Thinking Outside the Niche

With increasing frequency, many audiophiles and industry professionals have accepted that the quest for highest-quality sound quality is a luxury and esoteric pursuit that, by its very nature, can appeal to only a small niche market. According to this view, the masses—the 99%, if you will—are either satisfied with Pioneer, Bose, Samsung, Dr. Dre, and iPhone/Android/tablet sound; can't tell the difference between quality and dreck; or will never have the money or imagination to move beyond lowest-common-denominator sound. To the extent that the vast majority knows anything about high-end audio, it regards it as an absurdly overpriced indulgence and a target for their disdain.

Disdain, it seems, goes both ways. When industry professionals are asked why they're struggling, and why the High End seems unable to expand beyond its core constituency, they often invoke the rationale of the niche market. High-end audio, they claim, is like classical music, which is also struggling with a graying audience, diminished outlets, lack of widespread interest, and increased costs: it speaks only to a very small segment of the population with sufficient taste, refinement, discernment, and/or deep pockets to motivate it to search beyond the norm. The 99%, they say, will never become interested or get involved. Maybe they just can't understand.

The implications of this mindset are major. Among other things, it contributes to major marketing decisions, such as the recent one by McIntosh Labs and the Berkeley, California–based audio distributor Sumiko, to forgo exhibiting at last August's California Audio Show, and instead display McIntosh electronics and Sonus Faber speakers alongside the elite and vintage cars at the concurrent Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, on the Aston Martin Estate, in Monterey. (McIntosh did surface at CAS, due only to the perseverance of Soundscape, an independent dealer in Santa Rosa.)

Instead of reaching out, we reach in. Sometimes, advertising decisions by those with small budgets are governed by past experience. Other times, outreach is limited not by hard data or experience, but simply because no one expects high performance in any area to attract the masses. The notion of expanding the market by educating the public is often seen as a lost cause best left to large companies or to journalists, such as Michael Fremer, who have made a career of challenging prevailing notions.

By buying into the luxury/esoteric/niche pursuit model, we too often lose sight of the raison d'être of high-performance audio: the accurate reproduction of musical performances, as transferred to recordings by talented sound and mastering engineers. And music is anything but a luxury commodity whose accurate reproduction is of interest to only a select minority. Music is central to our being.

Ever since our predecessor Homo neanderthalensis began to rhythmically strike two objects together, music has remained at the core of communal interaction. Anyone who questions this need only visit East Oakland, where I lived for the last decade, to see how many people are brought together by music. They need only open their eyes to see all the music lovers currently glued to portable listening devices. Millions upon millions of people feel incomplete without a musical soundtrack to accompany them, day in and day out.

In diminishing the size of our potential community and by focusing only on the economically elite or the self-defined audiophile, we lose sight of the fact that music is essential. Day after day, entire cultures eat, work, socialize, and make love to music. People don't simply want music; they need music. And many of those people want it to sound the way the artists and engineers who recorded it intended it to sound.

It is high time to retire, once and for all, the notion that the High End can appeal only to a niche market. The truth is, we have something everyone needs, even if they don't know they want it. Neil Young didn't manage to raise $6.2 million in his Kickstarter campaign for his Pono system simply because he was a rock idol; he succeeded because he promised people what their hearts and souls cry out for: better-sounding musical playback. Ditto for Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, whose promise of better sound through Beats, whether fully achieved or not, has generated annual sales of $1.3 billion. Hey, you can trash Bose all you want, but they've succeeded where many High End companies have failed: they've convinced ordinary people that the music they love will never sound better than through their products.

Let's bury thoughts of the High End as a luxury or esoteric pursuit that will appeal only to the chosen few. Instead, let's look to Neil Young's and now Sony's forays into high resolution, and listen to the beat of our own hearts. What we're passionate about—the accurate reproduction of music—is ultimately what a huge number of human beings so deeply need.

Rather than folding our arms across our chests in smug self-satisfaction, let's open them to embrace the reality that what we offer is universal in its appeal. Once we make clear that the path to high-performance audio is open to all, illuminate it with exciting music and affordable products—plug'n'play USB DACs, portable hi-rez players, great-sounding headphones and speakers, affordable and easy-to-use multiformat players with volume controls, integrated amplifiers, accessible and attractive vinyl setups, and superb cables—that enable everything to sound its best, and make their presence known through outreach, what was once viewed as a niche pursuit for the elite and the already converted will instead serve as a magnet for all music lovers.—Jason Victor Serinus

topdwnman's picture

Lately I given the current state of affairs of the hi-end business model
a lot of thought, and I find your observations right on the mark.
Here are some of my thoughts on how to move forward, it will take some doing, deep pockets from long term thinkers, and finally the actual WILL
to see in through.

Let's imagine for a moment a fairly large piece of property, on it as the anchor or destination if you will, is a performance center, with recording studios, the setting will allow for a stroll through manicured
gardens, with bike and jogging paths, a small museum with the history
of amplified sound and it's components, this would also be the education
center. Some studio recording time would be donated to local schools, with folks invited to events that encourage a atmosphere of local musicians to take a active role in music making workshops.

Adjacent to, or on the periphery would be several retail venues, but set up in several over-sized homes NOT BIG BOX OR MALL STYLE STORE FRONTS, in fact the setting may need to be fairly rural, a destination if you will, see a show if you like, come to picnic in the gardens, enjoy a canoe ride in the canal, or choose one of several bistros where intimate stages are set with more live shows. OK this Utopian property has a underlying theme.

IT's NOT JUST A RETAIL OUTLET it will cater to a lifestyle, jog or bike
with my earbuds, yep I can do it here, see a live show or go out to wine & dine, I can do it all right here.

Yes it is a lifestyle, and today folks are begging for something totally different, a new approach, they WANT to be nurtured along, taught something new, gain more knowledge about what really great sound reproduction is, AND how affordable and fun it really can be.

These are just a few of my thoughts on how to break free, from the traditional way of thinking, instead of just "retailing" lets try nurturing for a long term goal, one that makes people "feel something"
about music they love, get em involved, feed them knowledge, cultivate
a new generation, water it with the right staff and watch how effective it can be. / looking forward to your thoughts.

agb's picture

Not exactly. Fremer in fact spends his life resisting new ideas and hangs on to the old. I don't recall whom, but someone smarter than he wrote (I think in this journal), that Fremer has done more damage to the cause of high end audio than anyone in existence.

To find wherefrom High End's troubles come, look no further.

In an age when a relatively inexpensive digital rig can measurably as well as subjectively outperform a very good and ten times as expensive analog rig, these added to hard economic times, only people who want flash, show offs, people who have nothing better to do, and have little substance, will go the latter route. I know, I know, we have amongst us the stuckups who say, "Well, if you can't afford it, get out of the kitchen." Nice try.

I know whereof I speak for I am the kitchen, for it is I who coined "DIGITAL SUCKS" back in the eighties. Having both kind of systems, analog and digital and being a very late convert to the latter, I no longer think so.

Obviously, because digital doesn't suck, it can have reliable and consistent very high resolution and musical performance; and analog can have neither. Analog, with respect to hurt feelings, is a relatively low resolution medium in the same sense that 35mm film is low resolution next to today's digital imaging.

Analog can sound fantastic indeed and very pleasurable for many reasons covered elsewhere. It is however neither cost-effective, nor is it the highest standard. Analog in fact, is NOT the standard.

Only MF and Co. would tell you it is, and he's selling himself for the income he makes from it. Follow the money. Or the snake oil.

trynberg's picture

Jason, these are excellent thoughts; however, most of the writers for this very magazine (and others) consistently display the opposite viewpoint, and have for as long as I have been a reader (almost 15 years). And many Bay Area audio shops are the very definition of "smug self-satisfaction" (thank you Music Lovers for not being that way).

When a reasonable person is presented with cables and other doo-dads costing several hundreds of dollars as being "money well spent", it's no wonder the high-end drives people away.

A lot of people just looking for casual audio equipment go to Best Buy or similar. Audio stores need to give them a reason to come there instead. Instead, many stores turn their noses up when asked to demo less expensive equipment, if they even have some out on the floor.

Of course, Stereophile is an enthusiast magazine, and should rightfully cover some expensive products that are shooting for state-of-the-art (although Stereophile should also judge such products more harshly than they do). But the main meat of the coverage should be of products that are at least somewhat affordable to the average person. Stereophile should point out and celebrate those products that deliver a good musical experience at "reasonable" price.

Then again, maybe I'm totally wrong. Maybe manufacturers should just continue to shoot for the 1% of the population that can afford their (often overpriced) high-end gear. Who cares what the masses want?

fy415's picture

I agree with almost everything you said, and do not have anything meaningful to add, except :

I strongly disagree with your opinion about the audio store you referenced. They are well within the definition of "smug self-satisfaction".

(I will concede that your and my particular experiences with them may not be representative of their customer service in general, but I simply could not let your statement stand uncontested.)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for your feedback. I must, however, take issue with our statement that "When a reasonable person is presented with cables and other doo-dads costing several hundreds of dollars as being 'money well spent', it's no wonder the high-end drives people away."

IMHO, the truth may be upsetting, but it only drives away people with closed minds. One of my first high-end purchases was of a Rotel CD player. When Glen of Pro Home Systems in Oakland next told me I needed to spend at least $100 on a pair of good interconnects in order to hear what it had to offer, I grew furious. But rather than storming out in a huff, I grumpily borrowed the AudioQuest interconnects he suggested I buy, and also asked to hear the model above them. Next, I visited a second store, and borrowed a pair of MIT interconnects that were comparably priced. I plugged in the Rotel, listened for myself, and heard the differences between stock interconnects and the higher priced models. I wasn't happy about it, but I ended up forking over the dough for the most expensive interconnects of the lot, because they did the best job of bringing music to life.

I don't know what to do about people who refuse to hear differences between interconnects, or who cannot believe that wires and other essential components should cost what they do. But I do feel that it's incumbent upon audio retailers and high-end publications to educate people and expose them to the full range of equipment and musical enjoyment that high performance audio can offer.

Plato65's picture

What I think is missing here is the bigger picture: changes in overall economic inequality. When the audio industry developed (1950s-1970s), economic inequality was declining across the developed countries and with the declining inequality came increasing mass marketization of audio equipment. Many lament this fact as a decline from the "golden age" of the 1950s-1960s when audio equipment was rather exclusive. Similar patterns were evident in other industries too, like cars, retail, furniture, etc. Since the 1980s, and especially later, inequality has been growing and audio equipment, like many other industries, seems to be splitting into a lower tier (mass market) and upper tier (luxury goods). This is evident in other industries too. Where I live, it's hard to find mid-priced clothes & restaurants, but there are plenty of cheap outlets and luxury outlets.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice article JVS-

today's manufacturers are not having any financial difficulties.
The current price of retail gear is very-well padded so there is no monies lost. Additionally, the ultra high-end raises its prices every year and has been doing so for the last 10-15 years!

DaveinSM's picture

Yeah, good luck. I personally believe that the Compact Disc was the single most important factor in raising the quality of sound available and accessible to the mass market consumer... Let the cheese eating consumers of $100k turntables scoff all they want. After such a uniform improvement in source material, casual listeners did not see the added value in spending multiples on playback equipment. Anybody who tells me that they can hear differences between most CD players when played back through average mass market equipment is lying. At the end of the day, running a high end audio equipment enterprise is like any other business, unfortunately. They will try to maximize profits. I'm not against that, but it seems that the passion is waning amongst value -driven equipment makers that really want to deliver the best sound for the money. Case in point: the new owners of Thiel are banking on the reputation that Jim Thiel built up by blatantly marketing to wealthy clientele who neither know or care nothing about the sound quality of their speakers as long as they are perceived as luxury status symbols. I am trying to reserve judgment, but the new TM3 stand mounted model appears to break every tenet of Jim Thiel's time/phase design principles. They look like PSBs with fancy wood veneer cabinetry at double the price,,, which is probably what they are.

ednazarko's picture

i know from the significantly increased numbers of people coming to charity food pantries and used clothing stores, and the increasing number of them who have had good careers and have college degrees or more, that calling out "lack of interest in high end audio" is a pretty lame statement. even those who are fortunate to still have a job are cash short these days, with many big companies - where people used to go to climb a ladder to a better lifestyle - on their fifth round of layoffs or third round of mandatory pay cuts. the number of people who have discretionary income enough to spend $50k+ on a sound system is shrinking every year, much less those who can spend that every year or two.

the companies that have found a way to make better sound financially accessible are doing just fine. i really do believe that people want the best sound they can afford, just as they want the best of anything else they can afford - but that's very different from the best sound possible.

