Abandon Folly, Not Hope

The day before I began writing this, John Atkinson posted on Stereophile's website a chart from Nielsen Soundscan showing the ski-jump–like path CD sales have been on since 2004. In 2004, total sales were 651 million units; in 2014, 141 million units. All that is lacking from that impactful visual to make the ski-jump analogy perfect is the little uptick at the end to launch the skier into free air. Those numbers look to me like a total decline in sales of 78%. Ouch.

My audio retailer friend Bob Saglio stopped by today. He had with him the first CD he'd bought in living memory: Shadows in the Night, Bob Dylan's tribute to Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook. As of early March, Amazon listed the album as No.2 in Rock and No.6 in Pop. Saglio also recounted a droll anecdote: Dylan's people contacted the editor of AARP: The Magazine, who at first ignored them, on the assumption that they didn't know that he'd left his former job at Rolling Stone magazine. No, Dylan wanted to give an exclusive interview to AARP, the largest-circulation print magazine in the world.

I've been expressing in these pages my concerns about the state and fate of the component-audio business since my first "As We See It," of March 2000: Let's Face the Music and Dance." Back then, I wrote: "Does high-end audio have a future? High-end audio most definitely does have a future. So do the Latin mass, chess, leather-bound books, and wooden boats. But the future will not be like the past, and I think we must face the fact that high-end audio's future, both for hardware and software, will be as a minority enthusiasm. We should plan and act accordingly."

The passage of time has only reinforced my conviction that, just like the titular rock band in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, we must get used to the idea of having "a more selective audience."

Because most people "like to listen to music," it's tempting to assume that better audio equipment in the form of component audio, and of loudspeakers rather than earbuds, would enable most people to derive more pleasure from their listening. The problem is, very few people will enjoy the hedonic increment afforded by fine audio enough to want to pay for it. The number of people who will enjoy better sound well enough to be willing to make sacrifices in other areas of their lives is even smaller. It is extremely doubtful that the component-audio industry can do anything to change this situation—at least as far as "most people" are concerned.

From 1956 to 1986, most household and college-dorm rooms contained some form of component audio. However, conditions today make selling traditional audio components nearly impossible, except to a small minority. Today, that minority is audiophiles; but I believe there is no reason that, in the future, a larger minority could not be made up of music educators and professional and amateur singers and instrumentalists.

From 1956 to 1986, if you wanted to hear good playback of music, you had to buy a component-audio system. Today, the best sound system most people have ever owned is the stereo that came with their car. Most desktop computers come with speakers that are at least decent by historical standards, if only in terms of clarity and resolution (not dynamics or bass extension). Any home video system that can play a DVD soundtrack can also play a CD. Moreover, iPods and smartphones are completely adequate for most peoples' needs.

A further negative impact on the component-audio business is the excellent value proposition presented by the products made by Sonos. I think Sonos is successful because, for many people, music is only a background accompaniment to other activities, such as reading, cooking, cleaning, or socializing. When music is never played loud enough to stop a conversation, spending a sum of money on component audio that's 5, 10, or 20 times the cost of a room-filling Sonos one-box just doesn't make sense.

Meanwhile, the "component-audio" industry has steadily raised its prices, on the theory that that's where the money is. Loudspeakers costing more than $20,000/pair were extremely rare in 1982. Today, such speakers are common, and more than 40 speaker models are now available that go for more $100,000/pair, with a few others at just under that price.

However, unlike other trophy acquisitions—sports cars, watches, expensive wines, fine art—an ambitious music-only system claims a substantial amount of a home's living space. Furthermore, an ambitious audio system is worth one's investment only when one shuts up and does nothing but listen.

Chasing rich people because they are rich and not because they are music lovers is, in my view, pure folly. Actor Alec Baldwin is obsessed with the music of Gustav Mahler. However, I think that makes Baldwin the exception among famous actors, and not the rule. I think the high-end audio industry should try to identify the real music lovers (at all income levels), then offer them cost-effective systems they can afford. Otherwise, we are trapped in a game of "Last Man Standing."

Audio dealers—why not invite all local AARP members in to hear Dylan's Shadows in the Night on a great but not obscenely expensive system? It's yet another great recording and mixing job from engineer Al Schmitt—and it's available on vinyl.—John Marks

chaircrusher's picture

I am a musician and know a lot of musicians and they all care deeply about listening to music. I don't know any audiophiles personally, if by 'audiophile' you mean someone who would spend more than $500 on a turntable.

Musicians generally don't make the kind of money that would allow even 5 figures to drop on a listenind system. But they do listen closely to music, and appreciate good playback quality. I'm of the opinion that there's such a thing as good enough, and my opinion is shared by studio people, who aren't afraid of spending a goodly amount of money for monitoring. They also pay close attention to acoustic treatment, something not all audiophiles are aware of.

