How to Revive High-End Audio

When I became Stereophile's editor in 1986, the median age of the magazine's readership was the same age as I was then, 38; ie, half the readers were younger than 38, half older. According to our most recent reader survey, the median reader age is now 48, meaning that in the intervening 19 years, that median reader has aged at half the rate of the rest of us. A nice trick. But older that reader certainly has become, which has led to cries of doom from some quarters of the audio industry.

The fear is that as members of the baby-boom generation increasingly look backward at their 50th birthdays, they will equally increasingly remove themselves from the market for two-channel audio components. Couple that fear with the observation that younger generations neither appear to value quality nor appear to be willing to devote extended periods of time to listening to music without multitasking, and it would seem that the customer base for the high-end audio industry will soon, literally, die out.

And, as Stereophile correspondent Ken Kessler wrote in an article in the September 2005 issue of UK trade journal Inside Hi-Fi & AV, the high-end audio industry faces obstacles in reaching its existing customer base. Ken's thesis is that, whereas acknowledged luxury markets exist in many fields, from watches to cars to handbags to pens, audio alone seems to be associated with a sense of consumer guilt—that when conspicuous consumption involves expensive loudspeakers or amplifiers, it is to be condemned.

Buy a Patek Phillipe or a Porsche Cayenne and your neighbors will be impressed, or at least not regard you as crazy. But spend that same money on an amplifier or a pair of speakers and, as a Stereophile reader recently wrote me when canceling his subscription, "With all the crap going on in the world and you clowns are stressing over the next platinum-coated piece of electronics . . . You all should be ashamed of yourselves."

This reader was angered by Michael Fremer's admission that he had purchased the review samples of the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX2 loudspeaker, which he had reviewed in August, and it was Michael Fremer who pointed out to me another example of this paradox a few months back. In a single weekend issue of the New York Times, one writer enthusiastically extolled the benefits of $600 table place settings on one page, while on another page, amid a survey of headphones, another writer cautioned his readers that though one particular model sounded superb, it was ridiculously priced at $300. The Times apparently feels that headphones costing the same as a spoon and couple of forks are too pricey to be recommended.

The fault lies not just in the Times' choice of writers, but also in the way the high-end audio industry has failed to communicate its message to anyone other than those who have found their own ways to its offerings, as well as the fact that, as I pointed out in a speech I gave at a dinner in Chicago celebrating Stereophile's 30th anniversary, traditional audio retailers are more like fishermen than farmers. Unlike the former, the latter actually prepare for next year's crop, and do not assume that customers will come along of their own accord.

That speech was given in 1992, and it is now at least twice as long ago as that when I first began to hear about this problem. One major attempt to address it was when the audio industry formed the Academy for the Advancement of High End Audio, or AAHEA, at the end of the 1980s (see my June 1991 "As We See It"). But a decade later, AAHEA collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency and internal contradictions (see Art Dudley's November 1998 "As We See It").

Now there will be another attempt. What triggered this essay was a letter I received on October from four industry veterans who are attempting to do something about the apparent malaise. I reproduce the text of that letter below:

Open Letter: A call to action for the High-End Community

So . . . are the doomsayers right? Is high-end audio headed for extinction? Is it true that people no longer respond to high-quality music reproduction? Not at all.

But it's up to us to prove the doomsayers wrong. And we can. This is an invitation to join "The A5"—The American Association for the Advancement of the Audio Arts. We're setting up as an LLC run by a board of directors.

On our own, as individual companies, we can do little to improve public awareness of high-end audio. Working together—manufacturers, distributors, reps, retailers, reviewers—we can turn the public on to one of life's great pleasures (and our passion): great music combined with stunning sound.

Things are not so bleak.

• People are still buying music and listening. Look at the iPod phenomenon and the growth of satellite radio. These listeners are excited about music in their lives. It's up to us to turn more of them on to high-quality music reproduction. It's less of a hard sell than it looks. People are already sold on music! To put it another way, Apple Computer, XM, Sirius, and the like are creating potential customers . . . for us!

• Despite a lack of growth in high-end sales, our industry is more innovative than ever before. Take any product category, any price point in specialty audio: the performance of products today is at an all-time high. The Golden Age of Hi-Fi? This is it!

