A missed opportunity for Apple and Apple Music 🤷‍♂️

Despite being criticised, and rightly so for some products, much hi-fi equipment is far from being snake oil. It tends to follow the laws of diminishing returns, for sure, but looking at that from the starting end of the graph, it means that spending just a little more will yield large returns on investment in sound quality. It generally follows that build quality and robustness also follow when you increase the budget of your hi-fi equipment.

Sadly, that world is full of promises and downright fraudulent claims, particularly in the cable market. But on the whole, a decent small-batch hi-fi manufacturer providing reasonably priced components will prove a wise strategy to get the best out of recorded music for you.

And that world is becoming more affordable as sources, components, and reproduction are all moving to digital. Looking at the middle-to-high end —brands like Naim Audio and Linn— are providing digital systems of the all-in-one design. Some model lack speakers, which is likely to capture a large chunk of the budget, but other models are true all-in-one systems conceived for the digital age. These systems are capable of producing remarkable sound for their size and budget. But the music industry has had a harder time convincing users of the benefits of higher definition audio.

Some of that has to do with the fact that some people just cannot hear the difference, others pretend they can and scientific experiments have all but proven that the benefits of high definition audio sources are only marginal. The human’s average hearing range is well inside the bandwidth of high definition audio, so it is difficult to prove the benefit to listeners.

That hasn’t stopped online streaming services like Tidal and Spotify from offering those products to their users. In fact, Tidal’s business model was predicated on the promise that it had the best sounding streams on the planet.

To play these sources as well as locally ripped or produced high definition sources, there are more products on the market adapted to this trend. One such product is the Buchardt Audio A500. It is a 4000€ speaker + hub package (delivered worldwide incl.) that negates the need for any other component in your system. You plug the speakers in, link them to the hub, and you can start streaming in less than ten minutes. The product goes much further, but that’s not the remit of this blog. Take a look at someone like DarkAudio for a better review.

But yes, this 4000€ product is out of the range of most listeners, either by wealth or by value perceived. And this is where I think Apple has a fantastic opportunity on two fronts to make the ultimate “everyday man’s” dream hi-fi system.

We’ve seen and heard what two HomePods in paired mode can produce in sound quality, and it is mightily impressive. Even two HomePod minis sound superb for $200 when paired! But the original HomePod was a floored design initially. It was Apple-only (through Apple Music) and could stream through AirPlay (an Apple proprietary streaming protocol). They worked very well but only suited those heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.

Apple subsequently added the possibility for its AppleTV set-top box to use them as the default output device, but this only worked sporadically and relied on good wi-fi and internet. Most people use a variety of TV boxes and TV sets, and in those circumstances the go-to solution was to buy an AV amplifier and speakers —sometimes 8 (7+1)!

Where I think Apple could meaningfully contribute to the market, a market that is self-proclaimed to be significant to Apple, is on one hand provide a high definition streaming plan to the Apple Music subscription. An extra $5 or so a month would be picked up by a sizeable market, I believe (whether they hear the difference or not!). Let’s call it Apple Music+.

The second prong of the strategy would be to produce a device in the vein of the Buchardt Hub. A small set-top box that has AppleTV built in, inputs for line (both RCA and Minijack), USB and HDMI. The device would take the input, either wired or wireless through AirPlay, and output quality stereo sound to the two linked speakers using the same communications as the existing HomePods. With a little more work, it may be possible to even add additional speakers to the mix, providing the immersive all-round sound film buffs tend to favour.

The price of the package could be $500-$700 and would sell like hot cakes I would guess.

Think about a small, easy to set up, great-sounding all-in-one package that could replace the hi-fi, the AV amp and god-awful ugly speakers.

I’d go for that.

31 March 2021 — French West Indies

Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen