How to Revive High-End Audio

When I became Stereophile's editor in 1986, the median age of the magazine's readership was the same age as I was then, 38; ie, half the readers were younger than 38, half older. According to our most recent reader survey, the median reader age is now 48, meaning that in the intervening 19 years, that median reader has aged at half the rate of the rest of us. A nice trick. But older that reader certainly has become, which has led to cries of doom from some quarters of the audio industry.

The fear is that as members of the baby-boom generation increasingly look backward at their 50th birthdays, they will equally increasingly remove themselves from the market for two-channel audio components. Couple that fear with the observation that younger generations neither appear to value quality nor appear to be willing to devote extended periods of time to listening to music without multitasking, and it would seem that the customer base for the high-end audio industry will soon, literally, die out.

And, as Stereophile correspondent Ken Kessler wrote in an article in the September 2005 issue of UK trade journal Inside Hi-Fi & AV, the high-end audio industry faces obstacles in reaching its existing customer base. Ken's thesis is that, whereas acknowledged luxury markets exist in many fields, from watches to cars to handbags to pens, audio alone seems to be associated with a sense of consumer guilt—that when conspicuous consumption involves expensive loudspeakers or amplifiers, it is to be condemned.

Buy a Patek Phillipe or a Porsche Cayenne and your neighbors will be impressed, or at least not regard you as crazy. But spend that same money on an amplifier or a pair of speakers and, as a Stereophile reader recently wrote me when canceling his subscription, "With all the crap going on in the world and you clowns are stressing over the next platinum-coated piece of electronics . . . You all should be ashamed of yourselves."

This reader was angered by Michael Fremer's admission that he had purchased the review samples of the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX2 loudspeaker, which he had reviewed in August, and it was Michael Fremer who pointed out to me another example of this paradox a few months back. In a single weekend issue of the New York Times, one writer enthusiastically extolled the benefits of $600 table place settings on one page, while on another page, amid a survey of headphones, another writer cautioned his readers that though one particular model sounded superb, it was ridiculously priced at $300. The Times apparently feels that headphones costing the same as a spoon and couple of forks are too pricey to be recommended.

The fault lies not just in the Times' choice of writers, but also in the way the high-end audio industry has failed to communicate its message to anyone other than those who have found their own ways to its offerings, as well as the fact that, as I pointed out in a speech I gave at a dinner in Chicago celebrating Stereophile's 30th anniversary, traditional audio retailers are more like fishermen than farmers. Unlike the former, the latter actually prepare for next year's crop, and do not assume that customers will come along of their own accord.

That speech was given in 1992, and it is now at least twice as long ago as that when I first began to hear about this problem. One major attempt to address it was when the audio industry formed the Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio, or AAHEA, at the end of the 1980s (see my June 1991 "As We See It"). But a decade later, AAHEA collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency and internal contradictions (see Art Dudley's November 1998 "As We See It").

Now there will be another attempt. What triggered this essay was a letter I received on October from four industry veterans who are attempting to do something about the apparent malaise. I reproduce the text of that letter below:

Open Letter: A call to action for the High-End Community

So . . . are the doomsayers right? Is high-end audio headed for extinction? Is it true that people no longer respond to high-quality music reproduction? Not at all.

But it's up to us to prove the doomsayers wrong. And we can. This is an invitation to join "The A5"—The American Association for the Advancement of the Audio Arts. We're setting up as an LLC run by a board of directors.

On our own, as individual companies, we can do little to improve public awareness of high-end audio. Working together—manufacturers, distributors, reps, retailers, reviewers—we can turn the public on to one of life's great pleasures (and our passion): great music combined with stunning sound.

Things are not so bleak.

• People are still buying music and listening. Look at the iPod phenomenon and the growth of satellite radio. These listeners are excited about music in their lives. It's up to us to turn more of them on to high-quality music reproduction. It's less of a hard sell than it looks. People are already sold on music! To put it another way, Apple Computer, XM, Sirius, and the like are creating potential customers . . . for us!

• Despite a lack of growth in high-end sales, our industry is more innovative than ever before. Take any product category, any price point in specialty audio: the performance of products today is at an all-time high. The Golden Age of Hi-Fi? This is it!

• What will the A5 do besides collect your dues?

Well, one thing we won't do is hold an annual awards dinner. The A5 is not about self-congratulatory hype. What we propose to do is real. We aim to act, and here are some of the ways:

• Set up a website that directs visitors to the messages, products, and services of our members.

• Set up a user group for our members so we can communicate more freely and share ideas.

• Create the conditions for freer communication among all of us . . . and this includes the end user.

• Forget unproductive controversies, like the objectivist versus the subjectivist camps. There's room for both. And the truth is, one does not have to exclude the other.

• Make the buying public aware of the benefits of value-added service. We can prevent high-end from turning into a commodity. Look at the job that luxury car makers do, or Swiss watchmakers!

• Focus our message and get it to the public through whatever means we can muster and ways we can think of.

• Place ads for our industry in upscale magazines like Forbes, Wine Spectator, and Architectural Digest, to name just a few. We will advertise in new venues outside of our industry.

• Run a weekly program on high-end audio for cable television, PBS, or a program for public radio.

• Demonstrations at concert halls, museums, music schools.

• Regional shows or events at music-educator societies, Mercedes and BMW clubs, jazz or folk festivals.

• Events at fine restaurants. Have a good meal, meet some interesting people. Hear some great sound. (There are people who never go to shows, who don't like crowds. Let's reach them!)

• Create a public relations campaign for our industry as a whole—including articles that we could send to newspapers looking for free content. If we are not blatantly trying to promote certain brands (not the goal), this will work!

• Training programs for salespeople. How to do a good two-channel demo. How to demo both home theater and great music, creating more excitement for both!

The initial response to A5 has been gratifying, and we are just getting started. We need you in at the start. There's strength in numbers. Power, too.

There's something else in numbers: confidence.

The A5 will give members the confidence that we are (finally) taking matters into our own hands and doing something about the vitality and future of our industry.

We need your support and ideas. If not you, who? If not now, when?

Our Best Regards;
Walter Swanbon
Ted Lindblad
Doug Blackwell
Tom Gillett


That open letter was sent eight years ago and, perhaps to no-one's surprise, it had no impact or effect. Many observers feel the situation is even worse in 2013 than it was in 2005, with the high-end audio industry even further alienated from customers younger than the baby-boom generation. But with the resurgence of the LP, especially among young music lovers, the advent of computer- and mobile-based audio that is no longer limited in quality by the unmusical noise of lossy codecs like MP3, and the explosion of headphone-based listening, which allows audiophiles of limited means to buy and enjoy Class A audio components without having to spend more than four figures, I believe the future of high-end audio is brighter than it used to be. You might say that it now has a future!—John Atkinson

otaku's picture

>> one writer enthusiastically extolled the benefits of $600 table place settings on one page, while on another page, amid a survey of headphones, another writer cautioned his readers that though one particular model sounded superb, it was ridiculously priced at $300

I love high-end as much as the next reader, but I have to point out that although I am still using my parents handmade place settings from six decades ago, I would be surprised if my AKG's or Sennheisers or AT's or UE's last till my retirement (the Grado's might).

itsratso's picture

someone below mentioned porsches and mont blanc pens. articles that usually try to defend "what's wrong" with high end audio usually fall back on the same argument: "well people also spend a lot of money on -----". the problem, of course, is the majority of people in the world don't like or want to be someone that spends a ton of money on a pen. or a china set. or a speaker. the majority of people aren't dentists, or lawyers, or portfolio managers. they realize this hobby for what it is - a snobby elitist hobby. luckily, there are also companies out there that do get it. they do give you turntables for under $200. and amplifiers. and speakers. the future isn't ridiculing people that say spending hundreds of dollars on a power cord is silly - they are ridiculing you. the future is embracing quality sound for the average person at a price they can afford.

