In 1983, Sony and North American Philips created quite a stir when they introduced the "fingernails on the chalkboard" sounding CD player. Touted by the same reviewers who listened to music with their eyes as being "perfect sound, forever" (boy did they miss the boat on that one), CDs did - if nothing else - add another race car to the race. What digital music offers is convenience, and from the VHS-Beta wars of early video tape recorders, the lesson learned is that convenience and length of recording time is what the mass market wants.
So with a CD, you can listen to "music" (I just cannot bring myself to saying that CDs sound like music, at least not yet), for over an hour without having to get up and flip over the record. Plus, you can take it with you and fit it into your car. These were the great selling points that non-high-enders gobbled up. Those of us who were listening to the music knew that they had a long way to go before this media even began to approach sounding like any instrument (with the possible exception of a...no I was wrong, forget that).
What digital recordings did bring to the forefront was another challenge and one that we are still trying to get "right" even after almost 30 years of trying to figure out how to coax real music from the established digital format (16-44). So the challenge now is to make digital sound as real as analog vinyl, just as the challenge was for transistors to sound as good as tubes. Each time there is an advance in the digital realm, another one is made in the analog realm. Another leapfrog contest is going on that once again is driving the high-end forward.
This is a good thing. One day, digital may come out on top. One day, transistors may come out on top. One day, I'll listen to a system and say to myself, "Now that sounds real!" as opposed to "Now that sounds better." Audio nirvana - what all high-end proponents dream of - still has a way to go. Just like Formula One race cars that are now using ethanol to power their smaller engines, change is in the wind, and it is a change for the good.
So where does this take us? I foresee 32-bit/192KHz as the next digital audio standard. I foresee new types of audio drivers developed that deviate from the same linear motors we've been listening to since the invention of the electron tube. I foresee recording engineers changing their styles to capture more than they do today and preserving the emotion of a performance rather than just the notes. I foresee even different ways to create sound and take the high-end one step closer to the "being there" experience.
What I hope one day happens is for me to be able to buy a seat at the Met and be there from the comfort of my home; to enjoy the performance without having to smell someone's perfume that makes my asthmatic wife have a reaction to it; to experience the imperfections of a live performance and love every single one of them. That's what I hope happens in the high-end future. How about you?