With the rise of smartphones the MP3 player market tanked after peaking in 2009 (2 years after the iPhone’s introduction), and has entered a steady decline since. This is evident just looking at the declining historical sales trend of the iPod, which is the most successful mass-market MP3 player. During that time, a high-end collection of (very) expensive audio players had found refuge in a “high-end” niche market – until now. With the arrival of the LG V20, that market segment may experience the same decline that once happened to basic MP3 players.
If you are not yet familiar with the LG V20 (read our complete LG V20 Review), it is a large-display phone with a removable battery and a shock-resistant design. More importantly for this article, it comes with a powerful ESS DAC (digital to analog converter) and audio system that allows it to perform like a Hi-Res or HiFi DAP: it can play audio content at extremely high quality.
Priced from $350 to several thousand dollars, these devices may face pressure that will eventually lead to their extinction. When we compared the LG V20 with high-end music players, using high-quality files and headphones, the difference was not perceptible.
Phones like the HTC 10 and others before had started to build up some pressure on the Hi-Res DAP market. However, the LG V20 has better audio and can both technically and perceptibly represent the tipping point for Hi-Res audio. As the V20’s audio performance was very well received by experts and enthusiasts, it is likely to trigger further adoption of this kind of technology by other OEMs (phone makers) in the intermediate future.
From a consumer standpoint, the prospect of buying and carrying a single device which happens to be a great smartphone with a very good camera is a very powerful incentive. Also, phones like the V20 can be turned into small studios because they are programmable. For example, it is possible to play a track, suppress the vocals and record your own voice on top of the song. DAPs would typically not be able to do that and surely not in a friendly way that smartphone apps would allow.
Using a USB audio input, phones with high-performance DACs can also be used as external DACs, thus replacing stand-alone DAC “boxes” that can retail for hundreds of dollars. Again, this is a market that may suffer heavily from the gain in audio capabilities introduced by the LG V20.
Now, finding hi-res/hi-fi audio content requires a bit of homework but if handsets start using more high-quality DACs, music marketplaces will embrace the opportunity to charge higher fees for higher quality music files. This will add yet more pressure on standalone DAP if buying and managing music is easier on a phone.
With semiconductors evolving faster than HiFi/Hi-Res music, it is very possible that the price of these fancy DAC components will fall relatively fast. HTC kind of started it, LG made it better and we’re curious to see how fast this will spread, and if that effectively means the end for the bulk of the Hi-Res DAP market.