JoeinNC's picture

I was once roundly criticized by some of the readers here because I took issue with Stereophile's description of a $7,000 amp/dac combination as "affordable." 

BradleyP's picture

I don't have bags of money and I do love great music repsoduced well, so I do get excited about satisfying components that cost only a few hundred bucks.  Remember, though, the reason that there are decent turntables and speakers and amps at those price points--apart from offshore manufacturing--is that much of that technology and design was perfected at a MUCH higher price point and trickled down.  We budget audiophiles need honest high end so we can gather the tasty morsels that fall from its exalted table.  

Right now, I'm streaming a Chesky recording on Spotify through my $350 tubed usb DAC and $200 powered speakers at my desk, and it's sheer hi-fi bliss in a tiny package. Without pioneering efforts from numerous high-end companies, this stuff wouldn't exist. Since the economy fell apart, I don't have time to listen to my now-vintage he-man rig in the other room. Ever.

dadaGuerilla's picture

If you want to capture a younger audience, you have to think like a young person.

To most people, particularly today's 20-somethings, good audio is where you find it. A kid in his first job out of university, who was raised on iMacs and HDTVs and carries an iPhone, audio components, whatever those may be, should follow the same trend computers and consumer electronics have over the past 20 years—less expensive and more competent with each product iteration. Well, that is in fact what has happened. Stereophile writers write about two-channel, ultra-high-end gear in an upper-crust voice that turns a lot of (young) people off. This sort of thing is irrelevant to 20-somethings. You don't write about audio gear meant to interface with Apple iStuff, or demonstrate how to integrate said iStuff with entry-level two-channel audio gear that sounds a lot better than headphones for a couple thousand bucks. Right now you guys are complaining that young people aren't picking up the two-channel banner, but you're tilting at windmills. Young people want cheap, good-sounding gear that works with their consumer electronics, and that's just not Stereophile's mission. Maybe you should just settle for an aging demographic and in 40 years, when we're all in nursing homes or dead and no one has come along to replace us, your successors can just wrap it up? There's no shame in dying a natural death.

I'll keep reading in the meantime, though. I fell in love with audiophile-quality two-channel audio when my dad took me to hear my first set of Magnepans powered by Mark Levinson monoblocks at 16 at the audiophile shop in the city where I grew up. I love actively listening to all kinds of music, and I always have and always will. That's why I am friends with the very bright and kind man who owns the audiophile shop here in Wine Country. He and I share the love of great-sounding music performed cost-effectively. That doesn't mean necessarily cheap—I bought a McIntosh amp, a Vandersteen sub, and Maggie 1.7s from him, all driven by a Mac mini with hi-res audio pumped through Fidelia and then to an entry-level USB DAC, all with very competent wiring. My friend gently steered me toward this system knowing what I could afford to pay with cash, accepted that I was going to drive the system with a Mac and without a CD player or turntable, and cut me some deals here and there. I didn't start out with that gear--I acquired some entry-level NAD and Rotel and Magnepan gear and upgraded to my current configuration, which sounds 95% as good to me as my friend's $100K systems. 

But even though I only earn what is known as "Silicon Valley minimum wage," I'm a rich geezer compared to the kids graduating from university or trade school, who might be willing to part with some disposable income to purchase audio gear if it fits into their notion of what is reasonable. My stepkids attending the university love my McIntosh system, but to them it is completely unreasonable to dedicate a computer, a living room, and $10K to listening and would never consider that. Reasonable to them might be picking up a $500 Zeppelin system from the Apple Store that sat on a bookshelf that works with their iPhones. Stretching it, if these kids could pick up a pair of $500 entry-level B&W floor-standing speakers and a decent $750 media hub that could wirelessly receive music over AirPlay, they might spring for that because it wouldn't take up a ton of space, wouldn't cost a ton more that a Zeppelin, and would sound pretty good to their lady friends. If the McAire cost $1500, McIntosh, Inc., would sell 5x more of them to 20-somethings all day long because the kids would consider that level of quality for the money extra-reasonable--the McAire sounds good, they wouldn't need to max out their first real credit card to get one, it's easy to set up, and best of all it works with iPhones, iPads, and Macs. But at the current price, I'm not sure who is going to buy a McAire. 

My recommendation is to stay the course. You have a captive audience of people hooked on two-channel gear who can afford the good stuff and actually like it when your writers try to sound like Rockefellers. I am not going to be purchasing more gear any time soon unless I become an Internet millionnaire, but it's fun to hear about what other people think is good, which is why I subscribe to your print publication and bother to put some thought into a response to an article that is actually quite narcissistic. Let other people like Steve Guttenberg at CNET talk about what the kids are going to enjoy. Or if you want, start up a magazine focusing on computer audio and entry-level two-channel gear, aimed at 20-somethings. But don't try to force the course of audio gear consumption into what you and I might consider the highest quality or the optimal way to listen to music, because the market has shifted far away from Stereophile-class two-channel gear to sound docks, mono Bluetooth bricks, and smartphones with bass-heavy Beats Audio. Maybe that's bad, maybe that's good, but that's the way it is, and reality deserves respect. Right? wink

rl1856's picture

All of the comparable objects mentioned in the post are examples of consipicuous consumption backed by highly targeted marketing campaigns.  Purchase a Mont Blanc Pen, Patek Phillipe watch, a Rolex watch or a Porsche Cayenne and the world knows you have money because these examples display your bank balance to the world.  Media campaigns have convinced the public that spending ones discretionary income on such objects is "acceptable".  There is also a degree of positive affirmation enjoyed by the is an expensive purchase...I can afford it...I have good taste etc etc.  To an extent Home Theater has been moderately successful in embracing this marketing approach.   After all a 60in flat screen on the wall and confronting every visitor to your home is a highly visible purchase.  It has become acceptable to spend money on a good HT system, because of marketing and because it is a visible purchase, that like the above examples, provides positive affirmation to the buyer.   Another issue is that HT can be enjoyed by a group- family friends etc.  And group friendly expenditures are more easily justified in the family budget.

Contrast the above with 2ch audio.  For the most part it is a solitary activity that can be difficult for a group to enjoy at the same time.  Another issue is that the perception of the hobby is that it is enjoyed by overweight middle aged white men, who have a surprising visual resemblance to pedophiles.  OK the last point was a joke, but serious audio hobbyists are regarded as fringe elements.  For the most part HE audio has not enjoyed the cohesive large scale marketing campaigns that hae been deployed in HT.  In fact, HE missed a great opportunity to become part of the mainstream when HT became a market reality.  HE could have become involved in the establishiment of audio standards for HT and thus become an integral part of the HT movement.  Instead HE stuck it's proverbial head in the ground and hoped it would go away.  HE was very late to adapt to HE and as a result is still a marginal player in the overall market.

