Over the past decade, music has become increasingly available. At first you had to visit a record store to buy a CD, then you were able to buy the song digitally from the iTunes Store. Today it is more common to just play the song directly from the internet via a catalog service, like Spotify or Tidal. Throughout these 3 stages of the music distribution revolution, the Hi-Fi industry created ever more sophisticated solutions to find and playback songs, in order to closely couple the buying and consumption experience (after all - it would not make much sense to be able to buy a song instantly, only to later spend 5 minutes finding and playing said song).


During the first stage of the digital distribution age, manufacturers attempted to capitalize on the small size of CDs (compared to vinyl) by making CD changers. These machines stored anywhere from 5 to 200 CDs in a motorised mechanism. The idea is that you would keep a physical paper “dictionary” of disc names and track titles. As you can imagine this kind of housekeeping didn't really catch on in residential environments…


Somewhere before and during the rise of iTunes several innovative companies (most notably iMerge) made CD storage servers that contained hard drives to store a thousand CDs or so - along with an internal dictionary that users can search with a remote control to find the song they wanted to play. These devices automatically downloaded the track and album names from the internet (e.g. Gracenote) so that you did not have to do any housekeeping. The achilles heel of these devices turned out to be the difficulty of reading track names from a tiny screen metres away on the device’s front panel or having to turn the TV on…


In the golden era of iTunes (Stage 2), people were willing to sit in front of a computer mainly because it was a breakthrough to be able to sample and buy tracks from the comfort of one’s own home. The accompanying iPod placed the screen very close the user’s eyes - fixing the track name display issue above. In keeping with the theme of solving one problem and creating another, the iPod metres away from proper speakers and achieving Hi-Fi sound (because as we all know, real ladies don't listen on headphones)...


Around the same time that iTunes launched (2002/2003), a pair of startups, Sonos and Rhapsody, had a very different vision. They believed (correctly as history has shown) that buying, finding and playback should be melded into a single, seamless process, with the user only having to pay a fixed monthly subscription to listen to whatever they desired. The track selection would be done via a screen on the user’s palm, while the actual playback will occur on a separate device connected to the speakers (and this time, there will be no new problems created). Such a grand vision required a great deal of effort both technologically and legally (But nothing a hundred million dollars or so couldn’t solve).


A decade later, we are now at the penultimate stage three of the music consumption revolution. Although Rhapsody may have faded slightly into the background, the vision has turned out exactly as planned, with the market claimed by newer players like Spotify.


The ultimate music playback system consists of a responsive and easy to use controller app, coupled with a very high quality playback device that trumps the sound quality of a high end CD player. These systems, which do exist, are few and far between, surrounded by mountains of immature products left, right and centre. We have witnessed examples of these, from certain major brands, that do not work at all in a consistent fashion, even after replacement, while others, from other major brands, can be slower than finding the CD, opening the tray, finding the remote control and pressing play.


In conclusion: when making a decision to buy your ultimate music playback system - make sure you get a demo of both the control side and the playback side. The system should be easy to use, responsive enough to not bore you with anticipation, and sound great. The solution is out there, you just have to look in the right direction...