What will the role of software be in high-end audio?

Hi all! I’d like to share some thoughts of mine with you, that I’ve been thinking for the past few months. After I got such a nice welcome to the forum with my previous (first) message, I feel this is safe enough place to share and discuss these kind thoughts as well.

First and foremost, let me emphasize that my aim is not to downplay anyone’s profession, job, accomplishments or anything like that with this writing. I appreaciate all the positive energy that is on this forum, and what engineers or other employees of audio companies put every day into their craft, and thus make the lives of us, the listeners, better. I’ve just used quite direct language in this post to try to get my thoughts communicated, which is not always the easiest thing to do on one’s non-native language :slight_smile:

Background: I’m a software developer by profession, and have been in the field now for twenty years. First as a freelancer (during my teenage years), and now 12 years as an employee of various software consultancies / agengies. I’ve had the privilege to work on many personally meaningful projects, such as delivering e-books via mobile phones to poor countries or helping EU politicians to advance European data strategy (CLOUD Act, I’m looking at you). My current employer is a multinational consultancy, with a nice portfolio of high profile European companies as clients. As much as I have enjoyed all those ventures, and felt accomplisment, none of the projects I’ve stumbled upon have really touched yet anything that I’m really passionate about. And one of those things is audio.

So, some time ago I started this thought process with a naïve question in my mind: Could I someday land a job in high-end audio? So I started to think and look around, what is happening.

And when I’m talking about high-end audio, I’m not talking about 20 k€ devices, but pretty much anything above the consumer-level Airpod standards. 500$ headphone sets and above, and so on.

So where is software used in B2C audio products?

When I think about software and high-end audio gear, these pop into my mind first:

  • Microprocessor / FPGA / low-level programming
  • DSP algorithms

When it comes to at least DACs, I believe these are here to stay. I’ve also done enough of both to know that I’m not really good in either of those. I did complete a minor in DSP while doing my Master’s, but during that I understood that I will never be so good in that so that I could make it into a profession :slight_smile: There is also no shortage of really good pros in both of those fields.

So in order to land a job, I would need to find something what is more closer to mobile apps or web services or web backends, what is what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. OK.

So let’s continue the list. Then there are at least these software thingies:

  • A gazillion (mostly proprietary) ways on how to send audio data wirelessly from one device to another
  • A gazillion (mostly proprierary and sucky) mobile apps for controlling that send-audio-wirelessly process

I’m talking about these Anycast, FireConnect, Miracast, MusicCast, and what have you. Just check a feature list of any recent AVR, and you get the point :wink: As far as I’ve understood (but I admit that I haven’t really dived deep into these!) the only open source protocol being used regarding these is UPnP, but the support, user experience and the amount of nice apps for that is quite often also lacking.

My problem with those is that

  • Those are quite often vendor-specific implementations, and thus may or may not see the next year. Also the possibility for wider impact is limited in vendor-locked solutions.
  • Those are usually not very innovative, but more like “here is the list view of all of sources, pick what you want to play now”.

Then we have music players, which haven’t really drastically changed since the days of Winamp. Don’t get me wrong, products like Audirvana are superb, but is that a field where I could really contribute meaningfully? I doubt so.

Then there are different streaming applications: Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz and so on. We have one ex-Spotify genius at work at the moment, and he has got me to realise that the hardest problems in streaming are infrastructure (how to get the streams from place A to B) as well as business agreement and models. And unfortunately I’m not a expert in either of those. From the user interface and experience perspective, I’ve understood that those are all quite similar services.

And then we have Roon and Sonos. You could make a point that both of those could be put to previous baskets that I already bashed, and you would be right. I wanted to highlight these two though, because I feel that those have been gamechangers in some way in the industry. Roon has this idea of re-thinking the digital interaction with music with advanced meta data handling. And Sonos made wireless multi-room audio really viable for many, with a decent digital experience. For me for example, Sonos has changed the most how and how much I listen to music every day, even though I posses more “audiophile” devices as well.

I’m baffled that I got only two names to this list of recent gamechangers. Let me explain why.

What is happening elsewhere?

The ecosystem of apps and web services is booming.

Every freaking industry is talking about how they need to digitalize everything, or their competitors will eat them alive. And this is not a joke, I hear this kind of talk at work all the time. Industries which couldn’t care less about things like user experience before, are now obsessed with that.

There’s an app for everything. If something happens to be missing, investors are ready to poor resources into making that.

Developers are really enthusiastic about, well, everything related to their craft. The open source community is booming. The wave of artificial intelligence and machine learning is really starting to boom as well. There is a lot of momentum among the software developers, and a feeling of creating something new and better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all this energy around the world produces is golden. A lot of it is not. But from time to time there is a new innovation here and there, which really changes something in one’s way of life.

I’ve seen firsthand, how it is possible to not only create totally new digital experiences with software, but also how big of a power delightful digital experiences can have in one’s life. Think about for example any app in your phone that just works like magic – something that you never have to really think about, but you know how it works, and it feels like it somehow magically always knows what you want to accomplish. My experiences are very much Nordic-centric ones, but I’m sure you can quite easily name a few like those.

And it happens in places where you least expect it. My bank used to have the worst web bank you could imagine. Nowdays their apps are so good that I’m genuinely baffled how they are able to pull off all those ideas. And you know, banking was suppose to be the “boring sector”.

