The Entry Level #32

Even before I'd really listened to PSB's Alpha PS1 powered desktop speakers (see last month's column), I suspected that I'd like them: They're affordable, attractive, small enough to actually fit on my desktop, and designed and manufactured by a true high-end audio company. Besides all that, the PS1s had been highly recommended by a friend, AudioStream.com's Michael Lavorgna. I only needed the speakers to sound good in my home. And they did—clean, clear, detailed, and dynamic, with a surprisingly big and bold overall sound. What I didn't expect, and what consequently convinced me to buy the PS1s, was that Ms. Little would also enjoy using them. That she does remains a bit of a shock.

In the six months we've lived together, the woman hasn't touched the hi-fi. At least, not intentionally. Especially not willingly. Unwillingly? Eh, maybe a little more often than she'd like. Unintentionally? Um, yeah, totally more often than I'd like. She exhibits an uncanny knack for merging the blunt handle of a vacuum cleaner with the side panel of a loudspeaker, yet panics whenever I ask her to flip a record on the Rega or put a CD in the NAD.

"Me? Now?"

I'm working on that. In the meantime, I've stripped her of all vacuuming duties. "Why? Because I like vacuuming, sweetheart. It's my favorite chore."

In the company of the PSB Alpha PS1s, though, Ms. Little feels both comfortable and capable. On several occasions, I've come home to find her bouncing and shaking to Katy Perry or Kylie Minogue, the speakers connected to her MacBook via AudioQuest Evergreen cable. But why? Why is Ms. Little so inclined to use the PS1s, but so uninterested in the bigger, more accomplished hi-fi?

I guess she appreciates the simplicity and convenience of the desktop system. Her favorite music is already stored on her computer. All she has to do is connect the computer to the speakers, open iTunes, and press Play. There's no learning curve, no intimidation factor. Because she's played music from her laptop for years, she already understands the relationship between the computer and the computer speakers. The PSB Alpha PS1s may be cosmetically different from any other computer speakers she's used, but they're conceptually identical to even the most modest, most common designs. Compared to Ms. Little's cheap, plastic computer speakers, there's nothing really unusual about the PSBs—they're just so much better and more beautiful.

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Ms. Little loves our PSBs, but she's nevertheless held on to her old speakers. She stuffed them in her purse, took them with her to work, and now uses them in her office, where appearance and sound matter far less. Once necessities—the only computer speakers we had in the apartment—they've become purely practical. They sizzle and ting and make other annoying computer sounds, alerting Ms. Little to incoming e-mails and upcoming meetings. I'm glad the plastic noisemakers are out of our home.

Now I just have to get Ms. Little to become friendly with the hi-fi. And I think I know how. Give me a few months . . .

I heart the Internet
Last month, I mentioned that Natalie had been having some trouble streaming Pandora from her iPhone through her Audioengine A5 powered speakers. This, by the way, is how most young people listen to music: A recent survey by the retail analyst firm NPD Group showed that, in the fourth quarter of 2012, 23% of consumers between the ages of 13 and 35 cited Pandora and other subscription-based Internet-radio services as their primary sources for music—a 6% increase over last year. While traditional AM/FM radio still occupies most of our music-listening time, its 24% market share represents a 2% decline from the previous year. Of those people who primarily use streaming services, Pandora remains the strong favorite, with 39% of the market share. Coming in a distant second is iHeartRadio, a service completely new to me, with 11% of the share. Spotify holds just 9%. And if you still can't believe that people are actually playing music through their telephones, consider that more than half of Pandora and iHeartRadio subscribers do just that. Ask Natalie.

In addition, NPD Group reports that about one in five Pandora or iHeartRadio users also currently connect to those services in their cars. (I've seen Nat work that strange magic, too.)

The IFPI Digital Music Report 2013, recently released by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, quotes Edgar Berger, president and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment: "Music is the media that is most fun to consume on the new generation of digital devices. What is a smartphone without music? You take away half the fun." His words may be self-serving, but for most people they're also true. Max Hole, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International, is also quoted in the IFPI report: "Music is the most searched-for art form on the internet." Is that true? It certainly is for me. I visit the Forced Exposure, Other Music, and Boomkat websites at least 500 times a day. Don't you?

Do you still consider music streaming a fad? On Wednesday, May 15, Google, aka God, announced its own music-subscription service, All Access. The company has already secured licensing agreements with Universal, Sony, and Warner. And remember: Among teens, Google's YouTube is the No.1 source for new music. According to Nielsen's Music 360 report, (August 2012; ) 64% of teens listen to music via YouTube. That's a staggering figure. As CNET's Paul Sloan surmises, "If YouTube gets the rights to offer a powerful free streaming service on smartphones, it could be a game-changer for music streaming."

Sloan is right. Meanwhile, the IFPI report provides further indications of a music industry on the mend: In 2012, the industry's global trade value increased by 0.3%—a small figure, but the best result since 1998 (!), and "a sign that the improvement in market conditions seen in 2011 has been sustained." Further, as the music industry recovers, peer-to-peer file sharing continues to plummet: In 2012, the volume of music files downloaded from P2P sites dropped by 26%, while the number of files swapped via hard drives decreased by 25%.

Before we get too excited, it's fair to note that Techdirt.com's Mike Masnick, an expert tech analyst and a far smarter dude than I, questions the legitimacy and relevance of IFPI's findings. According to him, the music industry's growth has less to do with its antipiracy efforts than with its long-overdue decision to get with the times: "If you let the tech industry create useful new services that better provide the public with what they want, you get services and products that people are willing to pay for."