BradleyP's picture

If the population that knew and wanted and expected high fidelity sound were ten times as large, imagine how technologies would trickle down to budget level gear even moreso than today. Profits would climb and prices would decrease for respectable, real world gear. Has anyone noticed how the term "audiophile" has made its way into the mainstream? That's an important step. More and more people know that "audiophile sound" is a thing to pursue, although few have experienced it.

I am convinced that all-in-one powered speaker systems with onboard DACs and DSP fed by wifi and a lossless streaming service controlled with a mobile device will become the standard "grown-up" stereo in the next few years for the middle class masses who like music as more than sonic wallpaper. At sufficient levels of production, one should expect a "Class C" system that looks great and can reach down to 35 Hz for $1000. Three thousand fetches Class B and full range. It's going to take a Sony or Harman or maybe PSB/NAD to pull it off at scale and with requisite big box distribution. Quality class D amplification and something like Devialet's SAM technology paired with DSP room correction are the keys.

DaveinSM's picture

Oh, and I am well aware of the 'loudness wars' and the fact that early Compact Discs were often remastered poorly. But after having dealt with wow and flutter (remember that?), limited dynamic range, tape hiss, pops and scratches, etc., CDs were nothing less than a revolution in reproduced sound. They much more effectively--- for better or for worse-- revealed the shortcomings of amplifiers and speakers with their utterly flat 20-20khz response and incomparably greater dynamic range. We can argue about the resolution of analog versus digital till the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is that casual listeners could discern these differences much more than if something sounded 'digitized'. And like it or not, audiophiles do not drive the mainstream music business, nor the general audio electronics industry-- casual listeners do. They are the mass herd and we are the cork sniffers. And the twain seldom meet.

Anon2's picture

I have written these thoughts on these pages before, but a reprise is called for, as the debate has resurfaced.

Hi-Fi will mirror the income divide in our country. This does not mean that the industry cannot survive, though adapt it must. Marketed correctly, there will always be newcomers to the compelling-quality of even a modest two-channel system.

Modest equipment is plentiful. It often gets high reviews in publications, including Stereophile. In publications across the Atlantic, products like the (still untested in Stereophile) B&W 685 (s1 or s2) have won year-over-year accolades and "best product of the year" distinctions. Even in a tough economy, a person who's sold on the trickle-down technology of such a product will save his/her pennies for what is a good long-term investment.

Used equipment is still plentiful in big cities. The internet has provided new avenues of access to used equipment.

For those with tools and carpentry skills, now favoring more our rural and suburban Hi-Fi fans, there are very interesting speaker kits, some using drivers found in the highest-end manufactured products, available for reasonable prices. The outlets selling such products are staffed by friendly and very competent staff.

The highest of high-end will prosper. But here, too, caution is called for. People will have money for the finest products, but there are limits for the well-heeled.

The Economist magazine, another favorite past-time for me besides hi-fi and Stereophile, had a fascinating article within the last month. Large economic gains are not the preserve of the 1% in the US, but of the .1% and particularly for the.01%. Even the 90% to 99% have lost ground economically in recent years.

This means that there is still ample, but not unconstrained, budgetary headroom for the finest hi-fi products. Cost increases of the best gear, which I have noted as a reader though not as a consumer, will have to be administered with caution in the future. Still there is a viable market for high-end gear.

Now we come to the real crunch for hi-fi: the upgrade tier between entry level gear to the middle, but not quite high-end tiers. I think for now that (and I must give some product examples for context) the B&W 685s on one end, and the Magico Q1s of the world probably have reasonably safe constituencies. What happens to a $2,000 to $10,000 pair of speakers is where I see real trouble.

