Long Live High-End Audio

While we contemplate high-end audio’s long, slow, and stinking death, Magico, manufacturer of high-performance, high-priced loudspeakers, is in the mainstream press: USA Today ran an article earlier this week, which asked, “How much would you pay to bring music to life?

The author, Marco Della Cava, seems convinced of hi-fi’s potential. He writes: “Opening your eyes to see not a band but a cold rack of hi-fi gear is a genuinely jarring experience, like drifting to sleep in a hot tub only to wake up in the factory that makes the hot tub.”

This comes just weeks after two NYC hi-fi salons, DUMBO’s Oswalds Mill Audio and the Flatiron’s Audioarts, were profiled respectively by Jay-Z’s Life + Times and the Wall Street Journal.

While the recent press has been overwhelmingly positive, the fact remains that we focus almost entirely on the most extravagant segment of the high-performance audio world, suggesting that high-end must be high-priced. Remember what John Atkinson said: High-end doesn't necessarily have to be high-priced.

For some reason, for as long as I’ve worked at Stereophile—well over a decade now—older, more experienced audiophiles have asked me two questions: 1. How can we prevent hi-fi from dying? 2. How can we attract a younger audience?

Never have the answers to these questions seemed more obvious.

First of all, don’t be stupid. Hi-fi can’t die because, luckily, it’s inextricably tied to music. (Although it can be argued that audiophiles have tried their best to kill music, too.) Hi-fi will exist for as long as music exists. And music will always exist. So, while hi-fi’s popularity will rise and fall, hi-fi itself, for better or worse, will certainly stick around. Follow the music and you’ll find life. However, if you want to attract a larger audience, offer the products that most people want. (Duh.) When we launched our three sister websites, we focused on the areas of high-performance audio that showed the most growth, not only among audiophiles, but among all music lovers. These areas are, clearly and undeniably, headphones (InnerFidelity.com), computer audio (AudioStream.com), and vinyl (AnalogPlanet.com). Makes sense, right? To launch a site today devoted to, say, cassette decks, probably wouldn’t make a lot of money.

So, to prevent hi-fi’s death, make stuff that people want to buy. And do it faster. Stop wasting time making fun of how other people choose to listen. Instead, improve that listening experience. Remember what Jon Iverson says: Audiophiles perfect what the mass market selects. Get on it. There are plenty of opportunities. (Hint: headphones, computer audio, vinyl.)

And, if you want to attract a younger audience, make stuff that younger people can afford. (Duh.) Try to remember what it was like when you were younger or less privileged—that is before (way before) you thought a $1500 amplifier was "affordable." Realize that, to many people, there is an enormous honking difference between spending $150 and spending $300. Realize that, to many people, the idea of spending $1000 or even $500 on anything is really freaking scary.

Make stuff that people want and make stuff that people can afford.

And if you’re not really interested in attracting a larger and younger audience, stop pretending that you are, and stop asking stupid questions. There are better things to do and more records to explore.

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COMMENTS
Bill Leebens's picture

...and you're getting assertive in your old age, Stephen!

 

It's about time! ;->

andy_c's picture

Totally agree Bill.

I think this article is an example of Stephen at his best.

v1m's picture

Sorry, but I find Stephen to be the Tiny Tim of audio writing, a bit too impressed by his every trip to the tulips.  But he's right here as far as his case goes.

Hi-fi is merely a subset, alas, of the horrible Real World.  The 1% (and their apologists) can not hoarde wealth, keep the best jobs and otherwise marginalize youth through austerity and loan debt while at the same time expecting young people to ape their taste in swanky gear.  Ask the housing industry how family formation is going.  Then consider what that means for pricey hobby formation.

There are the little problems of music compression and musical taste, too.  If you're a Boomer, your 70s-era Atlantic Records LP collection or your extensive Berlin Philharmonic library (Herbert von Swastika conducting!) really rewards playback on great gear.  If you're 22, and bent on listening to loudly mastered rap or electronica, almost any kit will do.  This isn't to knock those forms: it's to point out that you aren't as worried about dynamics, soundstage or the italics-and-caps-worthy PRAT as you are about old folk-deranging bass.  And of course, contemporary tastes aren't going away.  But I will remind you of what is departing.

