Audio trends for the new year

In 2012, speakers get even smaller, headphone performance improves, and home theater sound takes a nosedive.

As an audiophile, I value sound quality, but most audio buyers don't. Even when superior sound is available for the same cost as a lower quality alternative, most buyers will opt for the smaller, more convenient, more attractive, or more feature-laden product.

The Pioneer SP-PK21BS home theater speaker package Pioneer Electronics

Case in point, the $399 Pioneer SP-PK21BS home theater speaker package. It's the best sounding home theater speaker/subwoofer system you can buy for that price, but it's also the biggest system you can get for that much money. How big is it? The SP-BS21-LR bookshelf speakers are 12.6 inches high, 7.2 inches wide, and 8.1 inches deep; and the SP-C21 center speaker is even bigger, at 7.9x19.9x8.7 inches, it's rather large. The SW-8 eight-inch subwoofer is average in size for a budget system. If you're looking for a "lifestyle" system, the SP-PK21BS won't be of interest. The system's real ace in the hole isn't just its ample size, the SP-PK21BS was designed by Andrew Jones, who also designs ultra high-end speakers for TAD. My 2012 home theater speaker forecast: speakers will get even smaller and sound worse for it. Buck the trend and buy speakers big enough to get the job done right.

Most sound bars and iPod speakers are conceived with the same design limitations that thwart home theater speaker designers. Sound bars have to be skinny to look their best snuggled up to a flat screen display, and most produce inferior sound quality compared with what's available over separate speakers. A pair of Emotiva Airmotiv4 self-powered speakers ($399) will deliver better sound quality than most sound bars or iPod speakers. Monoprice's inexpensive speakers and subwoofers might also deserve your consideration before buying a sound bar. My 2012 sound bar and iPod speaker forecast: they will get smaller and sound worse for it.

Mainstream electronics manufacturers also know that sound quality doesn't "sell," features do. So they load them up with as many as they can, even when the features cut into the budget that would otherwise be invested in parts that would produce superior sound quality. Think about it, auto-setup, GUI menus, AirPlay, iPod/iPhone/iPad compatibility, home networking, HD radio, Bluetooth, and HDMI switching aren't free; manufacturers pay hefty licensing fees and invest a lot of engineering time to incorporate them in their products. Worse yet, it doesn't matter if those features are useful to the majority of buyers, or if they're easy to use; no, the features are included to make the product more attractive to potential buyers. It's a numbers game, pure and simple; the receiver with the right combination of features is judged to be the best receiver.

I'm not claiming today's receivers sound bad, just not as goodas receivers designed before manufacturers were compelled to divert resources towards features. Every year there will be new features consumers demand, so the toll on sound quality will only get worse. My 2012 receiver forecast: more features.

That's the way it goes in the mainstream, but high-end speaker and electronics manufacturers take the high road. High-end brands value sound quality above all else, and features and minimal size are lesser concerns. Though high-end prices tend to be expensive, I'm always finding affordable models, and will continue to feature them in this blog in 2012. My high-end audio 2012 forecast: sound quality, especially in digital-to-analog converters will make major strides this year.

Headphones, at all prices seem to be less affected by the never-ending features race, and style and size concerns don't substantially detract from headphone sound quality. All types of headphones--in-ears to full-size--are getting better with each passing year. I'm pretty excited by subwoofer manufacturer Velodyne's very first ear bud, the $89 Vpulse and I was impressed with V-Moda's new on-ear headphone, due early this year. I see no reason why 2012 won't be another great year for headphones.

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