• What will the A5 do besides collect your dues?

Well, one thing we won't do is hold an annual awards dinner. The A5 is not about self-congratulatory hype. What we propose to do is real. We aim to act, and here are some of the ways:

• Set up a website that directs visitors to the messages, products, and services of our members.

• Set up a user group for our members so we can communicate more freely and share ideas.

• Create the conditions for freer communication among all of us . . . and this includes the end user.

• Forget unproductive controversies, like the objectivist versus the subjectivist camps. There's room for both. And the truth is, one does not have to exclude the other.

• Make the buying public aware of the benefits of value-added service. We can prevent high-end from turning into a commodity. Look at the job that luxury car makers do, or Swiss watchmakers!

• Focus our message and get it to the public through whatever means we can muster and ways we can think of.

• Place ads for our industry in upscale magazines like Forbes, Wine Spectator, and Architectural Digest, to name just a few. We will advertise in new venues outside of our industry.

• Run a weekly program on high-end audio for cable television, PBS, or a program for public radio.

• Demonstrations at concert halls, museums, music schools.

• Regional shows or events at music-educator societies, Mercedes and BMW clubs, jazz or folk festivals.

• Events at fine restaurants. Have a good meal, meet some interesting people. Hear some great sound. (There are people who never go to shows, who don't like crowds. Let's reach them!)

• Create a public relations campaign for our industry as a whole—including articles that we could send to newspapers looking for free content. If we are not blatantly trying to promote certain brands (not the goal), this will work!

• Training programs for salespeople. How to do a good two-channel demo. How to demo both home theater and great music, creating more excitement for both!

The initial response to A5 has been gratifying, and we are just getting started. We need you in at the start. There's strength in numbers. Power, too.

There's something else in numbers: confidence.

The A5 will give members the confidence that we are (finally) taking matters into our own hands and doing something about the vitality and future of our industry.

We need your support and ideas. If not you, who? If not now, when?

Our Best Regards;
Walter Swanbon
Ted Lindblad
Doug Blackwell
Tom Gillett


That open letter was sent eight years ago and, perhaps to no-one's surprise, it had no impact or effect. Many observers feel the situation is even worse in 2013 than it was in 2005, with the high-end audio industry even further alienated from customers younger than the baby-boom generation. But with the resurgence of the LP, especially among young music lovers, the advent of computer- and mobile-based audio that is no longer limited in quality by the unmusical noise of lossy codecs like MP3, and the explosion of headphone-based listening, which allows audiophiles of limited means to buy and enjoy Class A audio components without having to spend more than four figures, I believe the future of high-end audio is brighter than it used to be. You might say that it now has a future!—John Atkinson

otaku's picture

>> one writer enthusiastically extolled the benefits of $600 table place settings on one page, while on another page, amid a survey of headphones, another writer cautioned his readers that though one particular model sounded superb, it was ridiculously priced at $300

I love high-end as much as the next reader, but I have to point out that although I am still using my parents handmade place settings from six decades ago, I would be surprised if my AKG's or Sennheisers or AT's or UE's last till my retirement (the Grado's might).

itsratso's picture

someone below mentioned porsches and mont blanc pens. articles that usually try to defend "what's wrong" with high end audio usually fall back on the same argument: "well people also spend a lot of money on -----". the problem, of course, is the majority of people in the world don't like or want to be someone that spends a ton of money on a pen. or a china set. or a speaker. the majority of people aren't dentists, or lawyers, or portfolio managers. they realize this hobby for what it is - a snobby elitist hobby. luckily, there are also companies out there that do get it. they do give you turntables for under $200. and amplifiers. and speakers. the future isn't ridiculing people that say spending hundreds of dollars on a power cord is silly - they are ridiculing you. the future is embracing quality sound for the average person at a price they can afford.

JoeinNC's picture

I was once roundly criticized by some of the readers here because I took issue with Stereophile's description of a $7,000 amp/dac combination as "affordable." 

BradleyP's picture

I don't have bags of money and I do love great music repsoduced well, so I do get excited about satisfying components that cost only a few hundred bucks.  Remember, though, the reason that there are decent turntables and speakers and amps at those price points--apart from offshore manufacturing--is that much of that technology and design was perfected at a MUCH higher price point and trickled down.  We budget audiophiles need honest high end so we can gather the tasty morsels that fall from its exalted table.  

Right now, I'm streaming a Chesky recording on Spotify through my $350 tubed usb DAC and $200 powered speakers at my desk, and it's sheer hi-fi bliss in a tiny package. Without pioneering efforts from numerous high-end companies, this stuff wouldn't exist. Since the economy fell apart, I don't have time to listen to my now-vintage he-man rig in the other room. Ever.

dadaGuerilla's picture

If you want to capture a younger audience, you have to think like a young person.

To most people, particularly today's 20-somethings, good audio is where you find it. A kid in his first job out of university, who was raised on iMacs and HDTVs and carries an iPhone, audio components, whatever those may be, should follow the same trend computers and consumer electronics have over the past 20 years—less expensive and more competent with each product iteration. Well, that is in fact what has happened. Stereophile writers write about two-channel, ultra-high-end gear in an upper-crust voice that turns a lot of (young) people off. This sort of thing is irrelevant to 20-somethings. You don't write about audio gear meant to interface with Apple iStuff, or demonstrate how to integrate said iStuff with entry-level two-channel audio gear that sounds a lot better than headphones for a couple thousand bucks. Right now you guys are complaining that young people aren't picking up the two-channel banner, but you're tilting at windmills. Young people want cheap, good-sounding gear that works with their consumer electronics, and that's just not Stereophile's mission. Maybe you should just settle for an aging demographic and in 40 years, when we're all in nursing homes or dead and no one has come along to replace us, your successors can just wrap it up? There's no shame in dying a natural death.

I'll keep reading in the meantime, though. I fell in love with audiophile-quality two-channel audio when my dad took me to hear my first set of Magnepans powered by Mark Levinson monoblocks at 16 at the audiophile shop in the city where I grew up. I love actively listening to all kinds of music, and I always have and always will. That's why I am friends with the very bright and kind man who owns the audiophile shop here in Wine Country. He and I share the love of great-sounding music performed cost-effectively. That doesn't mean necessarily cheap—I bought a McIntosh amp, a Vandersteen sub, and Maggie 1.7s from him, all driven by a Mac mini with hi-res audio pumped through Fidelia and then to an entry-level USB DAC, all with very competent wiring. My friend gently steered me toward this system knowing what I could afford to pay with cash, accepted that I was going to drive the system with a Mac and without a CD player or turntable, and cut me some deals here and there. I didn't start out with that gear--I acquired some entry-level NAD and Rotel and Magnepan gear and upgraded to my current configuration, which sounds 95% as good to me as my friend's $100K systems. 

But even though I only earn what is known as "Silicon Valley minimum wage," I'm a rich geezer compared to the kids graduating from university or trade school, who might be willing to part with some disposable income to purchase audio gear if it fits into their notion of what is reasonable. My stepkids attending the university love my McIntosh system, but to them it is completely unreasonable to dedicate a computer, a living room, and $10K to listening and would never consider that. Reasonable to them might be picking up a $500 Zeppelin system from the Apple Store that sat on a bookshelf that works with their iPhones. Stretching it, if these kids could pick up a pair of $500 entry-level B&W floor-standing speakers and a decent $750 media hub that could wirelessly receive music over AirPlay, they might spring for that because it wouldn't take up a ton of space, wouldn't cost a ton more that a Zeppelin, and would sound pretty good to their lady friends. If the McAire cost $1500, McIntosh, Inc., would sell 5x more of them to 20-somethings all day long because the kids would consider that level of quality for the money extra-reasonable--the McAire sounds good, they wouldn't need to max out their first real credit card to get one, it's easy to set up, and best of all it works with iPhones, iPads, and Macs. But at the current price, I'm not sure who is going to buy a McAire. 