I was at a chamber music performance in Minneapolis the other night.  Almost everyone I saw was old enough to be my grandparent.  And I'm no spring chicken either!  A way of life, a kind of culture is not going forward, and while there are many reasons, there are fewer and fewer chances to do anything about it.  (Little to none, in my view.  That, really, was the job of the culture while its stalwarts were younger.  Old Dears, you had a good thing, didn't you, but you didn't pass it on.)  Good stereo gear, the very idea of good sound, is a not unrelated reflection of an epoch whose grip on this one is loosening, and will soon be gone.

What I'm saying, especially to Boomers fretting about hi-fi as if it were as remotely important as the price of eggs: you need to look beyond your own navels to answer why these changes are engulfing you, too, in pricey hobbyland.

tao's picture

Stephen,

I enjoy your writing as it covers items closer to my heart, that red-head step child Mid-Fi. I don't see the bottom ever disappearing, cheap stuff will always be appreciated by students and those who don't know or don't care, and I think there will always be a place for the Hi end. There are always a few people who will have crazy money to spend. But for those of us seeking great sound on a limited budget well we're the ones who seem to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The Hi-end shops don't want to deal with you as you're not going to spend enough and the cheap shops just don't carry what your looking for. It seems to me that the middle area of good sound is what is getting squeezed. It would be nice to find places that sell more affordable "hi-end". Not the best buys of the world or the "salons". Does anything like that exist? or is it just one "cheap" equipment listening room set up in a hi-end salon?

Paul Luscusk's picture

dealers that have lines like NAD, PSB, Rotel, NHT, Music Hall, Epos, Cambridge,Projet, Marantz,  Creek, and  Rega in their product mix . If you can't find one in your area there is  Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct,  Neddle Doctor,and Audio Advisior.

tao's picture

Thanks and I appreciate the feedback. I currently run a 20 year old NAD at home and Snell Acoustics speakers. My issue with all this is that there are no Mid-Fi stores, it's often the "cheap" room in a hi end salon. I need to find a place to listen to this equipment and not be foisted off or ignored (can you tell I've had a bad experience before). The other issue is when I mention Home theater and again that dismissiviness, that audiophile 2 channel snobbery rears it's ugly head. I am a bit older than Stephen who started this, and grew up in the 60's and 70's listening to great sound systems put together by friends and family (all older) who today would be classified as audiophiles, back then they just wanted to hear music in it's best form. Today it's very hard to do what they did at what I would consider a reasonable price. Back then 2 channel or 4 speakers running 2 channels was the way to go, today many would have gone on to home theater setups. Is it so wrong to want a home theater set up that also sounds good playing music and all without $600k magicos.

Paul Luscusk's picture

In The industry "Mid Fi" is thought of as stuff like Bose(The Industry joke is No Highs No lows, must be Bose)and 99% of theproduct sold in BIg Box stores. What your looking for is entry level high end , big difference.

tao's picture

OK, my definition is off, are there any entry high end stores? I do not believe so, so replace what I wrote above and every time I wrote MId-Fi replace it with the words entry level high end.

I think that someone who opens a store with the idea of selling stereo's and home theater systems that come in under $10k (all in), with a good number of systems coming in under $4-$5 could do a very good business.

I love to listen to music, but it's not my only hobby or expense, if I am spending car purchasing amounts of cash on audiophile gear, well that isn't going to happen .. if I have the money to get a car, I am getting that car.

That's why the slow demise of HIgh End, you don't have the majority even knowing that it exists. Then of the audiophile cognizant there are too many other things to spend on whether that's family or hobby or whatever.

Paul Luscusk's picture

But almost every Hi End shop that I dealt with as a Mfg Rep in So Cal had a "Entry Level  " Room. the better ones had a Entry, step up and preminum  rooms

tweekgeek's picture

I think exposure to music played back on a good sound system is important too. There are so many young music lovers out there who have never heard a record, or a CD. They only know the sound of an MP3. Show them something better, and many of them will gravitate towards the better sound.

