We’ve all been there – on the end of Alexa mishearing your command three times in a row, or faced with touch controls not responding before all of a sudden catching up to your nine frustrated attempts, or helplessly staring at a music app that’s frozen just when you want to change a song.
My worst modern technology #fail (so far) was renting a car that could only be locked and unlocked via an app on a phone, only for my phone’s battery to drain from the cold during a 21km hike along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, forcing me to hunt down friendly caravan folk at dusk and offer them my last Bassetts Murray Mints in exchange for some charging power. Just to open my car door.
For all modern technology’s literal and metaphorical door opening, it's fair to say it can have its practical pitfalls. As phones have become all-purpose instruments and the demand has grown for ‘less is more’ design, hi-fi has dutifully followed suit. And why wouldn’t it? It has meant our hi-fi is undoubtedly smarter and arguably more domestically compliant than ever before. But have we sacrificed something along the way? In some ways, I believe so.
Bring back the text display!
Hi-fi manufacturers that have remained loyal to the text display, and especially those who have invested in colour, OLED (or similar) displays, have found ways to make them more useful than they have ever been. We can see album artwork and all kinds of music metadata clearly on a music streamer’s fascia, without having to look at the screen of a control device (a phone or tablet) to do so.
But sadly (in my mind), text displays are increasingly disappearing from hi-fi components, whether to make more aesthetically appealing fascias, to reduce manufacturing costs or because design teams have regarded them as easily replaceable by more discreet and presumably cost-effective LED-light ‘displays’.
Of course, it makes sense for some kit to omit one – they simply aren’t necessary for portable DACs or, really, power amplifiers – but streamers, CD players and the like that overlook them, that force you to use another device to see playback information or that make you squint to see which LED is lit up across the room, seem to me to represent a regression in user experience. I don't always want to have to reach for my phone when playing music. And that leads me on to point two...
What do you mean there's no remote?
I expect many people who can use both their phone or a physical remote to control their hi-fi will choose the former nine times out of ten (except for volume control perhaps, which, let’s be honest, feels more natural and is often quicker using a remote). We do so during testing too. I don’t know if you’ve ever manually scrolled a 500+ album music library on a streaming unit using a remote, but I can tell you, it’s much easier to navigate using an iPad app.
But I doubt I’m alone in increasingly wanting the option to ignore my phone for a few blessed minutes, hey, maybe even an hour, and still be able to control my music system. However, so eager were we all to use apps on our phones, that manufacturers have called our bluff and simply removed the remote controls.
This means you have to look at your phone or tablet to change song, source and even volume. That, or, heaven forbid, leave the bum mark you’ve been carefully moulding in the sofa to adjust the volume on the product itself (like it's 1995). The last thing most of us need is another excuse to be distracted from the music (or movie) and gawp at our phone.
During testing of such remote-less kit, I’ve found I can be really into the moment, the music and, ultimately, my job, before the act of looking at my phone to change track or adjust the volume causes me to inevitably be distracted by seeing a host of unrelated phone notifications.
Furthermore, while control apps are getting more reliable, an alternative hardware option should there be an app or network dropout, or your device is low on battery, is actually quite handy.
Press my buttons
It’s now rare for a product to feature a suite of actual, pressable buttons and rotating knobs and dials. Tappable, swipeable touchpads have seized the day not only in hi-fi but everywhere else in (and out) of our homes, from white goods to heating systems, to just about every other consumer product that requires user control.
Touch controls have largely contributed to the clean, contemporary design of many separates components, headphones and wireless speakers. Indeed, fascias peppered with physical controls, like the Marantz PM700N, tend to look positively retro in today’s market.
And there’s no denying that touch interfaces have also allowed manufacturers to bundle multiple, sometimes complex, user operations into neat, space-efficient control designs.
But - the ‘but’ you sensed coming - even the most responsive touch controls aren’t as reliable or ergonomic as physical controls. They also compromise the tactile nature of hi-fi too, if you want to be precious about it. After all, there’s nothing like a button-press that produces a satisfying click noise (thankfully, that's clearly still a labour of love in many high-end components). And that's before we mention the fact that so many "responsive touch controls" are nothing of the sort.
App navigation, touch controls and clean, minimalist designs absolutely have their place. They're aspects of modern hi-fi that have helped keep two-channel audio relevant in today's tech-dominated world. And when done well, they make perfect sense for the user.
But as we see the surge in popularity of 'retro' products such as the JBL L100 Classic and Spendor Classic 1/2, might we also consider whether a few other aspects of "classic" hi-fi are worth preserving? In the meantime, I will keep my eyes peeled for a new music streamer with a lovely big display, chunky controls and a good old-fashioned remote control...
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