Audio Sources: Old Favorites & New Directions
Thanks largely to the internet, the range of music sources available to consumers has expanded dramatically over the last decade. Traditional music media such as CDs and AM/FM radio have largely been eclipsed by digital radio services (XM, Sirius), cable and satellite music, internet downloads (iTunes), and other forms of audio streaming (Rhapsody).
Advantages So much music content is now available via the internet that even the most bored or jaded listener would be hard-pressed to complain about choice. Additional advantages of streaming include:
- Ease of Use. Once properly set up, convenience is generally outstanding: no commercials, no handling or sorting through discs, no misplaced discs, easy access across multiple platforms (smartphone, tablet), Wi-Fi connectivity from personal digital devices to dedicated home music systems, and enhanced control over content categories. For larger collections, though, the management of songs can be tricky.
- Dynamic Range. Modern digital recording and transmission have much wider dynamic range potential than of analog sources, like LPs and AM/FM radio. This is the ability to capture the full range of natural music, from softest to loudest. For classical and jazz, this can be very important musically. But for popular music, which lacks much variation from softest to loudest, dynamic range is less critical.
Limitations For some audio sources, full integration into your home entertainment plans may pose complications:
- Compression. Streamed music is typically compressed to save bandwidth and storage space. As a consequence, much subtle detail can be lost. If you’re listening on a smartphone, you probably won’t hear the difference. But on a high-quality home audio system, the difference can be dramatic. New systems are now available to permit lossless digital transmission of music.
- Navigation. Most cable and satellite TV providers offer a wide range of digital music. But they typically require a video display for navigation—not so practical for audio-only systems.
- Availability. Streaming and on-line music purchases have dramatically undercut CD sales, resulting in the reduced availability of CDs in some musical genres.
- Universal Players. SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-Audio were supposed to revolutionize recorded music, but never really took off. So selections are thin, and players hard to find. Some manufacturers offer Universal Disc Players that play these formats, along with CD, DVD, and Blu-ray.
- Turntables. There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in LP turntables among audiophiles. But the manual controls make them essentially impossible to integrate into automated systems. Also, they require a phono input, which is no longer available on most surround receivers (although inexpensive accessory phono pre-amps are readily available).
- Integration. As the number of sources in a system increases, system integration can become complex, and the individual sources may become more difficult to use—unless a universal remote control system is added to tame all of the technology. Also, surround receivers may lack enough inputs (of the right type) to hook up all the sources. For ease of use, simplify whenever feasible—for example, by using a universal disc player, or by retiring an old turntable.