High End is On Its Way Out?

The night after we got home from the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show in January—see the report in this issue—my dear companion and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at San Francisco's beautifully refurbished War Memorial Opera House. It was a Tuesday evening, traditionally a big event for the Opera's benefactors. From our box seats, we had an excellent view of a production musically sumptuous and visually austere—and of a sea of gray and balding heads.

During intermission, I attempted a rough estimation of the crowd's age. My guess: the majority were well beyond 60, and a significant number were in their 70s or 80s. Among the opera patrons, we were in the distinct minority: under 50. Real youngsters—30 and under—were few indeed. The demographics were of particular interest to me. In our daily reports from the CES on www.stereophile.com, Jon Iverson and I had reported the gloomy pronouncements of Krell Industries' Dan D'Agostino: "High-end audio is on its way out" because it isn't attracting a booming new generation of music lovers.

By "high-end" he meant, of course, two-channel music systems composed of the best components music lovers can buy. D'Agostino wasn't complaining, mind you—his company appears to be riding the home-theater wave quite nicely. But his observation that the High End consists mostly of hobbyists in their 50s and 60s was reinforced by a visible lack of young blood at the Specialty Audio exhibits at the Alexis Park Hotel, as well as at The Home Entertainment Show next door at the St. Tropez.

Which is not to say that there are no young people in high-end audio—there just don't seem to be very many of them. "Tell me where the Generation X audiophile is," D'Agostino demanded, then offered his own simple reply: "He doesn't exist." As in the heady worlds of opera, symphony, and ballet support, new recruits to high-end audio don't appear to be popping up at a rate sufficient to fill ranks thinned by departing predecessors.

It's an ominous trend for public arts, which are obscenely expensive to produce and increasingly dependent on philanthropy. "Where is the next generation?" is a question that recurs among arts administrators nationwide, as it does throughout the High End. Where is our next generation? Is it among home-theater fans, as D'Agostino asserts? Or is high-end audio, as we have known it, simply a transitional phase in the never-ending interaction of art, technology, and economics? Is it just another fading blip on the radar screen of time, or is it here to stay?

A few evenings later, at an opening-night party for a show of spectacular—and very cutting-edge—contemporary Asian art, the subject emerged again, this time in a chance encounter with an electronic musician. This young woman spends most of her evenings and weekends composing and recording, and, because she's still awaiting her commercial breakthrough, spends her days working in the publicity department of an independent record label. She is incredibly well informed about trends in the music business and about the emerging potential of the Internet, and was marvelously insightful about the Recording Industry Association of America's losing battle against MP3, the latest rage in digital music distribution. She is on intimate terms with MIDI-synths, knows the virtues of every sampling rate, and can configure a local area network in the same amount of time it takes me to microwave a bowl of soup.

When she asked me what I did, I mentioned that I was associated with this publication—one she had never heard of—and that its focus was "high-resolution playback systems." Oddly enough, she had never heard this particular string of buzzwords either, and asked me to explain. I offered the classical definition of a high-end audio system: one capable of re-creating original acoustic events. I went so far as to suggest, without offending, that it is relatively easy to program synthesizers to make a digital sonic tempest swirl about a room, and relatively difficult to create a believable image of a solo guitarist sitting quietly on a stool in front of you. She was intrigued—as if this was one of the more outlandish concepts she had ever heard. She and her husband have made a tentative date to come up to our place for dinner—and music. Perhaps we'll win a recruit or two.

Or perhaps we won't. My 27-year-old stepson never caught the bug from me, despite a lifetime of exposure. His biggest concern about his audio system, he recently told me, is wiring up an extra pair of speakers on the porch so he and his wife can enjoy some tunes with their Sunday breakfast. He always liked music and still does, but simply isn't interested in the equipment that plays it. This socially gregarious lad tells me that he doesn't know anyone else his age who is interested, either. They are like I am about boats and sailing, which for many people are synonymous with the meaning of life: Were I richer than God, or even Gates, I'd never buy one. I just don't care.

But I do care passionately about music, as I believe most folks in this industry do. It's our great common denominator, and our link to the next generation. The chorus of girls and young women I heard singing along with Alanis Morissette at her concert last autumn knew every word and shared every ounce of angst. Would they feel that angst any more deeply if they heard Morissette through high-performance systems at home? Or is a portable cassette player with a cheap set of headphones all anyone needs to get a satisfying musical fix?

These aren't just idle questions. Is the High End relevant? If we decide that, yes, by God, it is—that this strange, arcane obsession to which so many of us have devoted so much of our lives really is important—then we must find ways to bring it to a wider audience. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the music we love. Jonathan Scull's dictum—"Audiophile, share your passion!"—is no hollow slogan. It's a mantra all of us should repeat—and act on—every chance we get.