On the other hand, digital audio and downloads represents another opportunity for HE to become part of the mainstream.  I like what I have seen so far.  HE has been quick to embrace digital and as a result consumers are slowly becoming aware that there is something better than 16/44 redbook.  I am optimistic regarding the future.

tmsorosk's picture

The watch establishes my bank balance ?

It was a gift , I thought it establishes my wifes good taste . 

jkontol's picture

Should we care if most people does not embrace nor understand our hobby?

PBNAUDIO's picture

I've searcehd for it online but cannot locate it, the message was that highend audio really was a bargian compared to Art, Fancy boats, Fancy dinnners etc, can you plaese put it on line as it  covered this subject very well.


Thank you in advance


Peter Noerbaek

PBN Audio

jkontol's picture

Both my hobbies (woodworking and audio) have similar demographics. Go to any wood show and you'll see mostly men with grey hair (although I'm 42yrs young). The point is these hobbies requires craft, time, and dedication (I build my own speakers).

You don't need time and dedication for yacht, porsche, fancy dinner, retail 'theraphy' and rolex.

Other 'dying' hobbies are stamp collecting, model railroads, etc. Today's generation simply don't have the time for those.

himynameisjuan's picture
PBNAUDIO's picture

That's the one, sums it up very well


Good Listening

Peter Noerbaek

PBN Audio

bernardperu's picture

Active-listening is aging and the passive-listeners are killing great music, which is dead for the most part.

Who cares about hi-fi or Stereophile if active-listening is there no more? Does Stereophile want to be like the Rolling Stones in the past 40 years? What's the point?

The real discussion should be how to revive active-listening. If you really listen, hi-fi will come...back.

Do I want Stereophile reviewing albums with a DR8 or less. Hell no! And I am younger than 38 years old. 

deckeda's picture

Right, forget about the money. People have the money. They spend the money. They spend it on cars, houses, large surround-sound receivers and lots of speakers and big TVs. What they DON'T do is actively listen to just music. Money is a red herring!

Consumer audio isn't more expensive than it used to be decades ago, except for the highest of the high end. Don't stress over the fringe! Normal consumer audio is cheap today.

You don't need to focus on any product category or price range to boost this hobby. You need to invite friends over to listen. Or at the very least make music a central part of your social entertainment. "Oh, they won't be interested ..." Well, ain't that a self-fulfilling prophesy? (Or get new friends.)

bernardperu's picture

Man, it is really SOOOO hard to persuade my friends into coming to my house to stay silent and listen to the music. I have the equivalent to a Porsche parked in my iving room, but noone notices. As I write this, I have friends sitting in my living room. They complain about materialism, politics, etc, but they would rather facebook than enjoy music. Active-listening is just beyond their minds. 

I have tried to expand my number of friends in order to have listening buddies, but there are just very few young active listeners out there.

I love my firends, but when it comes to music, I am a sociopath. 

I will turn my living room into a listening room for the blind. I really mean it. That is the only way I will have audiophile friends. 

Steve Eddy's picture

As long as it keeps producing piles of large, heavy, often ugly crap that's connected with a tangle of wires and cables. The demographic that finds that sort of thing attractive is dying out. Just look at most all of the exhibitor rooms in your typical show report and ask yourself seriously, who would want that kind of mess in their living room?

Can you imagine seeing anything like that in a room gracing the pages of say, Architectural Digest? I certainly can't. 


tarxman82's picture

This sounds like the same crap that comes out of the mouths of people I deal with on a day to day basis. Concerned more about how a tv looks when it's switched off than the picture performance. Last I checked tvs were for delivering an image, and the best one to buy was the one to deliver the best image. So why are the best speakers to buy not the ones that sound the best? 

On another note, if you have any basic understanding of how electricity works, you'll understand why speaker wires like the ones that you find so offensive are necessary. 

Long-time listener's picture

I'm curious. I know younger listeners are going back to LPs, but why? Because they are quaint? Have big covers with nice art work? Or because you can achieve reasonably good sound at a lower price than with CDs?

Someone above said, "...confronting every visitor to your home is a highly *visible* purchase." Yes--all the luxury items mentioned can be made appealing through VISUAL advertising. But hearing is secondary to sight, and it's impossible to convey how good a system or component sounds over TV--when the viewer's TV speakers are inferior.

I myself am in my late 50s. I now listen to music at home mostly over headphones--despite having a good system in both my living room and a more modest but still nice one in the bedroom. An iPod combined with a Fostex HP-P1 and a $50 pair of AKG 518LEs gives me more consistently good sound over a wider range of genres than either system. The living room system comes close, but it cost well over US$6,000, including components and cables. And it took a horrendous, tortorous process to shop, and assemble, and position, and adjust, and tweak it, until it sounded reasonably good, not to mention buying more than one of several of the components until I found the right one. The high end is a royal pain in the butt. And Stereophile promotes it. And you have to have a space isolated enough not to disturb your neighbors. I regret having become so involved in this hobby, and wish I had never spent most of the money I did on the high end. Maybe people are simply achieving some common sense and turning away from all this.

smargo's picture

that is so right on - my experience of listening is so by myself - it took me years of buying and selling equipment to arrive at where i am now

i always say in the back of mind - "that if only i bought that piece instead of that piece"

to me if the high end was a significant upgrade to sound itself - then i would have reason to shout to the world - but the high end - it is so over-rated - and often doen in isolation - unless you meet with a group every two months

if the sound really was incredible and you had to have it - then my friends would have it

i hate to tell you how many times i have played somrthing for fiends and they thought it was good - but nothing earth shattering - that they had to have that equipment too

CJW's picture

I argue that Stereophile must take some responsibility for the lack in popularity of hi-end audio. I am a 30 year old audiophile who has some questions for Stereophile. 

1) I am an audiophile who likes all things audio, why do I have to go to a sepereate website for home theater audio, computer audio, and 2 channel audio?

2) What has Stereophile done to attract women to high-end audio?

3) What has Stereophile done to attracked teenagers to high-end audio?

4) What has Stereophile done to attracked people in there 20's and 30's?

BradleyP's picture

Answers to 2, 3, and 4 are "Stereophile hired Stephen Mejias."  Well, 3 and 4, at least.  ;-)

John Atkinson's picture

CJW wrote:
why do I have to go to a sepereate website for home theater audio, computer audio, and 2 channel audio?

Is that really a problem? There is a link page at the foot of every page for the other websites.

And the answer to your question is that publishing separate websites for each topic maximizes page views, which in turn maximizes advertising revenue, which in turn provides the finance necessary for us to host the sites and to continue offering you all of our content free of charge. If we put it all on one site, we would most likely have to erect a pay-to-view barrier, which I would find abhorrent.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Antips's picture

that there is an analogy between Mont Blanc, Patek Phillipe, Rolex and Porsche; and audiophile products. Both represent apparent taste, discernment, disposable income and social status.

