Looking back / Looking forward (2020)

The 2020 recap:

Well the elephant in the room is Covid-19 and although it was named for the year 2019 it’s impact was felt most solidly in 2020 and disrupted pretty much every market including audio products so the pace of new products slowed dramatically as companies fought to keep doors open and would be consumers struggled with more basic needs than a new DAP or in-ear.    I hope that everyone is able to enjoy 2021 a bit more and life can return to some form of normalcy as a vaccine becomes available.   I’ll admit to not being sure when or how that will come about, but I remain hopeful.

The biggest news across the audio world is 2020 was the year of measurements.  The focus in a lot of discussions became how well devices measured with the idea being that if a device measures poorly it couldn’t possibly sound good.    For headphones/earphones this became a matter of how closely the frequency response curve matched the Harman target.   I liken this to designing the perfect tire.   In theory its easy enough, until you add the fact that no two cars, trucks, suvs, and motorcycles have exactly the same needs.   Matching a theoretical target only helps if the person listening matches that theoretical “Average guy” used to develop the model.     The same happened for DACs and amplifiers where THD and Signal to Noise ratios became the talk of the town.  Think otherwise?  Ask Schiit why, after years of calling these numbers discussions irrelevant,  they released several products touting great measurements aimed specifically at this audience.    In 2020 numbers mattered sometimes more than music, it is not a trend I like as having a THD of .00001 for an amp vs .0005 really doesn’t matter in the real world as both are low enough to be inaudible anyway.  While one can argue numbers matter, there comes a point beyond which they don’t unless you’re a bat.    I wish I thought there was some middle ground to this but the two camps seem firmly entrenched so likely we will see more of the same in 2021.

DAPs

202o also became the year Android changed the face of the DAP market.   Dongles became a viable option for many in 2019 and in 2020 dongles realistically gave those with a smartphone an option equal in sound quality to a budget (or even some mid-tier) daps with 1/2 the cost and without having to carry another device around.    Don’t think this trend is that big a deal?  Ask Fiio why they announced recently they are exiting the entry level DAP market.    Ask Cayin why the N3pro at $579 bares little or no resemblance to its predecessor.    Make no mistake the smartphone is now the portable audio device of choice for all but the diehard audiophile and DAP makers are feeling the squeeze.    As Fiio put it, (paraphrase)   We basically have to build a high end phone to compete with what users can do with Android or IOS devices and then be willing to sell it at a loss in order to satisfy the requirements of the budget DAP segment.    Their exact words referenced the available core processors, but it doesn’t take much to extrapolate those comments to the rest of the parts.

2021 will likely see Fiio drop every device below the M11 Pro based on their comments.   Cayin has no immediate plans to introduce a tier below the N3pro as far as what they are wiling to share, and AK has stated the SR-25 is the entry point into the current line.   So we are likely to see a distinct segmentation with groups of makers competing in the high-end market and others at the low end with a few like Sony and Shanling left straddling the line between.

Product of the year:  Hiby R3 Saber – massive functionality for a small budget price.

DACs

Neither of the major makers (AKM and ESS) released new dac lines this year with only minor revisions made to existing lines.   The largest ripple in the DAC pond comes not from a new chip but from a fire at the AKM Fab that was responsible for making a large number of their chips.  This caused an immediate buyout of everything in the channel as manufacturers grabbed what they could before the inevitable shortage hit.   Don’t expect to see new models release with AKM chips in early 2021 as the existing supply of chips will likely be saved to keep existing products going.    AKM is looking for partners to fab some of their designs while they rebuild (a process they estimate at 6-8 months).   Whether those sub-contracted parts will have the same level of QC remains to be seen and to date none of them have come to market.   We will likely see some product lines shift to Cirrus Logic 43198 or ESS 9028 or 9038 chips due to the lack of 449x series chips in the channel.    The good news for AKM is their research and development facility is separate of the main fab complex and as such they probably won’t take a big hit there and will likely be able to keep pace with ESS in that regard.

Product of the year:  Topping Dac line – the D90s and E30 were both fantastic releases.

Amplifiers

New models slowed to a crawl here too with a lot of early releases before things fell apart.  I haven’t run the numbers but it wouldn’t surprise me if more new models came out in January than the rest of the year combined.   New models with ever increasing SNR and decreasing THD have dominated the discussions with models like the Topping A90 and L30 getting lots of discussion along with several models based on the THX chipset.    THX seems likely to remain steady state in 2021 with only minor product updates as focus will be on satisfying demand for existing products.    Likely the focus will remain on producing great numbers as it seems a large chunk of the market is basing purchasing decisions almost solely on what sites like ASR and Crinacle tell them is good.  Those buyers will avoid tube amps altogether as tubes will never match the THD numbers produced by solid state components.  In the tube world, I expect to see refreshes of several models in the Xduoo line,  a new middle ground amp between Euterpe and Nirvana (likely called the HA-2SF) from Auris.    I would not be at all surprised to see SMSL come out with a new line of tube amp models to compete with the Xduoo line particularly if the Ta-20r proves successful for Xduoo.