My opinion is that good professional studio audio is going to be hard to beat for audio quality; listening to (for example) Dynaudio monitors driven by an Apogee DAC in a properly treated room is amazing, particularly if you're hearing well-recorded music at its native resolution.

A recent editorial of yours said words to the effect that "our playback systems are very close to perfect, the weak link is how music is recorded." That's rather a slam on studio professionals, who take their work very seriously; there will always be 'bad' recordings (which in the end are 'bad' in that 'their production isn't to your taste' as much as actual technical faults).

Similarly, a Technics SL1200 turntable with a $100 Ortofon cartridge sounds fantastic to me. I could spend a lot more money than those items cost, but I doubt I could hear the difference.

All the rest of it: $50K speakers, special AC mains cables, boutique turntables etc are fun if you have the time, money, and interest to pursude them, but it's clearly a matter of belief, subjectivity and confirmation bias.

Personally, I do most my listening on Audio Technica M50 headphones, or my living room system, which is mostly thrift store finds. In my studio, I have Event 20/20 monitors driven by a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40. The studio sounds better than the headphones, and the living room brings up the rear. But they're all good enough.

Catch22's picture

I see a lot of headwinds for the HiFi industry, not the least of which is the lack of quality recordings for the up and coming demographic that will be fueling economic growth.

I'd hate to be the guy working in the audio industry trying to tell the 35 year old guy looking for a mega buck hifi so he can listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers that I had just the right combination for him. Especially if I offered any sort of return on gear protection.

gefski's picture

Great read as always!

I would only change one sentence, based on my experience. "Most people like to listen to music" would read "most people like to hear music". There are hardly any "music listeners" among my family and friends.

The rise of headphones is helping to change that, one listener at a time. It's not practical to haul our speakers, amps, preamps to a meet, but (relatively) easy to attend with our cans, amps, and dacs. And at every meet I attend, some "newbies" are listening in jaw-dropped amazement. They will be buying some of the good stuff!

Gorm's picture

gefski is of course correct: almost no-one under fifty listens to music now; they dance, run, workout, bike and ski to it- but they never JUST listen.
I take issue with staircrusher: you underestimate yourself. It is easily possible to hear virtually any change in a good system (cables, cleaning a cd with L'art Du Son, power conditioners etc).I have a considerable investment in all things audio and none was bought on "belief". I go to hear unamplified music a lot (symphony & chamber) and I am married to a jazz vocalist so I am familiar with small club reproduction. She can immediately tell the difference even small changes in VTA of my turntable, or swapping power cords.and indeed so can most listeners that come to my room.
The question is not whether a great cartridge (or CD player, or better cables) make a difference - they do - but whether it is worth the expense for you personally. And somewhat more difficultly - which difference is an actual improvement. The subjective part is which imperfection you prefer.
I always look for value in my purchases and sometimes there is real value in somewhat expensive products and sometimes not. I bought some expensive Audio Research tube amps fifteen years ago and have never regretted that purchase. And I am about to sell them for a third of what I originally paid. Try that with a new BMW.
At the recent Rocky Mountain Audio fest I heard speakers of extraordinary value ranging from $ 12,000 to $ 300. I also heard many at $55,000 that were not, and a few that were, even at higher prices.
Just because I cannot, or will not, afford some products didn't change those facts.
The best tweak for the money in my experience was better fuses in my great amps. Better power cords are a revelation (all of them actually, at mostly any cost, make huge improvements). These are all improvements that literally hundreds of people (musicians, family members and even a few audiophiles) all readily could hear.
Of course as I am now 68 years old and the last of the breed (my two adult kids don't own any actual equipment) I guess it's sunset time for the High End.

mrwrightkkpsi's picture

So I have been an active member of the audio community for over a decade as a professional and was a consumer in that community before then. Before moving into the business end of hi-fi I was a full-time music educator (high school band if you care to know) and a full time freelance musician. I have always felt that my peers were going to become my customer base, just as John has written here. And, to my dismay, most of my peers are really chaircrusher- the first post in the comments. I've spent so much time talking to educators, gigging musicians, studio guys, even production professionals and the vast majority just write the whole thing off as folly without ever giving it a try- just like chaircrusher. If you have not grown up around it, been given the great demo on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, or lucked into something at a garage sale on a whim, too many people just dismiss this hobby as the folly of the rich or voodoo or some sort of blind faith in things that can't possibly be true. The means, profession, religion or anything else that seem to create a demographic just don't seem to be there- at least in my observations.

A quick note to chaircrusher: please don't take any of my comments as personal insults. You are more than welcome to you opinions. You did hang your self out here in the forum so I used you as an example- no malice intended.