for my music but once I purchased my IMac I was captivated with ripping all of my 450 cds (small collection by many) and having hard wired my APPLE to my 2channel system. The idea of seeing my entire collection catalogued and having easy accessibility to it was like a rush. I was so excited.
    Then came Bluetooth as a transport for Pandora, Outlaw Radio, Tune In and IHeart radio.
    Next up was Spotify and TIDAL.
    After my very first tube amplifier purchase about two years ago I signed up with TIDAL and use APPLE TV to stream.
    I LOVE it. It’s economical, no srorage problems and the hi-if quality sound is sublime.
    Obviously TIDAL is not for everyone but I personally enjoy it almost daily.
    The idea of slipping a disc into my OPPO is RARE but I still like and want the choice to be available as I do with vinyl.
    CHOICE is a good thing!

    Frank

  8. In my view, the only reason to run audio from a PC is (1) the need to run SOTA DRC. You cannot do this on any dedicated audio server or streaming device. Of course, there is also the cost issue. However, using high end multi media and music server PCs has been an aggravating experience to say the least. I guess I was always stretching the limit by running multi channel + DRC and multi media from the same machine. Not for the faint at heart. Regrettably, no alternatives are available (nor will be anytime soon) for my application.

  9. Re: “PCs have been the core of music playback for decades.”

    Not quite “decades,” as computer-based listening didn’t really take off until Napster in 1999 (Mac version a year later). Napster brought music file sharing out of the dark dungeons of usenet groups and into homes and offices. Napster caused a sea change in the way people thought about acquiring music. Buying CD, tapes and records became unnecessary. Music was free for the taking via your computer. People had been ripping CDs and sharing the files prior to Napster, but Napster opened up an almost infinite library of music for free — even if it was literally stealing.

    Then along came the iPod, iTunes and the iTunes music store, which not only changed the way people listened to music but started convincing people that songs were worth a non-zero sum. At 99 cents, the price was not what the music business had hoped for, but it was better than nothing.

    Re: “In 2008 things began to change when two engineers, Daniel Ek, and Martin Lorentzon—working out of a shared apartment in Stockholm—began changing the world.”

    Spotify launched in 2008 and didn’t come to the United States until a test run in 2011. Other music streaming services were way ahead of Spotify: LastFM launched in 2002, Pandora in 2005, SoundCloud in 2007.

    What Spotify did was make it easier to find, listen to and even download entire albums of one’s own choosing without buying anything. It was like Napster all over again but without the stealing, as Spotify used the tried-and-true “freemium” business model.

    I remember back when I worked at a company with an open-plan office. Most people had headphones on for large chunks of the day. The music was played via iTunes (or Pandora) on the office PCs and Macs. When Spotify came along in late 2011, it picked up a lot of users at my office. People still loved to listen to their own, personal music libraries on iTunes, but Spotify got a big share.

    Music-sharing services — from Napster to iTunes to Pandora to Spotify — took over the music world because: 1) the available music is practically infinite; 2) the software works across computer platforms and across mobil devices; 3) the music is either free or pretty cheap.

    Re: “But it isn’t just streaming services that are freeing us from the tether of big, high-tech boxes tied to mice, keyboards, and video screens. Even physical media like CDs are being controlled and played back less and less on PCs.”

    I don’t understand your point. PCs don’t normally control physical media like CDs.

    Re: “Within the next five years, I believe we’ll see PCs fade into the mists of time as the primary interface for our music.”

    Until Tidal came along, streaming services were not for audiophile listening anyway — more for work and mobile listening, not serious listening. Now audiophiles can easily choose between their own high-res libraries stored on hard drives and high-quality streaming via Tidal. Works well for me. You see that going away in five years?!!!

    1. No, not in the way you put it. I guess I didn’t do well making my point. I see PCs going away as the means to control and listen to music. I see hard drives through dedicated computers replacing them.

      I guess my whole point is the ripping, managing, playback through programs like JRiver that require PCs is what I believe is going away.

  10. I actually enjoy having CD artwork and info on the big screen. Even though I still play CDs occasionally I usually play them after ripping on the PC. I find they usually even sound better on JRiver unless they are SACDs/DVDA or BluRays.

  11. >>>>> I for one will be thrilled to never use a mouse, keyboard, or video screen to enjoy or control my tunes.<<<<<<

    UhOh! I LOVE watching videos of live performances on my monitor. Watching the players and seeing the action take place lends credence to the sound of real instruments in action. When there is no visual? Only music streamed? We tend to want the sound to compensate for the lack of the visual involvement of the performance.. And, in doing so, seek to gain nuances in sound that we never actually hear nor would need during a live performance to enjoy it.

    Live performances do not sound as pleasant (processed) as analog studio recordings. Being able to watch the live performance and hear the sound is getting the whole picture. When only streaming..Or, vinyl analog.. Its not the same. And, has its own demands on the sound before it can please the hearer.
    I find I am more critical of the sound quality when I can not watch a video of the performance. Without the visual aspect the sound quality must compensate for something missing that the visual fulfills with the experience of listening… So with only audio, we now listen for extended highs that sound sweeter than what is real, and bass that sounds different than the real thing… IMHO. Not intending to knock either world of experiencing a musical event.

  12. Paul had an addendum… it clarifies now.

    >>>>>> I see PCs going away as the means to control and listen to music. I see hard drives through dedicated computers replacing them.<<<<<

    Got it! That's what many of us have been seeking. Its what many have been trying to turn their PC's into. 😉

  13. I am 69 and not likely to change my listening preferences. I listen to vinyl all the time and enjoy the process of taking a record off the shelf, putting it on the TT and dropping the needle. I still enjoy holding the album cover and reading the lyrics, who played on the album, etc. without needing a magnifying glass. I just helped my oldest daughter and her husband (early 40s) buy a vinyl set up (at their request). They love the whole record buying and playing experience as do many of their friends. I don’t believe we are at the end of the vinyl era.

    I prefer the sound of vinyl over any digital playback I have heard. I have heard great digital systems and I’m not saying vinyl is better, I just prefer the sound and the experience. I have about 3,000 albums and 1,000 CDs. My digital music service is iTunes on a PC and every album in my iTunes library has been ripped from a CD at AIFF. I like owning physical media and have never bought or downloaded music from iTunes or any other service. I give away the free mp3 downloads that come with most new records today. If I want the digital version for my car or iPod, I’ll buy the CD and rip it. I have Apple TV and will stream from the iTunes library on my laptop into my system via an HDMI connection on my ModWright modded Oppo 105D when I’m cooking or having a party and want background music. I will be happy with this set up as long as I live so I hope iTunes and PCs will be around for a while.

    The great thing about all of these choices is that there is pretty much something that will work for everyone, from the casual listener to the serious audiophile.

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