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

Postscript

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

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COMMENTS
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.

...show 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...)

...show them that for under a grand, they can enjoy a hot digital system.  (NAD D3020 + Wharfedale speakers)

...show 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...)

...show 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

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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.

xsipower

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.

 

Peter

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: http://www.audioholics.com/av-preamp-processor-reviews/simaudio-moon-cp-.... 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.

Nellomilanese's picture

...and it worked LOL Look how many comments!

Feels like dpreview.com in here all of the sudden :D

Alex_Halberstadt's picture

This lamenatation surfaces from time to time, but these days seemingly with more cause and alacrity. My former boss Art Dudley has written about the subject with remarkable honesty and insight, but let me put in the proverbial 2¢. 

It may seem logical to compare the products of the audio high-end to Patek Phillipes and Ferraris, but lets face it, most are no Ferraris. What they happen to be is cludgy, dubiously engineered, homely, and vastly overpriced home construction projects—celebrated in some of the worst marketing copy ever devised.

Moreover, as Art has pointed out in a recent column in this magazine, the geniuses of the high-end have decided that the median price for a pair of speakers or a decent amplifier should be around $20K. And the price of a whole system be comparable to a down payment on a New York City apartment. The median, mind you.

Historically, this hobby was built on products that offered radically better sound at prices a middle-class (i.e. younger) listener could stretch to afford. The LS3/5a, the Rega Planar 3 and Dynaco's ST-70 all come to mind. "Affordable" $13K preamps and $5K cable looms from some of the high-end players of today do not. I happen to be 43, have a graduate education and do reasonably well in my chosen profession, but a $20K speaker is simply not something I'm going to be able to afford, or would want to buy even if I could. And when I think about some of the students I teach, who are leaving four-year colleges with student-loan debts of several hundred thousand dollars, the prognosis for these "statement" products gets even bleaker. 

And the problem isn't only that these items are too expensive and offer poor value, but that many are, frankly, as unattractive as they are impractical. Do you think a young person with a decent sense of aesthetics would want a "statement" speaker from the likes of Thiel or Vandersteen in their city apartment? 

The headphone hobby points a way that high-end two-channel audio could go, if it were smart about its future. That hobby attracts plenty of young people because it's portable, value-driven, computer savvy, and offers true high-end sound at prices that, while not chump change, are accessible to most. More importantly, it revolves around online communities and regional meets, not exclusive "salons" with their demo disks the "Patriot Games" soundtrack and Patricia Barber.

The notion that young people don't listen "actively" is ridiculous. But for most of them, listening cannot accomodate sprawling "reference systems." The proposal Mr. Atkinson quotes above laments the paucity of young people in the hobby while advocating presentations at "Mercedes and BMW clubs" and "fine restaurants." The folks in the perfectionist audio field need to decide whether they are in the business of making useful devices for music lovers or monumental techno-furniture for middle-aged oral surgeons and hedge-fund managers. And then behave accordingly. 

allthetime's picture

Picking up on a couple of themes above ...

I love this hobby and all it takes to create more equipment / sound junkies like myself are some basic Marketing 101 concepts.

You must interest a larger base of people in the value of better sound quality.  The rest will take care of itself … from this base will grow a proportion of folks that will become audiophiles.

1)      Learn from Beats

The Beats phenomenon is a fabulous opportunity for the audiophile community to leverage, here’s how:

Beats gave customers what they wanted: image (of course) but a taste of improved SOUND they wanted.  Fortunately the bar was low, primarily earbuds so there’s plenty of room to improve.

Beats also targeted a sweet spot of disposable income: 200-400$.  People will drop this kind of money to try something new.  The value of great sound is unfortunately a NEW concept to almost all consumers so this is where you have to start.  If you want neophytes to drop >1000$ for a single piece of a system, forget it, game over.

In order to “hook” folks into a longer pursuit of great quality sound you MUST first give them great products in this sweet spot.  Those products MUST make a substantial difference on their own.  A great example here are the miniature USB headphone DAC/Amps – Dragonfly, Microstreamer and about 10 me-toos coming to the market.  These products make music sound better to the layman all by themselves and are priced in the customer’s price sweet spot.  This is the Beats lesson in practice.

2)      Give future audiophiles information they need to get enthused and make smart choices

I agree with other commenters that trade magazines are THE primary vehicle to engage a broader demographic.  Spend more time on high value, entry-level equipment reviews and also more time on entry-level systems that have been pre-matched by you to sound good together.  This has a huge value to future audiophiles who are overwhelmed by choices alone, much less the prospect of matching for a particular sound.

Reviewing yet another 100 pound monoblock amplifier costing 5 figures does absolutely nothing to solve the problem you pose.  (In fact does anyone really care about those reviews?)

If you want to make a difference, start behaving differently. 

Give visibility to products that future audiophiles will be tempted to buy as a hook to the hobby.

It’s not rocket science!

NickAdams's picture

To revive the market requires replenishing the aging audiophile population with young eager audiophiles. The serge in young people buying LPs is proof that the interest in music and production exsists. There are two major roadblocks to this: exposure and expense.

There is very little exposure to high-end sound for most young people. If your parents or relatives were not into audio, you probably had no exposure to the audiophile expereince. Maybe your friend's uncle had a decent system, but his taste in music probably would have turned you off anyway. Without this positive exposure at an impressionable age, the idea of a dedicated 2-channel system in one's home is non-exsistent. Audiophilism is largely word of mouth: there are no mainstream tv, print, or internet ad campaignes - except of course for Bose. With electronics stores selling home-theatres as the ultimate home entertainment: loud and punishing sound is now synomis with 'good sound'.

