Busts & Booms

"Everyone I know used to sit in front of the stereo and listen to music...Now no one I know, except for us lunatics, listens to music the way one would watch a movie on TV."—from The Audiophile Network

A topic that gets a lot of ink spilled on it in this issue is the High End's limited market penetration. Michael Fremer covers the subject in "Analog Corner" (p.59); Mondial's Tony Federici reveals some strong ideas on it in my interview with him (p.83); and a number of readers—including Steven R. Rochlin, who harvests a number of ideas posted on CompuServe's CEAUDIO forum—get heavily into it in this issue's "Letters" (p.11).

In my talk with Tony Federici, I mention the homogeneity of the High End. Most of the readers, writers, editors, cyberspace cruisers, designers, manufacturers, dealers, and reps I know fall into the 35-50 age group—the "baby-boom" generation. Not coincidentally, people this age spent their formative years in an era when audio was unchallenged as a technological hobby, and when listening to music was the universal domestic stimulus. Video was television; computers were mainframes housed in air-conditioned laboratories.

People my age (I'm 47) were exposed to a lot of serious music as they grew up, both at school and at home. In addition to classical music, there were strong doses of blues coming from London and Chicago, alternative rock from San Francisco, and soul music from Detroit, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals. Our music was the accompaniment to our coming of age. Now that we can afford high-end systems, we sit in our sweet-spot-placed listening chairs, we put on a CD or an LP, and we listen to one piece of music all the way through, then a second, then a third. We are serial people.

But in my experience this is not true of younger people. Exposing children to music in the schools is seen as subversive at worst, and as not passing a cost-benefit analysis at best. And even when young people find their own ways to music, the experience does not seem the same. For example: Shiela, our children's 23-year-old nanny, loves music, yet rarely does she sit and just listen. She's a parallel person: a movie is playing on the TV, but the sound is muted; a CD is providing the sound, but she's also doing something else—working at her word processor, for example.

In this Age of Maximal Information, it seems there just isn't the time to fully absorb any one experience, or to get a full picture from just one medium. Instead, Generation Xers bombard themselves with multiple stimuli, taking from each only what they need: the gestalt rather than the specific, parallel rather than serial. The High End is about "quality," but where the concept of quality fits in Shiela's world, I have no idea.

As Tony Federici points out, the role of music in the High End is paramount. There have been four hi-fi booms. The first, in the 1950s, was fueled by classical music and war-surplus electronics; the second, in the early '70s, was fueled by both classical music and the music of the progressive rock movement, and was made possible by low-priced transistorized amplification; the third, in the early '80s, was triggered by the launch of Compact Disc—and the baby-boomers bought the same music all over again. (The fourth, of course, was the growth of the High End in the late '80s.)

But the music industry in the mid-'90s is in the doldrums. CD sales are stagnant. Major record retail chains are in financial trouble, having expanded and invested to meet a growth in sales that evaporated before it began (footnote 1). And in the US, classical music is having a hard time of it. With few exceptions, at the classical concerts I attend these days, I feel like I'm attending an American Association of Retired Persons convention. And demographic research reveals that people over 50 don't buy much in the way of recorded music.

But it's not all bad news. As you can see from Stereophile's "Letters" column, we have an increasing number of readers under 30. Home Theater is bringing new faces to specialty audio stores. We have an active industry-wide association in the Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio. It may be hidden in a corner of the record store, but the Naxos rack makes classical music accessible at a knockdown price. Many feel that once the baby-boomers pass the age of 50, their buying habits will not be as moribund as their parents'. And Shiela is taking a music-appreciation course.

The High End can expand. That is, unless it shoots itself in the foot (see "Letters") with snobbish behavior and real but crazy-sounding tweaks putting off those who'd like to join!

Footnote 1: See "Record-Store Shakeout Rocks Music Industry," The Wall Street Journal, February 26, 1996.—John Atkinson