I do my part by hosting a monthly listening group. It's mostly young (25-40 year old) people that get together on a Saturday evening to listen to all kinds of music on vinyl and streaming.  we have a few adult beverages, and talk about the music. It is so much fun for me personally because of all the new music I get to discover, and equally rewarding to others who haven't heard their music on a good audio system. 

Some have had success with using meetup.com to set up groups such as this. I am a retailer and ran into a few young enthusiasts while exhibiting at a show, and started things through that meeting. However you accomplish it, the effort is very rewarding for everyone.

Stephen Mejias's picture

This is absolutely true. The story I tell all the time is that when I started working for Stereophile, I had no idea that the high-end audio industry existed. I was already a part of the music press; I was a musician, music lover, and DJ; and "high-end audio" was not a part of my world. At all. I had never even heard the word audiophile.

And I don't think I'm an unusual case.

Fortunately, however, with the recent popularity of vinyl, headphones, and computer audio, ideas about sound quality ("audiophile-quality") are becoming more and more prevalent.

remlab's picture

  In one of the responses to the Jack English article, JA brings up the importance of "planting seeds" in the younger crowd. Very difficult with all the choices they have for electronic entertainment( Ultimately, that's what it's about) . The key word with the younger(And older) crowd now is "mobile". If your hobby requires you to be glued to a chair or couch, it's dead in the water as far as that's concerned. We have to adapt, not them.

Stephen Mejias's picture

We may not realize it now, but the things we say and do, as well as the hobbies we enjoy, will find their ways into the minds, hearts, and souls of our children. There's an excellent piece in the current New Yorker which deals with this very topic: "Becoming Them" by James Wood—very highly recommended.

remlab's picture

You need to be a subscriber to see the whole thing but I can see what it's getting at. My father loved music, and listened all the time to contemporary jazz and contemporary classical on his boom box that he acquired from the goodwill(I hated those genre's when I was a kid, but love them now, as predicted). Years ago though, when he was still alive, he had a chance to listen to my system at the time and remarked afterwards that he felt that one does not really need an expensive system to reallyenjoy music. Luckily(Or unluckily) I didn't inherit that opinion..

remlab's picture

 When we die, they will inherit our equipment. Then they won't have a choice.. (Heh heh). 

lwhitefl's picture

Instead of relying on the press, the audio industry should start aggressively using the automotive business model that largely relies on advertising to sell and lease $25K - $50+K cars. Pricing doesn't appear to be a hindrance to demand for that product  because many of the ads promote a live style. The high end audio industry needs to begin spending some serious money on TV advertising the benefits to serious listening and home theatre using well designed and executed audio products.

joelha's picture

Stephen,

I've always enjoyed your writing and have met you before as well and found you to be a very decent guy.

This is why I'm surprised at the tone you've taken in your above article.

I'm assuming you've never run a business before. If you had, I don't think you'd be using terms like "duh" and "stupid". Very smart people in this industry (I have no financial ties to any audio company) have been trying, often not very successfully, to figure out a very challenging market while maintaining payrolls, paying rent, taxes, and a variety of other expenses just to keep the doors open.

I appreciate the insights in your article, but the attitude in your piece is, in this audiophile's opinion, inappropriate.

Joel

 

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi Joel.

Thanks for stating your opinion in such a respectful manner. I agree with what you've said, and I'm actually surprised that it took as long as it did for anyone to object to my tone. I don't know the first thing about running a business, and I do think building a successful business is far more difficult than I've made it out to be here. But I am a regular person, and I have regular thoughts—sometimes irrational, perhaps inappropriate thoughts—just like anyone else, and I felt these particular thoughts, ugly as they may be, were worth sharing. The fact is I get annoyed, I get tired of the same disengenuous questions.

The key, in my opinion, for any high-end manufacturer looking to appeal to a wide and diverse audience, is to follow the music—evaluate how most people are listening to and using music, and design better, yet still affordable, products for them. If a high-end manufacturer isn't doing that, then that manufacturer isn't actually interested in appealing to a wide and diverse market, and that manufacturer should stop asking questions that don't apply to his business model.

I say this because I often wonder whether the high-end audio industry, in general, as a whole, truly wants to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience, or if it's just blowing smoke, complaining for the sake of complaining, because we are complainers, wasting time and energy better spent making great things and listening to beautiful music.

