Re-Tales #9: Mind the Gap

To borrow Lyric Hi-Fi owner Leonard Bellezza's words from last month's Re-Tales, the traditional audiophile customer base "is graying."

That doesn't mean the future is bleak—not necessarily. Many in the industry have hope for hi-fi's future. For that potential future to be realized, however, audio dealers must adapt. Interest in better sound seems to be rising. Consider vinyl's resurgence; regardless of your views on vinyl's ultimate fidelity, it's a big step up from the earlier fashion for MP3s and cheap earbuds. (There's good news on that front, too: Those earbuds morphed into Beats headphones, then Beats into good-quality headphones.

There's very good reason to expect hi-fi to thrive: It offers something of real value—good music, beautifully reproduced—and there's a large potential audience that hasn't discovered it yet. I spoke with several audio store owners, and others, and asked what they were doing to reach that potential audience.

Maier Shadi, owner of The Audio Salon in Santa Monica, California, has been in the business since 1991. At age 18, he approached his local hi-fi store with $10,000 in his pocket, aiming to buy an audio system. The dealer was reluctant to let him into the VIP room where they kept the pricier gear. "I didn't want my store to be like that," Shadi told me. "We're not snooty about it. We have the same kind of service for all customers. We'll go to someone's house who buys a $200 DAC... . It's about developing the relationships... . The small projects become big projects."

Shadi has done his share of market development. He set up a system in an art gallery for an album-release event for a high-profile musician. He has set up high-end systems in front of his showroom, showing passersby just how good recorded music can sound.

I also spoke with Rich Maez of Colorado-based Monarch Systems Distribution. Maez and business partner Jon Baker are tuned in to the hobby's generational divide. When they seek new dealership partners, they factor age and succession planning into their decisions. "There's a huge amount of potential in the industry," Maez told me. But the hobby remains mostly male and largely white—and, yes, it's graying. Those who aren't developing new clientele, Maez said, are missing the boat. What's the best way to reach younger people? Here's one answer: music, whether it's live or Memorex.

Noho Sound and the World of McIntosh Townhouse, both in New York City, have hosted live-music evenings. At such events, live music is combined with music delivered over one or more high-quality hi-fi systems. Showcasing established and/or emerging musicians can draw new audiences. Such experiences have the added benefit of helping people connect—or reconnect—with what live music sounds like.

In 2007, Tyler and Dana Mueller took over Next Level HiFi, located in the Chicago suburb of Wayne, Illinois, following the passing of the previous owner. Before the pandemic, they were hosting "Sunday Fundays": listening events where they open their appointment-only showroom to anyone who wants to attend. It's casual, BYOB. Some people bring speakers to swap into a system. They recently started hosting those events again, with a 10-person limit and masks required. All ages attend.

All the dealers I spoke with said that guys who are, say, 50 and up still constitute an important part of their business. Shadi, though, says his turntable business is starting to be driven by younger people. He's seeing customers in their 20s and 30s who have outgrown "very basic, college-dorm–type all-in-one systems" and are upgrading to better quality. Some buy preowned, certified gear; others dabble in DIY; still others are into higher-end headphones, the mythical audiophile gateway drug. You have to offer them an upgrade path.

New customers include "way more women than before," Shadi told me. "Women are buying a lot of turntables—for sons, husbands, themselves. It's almost like a return to the 1950s and '60s for us: A hi-fi system is seen as an essential part of the home. Women are trying to bring the family together around music. It's cool, the way people are using this medium to connect with family and music and memories."

Speaking of family: Shadi recently sold a system to a woman who had inherited her audiophile father's extensive record collection. Customers in their late teens or early 20s have been handed down, say, an older turntable and come in for a graduation gift of new speakers.

Tyler Mueller, of Chicago's Next Level, said they worked with clients in their 20s and 30s but then those clients had children and vanished for a decade or more. When their kids became teenagers, the parents reappeared with their kids. Recently, one such father visited the store with his 17-year-old son to introduce him to the hobby.

Disruption stimulates change. The pandemic may have helped build a bridge over hi-fi's generational divide by forcing audio dealers (and others in the industry) to become more tech-savvy, organizing webinars, utilizing Zoom, and making use of social media to stay in touch with customers. The customers, too, became savvier. "[Age] 45–65 is still our sweet spot," Mueller told me, "but they have gotten into apps, social media, Zoom, etc. It's good that people are getting more tech-savvy. Maybe a year ago, a 65-year-old wouldn't have downloaded the app."

Here's another way that dealerships diversify: They serve new areas as other dealerships close. Shadi recently set up a system for a customer in Knoxville, Tennessee. Aaron Sherrick, of Pennsylvania's Now Listen Here, reported customers driving up from North Carolina to listen to speakers he carries.

It's like evolution: In times of rapid environmental change, those that don't adapt die out.

Doctor Fine's picture

Proof that the market is amazing right now.
My 85 year old neighbor hasn't used his 30 year old Aerial 10t loudspeakers for over a decade.
These speakers are 30 years old with rotted peeling cabinets and cracked tops.

But he knows the market is on fire and thinks now is the time to cash in on the hot classic market.
I offered him $300 and promised to haul them away.

Now he hates me for being a liar.
"I see these on Ebay all the time for thousands and thousands of dollars---so they are worth a fortune nowadays."
He has decided to price them at more than they cost 30 years ago.
He wants $6,000 for the pair.
What an exciting time to be an audiophile.

His used entry level integrated amp is also worth more now than it was 30 years ago.
"Solid state back then was the finest ever made---not like today when we know stuff is cheap and no good."
So he is pricing that amp along with the 25 other same models that have been sitting on Ebay for over a year with no buyers.
Bear in mind that 15 years ago the most you could get was maybe $800 for that amp---today it is worth twice that---in HIS mind!

