When is a stereo not a stereo?
When it is a computer. Music on a computer is nothing new. Since the 1990's we have had CD players in our computers and and digital music files. We've had speakers systems with separate base speakers and sound cards with amplifiers capable of awesome sound. Internet “radio” is also something that has been around awhile and is in most respects better then terrestrial radio. For the past several years there have been sound distribution systems – used to stream sound to an amplifier - and USB turntables. I just got one of each myself and they are amazing. They have USB cassette decks too, but I figured out how to rig that up without buying something.
What is different now are two things. First, all the pieces are finally in place to have a complete music experience using computer technology. This makes it viable to replace your old stereo with your computer system. While I continue to use my old amp and receiver, the music comes from my computers.
The second big change is a social one, one I see mostly in people younger than myself - a complete acceptance of digital music. My kids listen to music on portable music players (little computers) or on their PC's. Even though they have traditional stereos, they never use them. Now, I can hear all the traditionalists out there whining that they will never know the joys of vinyl or some such claptrap. That's like saying that folks in my age group never knew what we were missing with mono 78's. I'm sure the kids will suffer through it.
Truth is, a digital music system is so much more efficient. One constant problem that a true musical gourmand has is space. I have overstuffed my 500 CD storage unit. It's a big piece of furniture and, quite frankly, I don't have room for more. That doesn't include all the space absorbed by my vinyl record collection and cassette tapes. By getting my music via download and digitally, I have solved that problem. With disk storage stupid cheap, it is easier (and cheaper) to just buy more and bigger hard drives then big, honking pieces of furniture. Software also makes it much easier to organize and find what's in my collection, a rather difficult chore in the analog world.
Mobility is also a key factor for the all-digital-music library. I can literally carry my entire collection around on a portable hard drive or shove 12 hours worth of music on a cheap MP3 player that is smaller than a pack of gum. Try doing that with record albums. Even CD's and cassette tapes are no where near as mobile as digital music.
I am the first to admit that we are losing something in this move to digital music. Changes like this always require some compromise. Record stores – real record stores, not big box retailers with a bunch of CDs in the back for old folks who want to here the latest dinosaur rock – are as extinct as the dodo bird. I truly miss pursuing the stacks of albums, waiting for something to leap out at me and say “You gotta have this!” Amazon.com is just not the same experience.
The sound is different too. Music today has so much dynamic compression and digital manipulation that it hardly sounds real any more. This goes for older music transferred to CD or remastered for digital formats. When I bought the USB turntable I tried a little experiment. I listened to albums that I had on both CD and vinyl to see the difference. The vinyl sound was warmer and sounded more like live music. This is not a function of the computer though. It is how they are engineering albums these days. It doesn't have to be that way.
Altogether, I can live with these changes in return for better storage, more mobility, and the ability to distribute music around my house without moving media around. It all makes perfect sense to those somewhat younger than me. In ten years, a traditional stereo will seem like a relic from the past.