The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?

Integrated amplifiers
The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?

So, the narrow focus of audio goals is not a nefarious plot; it is the natural byproduct of sensible decisions taken 50 or more years ago. Many people—audiophiles and audio companies—are aware that “something” is amiss. Older audiophiles commonly remark that “something” is unfortunately different now than it was back in the 1970s and 1980s when progress seemed to be a quarterly event. TAS founder Harry Pearson periodically observed that, despite decades of progress, high-end audio systems still sound vastly different from live music (“the absolute sound”). He wished to point out that “something” was needed to go farther toward the absolute sound. The problem is that the “something” isn’t explicitly clear as long as you assume the standard architecture. 

I wish to argue that the reason macro-progress toward the absolute sound is limited is because of the constrained micro-performance focus that we have inherited from the modular component systems architecture and its focus on intra-component distortion. The assumption in focusing on intra-component distortion is that if the recording is decoded, amplified, and delivered to the listener faithfully at each step in the reproduction chain, then all is well. This is a strategy to deliver low distortion in some portions of the chain, but not necessarily a good strategy to achieve low overall distortion from performer all the way to the brain. 

To propose an explicit alternative that I think actually would help, the strategy I want to point to is focused on low total distortion based on feedback loops encompassing the entire chain from mind to recording venue. I think we can call this latter approach the “integrated systems architecture.” 

So, my hypothesis is twofold. First, I want to suggest that high definition and low distortion are parameters on which we have reached an asymptotic level of performance advance. Which is to say, things are pretty good as far as these parameters are concerned and they naturally aren’t getting and can’t get better very fast (also, such performance advances tend to be expensive). Second, I suggest that integrated systems, taken as a concept, provide a significantly richer wealth of opportunities to develop audio products and services that advance the state of the art much farther toward musical realism. In part, that is because, in the integrated systems era, audiophiles and the audio industry would first lay out fundamental goals and then pursue the architectures that would deliver them. Not the obverse.

These two related hypotheses don’t present a forced choice. We can advance the cause of low intra-stage distortion and at the same time pursue the advances allowed by integrated systems. But we have to recognize and pursue the latter as avidly and intensely as we can, and—resources being limited—that probably means less progress on intra-stage distortion than we would get with the industry structured as is. There will be resistance to such a direction because audiophile mindsets are focused on the traditional architecture and because the industry is not arranged to deliver integrated systems. This sort of problem happens in industries all the time—witness the current transition of automotive technology from internal combustion to electric powertrains with its attendant haters and reshuffling of power (or previously from voice communications from land lines to smartphones or…). 

This is all pretty high-level, abstract thinking. To bring it closer to our understanding, we need to define the alternative logic of integrated systems. 

The integrated systems architecture is, first and foremost, a logical construct that is aimed at six goals supporting the overall goal of musical realism. Four of these goals are primary:

  • Environmental integration. The logic of integrated systems is that the largest errors imposed between the source signal and the listener are due to differences between the assumed environment and the actual environment (e.g. room shape and materials; loudspeaker and listener placement). An integrated system, then, is one that works to achieve results within its environment. It is integrated with the environment. 
  • Listener integration. We can easily imagine that different listeners process music differently along the ear-brain signal-processing system. Said more simply, different listeners care about different things. As a result, even if “the absolute sound” is one fixed thing, in a real world of systems that have distortions, different listeners practically may need to receive different musical wave fronts to experience musical accuracy in their heads. In addition, a hi-fi system is a virtual reality machine, and it is easily imaginable that technical “inaccuracies” might be introduced that lead to greater virtual reality. These are, possibly, heretical remarks in the logical paradigm of component systems, but integrated systems could, and probably would, abandon these assumptions to make it easier for listeners to tune systems to work well.
  • Sub-system integration. The component model revolves around standard building blocks with standard interfaces. Integrated systems have the freedom to abandon both the building blocks and the standards. One likely benefit of this is that sub-systems can be optimized for each other. One small example of this is the use of active crossovers. These have significant potential benefits in reducing inter-driver interference, but generally such crossovers can’t be used because the component building block model is based on a power amp to passive loudspeaker architecture.
  • Recording integration. We have tended to view the recording as some sort of absolute. But realistically, recordings are made with different venues and different equipment and different monitoring and mixing preferences. The likelihood is that significant errors are introduced before the recording data even gets to a home audio system. True integration would take these errors into account.

The secondary integrated systems goals are:

  • Packaging integration. Audio systems are generally used in homes, and the way systems physically fit in the home is potentially important to domestic acceptability and to placement. Similarly, the user interface of the audio system may be integral to its enjoyment and usage. Finally, packaging for easy setup may affect the tuning of the system and the frequency with which technological upgrades are implemented. One-box systems, like the Naim Mu-so or the Dynaudio Music series, may typify packaging integration when compared to a standard component system, but the concept is more general than that, as we can see in the Kii Three or the Gayle Sanders Eikon. 
  • Cost integration. We can imagine that cost reductions are achievable with integration. The standard idea here is exemplified by the integrated amp, which uses one chassis rather than two (preamp and amp) and one power supply and one shipping container rather than two. But we can also imagine that a designer, with a wider range of system elements to optimize, might be able to produce a target level of performance at lower cost than designers bound to optimize their individual components. A core idea here may turn out to be that if we can push development from hardware into software, per-unit costs may be reduced.