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 guiltthat 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 togethermanufacturers, distributors, reps, retailers, reviewerswe 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 wholeincluding 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;
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