Morale Will Continue Until The Beatings Improve

If home-gallows prices keep coming down, people won't go to public executions anymore. The home brothel has reduced the amount of cash American men spend each year on banging strangers. And thanks to the home sweatshop, the CEOs of all the major clothing manufacturers have been forced to take pay cuts. (I mean, come on: It was either that or something totally unimaginable, like shipping American jobs overseas, or cutting healthcare benefits for the rank and file.)

So the anecdotal news of a decline in hardware sales in the home-theater industry—a very real segment of the consumer-electronics marketplace that once seemed well entrenched—has come as a surprise.

It's a surprise because, earlier this year, instead of spending $4.30 a gallon to drive across their states to visit Splash Danger Canyon or the Enchanted Water Safari, American motorists stayed home in record numbers. Rising food prices put the hurt on the restaurant industry. The mortgage debacle helped slow the construction of new hotels. Throughout most of the spring and summer, according to the leading travel-industry stock index, of 42 stocks, only two—Priceline.com and Hawaiian Airlines—weren't in the toilet (footnote 1).

Today, forecasters suggest that high energy prices in general, and negative feelings about apparent big-oil profiteering in specific, had enough of an impact on consumer psychology that even now, as oil prices once again dip below $100 a barrel, American consumers are unlikely to resume their wasteful ways anytime soon (footnote 2).

One more thing: A recent Zogby poll indicates that the average consumer's interest in seeing first-run films at a theater has continued to decline. By a striking margin, the majority of Americans say they would rather have $100 worth of DVD rentals than $100 worth of theater passes.

Alrighty then: If people aren't traveling, they must be staying home. And if people aren't watching movies at the local cinema, they must be watching movies at home. (Hollywood will keep making them, of course, although Hollywood may have to raise home media prices—and, I'm sorry to say, the delicious epithet "direct to DVD" will lose its bite.) So it would have been reasonable to expect a bump, not a dip, in the sales of home-entertainment gear, right?

Wrong.

The correct answer is one that audiophiles have known all along but were afraid to say out loud while surrounded by shopkeepers heady with success: Most consumers don't care all that much about widescreen this or tingle-tush that. TV sets and video players have come a long way since the birth of the industry—and for the average Joe, good enough is good enough.

Besides, a home theater—like a home brothel or a home bowling alley or a home car wash—is a luxury. It's something most people can get by without.

Can people get by without music? Apparently not. From what I've seen, most American consumers are capable of responding positively to a film without feeling the need to ever see it again, but I have yet to meet the person who can respond positively to a symphony or a song without wanting to hear it again. And again.

Most people need a reliable source of music in their lives, even if it's just a table radio or an iPod. From there on up, it's a matter of degree—all the way to the things that Stereophile writes about. In a world where everybody eats, we're a gourmet magazine.

And this particular gourmet magazine is doing well—not that I intend to cock-fight the enthusiast press of one hobby against that of another. (Those who would compare audio and home-theater magazines ignore the former's DIY and tweak contingents and the latter's near-total lack of same; the two tend to be read for different reasons, and with different degrees of intensity.) But the simple fact is, Stereophile has continued to maintain its circulation over the past few years and has even posted modest gains, as noted and confirmed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (footnote 3).

There's more: In August, John Atkinson sent a memo to all of Stereophile's contributing editors, with good news from Source Interlink Media's research department: "Looking at the US audio and home theater publishing market as a whole [my emphasis], it is Stereophile, a pure audio magazine [JA's emphasis], that has had the dominant market share—just under 27 percent—for the past two years." John accompanied the memo with data showing that, in terms of number of paid advertising pages published, we're ahead of the leading home-theater titles and showing a modest increase. And that's under market conditions widely regarded as recessionary.

And in case the mere mention of advertising is too much for your inner hen, let me remind you: Those gains took place during a two-year period in which I wrote that Exposure's new upmarket integrated amp isn't as good as its less expensive predecessor, Musical Fidelity's latest integrated is outshone by the competition when it comes to driving most loudspeakers, Rega's new flagship moving-coil phono cartridge isn't ready for prime time, and some very expensive digital source components don't play music as well as a second-hand Sony PlayStation from the Salvation Army. All of those observations affected companies that advertise in our pages—and those were just the observations I happened to make.

Perfectionist audio isn't out of the woods yet, and I don't think Stereophile will feel entirely comfortable, let alone complacent, anytime soon. (After all, the percentage of American workers who can afford a home, never mind a music system to put in it, has been pointed in the wrong direction for a few years.) Some reasonable questions remain:

• When will the leading digital-audio companies wean themselves from the teat of high-ticket sales and take up the challenge of making a single-box CD player that most hobbyists can afford?

• When will the number of startup companies that exist only to bring to market $25,000 ego-wank loudspeakers finally begin to shrink?

• Where are the good, un-stupid-looking, high-efficiency speakers to go with the low-power tube amps that have attracted so many younger enthusiasts to our hobby over the past 10 years?

• Why can't somebody in America make a really good-sounding $500 integrated amp—and, perhaps more to the point, why can't a talented businessperson figure out how to make a reasonable profit selling such a thing?

We'll get those answers, and more, just as we'll see a few more dead leaves shaken from the trees in the months to come. But the simple fact remains: I don't remember a time when I've felt this good about every corner of our hobby—analog and digital, DIY and high-end, vintage and cutting-edge. Not to be crass about it, but I don't remember a time when I've found myself spending money so freely on new records and even new playback gear. Not to be mushy about it, but I don't remember a time when I've felt this kind of hope.



Footnote 1: Travel Weekly Magazine.

Footnote 2: "Frugal Habits Likely Won't Change as Oil Falls," Associated Press, September 14, 2008.

Footnote 3: The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) is a nonprofit watchdog agency funded by member publishers and regarded as the sole reliable source of honest circulation information about American periodicals.

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