My recommendation is to stay the course. You have a captive audience of people hooked on two-channel gear who can afford the good stuff and actually like it when your writers try to sound like Rockefellers. I am not going to be purchasing more gear any time soon unless I become an Internet millionnaire, but it's fun to hear about what other people think is good, which is why I subscribe to your print publication and bother to put some thought into a response to an article that is actually quite narcissistic. Let other people like Steve Guttenberg at CNET talk about what the kids are going to enjoy. Or if you want, start up a magazine focusing on computer audio and entry-level two-channel gear, aimed at 20-somethings. But don't try to force the course of audio gear consumption into what you and I might consider the highest quality or the optimal way to listen to music, because the market has shifted far away from Stereophile-class two-channel gear to sound docks, mono Bluetooth bricks, and smartphones with bass-heavy Beats Audio. Maybe that's bad, maybe that's good, but that's the way it is, and reality deserves respect. Right? wink

rl1856's picture

All of the comparable objects mentioned in the post are examples of consipicuous consumption backed by highly targeted marketing campaigns.  Purchase a Mont Blanc Pen, Patek Phillipe watch, a Rolex watch or a Porsche Cayenne and the world knows you have money because these examples display your bank balance to the world.  Media campaigns have convinced the public that spending ones discretionary income on such objects is "acceptable".  There is also a degree of positive affirmation enjoyed by the is an expensive purchase...I can afford it...I have good taste etc etc.  To an extent Home Theater has been moderately successful in embracing this marketing approach.   After all a 60in flat screen on the wall and confronting every visitor to your home is a highly visible purchase.  It has become acceptable to spend money on a good HT system, because of marketing and because it is a visible purchase, that like the above examples, provides positive affirmation to the buyer.   Another issue is that HT can be enjoyed by a group- family friends etc.  And group friendly expenditures are more easily justified in the family budget.

Contrast the above with 2ch audio.  For the most part it is a solitary activity that can be difficult for a group to enjoy at the same time.  Another issue is that the perception of the hobby is that it is enjoyed by overweight middle aged white men, who have a surprising visual resemblance to pedophiles.  OK the last point was a joke, but serious audio hobbyists are regarded as fringe elements.  For the most part HE audio has not enjoyed the cohesive large scale marketing campaigns that hae been deployed in HT.  In fact, HE missed a great opportunity to become part of the mainstream when HT became a market reality.  HE could have become involved in the establishiment of audio standards for HT and thus become an integral part of the HT movement.  Instead HE stuck it's proverbial head in the ground and hoped it would go away.  HE was very late to adapt to HE and as a result is still a marginal player in the overall market.

On the other hand, digital audio and downloads represents another opportunity for HE to become part of the mainstream.  I like what I have seen so far.  HE has been quick to embrace digital and as a result consumers are slowly becoming aware that there is something better than 16/44 redbook.  I am optimistic regarding the future.

tmsorosk's picture

The watch establishes my bank balance ?

It was a gift , I thought it establishes my wifes good taste . 

jkontol's picture

Should we care if most people does not embrace nor understand our hobby?

PBNAUDIO's picture

I've searcehd for it online but cannot locate it, the message was that highend audio really was a bargian compared to Art, Fancy boats, Fancy dinnners etc, can you plaese put it on line as it  covered this subject very well.


Thank you in advance


Peter Noerbaek

PBN Audio

jkontol's picture

Both my hobbies (woodworking and audio) have similar demographics. Go to any wood show and you'll see mostly men with grey hair (although I'm 42yrs young). The point is these hobbies requires craft, time, and dedication (I build my own speakers).

You don't need time and dedication for yacht, porsche, fancy dinner, retail 'theraphy' and rolex.

Other 'dying' hobbies are stamp collecting, model railroads, etc. Today's generation simply don't have the time for those.

himynameisjuan's picture

PBNAUDIO's picture

That's the one, sums it up very well


Good Listening

Peter Noerbaek

PBN Audio

bernardperu's picture

Active-listening is aging and the passive-listeners are killing great music, which is dead for the most part.

Who cares about hi-fi or Stereophile if active-listening is there no more? Does Stereophile want to be like the Rolling Stones in the past 40 years? What's the point?

The real discussion should be how to revive active-listening. If you really listen, hi-fi will come...back.

Do I want Stereophile reviewing albums with a DR8 or less. Hell no! And I am younger than 38 years old. 

deckeda's picture

Right, forget about the money. People have the money. They spend the money. They spend it on cars, houses, large surround-sound receivers and lots of speakers and big TVs. What they DON'T do is actively listen to just music. Money is a red herring!

