A decade in review – Part 1

I had to replace my living room’s AV receiver recently when the Onkyo 696 died from old age (about 8 years old). As I shopped for a new receiver, it dawned upon me how much technology had changed in the past decade.

onkyo 807

For example, my new Onkyo TR807 receiver (above) has new features that weren’t heard of, or even invented back in 2001.

  • HDMI ports
  • Internet radio streaming
  • Ethernet jack for firmware updates
  • iPod dock connector
  • 9.2 channel sound and a whole host of new sound formats
  • Blu-Ray ready (which means HDMI-ready lah)
  • Video-upscaling for DVDs and other standard definition content

We take most of these for granted today, and it’s just an indication of how quickly we’ve adapted to recent innovations. Or if you take it from another angle, this shows how much progress tech and consumer electronics vendors have made in such a short period.

Here’s a quick look back at some of the tech milestones which I personally felt defined my Noughties (2000-2009 AD). Some of this is deeply personal (so I don’t care what you think), others you’ll probably agree with. This has been a fantastic decade for innovation and our lives have been changed in more ways than many can remember.

2001: The Death of MiniDisc and the Birth of the iPod

800px-Minidisc_Sony_MZ1[1] The Sony MZ-1 MD player, first on the market in 1991 (pic from Wikipedia)

Till today, I sometimes wonder what if MP3s had never been invented. Because it would have meant that Sony’s MiniDisc format would have had a fighting chance of becoming the de facto portable format for music.

With our technology today, it doesn’t make sense, since MDs can only carry a limited amount of music per disc (74min for high quality music) and Sony made it so damned hard to transfer music from CD to MD (all recording or ripping had to be done in real-time for the majority of the MD’s market lifespan).

And if I knew MP3s were gonna dominate the market, I wouldn’t have invested in 4 MD portables and 2 MD component decks…and dozens of blank MDs!

MZ-E25_L_01_low[1] 51TC0YBC9PL._SL500_AA280_[1]

What made MDs so wonderful was that they sounded absolutely fantastic. You could not really discern the difference between the proprietary ATRAC file format (designed by Sony for MDs) or the original CD. Yes, today you can rip music to lossless formats, but remember, a decade ago, hard disks weren’t as dirt cheap as they are today and lossless music  eat up gigabytes for breakfast. One of the clearest memories of my uni days was taking long bus rides to school or to SPH (for my internship) and listening to Mind Games on my MD portable. 

And the industrial design of MD players was seriously sexy for its time, compared to the first generation of MP3 players.

MDs were poised to take over from cassette tapes as the recordable medium of choice, but as we all know, MP3s (and Napster for that matter) sealed its doom. Sony never convinced the world why it needed MDs in the 1990s, and saw its Walkman brand quickly destroyed by Apple in this century.

And speaking of Apple, the iPod is a story I won’t need to repeat. It’s a story that has been written too many times.

Still, nobody will deny that the MP3 revolution, followed by the market dominance of iPod and iTunes, have transformed the way we collect, share and bring our music around. What’s also interesting is how so many have tried to take on Apple but failed, because I suspect these guys were not music lovers at heart, but simply corporate heads or engineers.

(I remember I was at this 2005 press conference where a top exec gave a speech to introduce their new MP3 player and he said: “Who would put more than a few hundred songs on their MP3 player? Nobody has that many songs! They don’t need more than a few gigabytes of storage.” The journos in the audience were sniggering away.)

For music lovers like me, it is truly remarkable I no longer have to scour CD retail shops to look for obscure ‘80s music as iTunes also brought forth a revolution in digital downloads (yes, even with the launch of many crappy music services that met their inevitable doom thanks to poor DRM implementation).

Even better, I no longer have to sacrifice precious space in my house to store new CDs and watch the jewel cases collect dust.

I do miss my MiniDiscs and their great sound quality. I also wonder why I continue to invest in audiophile equipment at home when my MP3 collection will never touch CD or SACD quality.

But win some, lose some.

Today I carry in my pocket an enormous library of my fave songs and I enjoy the same library in my car. Radio is still cool, but I prefer to be my own DJ. What’s even better is that my iPod touch can go on one battery charge for over 24 hours – few of us remember how quickly the early iPods and other MP3 players died after several hours of music playback.

Now if only we had better musicians in the Noughties….

Next chapter: Gaming goes mainstream

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