Product of the year:  Tough race here but Xduoo Ta-30 fantastic DAC/Amp proves Xduoo can compete with the big boys.

Headphones

The year of the planar continued from 2019 into 2020 with more new models and more hype about existing releases.   2020 proved a particularly quiet year in this market segment with the deluge of 2019 releases slowing to a trickle in 2020.   Vmoda and Sennheiser were probably the largest exceptions with the release of a revamped product line for V-moda and the new mid-fi HD560S from Senn that made significant ripples when released and may ultimately be the replacement for the vaunted HD600 (Time will tell).

Headphone of the year:  Audeze LCD1  nobody made a bigger splash with a new model in the headphone market although Sennheiser came close.

Earphones

The driver wars continue with many still chasing the how many drivers can we fit in a shell title and others choosing to experiment with piezo elements and electret drivers. (I’ll stop short of calling these electrostatic drivers as they really aren’t in the sense that a Stax is).    The LZ A7 was a highlight in the hybrid category and one of the year’s favorites for me while Moondrop did a great job with the starfield bringing the single DD mainstay of the kXXs down by $100 into a more budget friendly range.    KZ lost some of its grip on the budget range with others like KBear (KB04, diamond, KS2) and CVJ (CSA, CS8, CSN) wrestling away market share with some very good budget models.   Beryllium has become that latest “it girl” for dynamic driver diaphragms and is quickly replacing last years favorite (carbon nano-tube/graphene).

Product of the year:   LZ A7 – way more capable than the price suggests.

TWS

I had hoped to see 2020 be the year TWS matured to the point that wires were no longer needed.  I think products continue to make headway, but progress is slower than hoped and to date no flagship model has broken free of its wires.  Maybe 2021 will be the year but with in-fighting over AAC vs LDAC vs AptX HD, vs LHDC it seems likely the market will spend more time trying to capture market share for their own pet instead of working to advance a standard.

Product of the year:   Ok don’t hate on me but to argue that it wasn’t the Apple Airpod Pro is foolery.  Look at the sea of imitators that have cropped up since and if imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, then its hard to argue against this one.

 

What lies ahead?

If I could see that with any clarity, I’d be a wealthy retiree by now.  My guesses for 2021 are:

1.) We don’t see a real slowdown of Covid until the 4th quarter when the number of vaccines in the market finally starts having a real impact on the population in general.  (For Healthcare workers, hopefully the 1st quarter will see a dramatic drop in the number of cases as vaccines are administered.)    The problem at this point is a matter of production capability, delivery/logistics, and shear magnitude.   With 6 billion plus people, it is going to take time to deliver and administer that many shots.    Even if 10,000 nurses give 100 shots a day, it would take 18 years to vaccinate everyone (assuming a single shot – for two shots – make that 36 years).   Those are rough numbers, but you get the idea, this is a big problem as in remote areas nurses may only be able to give a handful of shots a day due to travel times.

2.) We will see entry level products dropped from a lot of DAP makers lines with a focus on shooting above what a phone can provide.  Flagship DAPS will continue to command $3k or more with the new entry point into the market being somewhere around $1000-$1500.   Since high-end phones retail for roughly $1000, it is not a big stretch to see a DAP retailing for at least that as it is basically now the same android device with audio chips substituted for the phone transmit / receive components.    It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few companies (One More?) jump into the market with a DAP/phone that offers full features in a single device.

3.) The Driver wars are far from over. Expect to see more multi-ba / dynamic hybrids and more electret and piezo elements popping up in new models.   Beryllium will probably continue to dominate the discussion in dynamic drivers as it is only part way through its hype cycle.  By year end, I expect to see another challenger to beryllium on the horizon and won’t be surprised if it is an improved version of an existing tech like carbon/graphene.

4.) The numbers game is still in full force with the harman target and THD/SNR numbers continuing to drive purchase decisions for many.    Hopefully some middle ground can be found here as the THD of an amp below .01 when speakers or earphones may be closer to .1 seems a bit like putting a formula 1 car on street tires  and expecting it to perform.    Numbers matter up to a point, beyond that not so much.

5.)  A bluetooth standard across manufacturers will not appear with Apple still firmly entrenched in AAC, Sony in LDAC, Qualcomm/Fox in Apt-X, and Huawei in LDHC.  I wish I thought one of these outfits would come out with a game changer that would force others to the table but don’t see any hints of that on the horizon.

On a more personal note, my condolences to all who lost friends, colleagues, and loved ones in the past year whether to Covid or otherwise, may 2021 be a brighter year for all of us.   Remember to patronize your local live music as it comes back.   There are tons of talented local bands out there that you’ll never hear on Spotify or your radio.   Go, enjoy the music when you can!

 

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