Yet Kessler's non-audio examples publicly demonstrate aspiration, status and wealth. With the exception of recent trends in headphone popularity, we audiophiles share a domestic hobby. The contrast between public and private space is the heart of the problem. Despite the advances of feminism, our culture still imagines the public sphere (where we see Rolexes and Porches in use) a predominantly masculinized space. Our private lounges where audio systems reside occupy, in cultural imagination, feminized domestic space.

The genuine merits of pre/power/floor-standing systems will not cut through. Untapped markets will remain indifferent whilst we remain a domestic activity. The dichotomy is our hobby somehow needs to get out of the lounge and get public.    


truman1's picture

John,  Most of my friends do not own a stereo (and have no interest in owning one)  part is changing lifestyle choices and the other is the declining middle class (and their lack of disposable income).  But I think there is one issue that you did not cover and is part of the reason many potential customers have left Stereophile and audio in  general and it has nothing to do with the cost of equipment.  The issue is the industry's vocal snake oil salesman!  Buy this quantum flux capacitor burl wood acoustic harminizor for $10,000 and it will transform the listening experience.  The worst part is not that these hucksters sells this junk, but it is that the trade magazines enable them with glowing reviews that validate their wild claims.  The public no longer trusts the trade magazine because the collusion obvious to all.  Start telling the truth and calling out industry lies and people might start listening again.

Josh Hill's picture

Not this one, anyway. But I think you do have a point. High-end audio has a reputation as the province of obsessives who spend thousands on speaker cables. Some of that, frankly, is deserved, since as you point out there's a fair amount of snake oil in this business. That does a disservice to the majority of high-end products, which really do deliver great sound, and often for not that much money.

peter_964rs's picture

If I spend $100k on a Porsche, not only am I perceived to have spent the money (and gained kudos and 'signalled' who I am and where I am going in life) there is intrinstic value in a $100k Porsche that is difficult to deny. It does 200mph, makes me feel like a God, and can easily be measured against its peers not only in terms of raw performance, but also in subjective terms (for those who argue over whether Porsche is better than Ferrai, say).


Spending $100k on hifi is much harder to justify:

1. 'Signalling': Harder to 'signal' except only to fellow nerds and only then via posting photos or videos online to show off. The general public don't get it and deliberately showing off is a bit sad. Unless you paint your Porsche pink, maybe.

2. 'Perceived value': Harder to justify the price difference between $100k and $10k spend, especially when music reproduction is primarily an emotional experience for the listener, and $10k systems can be just brilliant. A Porsche is crammed with technology that does stuff like stop it exploding when it reaches top speed. Many $100k hifi products sadly look like they carry very similar tech to their $10k counterparts, except in shinier, heavier boxes adorned with billet aluminimum and blue LEDs. Nothing highlights this better than cables. How can a $1k USB cable (for example) be justified? What is the resale value of something like this? At least you can predict your rate of depreciation with the Porsche.

3. 'Confidence': You really have to be confident you spent your money wisely. Even the mega wealthy will pause before splurging $100k on a high end system. Does it really deliver better music reproduction than the $10k system? Whereas the Porsche clearly outperforms, say, the Golf GTi. Similarly, does the $1k USB cable genuninely deliver better sound, or am I just subject to confirmation bias?

4. 'Choice': There is far too much. Companies like Krell and Naim and Quad have been around for years and their products have some credence and maintained value. But the high end is now littered with extremely expensive, small brands which muddies the water for the consumer. This is not the case with $100k cars - the choice is more limited, supported by fairly unbiased reviews, and therefore easier to make a choice.


Personally, I'm saddened that the high end industry seems to be delivering higher and higher price tags aligned to lifestyle choices like how shiny and bright and heavy the equipment is, and less about the value it offers and the capability it provides. This is what makes it on a race track to doom.

detonnation's picture

Price. Everything is so damn expensive. Sure there are a few budget/moderately priced items, but it is discouraging when there is no depth into a hobby like audio. By depth I mean that Youngins can barely afford the price of entry.

In fact, I have been priced out of this hobby as companies plot their product lines on the high end of high end. I just recieved a Music Direct Catalog... which has an awesome picture of Jerry Garcia on the cover btw! Thumbing through, the prices are astonishing. Am I going to drop 5K on a tube amp or a set of wires. Maybe ;) lol... but probably not.

I would also say that the way albums are recorded are ruining the industry too. Popular music is pumped up to the loudest settings. No dynamics, all loud. Ive tried to listen to some of the recordings and they grate on ones ears. We need to introduce silence back into our music, and not just in audiophile approved content.

Id also suggest that the pricing of high def content is discouraging. I laugh at DSD and DXD prices. What kid will purchase those, I doubt very few.

BradleyP's picture

I got the same Music Direct catalogue and see it filled with plenty of affordable gear.  Yeah, there are tube ambs for $5k and up, but also for $3k on down to $500.  Wharfedale stand mount speakers for $350, a slew of turntables under a grand, and respectable budget DACs grace these pages along with higher end gear, but not any stupid-high gear that I can see.  $250 Audioengine speakers, anyone?  Audioquest Dragon DAC for $200?  Audioquest Evergreen Interconnects for beer money?  Yep, yep, and yep.  DSD and DXD can be converted to analogue for $400, now, thanks to Resonessence, Light Harmonic, and a growing list of others. Shoot, Schiit's Loki does DSD for $179 paired with a regular DAC.  

Perhaps a good approach for Music Direct, Audio Advisor, and other audio catalogues would be to have a whole section up front devoted just to pre-assembled, entry-level systems from $500 to $2500.  Shoot, Music Direct could even throw in a free LP or CD or two as a bonus.  If you can't find a way to spring for that, you're either on really hard times, ignorant of what real hi-fi can do, or quality recorded music's just not your thing.

Stephen Richards's picture

Personally I have never listened to as much music as now, and never with such quality.

I started out with cassette tapes, so  apple has revolutionized my audio life. All the younger people I know, know about great headphones, blueray and 5.1 surround for movies, concert video and video games. 

It's now easy to get great headphones, a great desktop system, great ipod boom box systems, music from all over the world - it really is a golden age.  

At home I have a psb image 5.1 system, and am thinking about a nad d7050 & kef ls50 for the kitchen (where I listen when the tv is in use, and for excellent background music for Sunday brunch). I hope you'll excuse me for not wanting to spend a lot more.

There is a real need for stereophile to talk about putting affordable systems together (although a step up from the entry level columns) much  more regularly, as the internet I has a dearth of such info.  $2000 on speakers that will sound great for 20 years is something a young family will think about. Another $2k on everything else in the system over time is ok too. $20k in one payment - well how many people have that much disposable income?

volvic's picture

Those companies are not in the watch business but in the luxury business and have a long tradition as such.  Some manufacturer comes up with an amplifier that costs 50k is not even in the same category and most people outside of this hobby rightfully scoff at that.  

The industry as a whole has not done itself any favors by pushing and promoting 100k speakers, 100k amps and 100k turntables, as much as I love reading about them it ain't going to win converts pushing these and 20k speaker wires.  A major rethink is in order and older conventions will have to change.  

