Really? Like any best-of list, the trends of 2017 would be a mighty arrogant enterprise. As though I'd seen/heard all there was to be seen and heard this year, across all component categories and price points. Not even 1%! However... when I skim across the little I did see, hear and even read about, there were a few trends that feel worthwhile pointing out.


The first one to mind is speaker activation. It happened to class D when costly flagship efforts from Bel Canto to Theta Digital, from mbl/Corona to Aarvik began to legitimize the breed from the top down where even on price, it competed against the status quo of 'classic' amps. Now active expensive flagship speakers from B&O, Dutch & Dutch, Grimm and Kii are legitimizing a breed whose obvious roots are recording monitors. The bottom-up fiscal perspective is served by contenders like Audio Engine and Vanatoo. The middle class has brands like Focal, Genelec and KEF though these are just the tip of the iceberg.


Most actives these days, to varying degrees of sophistication and comprehensiveness, incorporate user-adjustable DSP to adapt to boundary and space conditions. Their virtual sticker could read "room correction inside" and wouldn't be too far off. Built-in amplification not only ditches expensive chassis and face plates, it gets purpose-tailored to specific drivers. Xovers move ahead of said amplification to become active and often are executed in the digital domain where steep filters may be executed without phase shifts. It's a far more effective (cost and performance) approach to ticking off all the boxes than any traditional passive box can by design. The upshot is less but smarter hardware. Best of breed will include comprehensive digital inputs to merely require a Wifi, Ethernet or USB signal. It's an altogether tidier and better way to speaker design!
Real progress always stands on the shoulders of others, doesn't it?
 

Not to be outdone, headphone makers have borrowed custom-written DSP correction via software plug-ins which streamline and outdo the cruder EQs built into DAPs from A&K to Questyle. Audeze are just one such firm to offer digital filters for their various headphone models. More twiddle-happy users of course could always fall back on plugging FabFilter & Co into Audirvana or PureMusic type players. The result is the same. One tailors and massages the frequency/time response of headphones to overcome construction deficits and/or biological peculiarities of one's own hearing apparatus. If you think back on Mark Levinson the man and his famous yet costly Cello Palette preamplifier with analog equalizer, realize that far cheaper software today accomplishes far more and does so more surgically in the digital domain. For once the word 'progress' isn't hype. Whilst hardcore audiophiles have been systematically groomed to hate tone controls and equalizers, a more modern more enlightened user recognizes bad attitude when she sees it to embrace not shun technological progress that does more with and for less.

Nearly invariably, built into active speakers are class D power modules at least for the woofers if not the full bandwidth. Though it's a rather old trend if it still can even be called a trend not fait accompli, class D continued its ground sweep. 2017 had me discover an entirely new wrinkle in Germany's Naiu Laboratory; and 2018 will finally see EJ Sarmento's proprietary Wyred4Sound class D with linear not switching power supplies. No longer merely good enough for subwoofer duty, class D today addresses the entire swath of performance levels from the most budgetarian to the most illustrious.


There's a parallel trend then wherein reviewers from all walks and publications exclaim surprise over just how far the breed has come. Like active speakers, this tech has become an acknowledged fully legitimate high-end player and converts are popping up all over the place. And with B&O having spent millions developing their latest iceedge1 controller and iceedge2 driver ICs, there's no predicting how much untapped performance headroom remains to push class D even further.
The oldest form of D/A conversion—multi-bit—continued its resurgence this year with my enthusiastic response to the Chinese Denafrips Terminator built on discrete resistor ladders. And it even added DSD. Aqua Hifi of Italy updated their top Formula DAC, another superb discrete R2R deck. Marja & Henk reviewed one from China's Audiog-d and loved it. Metrum in Holland continued to bundle R2R on proprietary chips with variable reference voltage to include purist volume control for a new model; then added optional MQA to all their models. So as far as trends went—or perhaps counter trends?—DACing with resistor ladders controlled by FPGA glue logic continued unchecked. And there are far more firms doing it than the few I just named like Aries Cerat, Etalon, LessLoss, Rockna, Soekris and TotalDAC. What was old is new again? It certainly felt that way.


No mention of 2017 could fail to mention MQA; except us. At 6moons we mostly remained distant observers, not early adopters, flag bearers or click baiters. For a slight change of pace, here goes reader Christoph Engemann with an interesting possibly subversive development which takes the heat to a different crowd. "I decided to make "Nägel mit Köpfen" and go public with some thoughts and ideas about MQA. Together with my colleague Anton Schlesinger, I will give a talk on MQA this Saturday December 30th at the annual conference of the German Chaos Computer Club. The CCC conferences are Europe's biggest annual hacker events and this year, about 15'000 will attend. The presentations are streamed live worldwide and available online here. The recordings will be available here. We will have a sizeable and technically competent audience of hackers and digital rights activists and hope to facilitate interest for a larger discussion on and research into MQA. Anton holds a Ph.D in electroacoustics, has designed recording studios with the Walters-Storyk Design Group and now is part of a university team that builds acoustic simulation models for the German Opera in Berlin.


"I work on crypto policy and history and among other places was a fellow at Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society and the Oxford Internet Institute. You'll find info on both of us easily via online search. We will present an overview on MQA and the claims made both with regards to DRM (me) as well as to the auditory characteristics and signal-theory claims (Anton). Since the CCC programme went public, a surprising number of people have come forward offering support and it is interesting to see and learn how much debate is going on behind the scenes. Quite a lot of info arrived at our InBoxes and we are still digesting. Feel free to circulate this info." Voilà. Get spinning. Gold-plated, too.


Which—yes, relatedly—gets me to my final trendy nomination: posting & opining over things one has no or insufficient experience with. This year perhaps no more so than with and about MQA, it remains true about everything in this hobby. Too many people comment on things they've actually not heard for themselves; and lock horns with those who have. That's a sad trend and one we really could do without. So going into 2018, here's to hope eternal and all that Jazz. Play it again, Sam? That's never been the line in the first place. Which also explains why we've been so quiet on MQA. Lack of experience and a true grasp. We'll leave this trending topic to folks who truly understand the underlying science. Personally, I also must wait until I encounter MQA-encoded music I actually want to listen to, not just because it's MQA. Do we really want a Sam of SACD, DVD/A and HDCD? I don't know about you but I listen to music for its content, not format. It could be the best recording in the world. If I don't care for the music, what does it matter? In fact, in the big scheme of things, none of it does. But that belongs on a different page. I'm not retiring yet. Here comes the new year with a new sound room and lots of items to be reviewed...