Listening #1

Even poor people fly. You see them getting on and off planes with their NASCAR hats and their poor friends and their poor relatives waving to them at the gate. Flying is what everybody does nowadays, but it used to be just for the rich. It's hard to remember a time when the phrase jet set was charged with something other than irony.

Then again, even rich people have cheap, junky hi-fis—that, or no hi-fis at all. I've met some very well-to-do people and visited homes where the rarity and grandeur and sheer costliness of the furnishings have left me breathless—and the best "music system" I've seen in the vast majority of those settings was a Bose Wave Radio.

What happened?

When I was in high school, my friends and I liked to look at Playboy—not just for the obvious reasons, but because it gave us a glimpse of what we considered the good life. The Playboy Man wore a turtleneck under his double-breasted blazer, drove a British Leyland car, smoked the right cigarettes, drank the right liqueurs—and had a great hi-fi. The latter always included an open-reel tape deck, and the speakers were usually of the New England bookshelf variety, invariably sited among real books. The system was used primarily to play jazz and classical music, although Edith Piaf or early Bob Dylan might've qualified, too.

No one wears turtlenecks with blazers anymore. No one drinks Galliano or that horrid cherry liqueur from Scandinavia anymore. And no one has a good hi-fi just because they think it's essential to their way of living anymore. In 30 years, hi-fi has gone from being an accepted, even encouraged lifestyle choice to a fringe hobby. Hi-fi has been marginalized—today, you'll find more people to talk to at wedding receptions and parties and the barber shop if your hobby is paintball, cigars, bow-hunting, baseball cards, body piercing, or breeding anoles.

The point has been made that, as a hobby or a lifestyle, hi-fi has simply been undersold. I used to believe that, but I'm not so sure anymore. I think the answer is more complex, and a portion of it has to do with the fact that certain other things in life—computer games, video recorders, and recreational vehicles, to name just three—have been and continue to be oversold.

Another part of the answer has to do with our choices as consumers. If you want to travel from one part of the US to another, your alternatives to flying are the train and the bus—which is to say, your alternatives are "slow" and "slow and ghastly," respectively. If you want to enjoy recorded music, your alternatives to owning a good hi-fi are the boombox, the cheap home stereo, the cheap car stereo, the expensive car stereo, the personal stereo, the computer, the Bose Wave...

For people with limited traveling time—which is to say, almost all modern people—the alternatives to flying are unacceptable. But for most modern people, the alternatives to owning a good hi-fi are perfectly acceptable. In fact, they're fine and dandy.

Of course, money has a lot to do with it. Not only has the cost of air travel not kept up with inflation over the past 30 years, it's gone in the other direction. In 1970, even off-season, you couldn't fly from Portland, Oregon to London, England for less than $1000. Today you can do it for half that—in slim, trim 2002 dollars.

In those same 30 years, hi-fi prices haven't done too badly. When I sold stereos in the early 1970s, the average system price was about $600: $200 for a receiver, $200-plus for a pair of speakers, $150 or so for a turntable, and a little extra for a cartridge. You'd have a hard time convincing most people to spend even that much on a music system today. Every one of the (mostly retired, mostly upper-middle-class, mostly male) people I've met who own a Bose Wave as their primary home music source describe the purchase as a major expense. They even brag a little when they say it.

And what have they got to brag about? Based on cumulative yearly inflation rates in the US, themselves based on the consumer price index, the system that cost $500 in 1970 ought to cost $1300 or so today. And that's being kind, seeing as how, in the past 30 years, the prices of other consumables—houses and automobiles, to name two—have increased at much higher rates.

Can you imagine convincing half of your co-workers to spend $1300 on a music system today? How about just one of your co-workers? Nope? I didn't think so. That's probably because they're satisfied with what they have.

Yes, we have no Maseratis
I'm thinking about all this during a recent visit to my local automobile superstore, as I wait for Janet's Subaru Forester to be serviced. Once again, I'm wasting Valuable Time sauntering around the showroom, opening and closing the doors of cars I could never afford, wiggling my eyebrows at the prices in a manner calculated to suggest that my opinions on the subject hold some significance, which even I know they don't.