Consumer audio isn't more expensive than it used to be decades ago, except for the highest of the high end. Don't stress over the fringe! Normal consumer audio is cheap today.

You don't need to focus on any product category or price range to boost this hobby. You need to invite friends over to listen. Or at the very least make music a central part of your social entertainment. "Oh, they won't be interested ..." Well, ain't that a self-fulfilling prophesy? (Or get new friends.)

bernardperu's picture

Man, it is really SOOOO hard to persuade my friends into coming to my house to stay silent and listen to the music. I have the equivalent to a Porsche parked in my iving room, but noone notices. As I write this, I have friends sitting in my living room. They complain about materialism, politics, etc, but they would rather facebook than enjoy music. Active-listening is just beyond their minds. 

I have tried to expand my number of friends in order to have listening buddies, but there are just very few young active listeners out there.

I love my firends, but when it comes to music, I am a sociopath. 

I will turn my living room into a listening room for the blind. I really mean it. That is the only way I will have audiophile friends. 

Steve Eddy's picture

As long as it keeps producing piles of large, heavy, often ugly crap that's connected with a tangle of wires and cables. The demographic that finds that sort of thing attractive is dying out. Just look at most all of the exhibitor rooms in your typical show report and ask yourself seriously, who would want that kind of mess in their living room?

Can you imagine seeing anything like that in a room gracing the pages of say, Architectural Digest? I certainly can't. 


tarxman82's picture

This sounds like the same crap that comes out of the mouths of people I deal with on a day to day basis. Concerned more about how a tv looks when it's switched off than the picture performance. Last I checked tvs were for delivering an image, and the best one to buy was the one to deliver the best image. So why are the best speakers to buy not the ones that sound the best? 

On another note, if you have any basic understanding of how electricity works, you'll understand why speaker wires like the ones that you find so offensive are necessary. 

Long-time listener's picture

I'm curious. I know younger listeners are going back to LPs, but why? Because they are quaint? Have big covers with nice art work? Or because you can achieve reasonably good sound at a lower price than with CDs?

Someone above said, "...confronting every visitor to your home is a highly *visible* purchase." Yes--all the luxury items mentioned can be made appealing through VISUAL advertising. But hearing is secondary to sight, and it's impossible to convey how good a system or component sounds over TV--when the viewer's TV speakers are inferior.

I myself am in my late 50s. I now listen to music at home mostly over headphones--despite having a good system in both my living room and a more modest but still nice one in the bedroom. An iPod combined with a Fostex HP-P1 and a $50 pair of AKG 518LEs gives me more consistently good sound over a wider range of genres than either system. The living room system comes close, but it cost well over US$6,000, including components and cables. And it took a horrendous, tortorous process to shop, and assemble, and position, and adjust, and tweak it, until it sounded reasonably good, not to mention buying more than one of several of the components until I found the right one. The high end is a royal pain in the butt. And Stereophile promotes it. And you have to have a space isolated enough not to disturb your neighbors. I regret having become so involved in this hobby, and wish I had never spent most of the money I did on the high end. Maybe people are simply achieving some common sense and turning away from all this.

smargo's picture

that is so right on - my experience of listening is so by myself - it took me years of buying and selling equipment to arrive at where i am now

i always say in the back of mind - "that if only i bought that piece instead of that piece"

to me if the high end was a significant upgrade to sound itself - then i would have reason to shout to the world - but the high end - it is so over-rated - and often doen in isolation - unless you meet with a group every two months

if the sound really was incredible and you had to have it - then my friends would have it

i hate to tell you how many times i have played somrthing for fiends and they thought it was good - but nothing earth shattering - that they had to have that equipment too

CJW's picture

I argue that Stereophile must take some responsibility for the lack in popularity of hi-end audio. I am a 30 year old audiophile who has some questions for Stereophile. 

1) I am an audiophile who likes all things audio, why do I have to go to a sepereate website for home theater audio, computer audio, and 2 channel audio?

2) What has Stereophile done to attract women to high-end audio?

3) What has Stereophile done to attracked teenagers to high-end audio?

4) What has Stereophile done to attracked people in there 20's and 30's?

