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

Nellomilanese's picture

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

Feels like 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 "'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 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 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)! 

low2midhifi's picture

DIY as the future – Very well put and plausible (Speakers Especially!)

PREFACE: I am an individual enthusiast not an industry professional.

A previous writer is correct.  DIY, particularly with those having the tools and the time will be part of the future for hi-fi, as it’s been part of its past and present. 

I won’t judge people’s ability to DIY. The hi-fi industry does this at its own peril, as this forum shows that skepticism and disaffection run deeply among current hi-fi enthusiasts.  People can and should experiment, especially given spiraling above entry-level component costs.

Speakers are the real area of vulnerability for audio manufacturers (except those making the components) and retailers.  Buying speakers used is a dicey proposition.  Middle-range speakers above entry-level often offer dubious improvements for the considerable additional expense (see my post above for details on my experience with this).

Building 2-way monitor speakers at home—from readily available kits and components—may be a  complex affair, but it’s a reasonable gamble given the expense.  If people have the time to build speakers, then that’s their time and it implies zero labor costs for the consumer who chooses to build his/her own speakers.

There are companies and services that will design and build crossovers for the less-technically savvy consumer.  There are very high quality drivers readily available at very low prices from reputable, patient, courteous, and efficient retailers, three of which I have had the privilege of dealing with in the past (one closed after many years selling kits).   Smart consumers have also noted that the drivers found in very high cost manufacturers’ speakers can often be had for $250 or less per piece (sometimes even for less than $75.00) from a catalog.

I bought a kit back in the late 80s.  The drivers and assembled crossovers came quickly in the mail.  Far from a hassle, building the enclosures was one of the most interesting and entertaining projects that I have had in my life.  I controlled the work and quality.  I managed the finish to my liking.  The durability and quality of the resulting enclosure would probably require a minimum $5,000 outlay today for a store-bought speaker.

How was the sound?  It was fine to me.  And isn’t “letting your ears judge the sound” the sacrosanct credo in the hi-fi industry and its publications?

Maybe a crossover built by an enthusiast or a service won’t match what a professional company can do.  But for a 2-way design, the crossover hinges on a frequency, a single number (and the roll-off as a secondary metric). My perusal of manufacturers’ specifications demonstrates that for 2-way speakers, the number is pretty much within a tight span of values. There are qualified people who will figure out that number (and give you roll-off options) for you today.

As for cabinets, here is where the hobbyist could probably deliver a superior product for the dollar.  European audio websites (and, yes, we audio enthusiasts have discovered these and refer to them as often as we do to Stereophile and other US publications) regularly show the interiors of speakers that they test.  Perhaps Stereophile could begin this “illuminating and revealing” practice.  Most of what I see in there isn’t anything that I did not learn in a couple of woodworking and industrial arts class in my junior and high school days.  Urban living and its constraints on power tool usage is the only thing stopping me from going full-bore into speaker building.

I do not direct my words toward the highest end of speakers, for the most part.  There is no doubt that most very high-end manufacturers devote considerable time to research and innovation, are master craftspeople of the highest order, employ many costly advances in materials science and engineering theory, and conduct exhaustive computer analysis for their products.  Some of these same manufacturers also deliver the best entry-level speakers, and often the only reasonably priced credible mid-tier speakers.

My belief is, once again, that the DIY approach for speakers will hit the industry in its soft spot:  those products a tier or two above the entry level which today offers a very murky payback in exchange for many more of the strapped consumer’s dollars.

Is DIY a gamble for a home-brew speaker buyer/builder?  Sure, it’s a gamble, but so is spending $2,000 to $3,000 more for an “upgraded” 2-way monitor pair of speakers--from a small manufacturer who may not be around years later for parts and service--that don’t sound much better, don’t weigh much more, and seem to have the same drivers as their own entry level models or of lesser or equal quality to what is available for a nominal expense in a catalog.  Let us also not forget that the finest products, which today start at $5,000, are beyond the means and/or financial responsibility threshold for many, if not nearly all, audio enthusiasts.

jimtavegia's picture

Last period at school today and the day winding down and our football team had already packed and loaded their bus to head out for the 2nd round playoff game.   One of the students asked about borrowing some headphones from another with about 10 minutes to the bell.  

