Trends for the Future (April 1980)

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By Gary Stock

Gaining insight into a huge, tumultuous event like the Consumer Electronics Show while actually there is a bit like trying to analyze the suspension system of a truck as it runs you over. Too much happens too fast. It is only in the recovery room, surrounded by relative calm, that one begins to put things in order. Now, a couple of weeks after this year's show, surrounded by the 36 pounds of paper--press releases, brochures, white papers, and notes--which I brought back, the di verse, occasionally contradictory movements of this fascinating business are a bit clearer, and some judgments can be made as to where we are headed, audio-wise, in the '80s.

The receivers of the '80s will probably look quite different from their predecessors and use different circuit design approaches as well. As typified by two new Sony receivers, the STR V45 and STR-V55, introduced at the January show, and by earlier receiver introductions from Toshiba, Sansui, and SAE, digital station read-out with frequency synthesis may soon replace the conventional capacitor tuning sys tem and the slide-rule dial found in most receivers today. Aside from their obvious convenience, frequency-synthesizing tuner sections often have lower distortion than conventional tuners because they eliminate mistuning and thermally induced drift. They can also easily accommodate microprocessor-based station-memory systems and station sampling functions that play a few seconds of each of several stations when activated (both are found in the Sony receivers).

Moderately priced receivers may retain conventional FM front-ends but ac quire digital read-out as a cosmetic addition, in the opinion of some observers, a few of whom see the majority of mainstream receivers taking on digital read-out within the next two years.

At the same time, many receivers and integrated amplifiers may acquire pulse or switching power supplies, which have much less bulk than conventional supplies. This in turn could reduce the profile of most receivers to a fraction of current size, rendering most '80s receivers slimline units (at least by contemporary standards). As seen in some of the current mid-priced Yamaha and Lux receivers, as well as in top-of-the-line units from most other receiver suppliers, moving-coil pre-preamplifier stages are increasingly common and will probably show up in most of the mainstream receivers of this decade as well. Gone forever, more than likely, will be the slide-rule dial, needle-type FM tuning meters, and suitcase-like bulk of today's receivers. All of the aforementioned developments, by the way, will be helped along by the increasing avail ability of large-scale integrated circuits incorporating whole microprocessors, switching supply regulators, pre-preamplifiers, digital display sections, and other complete stages.

Tonearms and Turntables

Four new turntables and arms using the radial-tracking principle were demonstrated at the January show, bringing to more than a dozen the total number of such units offered currently. Technics introduced their intriguingly compact SL-10, about the length and width of a record jacket, which employs a short servo-con trolled arm assembly mounted in the dust cover, along with an integral Technics moving-coil cartridge. Ac cording to Technics spokesmen, it may be the first of an entire line of straight line tracking tables from that company. Yamaha showed a second proto type version of the radial-tracking turntable they demonstrated in Japan last year; it is a servo-controlled full length arm, driven by a worm gear, integrated with a quartz-locked direct-drive platter system, and it's exceptionally handsome to boot. It may become Yamaha's top-of-the-line turntable next year. ReVox debuted a less expensive version of their widely acclaimed 8790 radial tracking turn table, the new unit to be called the B795. It has precisely the same "Lina track" over-the-disc swing-out arm assembly found on the B790, with a simplified direct-drive motor system. And finally, Dennesen demonstrated their separate straight-line tracking arm, the ACLT-1, which is floated by com pressed air and therefore requires no elaborate servo-correction systems.

These introductions, coupled with the earlier debuts of radial tracking units from Aiwa, Goldmund (France), Phase Linear, and Harman-Kardon, point to a renaissance for the principle, which enjoyed a brief popularity in the mid-'60s and then entered a long Dark Age. A number of factors have contributed to this. Improvements in disc software and in the remainder of the playback chain have proven the once-disputed sonic ad vantages of the radial-tracking concept. Far Eastern manufacturers have just about exhausted the sales advantages of promoting direct-drive and phase-locked-loop drive systems and may see the radial-arm principle as "The Next Big Thing" in turntable marketing because of its cosmetic attractiveness and distinctiveness. The fact that several large Japanese firms have chosen this time to introduce radial-tracking tables as their top-of-the-line units supports this concept, particularly given the monolithic character of product development in that nation. (Lux and Mitsubishi are reputed to have straight-line units nearing the market, too). And, according to at least one source, research into radial-tracking systems for video disc players has been spun off into the analog record-playing field. Whatever the cause, the straight-line tracking trend appears to be taking hold; although the first generation units are expensive, it is likely that prices will fall to mainstream levels as production economies and com petition take effect, in much the same pattern that characterized direct-drive turntable prices over the past several years. Thus, the last major evolutionary step of the phonograph before the age of the digital disc begins will probably be to the radial arm.

