US-Corner: Some thoughts looking back to 2017

What a year 2017 turned out to be. It seems that no facet of high fidelity music playback has been left untouched.

From ridiculously overblown fears over MQA (mostly relegated to online forum spats), to new product introductions from Auralic, YG, PS Audio, KEF, MySphere, Grado, Wilson Audio, MSB and many others to amazing new music from companies like Acoustic Sounds, Mobile Fidelity and many of the major labels as well as all new ones, Intervention Records comes to mind, 2017 was definitely a year of accolades, accomplishments and foundational groundwork. Add to that several high-profile US based Audio shows, Axpona, Rocky Mountain Audiofest, LAAS, and it’s clear that seemingly things are on the up and up for all things high end audio. The only two elements missing to complete the circle are well rounded, forward thinking dealers, and of course customers to buy all these amazing wares. Unlike in Europe or elsewhere in the developed HiFi markets of the world, the US dealer network in particular is mostly wanting of new ideas and experimental solutions to gain grounds. As the mid to upper echelons of HiFi are becoming more lifestyle luxury priced, so to are expectations of retail experiences, product support and service.

Dealers like The Audio Salon with proprietor Maier Shadi, indicate a possible future of high end audio’s retail experiences. Settled in Santa Monica’s (Los Angeles) bustling, hustling arts district known as the Bergamont station, Maier has quickly carved out a name unlike any other HiFi retailer I know of. Exclusive, by appointment only, he hosts brilliant music events with incredible guest speakers, that genuinely seek to drive an all new audience to this amazing industry of ours, I wonder how long before others start realizing the potential for an all new wave of HiFi clients and customers alike. Just recently, for example, he converted his already bespoke salon to an art gallery, hosting LA artist Gena Milanesi to an audience of around 300 Angelians (you know, those people living in Los Angeles). Mind you, none of them had ever heard of Wilson Audio, dCS or Dan Dagostino, so these high-end lifestyle customers just got exposed to music and art in a way they never have before. Will other dealers follow these experimental concepts? Time will tell. One thing’s for sure however: you can’t be selling hundred thousand dollar systems offering up McDonald’s service and experience.

Similar to The Audio Salon’s quest for traction in uncharted waters, the concept of HiFi shows perhaps also needs a rethink. Given the abundance of regional and local audio shows, attendance is mostly by those already initiated into the hobby. During one of my keynote presentations at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audiofest, I spoke with the show’s Ramsay Thurber about exactly that topic. Why not host alternative, more exclusive, bespoke high-end audio lifestyle events catering to an all new clientele and crowd? For this industry to grow and remain healthy, we simply must attract new people and lay the groundwork for crossover events and offer spaces for music lovers like e.g. Spiritland at London’s King’s Cross. Think high end watch press junkets with the appropriate ambiance. Think Beverly Hills Hotel as opposed to the local airport Hilton or nullachtfünzehn Marriott. Think big title sponsors from the tech-, automobile- or luxury-industry for example.

Another way forward is fully upgradeable hardware-software based platforms like what KEF demonstrated with their amazing LS50W. Simply put, this product is a clear indicator of an all new direction for HiFi. Consider this: someone who purchased this speaker system early in the year, ended up with not one, but three major software upgrades, each adding dramatic new functionality to an already full featured system. Spotify? Roon? Tidal? Indeed, all of these services were added with the simple download of new software – no hardware changes required. To boot, no additional monies changed hands; the customer benefited from buy once, get upgrades for free down the road. Think Apple and iOS, iPhone or iPad. Frankly, there is no doubt in my mind that hardware platforms will be augmented by software going forward. The modern-day customer demands it; high end audio must deliver. Auralic’s and Boulder’s new line of hardware are already on the software upgrade train. Who else will follow?

Thusly, closing out 2017, I am genuinely excited for what 2018 will bring. Rumors of new groundbreaking products abound; Analog Production’s newly resurrected UHQR releases will see their light of day with an epic title by Jimi Hendrix due out sometime in the summer. MQA will undoubtedly continue to tally up wins and my favorite music library software, Roon, will no doubt see continued point releases. Join me next time as I continue to explore what’s new, what’s cool and what’s hip in HiFi.

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