I asked the class if they had $1,000 dollars and had the chance to buy a nice audio system or something else what would they buy.  Unanimous it was a new IPhone and maybe some Beats. Not a one of them owns a real stereo at home and they all said that listening to music on their phones or computer was just fine. Most of their music delivery was YouTube and ITunes.  

I should have known. Quality, bit-depth, spacial cues, you-are-there experience...forgeddaboudit. I may bring this subject up again after our Thanksgiving another way. 

I think I am going to make up a survey over the break with about 10 questions on it to gather some data. Should take about 5 minutes of class time for them to fill it out. 

How did listening to great music presented in the best possible way in the highest sound quality get lost in our society? When did quality stop mattering, when now, we have the technology to record it and present it in the most accurate way possible?

otaku's picture

The sad truth is that I am glad that Stereophile reviews the mega-buck equipment.

When I see a review of $75 cables or $250 DAC, I need to agonize over whether to purchase it (and I bought both).  A set of $20K cables or $108K speakers does not present any problems at all.

Bill Leebens's picture

Having been involved in several failed attempts to organize high-end industry groups, including the A5 mentioned in this piece, I've given up on that tactic.

I think the only effective way is to ignore the doom and gloom, and just make things that the next generation might actually want. There are numerous high-performance, reasonably-priced products surrounding computer audio, and it's a field I'm glad to be working in.

On the analog front, VPI's Mat Weisfeld announced a new product on Bloomberg TV yesterday (on the show "Taking Stock with Pimm Fox") called The Nomad, an all-in-one package of a belt-drive VPI table with a built-in headphone amp, iGrado headphones, and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, for $995.  While college students might find the price a bit of a reach, they'll likely hit up their parents, anyway.

And just for a little perspective: the $300 dorm-room systems us oldsters are familiar with from 1973 or so? That's about $1600 in 2013 bucks. Decent gear has never been free, and parents were always called upon to pony up the dough!

Nellomilanese's picture

...and I agree with most  of them. 

What got me back into Hi-Fi was the amazing sound system in my car....a 5000 € optional....a Harman Kardon 480W Class D amplified...8 speakers. This system is mind blowing in bass control...timing....0 distortion at max level. I mean the windows and rear-view mirror shake and there's 0 distortion in bass or treble !!! I've put 20-30% more miles into the car just because of the hi-fi system in it....sometimes I drive around the house 4 times until the cd/album ends LOL And it's a joy to take family trips playin' some jazz or bossa nova cds, or whatever I have in my iPhone.

It actually makes my 50 minutes commuting to work and traffic jams something to look for !!! I'm actually happy when I get stuck in traffic...I can play some Mighty Sam McClain and chill :D F*****ing money ever spent!!

What I don't agree with is the fact that great music is not produced anymore, or that good artist don't come along, or good recordings are only the old ones etc etc....not true, not at all. 

There are great young artists...some of them with a greater talent from the get-go in playing and songwritting than artists from the 70's that we consider "icons".

It's just harder to spot them, find them, in the middle of the cr@p but Spotify and youtube come to rescue.

Adele, James Blunt, Mike Rosenberg  etc etc

I have no problems admitting that James Blunt solo singing at the piano in a full stadium was as good as Freddy Mercury's piano solo, the lyrics even better, and I've seen them both in concert (3 times james Blunt, 1 Freddy)

Mike Rosenberg (Passenger)

Mike and some hippy friends :D


Ed Sheeran acoustic....amazing...beat up crappy guitar and a microphone...this kid is like 20 LOL

Nellomilanese's picture these young artists that the kids and 20 something actually listen to, play them on a simple, under 1000 $ system at audio shows and capture the 20 something crowd....later in life when they have more money they can upgrade to middle stuff...some of them maybe become big lawyers or CEOs and they'll have dough for the really high-end stuff.