A working class (including professional) person will say, I can't make this type of ($2,000 to $10,000) expenditure; I have car payments and 401k contributions; I'll stick with my entry-level speakers and amplification. I'll go for tweaks like better interconnects ($100 is a good investment in my experience) and speaker placement. They will wait for a used/demo purchase of opportunity with the patience of Job.

A higher-income person will say: "if I want a real sonic experience, and a pair of speakers having more advanced materials content, then I'll just set aside my money, and go for a $10,000+ pair of speakers (Maybe through a used product internet portal I can broker a good deal from an honest seller for $5,000 to $10,000)."

So, in the end, we will have a hi-fi industry. There will be two-channel enthusiasts; even modest speakers, equipped with $150 stands, and appropriate placement in a room, will continue to be compelling.

The high-end, if it recognizes that it does not have an unconstrained budget among its shoppers, should be able to adapt and to bring products into niches exited by products having cost increases. The impending Wilson Sabrina speaker shows such dexterity.

The $2,000 to $10,000 price range (for any component) will be the test; some products will not make it in this range; the value story will be put to unrelenting pressure here by consumers.

Redinky's picture

As a middle aged participant in the audiophile world, the thing I find most frustrating is accessibility to quality gear you can actually audition. Living in the mid south of the country, it's a at least an hour to two hour drive to get to listen to and actually physically see equipment I'm interested in. That being said, there is a large online presence to shop for gear in all price ranges, most with try it for 30 days and return if you don't love it policies. That's all fine but kind of a pain. The only local options are big box stores with sales staff that don't have a clue what good audio is.

I know that a lot of young adults are interested in good sound because I have two sons who have run off with a lot of my old gear I've held onto over the years but they always say the same thing. " I'd like to upgrade to stuff like you have dad but I just can't justify spending that kind of money." Both of them love the sound of vinyl but can't see investing in either the gear or the music due to the cost.. That leaves digital, mostly downloads as there only option. Some of the streaming services like Tidal have got there attention but at $17 dollars a month they've kind of pulled back from that. It's frustrating to watch young people that want to participate in enjoyment of good sound be locked out due to the monetary roadblocks thrown up in front of them.

What the answer is for this generation is hard to figure out. It just can't be a priority when the cost of living these days is such a burden on young adults. College loans, health insurance they don't want, taxes and regulations on everything you do or buy, and just the basic cost of life are about all they can handle these days. When you attend an audio show, it's mostly middle aged men who have secure incomes and disposable income to spend as they wish. It's worrying to say the least to watch the cost of basic intro level gear pushing into the $1000.00 dollar range for a decent pre amp and speakers that will cost at least that much if they're worth having. Even used gear commands a premium these days.

Yes there will always be a market for the "high end" audiophile, but the gap between that and every thing else will only widen unless someone has the vision to cater to a market that would welcome entry level gear worth having at a reasonable price. Oh, and to not have to drive two hours to hear it.

Anon2's picture

Another thought about hi-fi concerns the unprecedented capacity to expand the performance of any system through enhanced, and vastly expanded content on the internet.

The previous comment mentioned that a streaming service was charging members of his family $17.00. Fortunately, for those DAC-owning households, the free path to music is only bounded by an internet connection, and one's willingness to peruse the internet.

While I have not warmed to downloads, I have become an avid streamer. Why download when the world can be your hard-drive through streaming services? Often the sound quality is anywhere from passable to superb.

A DAC and an internet connection are the "shortwave radio" of the 21st century. It's all out there. There are surprisingly knowledgeable and wide-ranging radio hosts and programs out there. The content is to be had for the cost of electricity, computer wear and tear, and your monthly internet service cost.

Maybe these services don't "personalize" your tastes in Pandora-like fashion. But, who cares? These services will expand a person's musical horizons, often in unexpected and rewarding ways.

Listen to Radio 3 on RNE. The presenters on these programs dig up fascinating Rock, R&B, Blues, Soul, Jazz music, often from the US, that I had never heard in my life. RNE Radio Clasica equals, and sometimes surpasses, the best classical stations in the US. The BBC has equally broad and deep offerings.

I have discovered on the internet (again RNE Radio 3) superb recordings of fascinating African pop music from countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Angola. I have come across this music quite by accident; I often go back and listen to it; it's all archived going back to 2008 (try that on your hard-drive).