Oh and BTW! have had a Cayenne in my possession, long term and can say that it is a waste of money and petrol and laugh at people that drive them these days so imagine what the hoi polloi think about our expensive gear.  

jjberry's picture

It has been my experience that young people don't know how much of their music they are missing. I met my wife when we were in college, and of course I didn't have any nice gear for music listening. We listened to music almost exclusively on laptop speakers or cheap headphones. We took a trip to visit a friend of mine who had a system worth about $5000 and we took an evening to just listen to music. My wife was floored by how good it sounded. She had never experienced that sort of thing. We recently went to RMAF and it was like a revelation for her. After we got back from the show, we started to discuss how we could get that kind of sound at home. Unfortunately, price will prevent us from having that level of performance in the near future, but we now both want to work towards that. 

Music_Guy's picture

...convince a new audience that high-end is cool...cooler than Beats headphones, Bose, and iHome sound docks.  Use images of attractive types enjoying  "high-end" communal critical listening/socializing.  Light-heartedly show them that Throw in artists/celebreties they know who enjoy high-end.  Lets see more articles about "Systems of the Rich and Famous"

...convince a new audience that high-end sound is real and better and closer to the music they love.  Everyone (almost) I know who has heard fmiliar music on a mid-to-high-end system was "floored" at the difference.  The challenge is to get them to stand still and hear it.  Articles and commercial about aha moments in listening. them that for around $800, they can set up a their own tube system that will make their iPod sound sweeter than their ear-buds.  Both retro-cool aesthetics and real sound improvement.  (Napa Acoustics...) them that for under a grand, they can enjoy a hot digital system.  (NAD D3020 + Wharfedale speakers) them that, that along with high-end exotics, there are "couple of hundred dollar" tweaks that can add enjoyment to existing systems. (Blue Jeans cables and so on...) them that behind the high-end equipment there are driven, creative humans.

..."Lie" to them that high-end means couple of thousand dollar systems.  Let them find out, only later, that high-end means 5-digits+.

...extoll how fun this gear/music is.  Not how stuffy, elitst and perfectionist it can be.

The high-end universe inhabited by well-heeled practioners is already doing just fine.  "The rich always have money."  The new High-end is simply higher-end.

(notice: 0 comments about $100k components and bunches of comments about the pastime.)

Josh Hill's picture


xsipower's picture

I think the issue is not as simple as price, but is the difficulty of the subjectivity of audio and the personal engineering we need to do to assemble a system that one personal “feels” creates a satisfying auditory experience. When you purchase a Rolex, Porsche a boat, etc. it is pre-packaged as a single performing item which requires no engineering on our part to deliver the “experience”.  You can go quite easily to a dealer and try them out.  With audio we have the daunting task of selecting individual parts based not only on specifications but on subjective listening that we can’t really do because there are so few places to go to listen to the stuff.

We also need to wade through the “snake oil” that almost all manufactures are culpable of in one measure or the other (that’s what their marketing department is being paid to do.).  I won’t blame Stereophile, but we need to realize that almost all trade magazines are simply marketing tools for manufacturers. Yes the reviewers may do their best to be unbiased, but as a package the magazine is used by the manufactures to sell their stuff. We may want to believe it’s not that way but it is. The pictures, the words are all designed to get us to feel “I must have that!”

Yes we can purchase a system that is based on the components objective specifications that are superb for $1000 - $5000. But then there comes the subject specifications that only listening can provide. The subjective part is the BIG thorn in the audiophile field, because it is driven by the effect of the particular room acoustics, the hearing ability of the listener, the mood of the listener, the aesthetics of the room and equipment, lighting, smell, and most importantly the quality of the recording.

Precisely because of these ambiguities and subjectivity it is very easy for audiophile manufactures to make big claims and charge $$$$ for items that no one can definitively say “Yes this is definitely worth this much”. In many ways, I think that this industry places itself closer to the art category than to the equipment category. Art is the epitome of subjectivity and music is the same. I may be wrong, but in my experience creating a desired musical experience from a recording is only 10-20% objective (equipment) and 80-90% subjective.

The reason it's so hard for people to become an audiophile is not so much desire, but the ambiguity of what it takes to make that special musical experience; "How much will it cost?", "What must I purchase?", " Will my room work?" and there are a thousand answers to each of these questions. For the majority with little time and attention span, the ease of a MP3 player wins. Until the Industry and audiophile community provides a means and method to easily create a high quality musical experience at home, like people buying fashion audio ( iPods', headphones, etc.) loud compressed music will prevail.


dalethorn's picture

I remember a time when Gordon Holt and Julian Hirsch actually agreed that high fidelity meant an attempt at accurate reproduction. Consider that the problem may not be habits or age or other such things, it may be a lack of focus. Today I hear things like "We all hear differently", but pretty much never hear or read about anyone demanding High Fidelity in their system, just "good, better, and best". Might as well be Radio Shack.

Now as to the Rolex, Porsche etc. thing: I already had 75 or so audio reviews on youtube with 500,000 or so views, most of them showing my wrist wearing an $8000 and very large U-Boat watch, and no complaints whatsoever. But when I reviewed a dozen small Louis Vuitton items that were worth collectively less than $5500, I got many hostile and very angry comments about flaunting my wealth (that I lack, unfortunately).

Why did my 94 percent male viewers accept the $8000 watch (which I also had reviewed) and be so angry about Louis Vuitton? Because they associated LV with women. Perhaps someone could look into the various audio sites (not Stereophile BTW) and see how they create a hostile environment for women.

I remember clearly, many years ago, reading a review of the Koss ESP-9: "Machine-gun-like precision of transients, flat as water on a plate" etc. etc. But opening the review were the words "For people who love Rolex watches, Porsche Cars, and Leica cameras, here is the ESP-9......" -- and I bought the Rolex Presidente in 18k solid gold, bought several Real Leicas, but not the Porsche car. Couldn't afford the insurance and maintenance.

But, that ad for the ESP-9 worked, and I consider it perfectly valid today. Greed is good, if you listen to the entire speech and not just the sound bites. So how about agreeing on one or more focus points (high fidelity?) and keep repeating them ad nauseam (as one infamous person was quoted to say) until it sticks? Then we can all get back to loving what we do, and have our justification too!

BTW, besides just occasionally reviewing some low-cost hardware, one thing this industry could do to gain some good PR is promote venues that get low-cost hi-fi gear into the hands of people who otherwise couldn't afford it. Too often the contests and giveaways just go to people who don't need the stuff. Goodwill and other agencies might not have the sensitivity to distribute hi-fi gear properly to those in need, but someone might, and they would be great for word-of-mouth PR.

medwardo's picture

In my experience, all I have to do is to get someone (well most people) to just sit down and listen to my system and they can hear that it is better than their mp3s. Now, whether they'd want to spend as much as I have is a different story, but they don't have to spend that much to get great sound.

In fact, what got me hooked on audio was hearing a friend's dad's system and I realized what was possible...and I wanted some of that. So began a lifelong quest....

So, as much as I can, I have music on when I have company. Some say that it sounds great and want to sit down to listen, some come back another time to really listen...others are indifferent, as expected. Some ask what it costs, but I won't say...just like I won't tell them what my car or house costs.

While there are always those who want and can pay for the best audio gear, they are not the majority. I enjoy the mag's aspirational equipment, but that needs to be balanced out with more affordable gear. Stereophile is moving in that direction, happily, but I think we need a lot more of that.