The Video Disc

To the surprise of many industry ob servers, there were two production model video disc players at the January show. One was Magnavox's Magnavision player, which has been avail able in limited quantities for about a year. But a video disc unit from Pioneer, slated for introduction in early 1980, was also present. Pioneer has been manufacturing for some time an optical player for industrial use, as part of a joint venture with MCA, but the consumer model player had not been expected to be publicly shown to large groups for another several months.

The Pioneer consumer unit, like its industrial cousin and like the Magnavox unit, uses the Philips/MCA format, a 12-inch silvery disc, spinning at 1800 rpm, whose patterned surface is read by a miniature, low-power laser element. As such, it has all the virtues of that format. The Pioneer unit is amazingly versatile because of its slow- and fast-motion, frame-indexing, and freeze-frame capabilities, and it's also completely free from disc or stylus wear. In addition, it has some features the Magnavox player does not-a full function remote-control system and, more important, an optional digital audio disc adaptor for playback of digital music-only discs (this adaptor will not be immediately available, however). The Pioneer player is also fairly expensive by comparison with the stylus-type players that will be introduced in the next 18 months by RCA, Matsushita, and JVC (see "RCA Shows SelectaVision," March, 1980 Audio), which are all expected to cost about $500 for the basic unit. According to company representatives, the Pioneer unit will have a price "under a thousand dollars," although how much under is not yet known.

The global corporate politics of the video disc race are incredibly complex and constantly changing, so it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the Pioneer showing and announcements. It is felt in many quarters that the introduction of the Pioneer unit will improve the chances of the Philips/MCA format of being eventually adopted worldwide, and some also feel that its introduction could serve as the "icebreaker" that would propel other companies that have demonstrated prototype optical players, such as Mitsubishi and Sony, into the marketplace with Philips/MCA systems.

But it is still too early in the game to do more than guess at who will ultimately set the video disc (and digital audio disc) standard. All that is clear on the subject is that 1980 will be an eventful year.

Ambience Synthesis

Ambience synthesis or time-delay systems are unquestionably one of the growth categories of the audio industry; three more new examples of the genre were introduced at the January show, as well as production models of one long-awaited prototype design.

Koss made its first venture into high fidelity electronics with the K/4DS, a digital time-delay system with built-in rear-channel amplifiers that has a number of distinctive control features, including extensive facilities for ambience-augmented headphone listening.

The Koss unit is also notable for its simplification of control settings: Initial delay times and recirculation densities are selected by picking one of four master acoustic settings--auditorium, concert hall, theater, or club.

Audio Pulse introduced its sleekly styled Model 1000 "third generation" time-delay unit, a digital system that includes a dynamic range expander and separate continuously variable de lay and ambience controls. Bose demonstrated its Spatial Expander, a charge-coupled, time-delay device de signed to be used with the Bose Spatial Control Receiver (which contains the rear-channel amplifiers), Bose 901 front speakers, and Bose rear-channel speakers. It is a single-delay system, with reverberation. Carver Corporation, whose C-4000 preamplifier created such a stir at last January's show, was finally showing and shipping production units of that model. In addition to its "Sonic Holography" circuitry, which is said to more accurately localize instruments and other sounds in space, the Carver unit includes an ambience synthesis system with 35- and 50-millisecond initial delays, variable reverberation density, and two built-in 25-watt rear-channel amplifiers.

The continued interest in ambience synthesis systems, and in devices like the Carver unit's Sonic Holography circuit, point up the fundamental fascination American audiophiles have with reproducing the acoustic and spatial settings of musical performances, as well as the inadequacy of most simple two-channel music systems in this regard. Few who have heard a properly set-up time-delay system question the validity of the principle or the sensory loss that comes from turning the secondary channels off.