Play the artist THEY LIKE via bluetooth/wi-fi from iPhone directly on some 300-700$ active speakers and I guarantee you next time they won't get the new iPhone but keep the current model and rather spend the money on active speakers to use in their dorms, bedrooms etc Capture them with something they can pre-amp, amp, cd player cr@p with tons of cables....just active speakers.

directly heated's picture

It seems to me that the reader John Atkinson quotes above—who cancelled his subscription over Michael Fremer's having "purchased" the review samples of a $47K speaker from Wilson Audio—can be said to have a point. Over the years, the practice of audio reviewing hasn't exactly distinguished itself for its impartiality, good taste, and ironclad ethics.

Of course the prospect of getting expensive equipment on "indefinite loan" or at steeply discounted "accomodation prices" is pretty appealing. I worked as an audio reviewer for a minute, and I can empathize. And high end audio tends to be a close-knit business. But the quid pro quo arrangement doesn't do much to inspire confidence in reviewers who then recommend the equipment at full prices—or in the integrity of their evaluations. What to make, for example, of Fremer's Associated Equipment column in his most recent Stereophile review, earlier this month? It appears he's listening to a $65K turntable sitting on a $25K turntable stand and using $20K worth of cartridges; a digital front end from DCS worth $110K and another, from Meridian, costing $10.5K; preamplifiers that cost $24K, $26K and $20K, respectively; monoblock amplifiers worth $144K; and a pair of newer speakers from Wilson Audio that cost $200K. (I guess Fremer upgraded.) And, of course, many thousands of dollars more in cables, phono transformers, spare tonearms, software suites, resonance control products, power conditioners, room treatment panels, cartridge demagnetizers, cable burn-in machines, and record cleaners. 

I'm not questioning Fremer's ethics. But we can only assume that not all of the money for this system, which is pushing a million dollars retail, came out of his Source Interlink Media paycheck. And unless we concede that much of the equipment was given away or sold for pennies on the dollar by friendly manufacturers and importers, we have to imagine that Fremer has been depleting a family fortune or has a lucrative side career in rhinoplasty. Or that, like Walter White on "Breaking Bad," he's been cooking meth.

Again, I don't mean to pick on Michael Fremer (though I remain perturbed by his increasingly acid responses to readers, like the one in an October column on Analog Planet, where he referred to one of them, in print, twice, as "a real dick"). I'm sure his stereo sounds really, really good. But the inevitable questions about the provenance of all that equipment don't exactly fill us readers of Stereophile magazine with trust and fellow feeling. And unless John Atkinson (and Robert Harley and other editors-in-chief and publishers) can demonstrate to us that these insider transactions are governed by some semblance of transparency and fairness, we will continue to doubt their opinions.

John Atkinson's picture

directly heated wrote:
the prospect of getting expensive equipment on "indefinite loan" or at steeply discounted "accomodation prices" is pretty appealing.

An Industry accommodation price for reviewers tends to be the wholesale price of the product, ie, what a dealer pays.

directly heated wrote:
I'm not questioning Fremer's ethics.

You appear to be doing so.

directly heated wrote:
But we can only assume that not all of the money for this system, which is pushing a million dollars retail, came out of his Source Interlink Media paycheck.

The dCS stack is in for review, in the January issue. Michael purchased the Wilson speakers, dartZeel preamp and power amp, Continuum turntable/tonearm and Meridian Sooloos system. Michael cashed in some of his retirement savings to finance his purchases as well as using the money he got for selling his earlier Wilson speakers. So before you throw stones at one of us for our apparent lack of integrity, please _ask_ first.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

directly heated's picture

Hi John—

Thanks for your response, and your point is well taken. I should have asked before engaging in conjecture, so from now on I will. Here goes.

The New York Times, which you disparaged in your column, has a policy barring its correspondents and freelancers from accepting gifts, loans and freebies of any kind. Accepting a free trip or even a free dinner is a fireable offense, and the Times has demonstrated, recently and publicly, that it enforces the policy with impunity. 

Does Stereophile have a policy in place to prevent conflicts of interest among its reviewers and columnists? A concrete set of enforceable rules that governs their conduct in regards to accepting free equpment, long-term loans, and the timely return of review samples? 