How's that for smart?

Masnick's view isn't exactly at odds with the IFPI's. He simply sees different reasons for the music industry's recent success. Frances Moore, CEO of IFPI, has a different angle: "These are hard-won successes for an industry that has innovated, battled, and transformed itself over a decade. They show the music industry has adapted to the internet world, learned how to meet the needs of consumers, and monetized the digital marketplace."

In any case, the point is clear: The music industry benefits when it gives people what they want.

Where does the high-end audio industry stand in this? As I see it, a successful music industry means greater potential for growth in the hi-fi industry. If the high-end audio industry really wants to survive—and I can't imagine why it wouldn't—it simply needs to create products that people want to buy. Adapt to the Internet world. Learn how to meet the needs of consumers. Get money. In other words, follow the music. Go where the people go.

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Comments
sfrancey's picture
two thoughts

I really like your column, and that you write about things that average people can actually afford.  That said, I have two thoughts about this: 

1.  This quote:

 " It's important because it provides people—audiophiles, but also real people, normal people, even women and teens—an easy way to make their music sound better. It gives us what we want."

 Really? I can understand singling out teens, but women? WTF, Stephen. As if women don't have the capability of understanding the fancy, complicated hi-fi equipment.  Oh, no, leave that for the men-folk.  Women's brains are just not sophisticated enough </sarcasm>.  Way to turn any female readers you do have completely off.  

2. I don't know your girlfriend, and I'm hoping that she has many stellar personal qualities, but the way you write about her, makes her seem like nothing more than a dunce with a pair of ass and tits. She probably does not appreciate being made to seem like a moron on the Internet. 

JohnnyR's picture
I Stopped Reading Mejias

He always likes to wander off topic and bring up the "women in his life" (Or his fantasy life that is) and the content of his postings is 70% "Who Cares About Mejias Personl Life" Vs 30% of the actual on topic subject matter.

Stephen Mejias's picture
re: two thoughts (Attn: sfrancey)

1. Unlike some people, I don't need editorial brackets or other signposts to alert me to sarcasm. In this case, I wasn't being patronizing or sarcastic. I was making a valid point. The point is not that women can't understand technology—they can—but that more often they don't want to. In fact, I would say (and I did say) that most people, in general, don't want to. And too often a product's technological complexity keeps most people from appreciating the product at all. Fortunately, that's not the case with the AudioQuest DragonFly.

2. That's right. You don't know my girlfriend.

<sarcasm> Thanks for reading Stereophile. </sarcasm>

sfrancey's picture
I don't think the best way to

I don't think the best way to respond to that was make more sexist generalizations about women. I am saying this as a woman who, up until this point, legitimately really liked your column. In fact, it was my favorite one in that you wrote about equipment and music relevant to me, since I am in my 20's. 

I apologize for the comment about your girlfriend. It was uncalled for. I just know that I would hate to be written about that way. 

If stereophile wants to gain readership that is young, possibly female, and new to hifi, I think there are ways to do that without singling them out and insulting their intelligence. I used to think that if stereophile were going to expand its audience, you would be the one to do it. Given the way you've reacted to criticism about the way you write about women, I now doubt that. 

Stephen Mejias's picture
sexist?

I don't consider one sex ultimately superior to the other. I do think we have some general differences. There are always exceptions, of course.

I apologize for the comment about your girlfriend. It was uncalled for. I just know that I would hate to be written about that way.

I accept your apology. Thank you. And I'm sorry I've insulted you, but it was never my intention to insult anyone based on their gender.

I'll continue to be sensitive to these issues, but I'll never want to be so sensitive that I sacrifice being myself or avoid making a valid point.

JohnnyR's picture
He's Being Himself

Mejias is just being himself so THAT should tell you what he thinks of women. You are correct in being offended but he just doesn't get it does he?  Not getting it sems to be a common problem with Stereophile writers and reviewers.

Toptip's picture
The complete dismissal of...

 "...real people, normal people, even women and teens" can only mean one of two things: Miss Little is either a man or a child.

swillyums's picture
Perhaps a little unfair.

Although including women in a list of people who you wouldn't expect to be interested in or knowledgeable about hifi may be slightly prejudiced, it's not altogether inaccurate. It's rare for teens and women to have much of an interest in quality audio, or use anything other than the stock apple earbuds, in the same way it's unlikely for older people or the average man to be near as knowledgeable about fashion and trends. However, the former category will certainly find joy in hearing high quality audio in the same way the latter will take pleasure in looking good.

 

Sometimes the key is having someone from the 'in' crowd introducing an outsider to the culture in order to spark their interest. Also, it's less of a gender thing, and more of a culture thing... but let's not get into it; time and place and all that.

dalethorn's picture
Stephen

Stephen knows demographics. That's the science of actually knowing the numbers, as opposed to knowing one's feelings, prejudices etc. Or even "What should be", but never is. Anyway, my youtube review channel has been cooking along with headphone and headphone DAC/amp accessories for nearly 2 years, and up until 2 or 3 months ago when I added camera reviews, the male readers/viewers represented a rock-steady 94 percent of the total. After cameras were added, it dropped to about 90 percent or slightly less. And the audio numbers, i.e. 94 to 6, aren't an anomaly - I participate in  dozen or more headphone sites on a regular basis, and that's the way it is.

Unfortunately for prejudices and what feeds them, the shyness in numbers seems to be roughly proportional to the erstwhile audiophiles' shyness in digging into the technical details of audio, or any of the DIY projects that audiophiles often get involved in.

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