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 didclean, 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.
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 PSBsthey're just so much better and more beautiful.
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 necessitiesthe only computer speakers we had in the apartmentthey'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 musica 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 surviveand I can't imagine why it wouldn'tit 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.