If you want Brazilian music, you can listen to RNE Radio 3 every morning at 14:00 GMT.

The internet has not changed but amplified one thing: the fact that there's nothing like a really good DJ with a deep knowledge of the music that he/she is presenting.

If you are a classical fan, why bother watching (very low quality audio) excerpts of the Vienna New Year's Day Concert on PBS, when you can get up early, make a pot of coffee, turn on your DAC, and listen to the entire live Wiener Musikverein performance on ORF-Austrian Radio?

If you are home for Christmas Eve, then just turn on your DAC and listen to the BBC's live broadcast of the King's College Choir. Then you can buy the CD or download if the particular concert was worth it.

Other great programs, like Millenium of Music, Jazz at Lincoln Center, With Heart and Voice, for a few examples, are available right on their own sites, with no radio-station intermediation needed.

I even came across some fascinating traditional music of Paraguay by doing a brief internet search the other day. The music, and sound quality, were both superb.

Yes, I omitted in my previous remarks the incredible variety of music, often system enhancing, that is available on the internet. This is all free music (for now at least) in indescribable variety, presented by deeply knowledgeable hosts.

The sound quality is better each day (try "Nuestro Flamenco" 2 times per week on RNE) and it will boost any system without the monthly fees or additional apparatus that downloads require. I suppose that these programs are just the equivalent of "downloads" one-time removed from a person's stereo.

And, finally, let's not forget Youtube. For the brief annoyance of a few commercials, a person can re-live the MTV days (when it was a real music channel) and find the music that the American music lover was raised on. Many 1980s, and newer, hits are available on Youtube in "HQ" sound. A few weeks ago, I watched an entire Pat Metheney concert, "The Way Up," recorded in S. Korea, all on Youtube and through a DAC.

The best news for hi-fi enthusiasts is that there is excellent and free content on the internet, and in unlimited quantity. My only frustration is that there are only 24 hours in a day to try to hear it all.

Redinky's picture

My comments above weren't really about content. Everyone knows that there is a lot of options available on the Internet. I subscribe to three. Tidal, pandora one, and radio tunes. I use a Parasound P5 as my DAC. Amazing quality for the money. My comments were more focused on the lack of places to go and try out new gear. Besides Best Buy, we only have one other store in a city of 300,000 that sales any upper end equipment. They sell B&W, Rotel and Classe'. All of these are really one company, B&W.

Until those that want to keep their industry alive make an effort to be in more available locations, the industry will continue to struggle to bring in new customers and keep the ones they've had in the past.

Anon2's picture

Sorry if my previous comments did not address your point; I made a passing reference to your streaming expense as part of a continuation of my previous thoughts.

At any rate let's talk more about product availability, particularly for auditioning and comparison. purposes.

If you live in a city of 300,000 and you have one B&W group retailer, and if the B&W group retailer is a full-fledged B&W/Rotel/Classe distributor, then you probably aren't doing too badly.

I spent a good time of my life in a city of about 600,000. This city, too, only had one B&W Group retailer. This place recently survived only by being purchased by a dealer from a larger regional city.

I live in a metro area with over 10 times the population of your community. We only have 2 dedicated, full-range B&W Group audio retailers (one of these is attached to, you guessed it, Best Buy).

There are many "dealers" in the city where I live. Most of them are attached to a primary residence or are strictly "by appointment" types of places (which makes my enthusiasm to occupy their time muted at best).

The remaining dealers, as you have noted, are affiliated with "groups" of product manufacturers/distributors, thus slimming down the options further (B&W Group, D&M Holdings, Sumiko).

Even in the dedicated, "full range," B&W Group dealer in our city, you would find a limited range of products to sample. You will find a representative sampling, for example, of B&W speakers: maybe 1-2 from the 600 series, 1-2 from the CM series, 1-2 800 series, and then 1 or 2 desktop/portable products. Finding a full line-up of B&W speakers, anywhere, is probably a rare treat. Another local retailer in our area only carries a couple of Dynaudio speaker lines (and then only a couple of models from each line); other models are only available through special order.

There are a couple of other B&W Group retailers in our region, but one is more of a home-theater focused outlet (and they have cut back on locations), another is a single outlet electronics/appliances type of place.