I would love to see the mags recommend a *system* at different price points so that the task of system building would not seem so arcane. (This is what great audio shops can do.) I've seen several authors write about their inexpensive systems that are musically satisfying...we need more of that. Maybe add systems to the recommended components and editor's choice features.

Finally at my age,  I don't care what others think about how I spend my hard-earned money, whether the item is an audio system or an expensive watch or a luxury SUV. Life is too short to buy and do things so that others will approve.


Josh Hill's picture

There will always be demand for good audio, but every time I leaf through a copy of stereophile I feel like I'm in a time warp to the 80's. Kids just don't sit down to listen to the "stereo" anymore -- they listen on their smartphones. People still do sit down to watch movies and TV, and may listen while using their computers and tablets.

A. All of this stuff is digital and increasingly served off the cloud

B. It is not part of a dedicated audio-only system; increasingly, it isn't even just A/V like home theater

And this is what kids are into, for good reason.

If high end audio is to survive, it will have to adapt to the way people live today rather than trying to attract a new crop of young people to Grandpa's LP's or Dad's CD's and the two-channel audio-only systems that play them. There are of course crossover products, e.g., high-end headphones and earbuds, but with high end stores, publications, and manufacturers so relentlessly focused on their traditional market, the word doesn't always get out.

HP described walking past a high end store and not seeing a single pair of headphones in the window. Where was the display that would appeal to youth? To the extent that it remains incestuous, the industry will fade away with us . . .

tarxman82's picture

Hi all,


I'm not sure if it is the same in the US as in Australia, but a lot of higher end product limits its distribution to very high end dealers, but truth be told, there is not enough brand awareness for those stores in the marketplace, at least not over here. I work for a retail chain over here called Harvey Norman who, in my opinion are a little caught in limbo. They have an upmarket look about them, shirt and tie, but when it comes to audio product, they have moved more and more towards the low cost, high turnover market. Having said that, we don't really have access to any real high end gear anyway. Another part of the problem is a lack of interest in the product from sales staff. I'm the only one in my store that's truly passionate about audio, so that helps, but if a potential customer stumbles upon a salesperson who is completely unenthused about what they are selling, then their excitement will drop also.


I guess the point I'm trying to make is, when younger people go out to look at a hifi or a home theatre, they first and foremost go into a store not unlike ours and see these low cost systems, from that point, it's nearly impossible to convince them to part with up to 10 times that amount. I myself am only 31, and have only just invested in my first real hifi system, to the disdain of my girlfriend, who couldn't understand my need to part with thousands of dollars to listen to music, but fortunately for me my father was very invested in his hifi from a young age and has passed it on through to me. I know I'll be doing my part to try and educate any kids I have on what it means to have great quality sound, but I think the best way to keep the higher end market alive is through education.

Glotz's picture

by everyone in here.  Seriously happy from all of the dissertation. 

Education and marketing are so critical. 

Did someone call Henry Rollins yet? 

Headphones, small DACs, vinyl and a computer/mobile focus... exposure and focus will bring people with loot to spend.  

The Hive mentality seems to have made it okay to want to do 5 things at once, and want to broadcast the insipid silliness over the internet.  

Everyone enjoys music, but devaluing it while doing other things is a reality for many.

Taking pictures (or a video) at a concert with a mobile device is a great identifier of the lack of their involvement level to the moment of music. It seems to be under the need to communicate the idea of it, as a pride of living and privilege of being there. 

As long as they love talking about something, it would be a win-win if people acquired more music, became even closer to it, and still love their gear like audiophiles or music junkies like we are. 

They're really becoming more like us than they think.  

returnstackerror's picture

I have stated this before whenever this question comes up and its about two things.

The first, as  many have stated, is the lifestyle of the young.

But as equally as important is the lifestyle requirements they have verses income.

As high end tends to be a male fetish, when we grumpy old men were young, we could spend our money on beer, girls, cars, stereos.

A young male today has the first three plus all the other lifestyle requirements such as a smart phone, ipad or similar tablet, expensive designer head phones, big screen TV,  game console, home theater, car stereo etc. Add the cost of all of these and you probably will hit $3k to $5k.

So where as our "gadget" budget when we were young was spent basically on a single item (a stereo), today the budget must be split many ways... so any music playback investment will now take a back seat to other items.



low2midhifi's picture

The low end and high end of audio have predictable, and probably stable, paths toward continued patronage and sales of gear to 2-channel audio enthusiasts.

There is unquestionably fine gear at the high end of the spectrum; there will continue to be individuals with the resources to buy this product from innovative and visionary companies.  There perhaps has never been such fine equipment available at the lower end of the price spectrum.  Publications are full of favorable to raving reviews on affordable equipment (less than $1,000 per speaker pair or component).

The real challenge for the industry, and where there is much opacity and few clear answers, is for the wage-constrained consumer of today who wants to move beyond entry-level gear, but is not getting the answers that he/she seeks from the industry.  For example, I thought of moving from $700 per pair speakers (highly rated speakers by the industry) to a $3000 pair of speakers.  Maybe I had a bad presentation, maybe I do not know what I wanted or needed, the possibilities go on what information I did not have, and what ultimately led me to keep my $3000 in my pocket.  How was I to know, that a good part of my $3000 was to be absorbed in transportation or labor inefficiency.  These are the answers that the audio industry will have to start answering.

Clearing up these types of “maybes,” or perhaps telling the consumer that a better, more cost-effective path to upgrading is the job of the industry.  Sure, the consumer should be critical and informed; it’s the industry’s (and its retailers’ and publications’) job to elucidate to the consumer what the best path for ever-more costly upgrades (and staying in the audio game) actually is.  The customer needs help here; he/she is not getting it from the industry if my experience is any sort of guide.

I purchase new but modest vehicles.  If I want to buy a better vehicle, there are fact-based, more quantitatively oriented, publications that give me a very clear understanding of what I get for my additional outlay for a car.  I can buy a Consumer Reports report for a car purchase.  This report will tell me what I should pay for a car.  The report will tell me what the dealer is paying for the car.  The outlays, costs, and profits are all there for me to see. There are numerous publications telling me the quantifiable performance of a vehicle, and the cost of ownership.  The audio industry falls short of this standard of informing its consumer base of such facts to the extent that the auto-industry and its publications can convey.  Sadly for the audio industry, this is the standard to which many shrewd and disappointed customers are holding it to today.

I do not waste retailers’ time—and I live in large city, which still has many independent audio retailers—with auditions for audition’s sake.  However, during any brief time when I do ask for a sampling of a component or speaker set, and when they have their best opportunity to give me facts and figures to support the purchase, or a more comprehensive basis under which an upgrade could be optimized, they do not make the case.  Product seminars, major expositions, and many publications:  all leave the audio consumer with more questions than answers.  This will be the key to the industry’s survival; it is the information that customers are demanding more each day from a variety of transactions, including from essential services like the health care industry.