Now, five years or so after the final collapse of quadraphony, the growing popularity of ambience-synthesis systems is clear evidence that audio buffs do not object to four loudspeakers in one room, to the reproduction of a fully three-dimensional sonic image, or even to the substantial expense en tailed in these. Rather, their rejection of four-channel sound was a rejection of questionable musical values--the surround sound, middle-of-the-orchestra effect--and the difficulties associated with lack of standardization and proper set-up of the systems, as well as the varying abilities of the different generations of decoders and de modulators. It appears here that manufacturer interest is following consumer interest, so that in the '80s we may well see a resurgence of multi channel sound.

Loudspeakers

Although no single speaker at the January CES stood out as an earth shaking new development, there were a number of innovative new loudspeakers shown and several clearly identifiable trends. The ranks of the three-piece satellite type were expanded by a new three-piece four-way sys tem from ReVox, called the Triton, by new mini-speakers from Cerwin-Vega, Mesa, Design Acoustics, and Technics, and by new subwoofers from Intersearch, Cizek, and Ohm among others. The satellite system appears to be enjoying steadily increased popularity, as well as a new measure of acceptance from hard-core audiophiles who once dismissed the principle out of hand. It is just possible that this could become one of the dominant speaker formats of the '80s, as pressures for living space increase and a growing number of newly awakened music listeners are exposed to its decor-related attractions.

Exotic materials and principles also left their mark on this year's crop of speakers. Phase Linear demonstrated three new speakers, two with ribbon tweeters and beryllium midrange domes, and one with a boronized dome midrange and tweeter. Wharfedale showed their new TSR (Total Sound Recall) series, which employs some drivers made of a chalk-filled polypropylene compound called Mineral Filled Homo-polymer. Dayton Wright demonstrated an improved electrostatic speaker using their gas-filled cell principle and a new piezo electric super tweeter; the unit is called the XG-10. Infinity showed three new moderately priced speakers, the RS., RSb and Reference Studio Monitor, all with polypropylene bass driver cones and EMIT planar-dynamic treble units. Both the range of synthetic materials and alloys available to the speaker engineer, and the research and production facilities necessary to make full use of them, have expanded substantially in the past couple of years, particularly in the Far East, and substantial advancements in the price/ performance ratio of loudspeakers are likely to result. In particular, wide-range ribbon and planar-dynamic systems, which enjoy most of the advantages of conventional electrostatics without their drawbacks and high cost, are showing up in greater numbers and may, like the satellite system, be among the stronger speaker formats of the coming decade.

Digital Recording

The establishment of an Electronics Industries Association of Japan technical standard for home digital recording equipment, which defines 44.056 kHz as the sampling frequency and a 14-bit linear system as the bit format, has brought a number of new PCM adaptors for video cassette recorders onto the scene. Five were present at the January show, including units from Sharp, Toshiba, Sanyo, Technics, and a new EIAJ-compatible Sony unit, the PCM-10. All of the units have signal to-noise ratios of approximately 85 dB, harmonic distortion under 0.05 per cent, and frequency response flat from 20 to 20,000 Hz, ±1 dB or better. They also incorporate peak program meters to monitor input levels (most digital recorders hard-clip when overdriven), and dual microphone preamplifiers.

For those with the working capital--the adaptors are generally in the range of $4,000, and the recorders an other $1,500 or so--these devices will put digital recording capabilities into the home and enable amateur recordists to make demo tapes with performance quality superior to that of most studios. The sophistication of the recordings will be limited, due to the limited number of channels and the absence of overdubbing facilities, but the sound will be superb. Whether that means that the VCR/adaptor combination will have any major impact on the high-fidelity industry, particularly with digital discs and metal-particle cassette decks here or soon to arrive, is a difficult question to answer.

Some limited-scale prerecorded software programs for the machines have been initiated, but the prices will probably always be considerably higher than for a disc or analog tape. And, with a couple of exceptions, the semi pro recording area has found that lack of versatility limits the utility of VCR/ PCM combinations, so very few demo tapes or album master tapes have been made utilizing such equipment. It may be that the PCM adaptor will have a Kerensky-like role during the transition from analog to digital eras--one of easing the changeover without a permanent place in the new order. On the other hand, compact VCR/PCM systems may become the new versions of the Nagra, two-channel recorders intended primarily to preserve live musical events. Only time will tell.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Apr. 1980)

Also see:

Telefunken Digital Mini Disc (June 1981)

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Updated: Monday, 2018-08-13 14:57 PST