I ask because years of anecdotal evidence suggest that the giving and receiving of equipment on "indefinite loan" is a practice that's alive and well among certain, if not most, reviewers and manufacturers. And it corrupts the conversation, as it does with wine, cars, travel and every other field where reviewers and the industry have cozied up to each other a little too snugly.

Thanks for your consideration.

John Atkinson's picture

directly heated wrote:
The New York Times, which you disparaged in your column.

No, I _criticized_ the NYT to make a very specific point. Why would you use an emotionally loaded word like "disparaged"?

directly heated wrote:
. . . has a policy barring its correspondents and freelancers from accepting gifts, loans and freebies of any kind. Accepting a free trip or even a free dinner is a fireable offense, and the Times has demonstrated, recently and publicly, that it enforces the policy with impunity.

The Times has considerably deeper pockets than Stereophile, of course. But at Stereophile we draw a line between large-value gifts and the usual demonstrations of politeness. When manufacturers visit my listening room, they will sometimes bring a bottle of wine, for example. Conversely, I give visitors Stereophile CDs etc. Often they will buy me dinner. Conversely, I also buy them dinner. I try to keep the ethical books balanced. For example, a couple of years back a manufacturer had a ticket to an opera at the Met that his wife couldn't use. He offered it to me. I accepted on the condition that I could buy him dinner at the Met's excellent restaurant beforehand. The cost of the meal was more than the face value of the ticket.

directly heated wrote:
Does Stereophile have a policy in place to prevent conflicts of interest among its reviewers and columnists? A concrete set of enforceable rules that governs their conduct in regards to accepting free equipment, long-term loans, and the timely return of review samples?

Yes, you can find an outline of that policy at Please note that to the best of my knowledge, no other audio magazine or webzine has published such a policy.

Of those rules outlined at the link, to me the most important so that reviewers and editors not act as consultants, whether paid or unpaid. Very often, a manufacturer or distributor will ask a reviewer to "just take a listen to this, you don't have to review it, just let me know what you think." This is absolutely forbidden at Stereophile. If we are sent a piece of equipment, we will write about it and the manufacturer finds out what we think about it when he receives the preprint of the review. Again see my policies at the link above.

Other magazines and webzines don't honor such a rule. For example, we tried to acquire a third-party website a couple of years back - the deal fell through in part because we insisted the editor would have to give up his consulting business.

directly heated wrote:
I ask because years of anecdotal evidence suggest that the giving and receiving of equipment on "indefinite loan" is a practice that's alive and well among certain, if not most, reviewers and manufacturers.

Again, see the policies linked to above. We allow long-term loans on the conditions described, the most important of which is that the component remain the manufacturer's property and the reviewer cannot sell it.

It is not feasible for Stereophile reviewers to purchase every piece of equipment they need to use as references during preparation of a review, so there is always a "float" of review samples circulating. But most review samples at this magazine are returned fairly promptly to the manufacturer or distributor. (It can sometimes be surprisingly difficult to get a manufacturer to accept his component back; he would prefer it continue to be used and referred to in reviews.) And most reviewers purchase the components they wish to use as long-term references. Yes, this is at standard industry accommodation prices, but please bear in mind that offsetting that is the fact that we all need to have several systems active, in order to be able to form accurate value judgments.

directly heated wrote:
And it corrupts the conversation, as it does with wine, cars, travel and every other field where reviewers and the industry have cozied up to each other a little too snugly.

I agree, which is why at Stereophile, we try very hard to keep the ethical books balanced. I have fired writers for breaking our rules and will do so if I find out that that something untoward has happened in the future.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

directly heated's picture

Thank you, John, for that forthright and informative answer. 

Louis Motek's picture

Quote: "Or [...] he's been cooking meth."


Fremer himself wrote in one of his blogs quite explicitely that he made all the money for his audio equipment from sales of his now famous DVD about turntable setup. He even did the math in front of the audience. Sorry I don't have the link handy. I just remember the line about him having to order another batch of DVDs because he's sold out yet again. 


By the way, most musicians also make most of their money not from concerts, nor from teaching, but from royalties from sold records, or their compositions being played on the radio, etc. I know a composer who wrote a bunch of theater music. But he made all his money off of jingles played on the TV and radio!


