Listening: When demand slows for hi-fi equipment, the quality starts dropping off, says Geoff Haynes, from Tivoli Hi-Fi.
The boom in digital downloads caters for music fans on the go, but there's plenty of life left in the humble lounge-room CD player.
High-tech soothsayers will tell you the internet has already killed music CDs, but the truth is that physical discs still make up half of all Australian music revenues. CD sales are gradually giving way to digital downloads and subscription music services, but sales of high-quality CD players are actually rising, says Geoff Haynes, executive director of the Australian Hi-Fi Association.
Along with young people exploring sound quality beyond the ubiquitous MP3, audiophiles with extensive CD collections are also investing in quality players to get the most from their discs for years to come, says Haynes, who is also general manager of Hawthorn's Tivoli Hi-Fi.
He says Melbourne has a large audiophile community and the Melbourne Audio Club is one of the oldest and largest audio clubs in the world.
Haynes says he has sold ''quite an inordinate number'' of premium CD players in the past few months, with customers spending up to $17,000 on brands such as Audio Research from the US.
''If shoppers with an ear for quality are potentially buying their last CD player, they want to make it a good one,'' he says. ''When demand slows down for hi-fi equipment, the quality starts dropping off, as we saw with tape decks. I think that drop in quality will come to the CD player space, but we're not seeing it yet. We're still seeing some beautiful CD players out there on the market, and the bulk of our sales are in the $1000 to $5000 range.''
The fundamental workings of the CD player haven't changed since the 1980s, but players in the premium price range supply clearer sound because of improved digital-to-analog conversion circuitry and quality power supplies, designed to smooth out spikes. Some players also have a digital-to-analog conversion input for connecting other digital devices such as a computer, letting the CD player act as a bridge to the rest of your entertainment system.
Many of today's high-end CD players function as universal multi-format players, designed to handle DVD and Blu-ray discs along with Super Audio CD, the proposed successor to CDs, which thus far has failed to take off.
''Super Audio CD is re-emerging as a technology which audiophiles are very much interested in,'' Haynes says. ''When you hear Super Audio CD on a really good system, it just fills the room with a beautiful sound stage.''
He says most people who've made the move to Super Audio CDs use a universal player, such as those from Chinese electronics maker Oppo or a Swedish-designed Primare. ''Because they have the stigma of being able to play video DVDs and Blu-rays, such universal players often end up in an AV system rather than a dedicated music system,'' Haynes says. ''You really want synergy between your music player and other pieces of hi-fi equipment.''
Shoppers are also going for premium discs designed to sound their best on a high-quality hi-fi system. Companies such as the Chicago-based Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab are feeding into this demand by re-releasing modern and classic albums on Super Audio CD, gold CDs and heavyweight vinyl. ''Ten years ago we couldn't give vinyl LPs away - now we're importing them by the crate-load,'' says Ian Hooper of Rockian Trading, an Australian importer of Mobile Fidelity and other high-quality discs.
''It's almost a rebellion against MP3 by people who are passionate about their music. Companies like Mobile Fidelity return to the original master tape and then go to great pains to produce a perfect disc, whether it's vinyl, CD or Super Audio CD.''
Unlike the early days of the format, most Super Audio CDs are now hybrid discs designed to play in a Super Audio player or a normal CD player. The care that goes into remastering the music for these discs ensures that even the CD layer sounds better than your average CD.
''Some audio CDs use a gold coating for a perfectly formed mirror surface, unlike aluminium, which is slightly granular when it's vapourised on to the disc,'' Hooper says. ''That granulation can cause read errors when playing the disc, and it's errors that we're trying to avoid when chasing perfect audio reproduction.''
The Super Audio CD format hasn't had made much of an impression on overall CD sales but Hooper has his eye on new optical disc formats such as High Fidelity Pure Audio and Pure Audio Blu-ray, which are basically audio-only Blu-ray discs.
''DVD-Audio was a predecessor to Super Audio CD and it died because people weren't willing to buy a DVD which didn't have video on it,'' Hooper says. ''It's too early to tell if these Blu-ray audio-only discs will perform any better.''
They will play in a standard Blu-ray player, but you're unlikely to appreciate the difference from CD when listening through your television's built-in speakers. Instead, these Blu-ray audio discs are intended to be played in a universal player connected to a good hi-fi system.
''It looked like they'd be an audiophile-only format until Universal Music came out with 150 popular releases, as well as a host of classical releases such as the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven,'' Hooper says. ''If Universal and other major labels continue this kind of support, then these Blu-ray audio formats might actually become popular, giving optical discs a new lease of life.''