My experience in cities below 1,000,000 is that there have never been a lot of options to audition and compare products, and these observations go back to the 1980s--an era that both of us would agree was a better one on many counts.

People can debate the economy and its impact on the quantity of dealers and the quantities of product available for audition. Whatever the reasons behind this, there are fewer outlets and demo units for the audio enthusiast, even in very large cities.

In smaller cities--having been attached to this hobby to various degrees for decades--I'm not sure that the availability was ever really there, beyond 1 or 2 dealers.

Where does this leave us? Probably with more of a need to buy gear on faith, and probably to buy more of it online. It also leaves us with a need to rely more on those, like Stereophile, who have constant access to products to test, and with a consistent set of measurement techniques, and constant set of ears, to aid the consumer with future audio purchases.

Buying gear on faith will be an adaptation that many of us will have to make, regardless of the size of the community in which we live. Manufacturers are adapting; they will have to.

A national on-line audio retailer sells two lines of Dynaudio speakers. KEF is going straight to the consumer through its own site. Canton sells its best selling line of speakers through "the big" online reatiler. The B&W Group, again an interesting case study, is still a hold-out for many of their core products; my guess is that they can't hold out for long until they have to make some of their hi-fi products available on-line.

There are options available. I have dealt with three on-line merchants who focus on hi-fi equipment. Their sites should be widely known to most audio enthusiasts. Their responses to product inquiries, though they can't offer auditions, have been professional and courteous.

The internet and economic challenges will reduce the need for, and the availability of, retail outlet-based inventory for customer review and sampling. This phenomenon goes beyond audio. A trip to the Gap a couple of years ago demonstrated that even certain sizes of pants are now consigned to the internet. Retailers of many products are either reducing store-based inventories, breadth of assortment, or both. Audio, unfortunately, has become part of this trend.

Roger That's picture

It will remain a small niche (probably smaller) while Hi-Fi remains on niche price tags.
I believe that the audio industry needs to look at what other industries are doing for ages, and cars might represent a good example.

On most major events, car makers show the very best they have (and higher-end brands/models are usually present), but most are trying to reach the "average" consumer.

Judging by what I see in my country and events coverage from Stereophile in the USA, it seems like there's no room or products for the average consumer (exciting products at a real-world price point). While most of us will see/hear high-end products at audio events (or press coverage), only a few will actually be customers for that range of products, and none of this helps the industry.

I understand that many brands have moved to high-end because they can't sell huge amounts of units, so maximizing the profits on each product sold was an alternative.
But that also helps to turn down the average consumer that could start with an entry-level equipment and go up in scale/price later (a path taken by many of us which started many years ago).

If the car industry would focus on selling higher-end Mercedes as their bread and butter, they would be broken many years ago. You need to sell Hyundai and Ford and making the buyer dreaming about owning a better car later. When the customer is used to the entry-level Ford and tries a Mercedes C-Class, it will represents the real eye-opener and a turning point in the perception of a car's value.

If they would try to say to consumers that it's not worth having a car below a Mercedes SL or a totl Jaguar, they might be actually killing the notion that there are many "steps" in the car world between a vehicle that has the single purpose of transporting people and the high-end Mercedes.

The "people carrier" of the audio world is fine, under the umbrella of smartphones, headphones and Bluetooth speakers, and their market shares are available for everyone to see.

But what about the rest (besides the market that clearly aims for the high-end niche)?