And in his mind it is a joy to know his 30 years old kit is now worth enough money to pay for a new Corvette and have enough money to buy a new home with the leftover dough.
And maybe finance a dream trip to Europe for a couple of months.
He knows he is sitting on a gold mine,
Everything old is worth a fortune nowadays, even old bed linens and used refrigerators.

Geniuses have taken over the hifi market.
Now prices are reflecting how incredibly valuable the old junk is getting.
Who knew?

Ortofan's picture

... hardware.

Did your 85-year-old neighbor tell you about his collection of mint condition original Mercury Living Presence LPs, bought based on the reviews by HP in TAS?

Anton's picture

That pic looks like a session of the United States Senate Select Committee for Diversity and Women’s Issues.

I’ve been seeing my own ravenesque pate thin and grey (thinning is more sad than greying, let me add.) Maybe if we played something other than soft rock and smooth jazz at shows, we could attract a more desirable demographic.

I vote we let Sean Casey be the official DJ of the hobby!

thatguy's picture

When I first looked at the picture I went "those guys aren't that old." and then instantly "oh, cr@p"

teched58's picture

When the guys in this photo are gone, the audiophile hobby is over. Dead. Going, going, gone. Looks like it won't be all that long now.

mns3dhm's picture

Like the old dog gone astray, he's just old and in the way

Simon Moond's picture

Whenever I watch audio show videos (and there are plenty) on YouTube that take place in other parts of the world, Hong Kong, Poland, other parts of Asia, the attendees sure seem substantially younger than in the US or England.

Not to mention, more women, too.

The 'aging audiophile' stereotype seems to be American-centric. Other countries do exist, people.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for this comment.

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for commenting, Jason!

Julie Mullins's picture

This has also been my experience in attending and covering audio shows outside the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. There's a broader age demographic and more women (Tokyo Show excepted, but still a cool show). The last show I went to and covered before the pandemic shutdown was the Florida Audio Expo—my first Stereophile assignment! There were a number of Millennials including gals there. So that was encouraging.

yourfriendfred's picture

"What's the best way to reach younger people? Here's one answer: music, ...."

Perhaps play something other than jazz from the 1950s.

Emphasize enjoying music rather than looking down on people who don't want to spend $1,000 on a power cord.

Briandrumzilla's picture

If I were a dealer or manufacturer, I would not worry about the graying of the customer base. Ones with usually plenty of disposable income to engage in the hobby. What should scare them is the high inflation significantly eroding that disposable income.

rt66indierock's picture

It will be interesting to attend T.H.E. Show in Long Beach next month. I want see if a younger crowd shows up.

trynberg's picture

Honestly the picture says it all...all white men above 40. No women, no younger people, no minorities. Audiophilia is not an inclusive hobby. No one to blame but the members themselves.

WELquest's picture

As with golf or the theater or many activities, the most active or largest or most visible cohort is not always the youngest group. While the audio community was shrinking in the 1990's, it was entirely appropriate for those of us in the business to notice and to care. However, if that trend had continued according to a simplistic extrapolation, all appreciators of serious audio would be dead by now, and all serious audio manufacturers would be out of business. My not-funny joke at the time was "well, as long as I die before all my customers die."

But in the real world, while the modulations in market size and health are very real, the extrapolations by either the pessimists or optimists are always wrong. If one's stuck in traffic, a shortsighted prediction might be "at this rate, I'll die in my car without ever getting home."

Equally or more important in order for our industry's fixation on navel-gazing to have any meaning at all, attending hifi shows and seminars is a tiny minority phenomenon within the larger audio community. The average age of that sub-community hasn't been representative of the larger market since the Terry Rogers hifi shows in the 1970's.

That culture, back when working in a hifi store was the closest thing to playing in a rock band for causing everyone to want to be your friend -- was a temporary phenomenon driven by a confluence of many cultural influences. That was not a reference norm and the decades since have all been a depression -- the 60's and 70's were an aberration. -- though the energy and the music that drove our world sure was fun!

1978 was I believe the peak of the mass phenomenon of everyone-wants-a-hifi, which was a "bookshelf" speaker on the floor on either side of the sofa -- the giant headphone effect enabling sonic immersion, an incredibly more important and fundamental universally desirable relationship than the perfect stereo image that you and I might crave.

From that huge community, came the smaller "audiophile" community, and eventually the still smaller community that look like the audience in the photo above, with I believe Ricardo as speaker, the UK's #1 mover & shaker of high-end audio for many decades. They have gray hair, and they will be replaced by people who don't yet have gray hair -- but most often not until they too have gray hair.

These individuals will pass away, but the larger phenomenon of music as the world's most popular recreational drug is forever, and so will be the larger phenomenon of which a few gray-hairs at a hifi show is just tiny symptom.

Bill Low/AudioQuest&GoldenEar

Jasper the Cat's picture

Sure, the majority of audiophiles that can spend $10,000+++ on a system is naturally older. If audio manufacturers and resellers what to engage a younger clientele not only passing on the jazz and moving to the 2020’s music scene would help but more importantly offer entry level priced systems that are a move toward audiophile quality. These younger “kids” have college debt, new families and currently many are struggling to buy a home. Promote “audiophile” systems that start with possibly amps and pre-amp systems so they at least get an understanding of difference between a $500 Sony or Yamaha AVR and an entry level separates system they can upgrade as they learn and can afford. Seriously prices are a put off to most people as they have reached ridiculous. Remember the law of diminishing return?