Louis Motek

John Mitchell's picture

Has Stereophile (or any other organization) surveyed young people on their interest or lack of interest in high-end audio? There's a lot of interesting speculation in the reader comments for this article, but getting answers straight from the (young) horse's mouth may be the best way to start formulating a practical answer to the question the article poses.

Nesster's picture

The high end camera business is facing a decline, and is under attack from the smartphone. Thom Hogan writes a lot about the camera market, things I think apply to hi-fi as well.


People don’t (think they) need dedicated cameras because they already have something that does an adequate job with them all the time, their smartphone. The only way you get those people to buy a camera is to bridge the gap: (1) you have to make the camera’s use and workflow as simple as they’re used to, but (2) produce a benefit that they don’t currently get that makes it worth carrying/using the added device. 

The camera makers certainly haven’t done #1, and much of that centers around the “sharing” aspect I wrote about. I don’t mean sharing as in “share on Facebook,” by the way, but in a much broader sense: as in “getting my photo from my device to someplace where some other person can see it." We used to “share” photos by taking them out of our wallet or getting out the photo album or mailing duplicate prints to our friends and family or even putting them on a wall. These days we have way more choices, and the thing I was trying to point out is that the smartphone is just far better at getting your photo where you want it than your camera. It “shares” naturally. Cameras don’t. Customers won’t go backwards. Once there’s a “better way” that has to be the way. 

The camera makers' marketing is also terrible at making #2 clear. You’re sitting in the stands of your child’s soccer game and they make the big play. How’d your smartphone do in capturing that? Note that there are smartphones that are already doing a better job of marketing on this very issue than the camera companies are! The ad for the Nokia smartphone where all the parents are rushing the stage with their phones and tablets to try to get more pixels of their child while the 41mp Nokia user sits at the back totally content is a good example. But the camera makers simply aren’t making the same case, even when they add longer lenses to compacts. The best they tend to do is emphasize pixel count or actual focal length numbers, which are just specs, not a true marketing message. User benefit. Those are two words a lot of camera makers need to not only post in big letters over the entrance of their buildings, but also make sure that the marketing departments get fully on top of. That’s going to be tough. Samsung outspends Nikon on advertising what, 10 to the 5th power or something like that? Apple gets the emotion of advertising. Nokia gets the user benefits in their advertising. And both those, too, are spending more than most camera companies on marketing. Is it any surprise cameras aren’t selling so well? So not only do the camera companies need to up their game when it comes to marketing, they’re going to have to up it big time because they’re playing with a smaller megaphone. 

Another aspect that’s getting lost by the camera makers is usability. Take a few raw file shots with your DSLR. Now hand the camera to your mom, or sister, or child and ask them to send shot DSC_1129.JPG via email to your dad and watch what happens. Now take a shot with your smartphone and ask them to do the same. Notice a difference? ;~) Right, the smartphone makers are solving user problems and making discoverability a key point in their user interfaces. The camera makers are adding features and burying them in more controls and menus. And, of course, leaving the real workflow to software on your computer.

But you have to start somewhere. That somewhere was right where I suggested in the original article: “how do I get this shot where someone can see it?” Couple that with “why is this shot better than the one I took with my smartphone” and camera sales will rise again. Fail to answer those questions with dedicated cameras and what we’ll have is a generation raised on mass market devices (smartphones) that aren’t interested in progressing to specialized devices (cameras). 

geordanh's picture

I'm in my mid twenties, own a pair of B&W 802's and feel pretty qualified to respond to this post.

If audio companies continue to assume that high price can be a differentiation strategy for selling what is now a commodotized technology, they are dead wrong. It is a declining market that will buy 'luxury' technology at a high price. My generation is especially sensitive to paying a premium for what has essentially become a commodity.

If the technological gains of the last ten years in hi-fi were worth the premium, there'd be an expanding market for it. People are rightly smelling BS and spending their money on real technological advances and settling for audio systems that deliver most of the performance for a fraction of the price of high end hi fi.

But nevermind market conditions...