BradleyP's picture

Answers to 2, 3, and 4 are "Stereophile hired Stephen Mejias."  Well, 3 and 4, at least.  ;-)

John Atkinson's picture

CJW wrote:
why do I have to go to a sepereate website for home theater audio, computer audio, and 2 channel audio?

Is that really a problem? There is a link page at the foot of every page for the other websites.

And the answer to your question is that publishing separate websites for each topic maximizes page views, which in turn maximizes advertising revenue, which in turn provides the finance necessary for us to host the sites and to continue offering you all of our content free of charge. If we put it all on one site, we would most likely have to erect a pay-to-view barrier, which I would find abhorrent.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Antips's picture

that there is an analogy between Mont Blanc, Patek Phillipe, Rolex and Porsche; and audiophile products. Both represent apparent taste, discernment, disposable income and social status.

Yet Kessler's non-audio examples publicly demonstrate aspiration, status and wealth. With the exception of recent trends in headphone popularity, we audiophiles share a domestic hobby. The contrast between public and private space is the heart of the problem. Despite the advances of feminism, our culture still imagines the public sphere (where we see Rolexes and Porches in use) a predominantly masculinized space. Our private lounges where audio systems reside occupy, in cultural imagination, feminized domestic space.

The genuine merits of pre/power/floor-standing systems will not cut through. Untapped markets will remain indifferent whilst we remain a domestic activity. The dichotomy is our hobby somehow needs to get out of the lounge and get public.    


truman1's picture

John,  Most of my friends do not own a stereo (and have no interest in owning one)  part is changing lifestyle choices and the other is the declining middle class (and their lack of disposable income).  But I think there is one issue that you did not cover and is part of the reason many potential customers have left Stereophile and audio in  general and it has nothing to do with the cost of equipment.  The issue is the industry's vocal snake oil salesman!  Buy this quantum flux capacitor burl wood acoustic harminizor for $10,000 and it will transform the listening experience.  The worst part is not that these hucksters sells this junk, but it is that the trade magazines enable them with glowing reviews that validate their wild claims.  The public no longer trusts the trade magazine because the collusion obvious to all.  Start telling the truth and calling out industry lies and people might start listening again.

Josh Hill's picture

Not this one, anyway. But I think you do have a point. High-end audio has a reputation as the province of obsessives who spend thousands on speaker cables. Some of that, frankly, is deserved, since as you point out there's a fair amount of snake oil in this business. That does a disservice to the majority of high-end products, which really do deliver great sound, and often for not that much money.

peter_964rs's picture

If I spend $100k on a Porsche, not only am I perceived to have spent the money (and gained kudos and 'signalled' who I am and where I am going in life) there is intrinstic value in a $100k Porsche that is difficult to deny. It does 200mph, makes me feel like a God, and can easily be measured against its peers not only in terms of raw performance, but also in subjective terms (for those who argue over whether Porsche is better than Ferrai, say).


Spending $100k on hifi is much harder to justify:

1. 'Signalling': Harder to 'signal' except only to fellow nerds and only then via posting photos or videos online to show off. The general public don't get it and deliberately showing off is a bit sad. Unless you paint your Porsche pink, maybe.

2. 'Perceived value': Harder to justify the price difference between $100k and $10k spend, especially when music reproduction is primarily an emotional experience for the listener, and $10k systems can be just brilliant. A Porsche is crammed with technology that does stuff like stop it exploding when it reaches top speed. Many $100k hifi products sadly look like they carry very similar tech to their $10k counterparts, except in shinier, heavier boxes adorned with billet aluminimum and blue LEDs. Nothing highlights this better than cables. How can a $1k USB cable (for example) be justified? What is the resale value of something like this? At least you can predict your rate of depreciation with the Porsche.

3. 'Confidence': You really have to be confident you spent your money wisely. Even the mega wealthy will pause before splurging $100k on a high end system. Does it really deliver better music reproduction than the $10k system? Whereas the Porsche clearly outperforms, say, the Golf GTi. Similarly, does the $1k USB cable genuninely deliver better sound, or am I just subject to confirmation bias?

4. 'Choice': There is far too much. Companies like Krell and Naim and Quad have been around for years and their products have some credence and maintained value. But the high end is now littered with extremely expensive, small brands which muddies the water for the consumer. This is not the case with $100k cars - the choice is more limited, supported by fairly unbiased reviews, and therefore easier to make a choice.