The only place where I sense somewhat of a similar kind of let’s-do-this, we-can-make-this-differently type of attitude in software related to stereo audio, is the scene around Raspberry Pi based streamers with their I2S DACs and SPDIF transports. It just feels like a product category that was never meant to be (“hey we’ll transform this 15$ computer into a hifi gadget”), but still kicks some serious ass! :smiley: And some software products there, like Hifiberry OS, are really really nice ones too.

And I mentioned stereo audio on purpose, because even the home theater world seems faster to innovate. I’m not really follower of that scene, but what I’ve heard, things like room correction tech and surround sound (eg. how Dolby Atmos records surround sounds in relative to place, and calculate what speaker to use to playback those) seem to have progressed quite nicely.

Summa summarum: I feel very strongly that there is a lot of innovation going on when it comes to digital experiences, but I don’t get a feeling that the high-end audio is getting its share of that.

Why the situation may be like this? (speculation)

This section is the one that I feel I’m most lost about all of this. I have some hunches on why the situation might be what it is, but I would really love to have some industry-insider to chip in their thoughts on this!

Anyway, I think at least these things play some role here:

  • History on hardware engineering
  • Emphasis on engineering culture (vs. customer-centric culture)
  • Audiophiles tend to emphasize SQ over everything else
  • Business models don’t support developing digital services

Please bare in mind, that as I haven’t worked in audio industry, I have no idea whether these thoughts are true or not. But let me at least explain my reasoning on these speculations.

Audio gadgets have been, and still mostly are, hardware products. Electrical engineers design those, and that is the craft that has been perfected during the past half a century. Software as such is a pretty new thing in this field.

Engineering culture (in my mind) emphasizes of the role of engineers in deciding how to make a product better. Customer-centric culture emphasizes the role of doing user research, marketing, and so on, in figuring out the new direction. When engineering culture is emphasized, there is a risk of missing potential markets, use cases and so on, which can only be discovered with out-of-the-box thinking. And hey, I’m a Finn, a citizen of the architype of an engineering culture nation, so I think I’m allowed to say this :wink:

At least based on the forum discussions and YouTube videos, it seems that quite often all other things are secondary to sound quality, when it comes to being an audiophile. And well, perhaps that is the gist of the whole hobby. But I’d like to point out that there are things like ease of use, discovering new music, sharing the experience with others, and so on, which might be downplayed a bit too much here.

Hi-Fi audio business models are quite often based on revenue from device sales. That is one-time income for the manufacturer, which already needs to cover possible lifetime costs (repairs under warranty, etc.). The profits are not super high. All in all, the budget for R&D work is probably not limitless. And on the other hand, developing nice digital services can cost some serious money. There are many ways on how to calculate the cost levels (and of course those vary greatly around the world), but on a rudimentary level: Building anykind of minimum-viable-product app will cost you 5 digits, good software products 6 digits and the brilliant ones 7 digits. Just add your local currency symbol to the end.

Sidenote: I’m actually baffled how players like Sonos and Roon can keep their boat floating with their revenue models.

All in all, are we in the beginning or in the end?

It seems that high-end audio world is not really a part of “the digitalization wave”, that many other industries are strugling with at the moment. In many ways, life today feels the same as it was 10 years ago, perhaps apart from streaming.

And this is what baffles me.

Are we already at the end of innovation, in a sense that the best the industry can come up with is “a bit better than the previous”? Or is it that actually that software products and services have not yet hit this market, and the big wave of innovation is still ahead of us?

I’m still confused about whether I’m ever going to be able to land a job in this industry, but that’s not the main thing anymore for me in this :slight_smile: I would just like to understand all this.

As I wrote in the beginning, from my part, this is all observation and speculation from the sidelines. Most probably I got many things wrong here. I just would be really keen on hearing how some industry-insider, or a longer-time follower, sees all this. What did I get wrong? What did I miss? Is this all just a single millennial getting all this wrong?

I’d be so grateful for any ideas, help and guidance on this. Thanx for reading!


Very interesting thoughts!

I just speak as a consumer. I think the role of SW (aside of streaming) much depends on the definition and future of real „high end“ (absolute priority on sound quality or not) and the survival of the willingness to accept or even interest (not only for sq reasons) in mechanical, manual gear and interfaces. I guess it dies out with us 50-80 year old high end folks. Vinyl resurrection, vintage gear design currently seems to show this, but it might just be a snapshot.

If (what I assume) the future generation of music enthusiasts stays used to their smartphone influenced history (in terms of interface expectation and sound quality), high end (for absolute sq reasons) will get an even smaller niche market and integration of components (meaning away from separates and also away from bulky speakers), as well as ease of interface and connectivity will rule.

As you say, what I call “real high end” not only isn’t part of the digitalization wave, it mostly is “real high end” because it’s not.

I think the role of developers (besides some smaller interface designs) in real high end is within the DAC and streaming gear design & programming as well as research in complete digital processing from source to speakers on high end level (which will probably stay below “real high end” for a long time).

If we define high end on a much lower level already, thoughts might change.

When I look at the generation of my son (private and in business), interests and priorities changed so much compared to the generations above. Luxury, status symbols, absolute quality and special interests lost importance towards socializing.

Here’s where Paul’s online activities are the only way to stay connected to future generations.

By the way: how about working as technology scout and analyst around SW implementations for the high end industry? You might have a gift for it :wink: