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The new look of digital audio systems

By Jean-Claude Elias - Nov 28,2019 - Last updated at Nov 28,2019

The disappearance of the CD from the music (and the computer) scene has a direct impact not only on our music listening habits, but also, as an unavoidable consequence of the change, on the audio equipment that lets us do the playback and enjoy the sound.

Your good not-so-old amplifier at home and your car stereo now look very different from what they used to be a mere five years ago. The whole concept of playing back music has changed, has evolved in a dramatic way, mainly of course because music is now accessed through the various channels found on the Internet: YouTube, Internet radios and the many streaming services available.

The widespread availability of cabled fibre optic and wireless 4G and soon 5G Internet connectivity has played a major role in making the population move from locally stored and kept audio media like CDs to cloud stored and remotely accessed music.

My otherwise sophisticated car CD player recently started behaving erratically. Repairing it was not a feasible option and playing music via my smartphone Bluetooth to the car stereo was not possible, because the system does not have this option — despite the car being not too old and having a few digital bells and whistles of its own.

Shopping for a solution led me to two different possible ones: to install and add a “retrofit Bluetooth kit” to the car stereo system, or to replace it completely with a new amplifier-receiver. I still have not made up my mind, but interestingly, most new car audio systems do not feature a CD player anymore. Instead, they come with Bluetooth wireless connectivity and a USB input to let you insert a USB flash drive with tons of music files to play.

Many models are mobile Internet-ready and are set this way to receive Spotify streaming audio without additional equipment. They also have full compatibility with the Android system. The mere notion of “compatibility” with an operating system like Android is but another confirmation that car stereo systems too are now turning into computers.

Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer are still the leaders in the automotive music market and propose very attractive models. The term often used to refer to these new-age stereos is “digital audio players” or for other brands, “wireless streaming amplifiers” like it is the case for Yamaha for example.

The concept is far from being restricted to vehicles on the road. At home too, audio systems have a new look, one that does away with anything that looks CDs and the like — no more CD players, definitely. Even the inputs and outputs have undergone major redesign: optical ins and outs, Internet port entry, Bluetooth antenna for extended range coverage, and of course USB connectivity, this is the name of the game today.

One particularly appealing such model is Yamaha’s WXA-50. It is smart, small, refined and simple. Naturally, Yamaha has not lost focus of the main, the core attribute: it sounds absolutely fabulous, provided you playback music from quality sources, be it MP3, streaming, high-definition uncompressed wav audio files, or other — it is still the starting point!

Being more dependent on the Internet and the digital high-tech world to enjoy music adds another layer to our overall reliance on the network in most everything we do or use. Which makes the prospect — God forbid — of a major, global Internet breakdown even more chilling. Even at local country level the scenario is a terrifying one.

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