The well heeled can and will upgrade their gear.  Some people are satisfied with entry-level gear (or are staying with it absent a compelling case as to why they should upgrade).  The critical pivot point for the industry, and where it is not doing a good job, is how to engage the would-be audio upgrader with a compelling case to make the outlay for a better sonic experience.  For it is in this middle-tier of audio—not entry level or the high-end—where the most devoted future customer of audio, the current customer, is to be had or lost.

Glotz's picture

The middle-ground is really where the focus should be.

I do know of one retailer that allows for upgrades to a better model in a year, and I remember another that is long gone in the marketplace.  

There are better value middle-ground turntables, as well as phono preamps, and dacs.  

I do think there are other categories, but I think there are a dearth of affordable preamps and power amps in the entry to middle level market of all sectors in audio.

The integrated landscape has changed for the better quite a bit in recent years, but it does seem that the entry point for middle-ground high end is at least $2500 in terms of investment level, and because there are so many additional features added to the integrated landscape, value can be hard to track while looking at overall sound quality.  

Generally sound is vastly improved over the entry level, but it does take an exponentially higher investment overall at those pricepoints if yet there are time where I've heard the similar sound for $1000, while somewhat rarely.   

Take a look at Croft.  Almost $2000 for integrated, with spacious, over-achieving tube sound, but very limited in overall features, and with some hairshirt ergonomics as well. 

But outside of a few stalwarts deal in separates like AVA, CJ, Croft, and a some others, it seems the industry is less focused on this area of the more traditional entry-level high-end market ($1000-2500) where systematic upgrades allowed you to control your own path to better sound. 

I don't mean to invalidate the traditional alternative high-end entry-level that SM reports on, as that has been around for 30 years with some success.  But it really is that $1000 or more of investment that brings you to the next level to the middle-ground high-end with a little system and cable matching. 

wgb113's picture

High end audio is dead!  Rock is dead!  The long playing album is dead!  Buying music is dead!

All of the above are alive and well, things are just changing.  Someone touched on the inability to publicly show off their audio gear.  Just tune to ESPN for a couple of hours on a Sunday and count how many pairs of Beats or similar flashy, expensive cans you see.  

Headphones are the new budget bookshelf speaker.  Where I bought a pair of NHT SuperOnes my little cousin's eyeing up some Sennheiser Momentums.  The exploding high-end headphone market started out as a status statement and many noticed the improved sound as a byproduct.  

A good portion of those grow interested in DACs and headphone amps (two other exploding segments)  where I bought a trusty old NAD C320 integrated.

Some move into computer audio and active speakers.  As much as we bag on Beats for their bass-heavy cans and Apple for their lossy files, the future of both companies points to hi-Rez.  Beats is pushing for 24/96 as the new standard and Apple started requesting masters in that resolution from all of the major labels almost two years ago.

YouTube's the new Napster and Spotify's replacing the FM tuner in your Porsche.  Things are changing but the future's brighter than ever for high quality audio.

Cheer up peeps!

GeneZ's picture

When we were growing up music with melody and tone was the norm. Even rock had melody with a powerful rhythm.  That demanded audio equipment capable of producing beauty of sound,  even if it were classic rock and roll starting with the British Invasion on back. 

Much of today's music fed to the younger generation is music without melody.  Its become a form of organized noise.  No need for great audio. 

There is some great music being produced today in jazz, especially some of the European jazz concerts to be found on YouTube, like concerts from Jazz Baltica.  But its not appreciated by the younger generation who have been conditioned to feed at the trough of conveyor belt music that has become an industry's formula.

I may be getting older. I know..  But now I am now able to see the exuberance and joy of music that preceded my days that I did not pay attention to. Even in styles that used to be not my first preference, Music that I did not appreciate when I was younger.  Try as I may, I can not find exuberance and joy being expressed in what's being produced today.  So, why seek hi-fidelity when its a generation of infidelity... They seek to be moved by effects, not music.  I am sure there are some great artists today... but even the artists that I did not like all shared in a feel for the music that has disappeared from recorded music.  So,  why seek hi-fidelity?

Gretschguy's picture

When I saw the picture of the Cayenne I thought, wow, Stereophile is going to do an interesting and useful article about how high-end audio is making its way into high-end cars and how this relationship will continue to benefit both worlds and revive high-end audio the way my Cayenne revived my love for high-end audio -- they must have seen the recent Burmester / Mercedes announcement and they are of'course knowledgeable that the Porsche Cayenne has a Burmester option that is state of the art...   They must know that...  They must....  

 You see, I actually bought my Porsche Cayenne for its hi-end stereo system!   So I found the references to the Cayenne as rather ironic given that it was the best choice in my opinion for a person who wanted incredible audio, quiet cabin and a great safe vehicle.

The Burmester stereo upgrade in the Cayenne is simply phenomenal IMHO -- in fact it is unique in that it actually has ribbon (AMT) speakers.  The sound is remarkable -- external noise is minimal.  My Cayenne purchase inspired me to dive deeper the audiophile world, particularly embracing me with Pure Vinyl and my vinyl collection such that I could digitize my vinyl at high resolution (24 bit , 48 kHz is what the car can play via USB).    The USB input accepts high resolution wave files and I can attest for remarkable sound from my LPs, I also do some high res downloads but I prefer the sound of vinyl.   I use a studio grade ADC called the Burl Bomber B2.   Suffice to say that I've had an incredible amount of joy testing, comparing, and finding the right combination of equipment (lyra, manley, sonic frontiers, pure vinyl, etc..) and have access now to 300+ LPs at high resolution at my fingertips becasue the Cayenne is unique in its ability to accept an external USB powered SSD drive.   I use a 480 GB  SSD drive made by Oyen Digital -- I'm eagerly awaiting their upcoming 960 GB SSD USB-powered drive.   This is fun stuff and somewhat unique to the Cayenne.  

I think I actually re-subscribed to Stereophile after buying the Cayenne and I've really enjoyed it but I've been baffled by this disconnect since so many audiophiles must spend a good amount of their time in their vehicles. 

So other than pointing out this great irony -- or great irony in my opinion with regard to the photo -- my point is that I have found it frustrating that Stereophile seems to be completely missing this relationship between high-end autos and hi-fi.  With Mercedes announcing a partnership with Burmester there could be some really good synergy going forward to a larger base of car owners who have an option to really hear hi-fi and this may lead them to hi-fi in the home or mobile hi-fi the way it has increased my overall audiophile hobby.

The Mercedes S-Class offers the Burmester now and I confirmed at a dealership that it will play 24/96 wave files and I would expect within the next couple years this remarkable system will be available in the more affordable E-Class and other cars.

That trend / link seems lost on Stereophile for some reason -- I just don't know why.  

I can attest for the fact that this new hi-fi car world needs help from audiophiles and publications like Stereophile to push formats like DSD and lossless PCM formats like FLAC and ALAC into the cars -- wouldn't it be great for those DSD downloads or vinyl rips or downloads to be playable on mobile devices and within cars?

Having access within cars for DSD, DXD, and other hi resolution formats can help trigger more interest in other hi-fi areas the way it has for me.

Certainly I understand that I'm lucky to afford both the car and the audio equipment to enjoy the Burmester to the max -- but I've been an audiophile for long time and I spend my fair share of time in a mini-van hauling kids around and I tinker like crazy to determine the best way to play back my LPs in the good old minivan (iPod, USB stick, etc..).    That world has a long way to go but could converge with high resolution / hi-fi as well.   Why not be able to play those DSD or hi-res lossless PCM files someday in a minivan?