tonykaz's picture

Maybe the $20,000 PreAmp is dying or dead here in the States but have a look at Europe ! and all those Meridian , Linn , B&O , Electrocompaniet , Esoteric , Goldmound type systems that families own and use .
Anyway , here in the States , people have $5,000 Car Radio Systems that sound pretty good to the Buyers , they have iPhones , headphones , Bose Radios , Sound Bars , 5.1 Systems , Computers with iTunes and Desk Speakers that Play Hollywood Movies and Netflix , etc , etc , etc . phew , they hardly have room for buying a dedicated $50,000 System with a silly old Dad's Record Player , pleazzz !! , besides where are they gonna put that 6,000 Record LP collection ?
The High-End people , that HP wrote for , are no longer a viable market ! The Phono Cart ( Koetsu ) has been replaced by the Digital to Audio Converter , only those Souls like Todd the Vinyl Junkie and people like him with 12,000 Vinyl LPs are clingers-on , the days of folks wanting a Big System to Show-off are long gone , the writers hoping for a vinyl resurgence are acting out a Neurotic Fantasy where 2+2 is hoped to be 17 . Trying to sell to gawkers at a California Car Show is just another example of desperation .
The recorded music is getting better , much better , the recording studio is using stuff like Genelec Active Monitors that sound so beautiful that a person could wonder if our old Magnapans , Theils , Wilsons were ever necessary , these studios are the people that deliver the actual music we play through our Magico & VTL stuff , hmm , food for thought .
In the Print Industry ( my industry ) digital outperformed analog from about 2000 , today's best Analog imagry is rather stale compared to what the lads using the Canon 1d are delivering so easily . Audio is just the same .
I made a pass thru this last RMAF upstairs , it seemed mostly empty but for a few retirees , downstairs in headphones was a good bit busier . Handwriting is on the wall for ya'll to see . I also made a stop at the AES show where the place was hopping . Music , good music is alive and well , High-End is now a kinda Dead End . Today , a person's listening Room can be a Park Bench in Central Park or an Airplane Seat , it certainly isn't a dedicated listening room in an Expensive Home .
The Times are a changing and have changed , it's time to move on !

Tony in Michigan

Luke Zitterkopf's picture

A well written article Jason. Let me share our perspective as a manufacturer of loudspeakers. We feel it is the greatest time in history to be an audio enthusiast and music lover! Access to recorded music in many formats has never been better. Products at all price points have never sounded better. Regional audio shows are providing convenient and affordable venues for consumers to experience high quality sound.

Establishing increased relevance to a wider group of people will take time. We feel the sales of turntables and vinyl records to be solid evidence that sound quality matters to a wide group of consumers. Therefore, the equipment for playback is no different, and this discovery process by consumers is well underway. Great source material brings about a requirement for great playback equipment.

otaku's picture

Was most likely a competitor, not predecessor, to homo sapiens.

cdxskier's picture

I don't think it's fair to lump Pioneer in with Bose, Beats, and company. Their Andrew Jones line shows real commitment to delivering outstanding quality at an attainable price point.

tnargs's picture

Some enthusiasts have a hobby that does not have any participation by the masses. Examples include RC airplanes, amateur astronomy, wargaming, surfing, scuba diving, sports cars. Equipment suppliers to these hobbyists can focus on their needs and pay attention to their wishes.

Other enthusiasts have a hobby that has mass participation. Audiophiles are one of these; so are photographers, motorcyclists, and general car enthusiasts. Our hobby is therefore distorted in terms of equipment supply because suppliers are paying a lot of attention to the mass participant who is no enthusiast. The mass participant might look at us with a leery eye, more than he (or she) would look at a hobbyist in a hobby like amateur astronomy, because (he) feels that he knows the audiophile's experience and doesn't need to spend big to get it. So the serious audiophile looks like nothing more than a snob or braggart. But he respects the amateur astronomer more, because he thinks the equipment they buy is 'what they need to see more stars'.

melissassippi's picture

The idea that the high end or quality sound reproduction is "open to us all" has been out there for decades. Critic after critic has written about the lack of correlation between high end and high prices, but the fact is, while they say they could happily live with X low-priced-but-still-high-end component, or that plenty of components costing less than Japanese big-box equipment is actually high end, they don't own this stuff and never would. The McIntosh idea is actually pretty good--high end stereo equates perfectly with high end cars, high end clothing and high end real estate as well. I can't count the number of people who've been transported by my stereo, listening to music they've heard all their lives, only to recoil in horror when hearing the prices, and this includes a musician couple who just spent $3M on a townhouse and a man who is shopping for an island. Invariably, people would rather get new kitchens and bathrooms to enjoy, thus raising the value of their homes. Meanwhile, I've got the same old car in the driveway, the same crummy bathrooms, and if any of my equipment breaks down, and it's getting close, I'll never be able to replace it with the equivalent in quality on my retirement money.