It's absolutely fine to build wonderful products that appeal to a very small percentage of the population. Great. But don't do that and then complain about having such a small and aging audience.  

joelha's picture

You're a good man, Stephen.

I appreciate your thoughtful response.

I have often thought that the company which could create a reasonably thin $99 DAC/Headamp which could snap on to the back of an Iphone/Ipod would have a shot at getting the lower-fi market to consider what better sound is about.

Better to go where the market is rather than to try to bring that market to us (audio shows, audio stores, etc.)

I know there's a $700 device out there that does something similar, but who is going to spend that kind of money if someone is cutting his teeth on higher-end audio and doesn't have much disposable income?

Just a thought.

Keep writing and I'll keep enjoying.

Joel

 

MVBC's picture

As far as speakers are concerned, when the same ScanSpeak polyprop drivers and dome tweeters are recycled by countless brands into various designs and sold multiplying their value by 10 or even 30 without anyone blinking an eye, one should not be surprised if a few of these recycling companies are disappearing.

During CES 2013, a few posts mentioned "great sound" from systems costing over a quarter million dollars... It was not "out of this world, pure magic, realism..." it was just "involving" etc... basically what a good system costing a tenth of these could and should be. That sums up another portion of high end audio, where product's names can only descend from some gods private garden...

The best way to appreciate the real deal in audio is to listen to live music, live instruments and voices unamplified... and then, to professional audio, where high quality, well made, powerful drivers are the norm. Good speakers start with good drivers. No one needs to fork 35 grands for little Puppys compared to a pair of professional speakers (try $20k for JBL4365 15" bass and compressions or even for smaller budgets, take the JBL studio monitor 4429 3 way for $7,500 a pair, 12" woofer, powerful magnet, compressions fully adjustable MediumF and HighF...)

JoeinNC's picture

 

"Try to remember what it was like when you were younger or less privileged—that is before (way before) you thought a $1500 amplifier was "affordable." Realize that, to many people, there is an enormous honking difference between spending $150 and spending $300...

 

Make stuff that people want and make stuff that people can afford."

 

Thank you, Stephen, for making that point. I once posted a similar comment in response to an article here (from one of your other contributors) that described a $7,000.00 amp/speaker rig as "affordable" and was met with all manner of vitriol from the author and some of your magazine's readers, one suggesting that I "get a job" and then it would be "affordable." Hardly the way to win people over to hi-fi. 

 

I'm an old fart who remembers the late 60s to mid-70s when mid to hi-fi was not cheap, but was at least attainable and more readily available. Presenting multi-thousand-dollar pieces as "affordable" seems to be coming from quite a skewed perspective. 

 

To paraphrase Stephen Wright, anything is affordable if you have enough money. 

prerich45's picture

 I stated in another post that I believe that the high end is changing, that something will die only to come back as something different (but still part of the original).  Stephen, when you mentioned computer audio, that struck a chord with me (musical pun not intended).  I believe that the computer industry is the new frontier of Hi End audio and for the DIY'er also.  I'm waiting for 8 channel asynchronous DAC/soundcard - I know the technology is out there - so what's stopping manufacturers?  The computer world hasn't had a major soundcard since the Asus (due to HDMI on video).  I long for a good 8 channel 32bit/384khz soundcard (I currently bitstream from my PC  and use the DAC's in my Onkyo receiver/prepro).  This type of innovation would get the geeky, techie youth into our hobby and they would make strides in it immediately. The audio abilities of programs such as JRiver and Channel D Pure Music are wonderful. 

I know this paradigm would set the Hi-End on edge (people being able to construct their own high-end gear - but hey, that already happens) but, it would bring new life and possibly new ideals to the Hi-end table

MVBC's picture

Of course it does already happen and you're right, it's much smarter money spending to build an active speaker system from professional components. In Japan, real custom systems are built this way and would outperform virtually anything on the market... And the time spent to design and set up is also ultimately rewarding...

audiodoctornj's picture

The notion of affordable vs non affordability in any endevor comes down not to money but desire and passion for the pursuit.

I would say that today more than ever you assemble a really great system for a reasonable amount of money, anywhere from $1,500.00 to $10k for an entire system.