Audiophiles are unbearably pretentious and obnoxiously self righteous. I love the broad stroke comments about my generation being a bunch of 'passive listeners' and thereby hurting the market for high end audio. This is the kind of arrogance that turns people off. I genuinely hope the high end market continues to contract. It will continue to pressure the uncreative 'luxury' brands out of the market, and encourage more innovative companies like Audioengine to continue gaining market share. I love my B&W 802's and Aragon hi fi system, but I know that my friends can enjoy listening to music on their Audioengine systems just as well. They appreciate coming over to listen to music, but I'm not about to suggest to them, most of them musicians, that they are 'passive listeners'.

Long-time listener's picture

I have another question, and I wish Stereophile would deal with this sort of thing more often, since it has to do with price and with system matching.

I have a bedroom system using NAD's inexpensive CD player (with Ortofon silver interconnects), an 18-year-old old Nakamichi 75-watt receiver (surprisingly good), and Monitor Audio Bronze BX2 speakers. It sounds wonderful. Why is it that when I add in my NAD M51 DAC--a Stereophile A+ rated component--the sound of the system becomes worse? It then sounds thin, pinched, and unmusical. I wish Stereophile could address issues like that. And stop giving Class A ratings to poor, unmusical components like the T+A Power Plant integrated amplifier. To me, something seems wrong in your system of ethics when it is consistently given a Class A rating, but with no review that discusses its performance in detail. Either that or someone on the review staff needs to be sent back down to the mailroom.

sudont's picture

I think you're on to something about people not having the patience to listen to music anymore. I'm the only person I know who does it.

But you're not going to get young people into hifi with four, five, and six-figure gear. You never see a young person driving a Jaguar or Porche, either. They simply can't afford it.
When I was young, there were affordable options upon which you could build. You might start with a Sansui or Kenwood receiver, some big cheap speakers, and a Garrard or Sony TT. Then, over the years, upgrade these components, one at a time.

As it is, everyone starts off with a computer. All you need add are some decent computer speakers. After that, there's really nowhere to go. Unless you have an older brother from whom to inherit a stereo, you have to start from scratch - and that takes a lot of scratch these days. Unless the price of high-end gear can be addressed, only those with a substantial income will be able to get into it - and that means older folks.

John Atkinson's picture

sudont wrote:
As it is, everyone starts off with a computer. All you need add are some decent computer speakers. After that, there's really nowhere to go.

With respect that's not correct. We started in part to show how, for not much money, one can use a computer as the basis for a true high-end music system

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Julian Higgins's picture

The luxury car business has a helping hand with the tax system, most leases are to some extent deductible & cars are often a business perq. This significantly affects the market with regular 3 year replacements and pulls new models thru.

The hi end companies have done nothing to help their cause - for example Harman has millions of cars on the road with their auto systems under various brands. Where are the factory reps offering clients free firmware updates and usage seminars and setup (most of these systems go out the door with bass & treble slammed for impact - the eq options for my harman system was NOT in the user manual !) and Oh, by the way what do you have at home and have you seen the latest Revel/Harman/ML/Lex/JBL new device at your local dealer. Here is a coupon for a hundred dollars off.  Am I missing something here ?

The distribution channel is also at fault otherwise Schiit and Emotiva etc. would not sell direct.

I have attended hi fi shows - speakers in the middle of the floor, stacks of electronics in the middle of the speakers and heavy thick cables everywhere. This is totally unsuited for any modern residence where humans, dogs and children actually live. So any rational practical person, male or female, seeing this, immediately perceives they cannot have this in the house. Roy Allison had the right idea designing speakers for wall and corner placement. B & O is sleek and integrated, limited functionaity and performance notwithstanding.The industry needs to stop working the "audiophile" space and work to meet aesthetic expectations in real rooms. This does not mean necessarily accepting a pair of in walls to drive a big room, but it does mean remoting the equipment to a rack somewhere not in the middle of the room. Sonos is intelligently working in this space.

Those homes featured in Arch Digest should have real systems - that none of them do is a key problem affecting the industry. The time is right for new trends - everyone has upgraded their TV and there is nothing to watch so the opportunity presents itself.

Edward See's picture

Be optimistic! You guys have not tried hard enough in the oversea markets, I am referring to China and India. My wife went to CHANEL in Paris recently and wanted to buy some earrings. She selected 4 pairs but can only buy 2 pairs. Ask Why? The saleslady said " I cannot mention the country name but these crazy people got so much money they buy everythings. So to be fair to others, each customer can only buy 2 pairs and you can only come back in 2 months' time to get 2 more pairs! CHANEL computerise the sale receipt, you cannot bluff if you try to buy earrings the next day. You see there are plenty of opportunity for High End Audio and plenty of rich people out there. America must work hard! By the way, I own Mcintosh and Mark Levinson. Long live America Hi Fi.

Doctacosmos's picture

I have a feeling not as many people do as you might think or if they do, have never experienced them.  Most stores don't carry them. If walmart carried a few then way more people would be interested.  Then upgrading them would be a necessity. The only reason i know about them is because i'm old enough to remember when there weren't smartphones and people actually sat down and enjoyed music instead of plugging in headphones.  I could go on about how people will see them when searching for a home theater in a box on but even then, if they are interested they go straight to and get confused ( reminds me i need to go erase some of the threads i made when i was learning lol) and see the crazy prices of equipment.  Why are there so many speakers anyways.  Because people want to make money.  understandable.

Doctacosmos's picture

not necessarily just the company :"Rent-a-center" but other companies with the same objective.  A lot of people rent from there and i would be willing to bet that if they had some set ups with lets say $1000 a pair to $3000 a pair speakers that people could actually listen to, then people would look into floor standing speakers.  After hearing a good stereo floor stander set up right most people will not be able to shake it from their mind.  Even if they don't buy the speakers set up in the store they will definitely look into other options.  Larger bass image the better

deftoejam's picture

Science literacy continues to increase.  Luxury item substitutes continue to increase.  So, if you wanna save "high end":

1) Completely and immediately drop the faux-science approach, and completely and unambiguously embrace all aspects of the scientific method when even inferring audible differences in anything.  Encourage and facilitate target customer education to overcome myths and fallacies widely disseminated in high-end audio.  Hire objective outside experts to educate yourselves if you think you are already doing this.

2) Encourage the focus of manufacturer and music production efforts on innovations and quality improvements that really make an audible difference, in line with rule #1.  This means many things, including but not limited to elimination of the "testimonial" marketing method and mutual back-scratching that goes on between makers and publishers at the expense of objectivity, transparency and rule #1.

3) If you like something because it's rare, exclusive, or just wicked expensive and it looks good, that's OK - just state that in an intellectually honest and unambiguous way, in line with rules #1 & #2.  Luxury item firms do this all the time, and it works very well for them.  Treating target customers like fools with facile dissembling, like high end audio currently'll catch a few flies, but not many and fewer in the future.

I have little hope any of the above will actually happen, and that's why "high end" will likely continue its decline.  The recent attempts to try to frame analog as superior to and less problematic than digital are failing, as are the attempts to make high quality PC-driven audio appear difficult to achieve.  There are just too many (younger) people who know better, and you'll never, ever reach them with the current approach.

Put another way, if you want a different result, try a different approach.  I think it was Einstein who said something like "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result".

Cassettivity's picture

I think we are missing something in this conversation (or maybe I missed a comment): we are in the MIDDLE of the digital revolution. Right now, our storage and bandwidth is limiting the source quality, but this is changing. Once bandwidths are improved and once we have whatever-comes-after-terabyte sized smart phones, the mainstream will be working with this gucci digital media. Once that happens, there will be a REASON to spend $$ on improving your syste, because who would pay $$$$ (or even discuss fidelity) to reproduce 128kbps MP3's?

I imagine that the decrease in the hi-fi market correlates to the increase in use of crappy source material. Once source improves to something that will blow any CD out of the water, hi-fi systems will flourish. Can you imagine what could be done in a room with not-yet-invented-fi digital sources?? I'm talkin' super-fi. 

Closing thought: 10 years ago, when I used to sport my Grado SR60's on a subway, or in public, I used to feel pretty dorky. Now, I see big headphones everywhere. People want good sound, its just that people are suffering with mp3's (that HURT when you listen to them on a too-good-system {so many hyphens... sorry})


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