In my opinion one way to help revive the hi-fi world is to embrace the auto relationship to hi-fi -- not just for the high-end cars although that seems like a great place to start.   More people will buy high res downloads if they can easily play them in their vehicles from a USB stick and not have to mess around with converting them to MP3 of an old format like wav that doesn't support meta-data and cover art effectively.

Anyway, the picture really had me fooled... I thought Stereophile was on to something interesting...





blueingreen48's picture

The picture of the Porsche at the head of this article explains a lot about the problems of high-end audio and of the way some of those problems play out in publications like Stereophile. A 911 GT3, optioned the way I'd want it, costs 135K. Add 90k for a Tesla as a daily driver and we're at 225k worth of the most advanced automobiles ever built.

I can also spend155k on a Soluution monoblock/preamp combo, another 60k on Magico Q5's and 105k on a dCS Vivaldi source. At this point I'm at 320k but wait! I don't have any cables, racks, power conditioning, vibration control or room treatment. What Stereophile will tell me is that all of these things are necessary to get the most out of the 325k I've already spent so I'm far from done.

Assuming for the sake of argument that I want great music in my home but not a "hobby" that consists of constantly auditioning, buying and selling components, and tweaking my (main) system; assuming I want to drive my cars instead and just listen to music; assuming I haven't spent 20-40 years making a living listening to and reviewing high end gear and thus training my ears to hear differences no laymen will ever hear, I'm likely to conclude that the value for money equation vis a vis high-end stereo and high-end automobiles makes no sense whatsoever.

What should I do? Even though I've read Magico uses Odyssey amps in their factory, I know Stereophile will never test the Q5's with amplification at that low a price point. Even though I assume that if Soluution or Pass Labs electronics are worth every penny, I know that Stereophile is never going to admit that these two giants might be able to supply adequate power cords with their products. Even if I conclude that ancillaries like interconnects, power cords, speaker wire, power treatment etc should not exceed the cost of the Q5's, I am likely never to see the Q5's reviewed with stuff that balances those costs in a way that suggests that speakers are more important than cables. I'm going to conclude instead that not every costly component can possibly be so critical that without them I may as well not buy the Q5's. Instead I'll put together a system with Q5's as the most costly component in it and take my chances that the music will be thrilling. But I will do that with no help from Stereophile. So it needs to be asked; how many of your readers who get their pleasure from listening to music, but not from the "hobby" of collecting high end equipment, take you seriously when you can't put a high-end system together that makes both musical and economic sense? And if they don't take you (or TAS) seriously, then where does the high-end find credible advocates?       

bernardperu's picture

I respect Stereophile's ethics. Having said this, you make a lot of sense. Blind tests for cables and all kinds of accesories are feasible, but they take a lot of work, time and some money.

It is hard to trust reviews that do not use an assistant to change equipment around while the reviewer remains blind.

Orgillian1's picture

While some would say that the integration of higher quality equipment into home theater systems is and has been the next phase of consumer acceptance of our much maligned hobby, I would submit that the integration of higher end/quality components with smart phones and tablet computers would gain a larger number of potential users than the current model. There are young people out there who can hear the difference between bad and good speakers and between mp3s and wavs. Apple stores do offer a slightly higher over priced option for computer speakers for example, and they do actually sell them.

Secondly, once the average price of a new car exceeded the reach of most consumers, even with increasingly longer loan repayment periods, the saving grace for the industry was leasing. While I realize that there is a far greater demand for used cars than for used stereo equipment, there are financial models where the numbers for this work, and the increased availability of reduced price good used equipment for sale would help bring customers into the store if properly marketed.

peter_964rs's picture

I can try and be more succinct than I was earlier.

When telling friends why I have a music system and no TV in my living room, I always cite the truism that 'music touches your heart'. It can be an emotionally stirring experience.

The passion for hifi therefore comes in deriving a closer emotional connection to the music.

Sadly, for many whose passions are stirred by the weight, shininess and illumination of the equipment they own (or the pride of ownership that comes from having something few others can afford) I feel they have missed the point. The equipment is not the purpose of high end hifi; it's the music it produces.

For example, I have an iPhone and even with the supplied earbuds, I've really enjoyed the commute from work in the company of a bit of Diana Krall or whoever. My day is somehow all the better for the music in my head. The fact that I didn't spend $$$ on the kit is incidental.

This is why yoof today are buying iPods and not Krell. Very few people 'get' the potential increase in musical enjoyment from that extra spend; an order of magnitude more (but still very few) get the pride of ownership element. The latter is why high end kit is shiny, bright, heavy and outre, and littered with niche brands.

Personally I think high-end is not doomed, but it will expand, collapse, and be left with very few brands that offer good perceived value and some credence to their products and product history. Companies like Naim, Quad and Krell (to name very few).

abhimawa's picture

Dear John,

I like your optimism about HE audio, especially when you consider the resurgence of the LP amongst young music lovers.

However, from my point of view, the resurgence of LP is due to LP being considered "cool", "unique". Young people like being "different", in a positive way. Well, not only young people, but ALL of us.

Owning a Cayenne is considered cool. So is having a Patek wrapped around your arm (to certain age). They are also easy to spot, easy to be admired. Does HE audio have this "x" factor? Perhaps, but not as easy as the two products above.

Factor no.2: along the journey to become an aficionado, one will find some snobs around. If you like automobiles, you don't have to start high. An old Camaro, an Alfa Spider Duetto, a BMW 2002 will do. Even a Mitsubishi Mirage can be transformed to become cool. As for watch, someone can own a Tag Heuer first, before creeping her/his way to own a Lange Datograph, or an FP Journe. In HE audio (well, perhaps I'm unlucky), I find that too many tin-eared so-called audiophiles with unlimited budget dissed the newcomers so early. The difference between these watch or automobile hobby to HE audio is: we can discuss the performance with little interest in price, while the latter, the price seems to matter the most. 

Factor no.3: Portability / ease-of-use. you can admire your 911 convertible or your Patek easily (well, youngster likes Officine Panerai better, though). Carrying a pair of WA around is impractical, not to mention the rest of the system and the room. Telling story about how good they sound is not very appealing. 

Factor no.4: the opposite sex factor.

Factor no.5: rank of importance. A Ferrari determines your status, so is your house, your watch, what you drink, your clothes. But to these people, a Bose soundwave is enough because it sounds 'okay' to the listeners. Let's educate them, and don't diss their Bose systems easily, and the rank of good audio system will be cranked up

Factor no.6: the crook story. This is a perfect example: Too much snake oil marketing that is unexplainable, and yet they (the manufacturers) overconfidently think their products can be easily targeted to some fools. Sort of the emperor's new clothes tragedy. Maybe a reviewer can get the item at 50% discounted price, but not the civilian. I'd rather get me a new Jaeger LeCoultre Master UltraThin, in which I know it was created GENUINELY by the watchmakers from Le Sentier than an overpriced pieces transformed by the Emperor's new clothes tricks in HE audio business.

The truth is: people perceived that a $100k car has more value than $50k power amp. Still.


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