Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

I’ve found that a major downside of admitting that I’m an Apple fan is that I’m so often instantly pigeonholed as an effete ideologue. Like countless other examples, what’s true about a small proportion of Apple buyers has begun to dominate their detractors’ thinking, all but ensuring that any ensuing conversation is tainted by preconceptions.

Macintosh Classic

I grew up with a Mac Classic all-in-one computer that I used until fifth grade, when I graduated to a Power Mac G3, then a Power Mac G4, and finally to a host of PowerBook and MacBook Pro laptops that served me through college and beyond. Apple is all I’ve ever known, and it’s worked for me -- nothing more, nothing less. The funny thing is, being a Macintosh user in the pre-iPod era earned needling of a sort very different from what one gets today. Back then, critics would look with bemusement on the fact that anyone would choose a computer platform with so little software support and quirky hardware (e.g., Steve Jobs’s stubborn loyalty to the single-button mouse).

All of that began to rapidly change when I went to college, in fall 2003, armed with two things that put me ahead of the technological curve: a 30GB, third-generation iPod (the first with an all-touch-sensitive interface); and a PowerBook G4 laptop to which I’d ripped my entire music library as -- don’t laugh -- high-quality, 256kbps MP3s. (At the time, everyone scoffed that anything above 128kbps could make an audible difference.) I was the only person I knew with the newest iPod, and one of only a few with a substantial music collection in iTunes. Over the next few years, practically everyone who arrived on campus had an iPod, and Apple laptops proliferated, with iTunes becoming the rule rather than the exception. Plenty of turning points have been negotiated in Apple’s rapid ascent from near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s, including such events as Steve Jobs’s return to the company, the introduction of the Bondi Blue iMac, and the launch of the original iPod -- each pinpointed as the point in time when Apple’s fortunes turned.

I would argue that it was no single event, but rather a series of tactical decisions on Apple’s part, that determined the trajectory that ended up in Apple’s becoming the most profitable company the world has ever seen, one that now sits on a Scrooge McDuck-like $250 billion in cash -- as big as the GDPs of Finland and Jamaica combined. First, in 2000, Apple bought a music-library program called SoundJam MP (I used it in my Power Mac G3), which they quickly refashioned into iTunes. Second, Apple not only stumbled on the killer innovation for portable MP3 players -- the scroll wheel -- but executed it to perfection, something the company had not done with any of its innovations in years.

The final piece in that puzzle, the iTunes Music Store, was added to iTunes 4.0 in spring 2003, months before I headed off to college. While iTunes was obscenely costly, charging 99¢ for a 128kbps song (not even CD quality!), Apple was well aware that people didn’t really care about sound quality or musical provenance -- they wanted convenience. Apple had created a full-fledged ecosystem catering to the consumption of digital music at home and on the go, all through a single interface. And there, ready to dive into the warm, lossy waters of early MP3s, was a generation of young music lovers looking to make the leap from playing CDs to playing files. People like me.

In 2007, when I graduated from college, smartphones were still in their infancy -- my iPod was far more important to me. In fact, it was a nearly constant companion, providing musical accompaniment for practically everything I did. Then, in mid-2008, something interesting happened. Apple announced their second-generation iPhone, the iPhone 3G, which offered 8 or 16GB of storage -- twice the capacity of the original iPhone -- and halved the price, to a respective $199 and $299. If I could stomach the loss in storage capacity and deal with having to curate my library, I could replace my beloved third-generation iPod with a multi-function cellphone, all for less money than I’d originally paid for my iPod. It’s little wonder that iPod sales plateaued in 2008 and fell 75% in the next six years, while iPhone sales rose dramatically in the last quarter of that year and haven’t looked back. The iPhone’s vaunted touchscreen interface may have been the device’s obvious calling card, but I suspect that it was legions of music lovers like me who helped spur the device’s early success.

I present all of this history as context for Apple’s recent news and product introductions at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference. WWDC is a monster event in the world of Apple. Details about their new hardware, software, and operating systems are disseminated to a voracious tech press and to ravenous investors and financial analysts. Beyond the announcement of some updated hardware that’s arguably overpriced and underpowered, Apple made two notable introductions at WWDC that could affect the High End in a big way. First and most obvious is AirPlay 2. The original AirPlay was a reasonably successful, lossless and wireless music-streaming protocol that was quickly eclipsed by Bluetooth. Details were still scant as I wrote this, but AirPlay 2 appears to simply update the protocol to support simultaneous multiroom streaming. In and of itself, the announcement is eye-rollingly lame. What caught my eye was this slide from a presentation on AirPlay 2 by Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi: a preliminary list of the manufacturers planning to support the new interface.

AirPlay 2 brands

Federighi’s slide indicates that Apple is partnering with not just one but many heavy hitters of high-end audio, including Bowers & Wilkins, Definitive Technology, Devialet, Dynaudio, Marantz, Naim, McIntosh Laboratory, and Polk. Let that list sink in for a moment. The High End has been racking its collective brain for years about how to lure in new buyers, and while I don’t expect AirPlay 2-compatible speakers to serve as the gateway drug to 800-series Bowers & Wilkins speakers or McIntosh separates, I’m betting they’ll help blur the line between consumer audio products and genuine high-fidelity sound reproduction.

Apple’s second and potentially more significant introduction was its upcoming competitor for Amazon’s wildly successful multifunction speaker, the Echo: the HomePod ($349), at about twice the Echo’s price. It’s easy to dismiss the HomePod as little more than a me-too device, but early impressions of the speaker are positive. Most of the press who were treated to a competitive demonstration of the HomePod, Amazon Echo, and Sonos Play:3 concluded that the Apple speaker sounded best by far. It’s also worth mentioning that the little HomePod includes some clever engineering: a circular array of seven tweeters and six microphones acoustically maps its environment to tailor the HomePod’s output to the listening space. I’ve also heard that at least one of the engineers who contributed to the HomePod’s design is a hi-fi alumnus, so there’s a possibility that it sounds pretty decent for what it is.

Apple Homepod

Given Amazon’s head start, Apple has a lot of catching up to do in the multifunction home-speaker space. And it remains to be seen how liberal Apple will be in allowing the HomePod to play nicely with third parties, to allow communication for food delivery, ride-sharing services, or online shopping. Furthermore, music is no longer the glue of most people’s lives -- it now vies for time and attention with everything else the Internet offers. And it doesn’t help that Apple Music -- how to put this artfully? -- sucks. Here’s hoping that support of Spotify and Tidal are baked into the HomePod from the get-go.

But just as iPod users helped the iPhone gain swift traction, I’m willing to bet that a healthy portion of the more than 85 million iPhone users in the US would be interested in having a personal assistant at home that seamlessly links with their phones, and also happens to play music at a reasonably high quality of sound. If Apple can make good on its promises -- and no amount of money can guarantee that -- it may well be that high-end audio can ride the HomePod’s coattails into consumers’ homes, and maybe even persuade the next generation of nutters that high-fidelity sound is worth paying for.

. . . Hans Wetzel