Now to the non affordable guys argueing that $10k is a lot of money, lets put it into perspective, if an good system costs $10k and you keep it for 10 years that is $1,000.00 a year or less than $100.00 per month! What other purchased items have a life span of 10-20 years of enjoyment with generally very little maintenance?

As a begining audiophile I discovered high end at age 17 after spending 4 years in mid fi hell, buying more boxes ie equailziers, image expanders etc trying to make a mid fi system sound like real music to no avail.

The dealer I discovered treated me like a real person and played me my first high end audio system and viola I was hooked. Did I have any money? No I didn't. What did I do, I got committed and started saving my money, I bought one piece at a time, via lay away, every week I made my payment to my dealer and slowly over time, I had a fantastic system.

In my tweenties I owned a pair of Quad ESL 63, a pair of MFA M75 mono blocks, an Electrocompaniet preamp, a Merrill Table etc. 

So if you want to accheive a great music system it comes down to desire first, then you will find a way. Sometimes we need to be patient and work up to the systems we want.

prerich45's picture

  You find very few dealers that will do lay-away nowadays. I believe layaway is an excellent way getting into a system, now if dealers would only bring it back.  I have one dealer that has let me purchase items on layaway 90 days same as cash. We have an excellent relationship - and he even lets me take equipment home to try it for a few days.

  The sad state of affairs is this, you can't trust every one to bring your stuff back, and with layaway...how many people will see it through, or will they come back wanting a $1000 refund on a $2000 item?  I long for the days of layaway again.  I'm just glad that I'm sonicly satisfied with what I currently have, and couldn't have gotten it without a type of "layaway".

Scot Hull's picture

The high-end is dying, it's changing, it's evolving ... kids aren't into hi-fi these days ... hi-fi is too expensive ... there's too much "other stuff" competing for the hi-fi dollar ... business climate is tough/dealers are closing ... you can't untangle all this with a single solution because the problem with the problem is that it isn't one problem but several. 

If "the industry" was serious about "coming back", they should form a trade organization that'll promote their interests. Marketing will help. Introductory products will help. Getting gear into the hands of celebrities or on popular TV shows will help. Adverts during prime time, on lifestyle web sites and magazines will help. If you believe that hi-fi has just fallen out of the eye of the public, then it's gonna take money or a miracle to bring it back. 

But I think it's a bit early to be ringing any death-bells.

ppgr's picture

It's about the high-end eco-system.

When dealers get 50+% commission and don't have to buy the inventory they have in their "audio salon", they sit on their ass, collect the cash and move on to the next flavor-of-the-month product, thanks to high-end audio king-makers. 

In pro audio (the place where real music people buy real music playback equipment), the commission is closer to 25%, because sales are actually conducted, which means lower prices.

The pro versions of Focal, Adam, JBL, Genelec, Dynaudio and others are actually cheaper than the "high-end" versions from the same manufacturers. 100% solid silver wires from pro-only Zaolla is 10 to 100 TIMES cheaper than comparable wires from Crystal, Siltech and Transparent. You won't find either the pro-speakers or the pro wires in a "high-end" store because there's not enough margin.

It's not about manufacturers.

MVBC's picture

Right on! smiley

audiodoctornj's picture

This is a reply to the above gentllmen's comments above, sir what planet are you on?

One I have a shop with a million dollars worth of inventory on display none of the manufacturers gave me any equipment I had to purchase it all over the seven years I have been in business, this is true with most real dealers, how can I afford my display equipment, I make a sale, pay bills and reinvest, not to mention loans etc.

Two: 50 plus points of commision, try about 15 %, again your grasp of a low volume retail business is staggering, you fail to account for costs associated with display inventory, retail or commercial space rents, phone bills,  advertising, internet costs, show costs, labor costs, insurance costs, credit card company fees about 3-4% off of every transaction, vehicle costs, etc.

Three: The music equipment industry is working on a different model high volume with lower profits with many companies run  out of a warehouse in the middle of nowwhere, most retail shops are where people live so rents are huge. Also many musicians are struggling to pay for gear until they make it big, to most musicians these products are tools.

