After a mixed start at CES 2009, it's been an excellent year for music gadgets. Slowly the world is getting over its lust for hording mp3 downloads in favour of streaming and digital music, possibly a sign that it's maturing. Sound quality has become important once more rather than just access to one's collection on the move, and the natural pace of technology has meant better bit rates to back it up. At the same time, the high end audio has become more affordable under the pressure of a world recession, while the cheap tat at the other end that doesn't deliver is gradually disappearing. So, in light of such promise, just how were we taken from A to B and who best reflected the consumer's desire in audio gadget function and form?
It's hard to believe that the dock/radio market has expanded after what already seemed like saturated times in 2008. The usual suspects like Gear4, Altec Lansing, Pure, Roberts and Logitech are still churning them out both large and small at a steady rate but what we've seen is an increasing move of the high end brands in their embrace of the mp3 and that now ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector. Naturally, the audiophile-friendly manufacturers have admitted defeat in their own way and it's generally been a huge boost to the sector in both design and sound engineering.
Arcam's second foray into the field with the irDock cleans up RF interference, Yamaha has joined the fray with the company's first iPod products, even LEGO got involved as part of the range of 2009 tech products. On the design side, Bowers and Wilkens helped up the ante and many have followed producing almost a new branch of the market into style-led devices many of which have a distinctly 70s, 80s, futurist or retro feel. Revo, YBA and Grove Neo are all good examples, not forgetting an appearance from Phillippe Starck and some completely out the box styles from Bang & Olufsen that we probably should have all expected.
While style and audio quality marched on, so has the technology being driven by the theme of connectivity which has been the strongest throughout all gadgets this year. The dock/radio masters have been the ones pushing boundaries of functionality furthest with touchscreen interfaces and some even with their own app stores, widgets and native support for both Twitter and Facebook. Internet radio has been the add-on for most and with over a third of the world listening to it, it's small wonder. Between that, DAB, SD card slots, mp3 support and USB drives, this sector is fast catching up with the mini-systems and separates above them.
Mini-Systems & Hi-Fi
These gadgets have remained very much the preserve of the serious music fan and probably more so with the lower end of the market doing well in 2009. At the same time, the acceptance of the dock has meant most now have attachments, as well as USB ports and support for digital music as well. The likes of Marantz and Denon are still offering up the goods with perhaps more focus on aesthetics than ever before, but none typifies more the situation than the rare appearance of the NaimUniti system - the very first from this high end manufacturer in the new era.
Quality has been the theme oozing from the headphones market in 2009. It all started rather frighteningly at CES with it seeming like we'd have to rob a bank in order to satisfy our aural delights. Denon and Sennheiser both came out with classy on-ear phones at around the £1000 mark but with Sony's launch of the XB, we knew that on-ear style was making a comeback and that we could afford it as well. Sennheiser followed suit, as did many others in the field, but soon we were to find out where the real trend lay - the in-ear design.
Noise cancelling and isolating has been the story for headhones in 2009. Both technologies have, of course, been around for many years now but never before have we seen them come in such a large price range. Sony and Denon were the first to bring noise-cancelling to the small form, while many such as Logitech, with their purchase of Ultimate Ears, Klipsch and Shure chose to find ways to isolate the interference from the outside world. Etymotics went one stage further by offering custom ear-moulds with their range, including the service from ACS. And finally, Radiopaq took the altogether different approach of both specially tuning headphones for digital music and even creating an adaptor to do the same almost at source.
One of the most exciting areas of gadgetry in 2009 has been PMPs. With the addition of HD screens, the support of all sorts of video codecs and the commonplace occurrence of touch technology, it's been one of the main focuses of convergence throughout the industry.
It was another mixed start in the field at CES with the Android-sporting GiiNii Movit proving one of the highlights of the show and yet it's failed to appear on our shelves. Sansa came up with a new approach with SlotRadio, which was later improved, and Samsung surprised us all with the challenger to the iPod touch in the shape of the P3. Since then, we've seen an entire new range from the Korean giant in Beat, and Sony has been working hard with the X, B and W series showing off both functionality and innovation of lifestyle design.
Philips, Creative and iRiver have all put in the time and just about everyone has made sure that they include Wi-Fi, DivX support and as much streaming capability as they can muster. Whether your PMP is big or small, just about all of them can play video now and even some can record it as we saw in the refresh of the iPod range with the 5th generation nano and notably not in the iPod touch, which now suffers even stronger competition from the Zune HD amongst others. Last, littlest but certainly not least, do spare a thought for the 3rd generation, lozenge of an iPod shuffle which thankfully has its own voice to help shout about it too.
Fortunately, all the PMPs have more memory stacked in them than ever before else they'd not be much use for storing video and the larger screen devices such as the Archos 5 are now almost indistinguishable from actual computers. Doubtless a flurry of internet tablets in the coming 12 months will permanently blur the divide. As for the likes of INQ's upcoming Spotify phone and the increase in the mobility service, we can save that confusion for next year's awards.
What do you think?
But these are just some of the fantastic choices our ears have had in 2009. What would you like to see held aloft as the winner of Pocket-lint Best Music Gadget 2009? Who have we missed out? Which are your unsung heroes and of those we've already mentioned, which would get your vote? Let us know in the comments below and you can help our panel decide which make the shortlist of nominees to be announced here on Pocket-lint on 16 November. We'll have all out coverage of the Vodafone Pocket-lint awards 2009 right here. Don't miss a minute of it.