Investing in a home hi-fi was traditionally something one did after investing in a home. For those in the rental world, everything is temporary (mp3) or portable (iphone). The unemployment rate for young people is about 1 in 8. The under-employment rate is closer to 1 in 3 (that is university grads working retail). Owning a home in an urban environment is out of the reach of most people under 35. Rental unit costs represent half of most young people's income. Instability of this type has lead to massive student and consumer debt in people under 35. Not exactly the environment for someone to spend 6 months income on an 'entry-level' system, if it has never been a priority in one's life at all! 

 I am in my early thirties; I have been building my system seriously for a decade. It is good, not great. I have a Leben and a VPI. I have 1500 LPs in my collection. I speak from a place first hand experience. I was lucky in that a had a small group of friends who deceided to take interest in music AND music reporduction. I also do my best to show my friends my system any chance I get. They are almost all impressed and express some type of interest in recreating a part of the expereince at home, but always on a shoe-string budget. ALL people I know under the age of 35 would rather purchase equipment used than from a dealer, PERIOD.

I don't want to write something that is all negative without atleast presenting a couple solutions:

1. The 'used' and 'vintage' market is the best way to get a young person involved in purchasing hifi gear. Integrate great vintage pieces into the audiophile experience.

2. Be positive. Focus on the strengths of inexpesive gear. Eliminate the pharse "...it's good for the price"

3. Be negative. Call out manufacturers that charge outragous amounts for incrimental improvements. High prices should be a negative point in reviews and reports.

4. Leave the old arguments in the past: analog/digital, tube/ss, horns/cones, belt/DD, MC/MM god/gods... This stuff is rubish to people feeling out the hobby. It is a huge turn-off. 

5. Respect everyone's opinions. There is no scientificly certain 'good' sound or 'good' music.

prerich45's picture

Excellent post!!!! 

NickAdams's picture

"This unit would be Class A, but it is far too expensive for such modest improvements"

hifijohn's picture

High end has been dying a slow death for a good 20 years.Its both a supply and demand side problem.

From the demand side: young people now still listen to alot of music but dont care about the hardware, a stereo to them is a button on their computer or ipod.I have had friends sons and nephews in to see and hear a good stereo, not only didnt they care they couldnt even imagine why they should care.If I had brought a bunch of strays cats, they would have been more interested.And you cant create demand.

From the supply side:

$10000 this $15000 that, you got to be kidding.audio has gone from a fun hobby to a lunatic extreme.Take a look a typical audiophile mentality, all you need is a good 5watt tube amplifier but only if you spend a great deal of money on that tube that has been out of production for 50 years then you have to spend another few years finding that one speaker that that amp can drive.Why do you Bose makes $2bn a year(many times what all of high-end audio makes)because he knows people want to take it out of the box put it on the table plug it in and listen to music.

also lets not forget all of scam artists-- cd demagnitizers??!!just to name one.High end mags have done nothing to help,every month some new amp is the best ,and since reviewers never pay for anything, price never is considered.Reviewers are bored, like art critics, they just love stuff that is quircky and weird.

Audiophile are also to blame, hobbies are useless unless you can share them with other people ,but who the hell wants to deal with audiophiles?? what a bunch of neurotic nutjobs--and hifi and hygene dont always go together.

Many audiophile companies never design to a price point they just build what they like and dont care what the selling price is,($500,$5000,$50000)many products  are more like functional works of art,or multi copy prototypes instead of practical audio components.

So in the end I cant shed a tear for high-end you get what you deserve.

misterc59's picture

Just a thought about the "music experience". Headphones/earbuds can give you good sound, but they cannot give you the "experience" of feeling the bass of a concert or home stereo/theatre experience. I remember my first concert long ago, the music was engaging, and the FEEL of the bass really made the experience much more memorable. All the "CONVENIENT music available does nothing to bring out this experience. IMHO

Perhaps this is part of the issue under discussion...

I believe this is a multi-faceted topic with multiple solutions/approaches, but let's take it one step at a time? ALL comments can be valuable contributions!

otaku's picture

I went to see "Gravity" at an IMAX theatre, and my pants cuffs were blowing around from the bass. Really. 

prerich45's picture

    And knowledge shall increase......This is what's happening in the High-End and people don't recognize it. The DIYer is becoming more prominate.  People are into building their own speakers, crossover design, or even better yet...active crossovers, crossover-less designs, DAC's, HTPC's and Music servers as preamps.  I've seen the value of first generation Klipsch Heritage speakers explode recently - due to crossover upgrades and the like.  Volti Audio took PWK's concepts and improved on them until he had his own unique product!  Robert is not the only one doing this - many are doing it at home.  I look at the price of music servers and cringe - there are young people (and some older ones ;) ) doing the same thing with similar quality.  Hey, I'm an IT tech and I even went the way of PC only (I may add a USB TT to my rig so I can make 24bit/192 khz needle drops and save them to my NAS).  

The increase of knowledge is what the High-End is facing - there are no more secrets!  I look at the cost of a commercial high-end Sabre32 DAC and cringe.  So what do I do...I hit the DIYer's and see if anyone has developed one because the chips are not that expensive...and you know what - many have done this which much success!! I see the day of kit hi-fi returning - when it was fun (remember Heathkit, Dynaco and the like?)  

People are doing this now!  It will not only influence HE 2-channel but also the HT world as well.  I've gotten rid of my receiver/pre-pro in favor of a HTPC and the Essence ST/H6 combo - with JRiver, REW, my amps and speakers....I enjoy HT and 2.1 channel music - and I actively listen to music more than I watch movies (gotta have my music to wind down the last 2 hours of each day). 

I don't think the HE is dying persay...I think its evolving and the smarter people get, the more they will realize what they can do for themselves.  What I used to do with a wall of equipment in the early 90's....I can do the same and more with just 1 box and poweramps (I don't even have to take things to the shop anymore - I fix it myself)! 

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