Also for these kinds of companies they get to purchase their products at prefertial discounts which enable them to discount them heavily and stil make money, if you order 1,000 pairs of speakers a year vs 10 do you not think that the speaker company will  offer you far better pricing to keep you selling their line, also the commerical versions of these products may look similar to their higher end versions, but they are not always the same.

Do you like shopping on line? Personally I would much prefer to go to an actually store where I can experience the product I want to purchase directly.

Four: Here is some insight on Zaolla cables they are not what you puport  then to be this is taken from a dealers actual website: Is there some magic that enables Zaolla to use high quality materials and still price their product so cheapily or is it that they are actually just cheapily made cables which are still better built than the cheap Mogai or Belden wire which most music equipment cables are made of:

Zaolla's Audio Interconnects are designed to work with skin effect, essentially by creating more surface for high frequencies to travel. This is accomplished with multiple, enamel coated, oxygen-free copper windings working in conjunction with the Ultra Pure, solid silver center conductors. In this manner, high frequencies are given multiple surfaces to travel free from interference. This causes a dramatic decrease in high frequency "smearing" and other time-based phase or amplitude induced signal degradation. To ensure superior EMI, RFI, and electrostatic rejection, Zaolla cables employ very densely braided, silver plated pure copper windings over a soft layer of conductive PVC for 100% coverage, flexibility, noiseless handling, and interference free operation

This is a cable made with one strand of silver, the rest of the cable is silver plated copper over cheap pvc. Do you think having one piece of silver which may actually be very small it could be 22-28 gauge, makes that much of a  difference?

If you compare this cable to a comparable Wireworld Cable just for an example you can see far more advanced technogy in terms of the wires geometry known as DNA which deals with eliminating magnetic strand to strand interaction and uses stacked flat ribbon conductiors, and a supeiror dielectric composition vs  cheap pvc, as well as the quality of plugs which use solid silver conductors,  then what you have in a Zaolla, and a cable like the Equinox 7 which uses all of these advanced technologies costs $110.00 which is around the same price of a Zaolla.

Now there are very expensive high end cables that use a lot of high quality silver which cost thousands of dollars, because they use a lot of silver and are hand made. Do these cables sound really good yes, but you also fail to reailize that the reason some of these high end products are  so expensive has to do with the small production runs as well as the high cost of materials and labor and that is not taking into consideration all of the other costs associated with actually making a product.

If a high end cable takes 16 hours to make and you pay your worker $40 an hour you have $640 dollars in labor, add $600 dollars in raw materials you may have a cost of $1,200.00-$1,500.00 in one cable, now unless you like not to enjoy living and getting paid for having your own company, you now want to mark up your product so now the cable would sell to a dealer for $3,000.00 now the dealer wants to have a life so now the cable has a retail price of $5,000.00 is this starting to make sense? Its called economics 101. Profit is good, no profit is bad!

So you could spend the time, energy, and years of trial and error and maybe produce a do it your self clone of a $5,000.00 cable for $600 in materials and your labor rate to your self is free, so haven't you saved your self a lot of money by that same token you can build anything yourself with enogh time and inclination please build me an Ipad.

Sometimes in manfacturing as well as retailing, people don't see the entire picture.

Is life better since Walmart, I don't think so, crappy cheap adundent goods stifle good wages and force everything to be made offshore. our economy was much better when the US made everything, and when goods were more expensive you saved up to get them or paid them off over time.

MVBC's picture

Ok let's take your demo at face value: did you see the inside photo shot of the $50k + Lamm preamp at CES published here? Yes the one with the pressed metal chassis with the vulgar plastic clip holding some basic wire... Tell me how the high frequencies smearing that dramatically decreased thanks to your heavenly cables will suddenly face the fact of having to ride on some ordinary wire? Oh and to even think that the studio that recorded the disc you listen to may not have been equipped with the etheral marvels you described... I do not buy your bridge because before indulging in this mind game of tweaking picostuff, there is money to be well spent fixing very real and audible problems.

After the "cable" mercantile revolution, the high end industry seems desperate to find the next ride... How about a CO2 de-polarizer that compensates for catastrophic global warming induced amplification of infrasonic jitter?devil

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