Audio Heads and Tails

April 30 2015, 08:00
During his review of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014, our colleague and audioXpress contributor Oliver A. Masciarotte wrote an amusing sentence: “Many engineers would debate the fact, but consumer electronics (CE) wags the tail of the pro audio dog.”

I have often debated this. But since the consumer electronics category embraces high-volume products such as Apple’s iPhone to $10 earbuds and boutique high-end products costing hundreds of thousands of dollars (of which probably less than a handful are sold), I can admit the power of the CE industry.

Nevertheless, my background in the broadcast and pro audio industry taught me a few lessons from many of the most prestigious companies regarding how the industry works. In semiconductor factories, chips are manufactured in batches of thousands, of which, most are used in high-level consumer products, hundreds are applied in demanding professional products, and a handful are selected for critical applications, of which the “broadcast level” is recognized has one of the most demanding.

Of course, the production criteria and the R&D efforts toward innovation are completely different issues. But the question can also be: What segment of the industry carries more weight towards influencing innovation in audio?

I’ve had the privilege of working with some great consumer brands, such as Nakamichi, Quad, and Yamaha, as well as professionally focused brands such as Studer (pre-Harman) and learned that, from their perspective, the industrial criteria is usually determinant in terms of R&D investment.

Meaning, innovations are normally tested first in demanding environments, such as professional or high-end applications and eventually introduced in more affordable consumer technologies with the concept fully proven and with lower tolerances.

Studer, for instance, would apply that criteria to distinguish a reel-to-reel tape recorder used in professional and broadcast applications, and basically sell the same machines for consumer and prosumer applications with the Revox brand (then owned by Studer). When we would question the price difference of a Revox B77 and the equivalent Studer machine, the Studer engineers would explain that there was a 10% practical difference in performance and reliability. Nevertheless, to achieve that 10% “perfection,” the price of carefully selected components and finely tuned mechanics easily doubled or tripled the production costs.

Recently, for our Loudspeaker Industry Sourcebook 2015 edition, we decided to ask multiple audio industry personalities with completely different backgrounds and positions where they saw “more innovation coming from — consumer applications, high-end audio, pro audio applications, or installation?”

The results didn’t surprise me. Those professionals involved in consumer technologies said innovation happens in the consumer segments, while those coming from professional applications thought that innovation is lead there. More significantly, those professionals with a wider view of all industry segments agree that the greatest amount of new technologies are determined from the size of the industry – telecom, semiconductor, etc. – while at the same time agreeing that consumer-oriented research is more marketing-driven and professional audio is more engineering driven.

Finally, those with a clear engineering background agree that professional applications drive the audio industry. They all agree that, independently where innovation originates, that segment, sooner or later affects the others.

I particularly liked the way industry consultant Christopher J. Struck (CEO & Chief Scientist CJS Labs) summed it up: “This depends on the pressure point: Consumer applications have driven both the price point and the size/form factor down. Pro applications continue to drive efficiency upward, whereas installation drives both ease of use and modularization. High-end audio classically drives overall performance and new designs.”

So… whose tail is moving which dog?
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