Personally, I'm saddened that the high end industry seems to be delivering higher and higher price tags aligned to lifestyle choices like how shiny and bright and heavy the equipment is, and less about the value it offers and the capability it provides. This is what makes it on a race track to doom.

detonnation's picture

Price. Everything is so damn expensive. Sure there are a few budget/moderately priced items, but it is discouraging when there is no depth into a hobby like audio. By depth I mean that Youngins can barely afford the price of entry.

In fact, I have been priced out of this hobby as companies plot their product lines on the high end of high end. I just recieved a Music Direct Catalog... which has an awesome picture of Jerry Garcia on the cover btw! Thumbing through, the prices are astonishing. Am I going to drop 5K on a tube amp or a set of wires. Maybe ;) lol... but probably not.

I would also say that the way albums are recorded are ruining the industry too. Popular music is pumped up to the loudest settings. No dynamics, all loud. Ive tried to listen to some of the recordings and they grate on ones ears. We need to introduce silence back into our music, and not just in audiophile approved content.

Id also suggest that the pricing of high def content is discouraging. I laugh at DSD and DXD prices. What kid will purchase those, I doubt very few.

BradleyP's picture

I got the same Music Direct catalogue and see it filled with plenty of affordable gear.  Yeah, there are tube ambs for $5k and up, but also for $3k on down to $500.  Wharfedale stand mount speakers for $350, a slew of turntables under a grand, and respectable budget DACs grace these pages along with higher end gear, but not any stupid-high gear that I can see.  $250 Audioengine speakers, anyone?  Audioquest Dragon DAC for $200?  Audioquest Evergreen Interconnects for beer money?  Yep, yep, and yep.  DSD and DXD can be converted to analogue for $400, now, thanks to Resonessence, Light Harmonic, and a growing list of others. Shoot, Schiit's Loki does DSD for $179 paired with a regular DAC.  

Perhaps a good approach for Music Direct, Audio Advisor, and other audio catalogues would be to have a whole section up front devoted just to pre-assembled, entry-level systems from $500 to $2500.  Shoot, Music Direct could even throw in a free LP or CD or two as a bonus.  If you can't find a way to spring for that, you're either on really hard times, ignorant of what real hi-fi can do, or quality recorded music's just not your thing.

Stephen Richards's picture

Personally I have never listened to as much music as now, and never with such quality.

I started out with cassette tapes, so  apple has revolutionized my audio life. All the younger people I know, know about great headphones, blueray and 5.1 surround for movies, concert video and video games. 

It's now easy to get great headphones, a great desktop system, great ipod boom box systems, music from all over the world - it really is a golden age.  

At home I have a psb image 5.1 system, and am thinking about a nad d7050 & kef ls50 for the kitchen (where I listen when the tv is in use, and for excellent background music for Sunday brunch). I hope you'll excuse me for not wanting to spend a lot more.

There is a real need for stereophile to talk about putting affordable systems together (although a step up from the entry level columns) much  more regularly, as the internet I has a dearth of such info.  $2000 on speakers that will sound great for 20 years is something a young family will think about. Another $2k on everything else in the system over time is ok too. $20k in one payment - well how many people have that much disposable income?

volvic's picture

Those companies are not in the watch business but in the luxury business and have a long tradition as such.  Some manufacturer comes up with an amplifier that costs 50k is not even in the same category and most people outside of this hobby rightfully scoff at that.  

The industry as a whole has not done itself any favors by pushing and promoting 100k speakers, 100k amps and 100k turntables, as much as I love reading about them it ain't going to win converts pushing these and 20k speaker wires.  A major rethink is in order and older conventions will have to change.  

Oh and BTW! have had a Cayenne in my possession, long term and can say that it is a waste of money and petrol and laugh at people that drive them these days so imagine what the hoi polloi think about our expensive gear.  

jjberry's picture

It has been my experience that young people don't know how much of their music they are missing. I met my wife when we were in college, and of course I didn't have any nice gear for music listening. We listened to music almost exclusively on laptop speakers or cheap headphones. We took a trip to visit a friend of mine who had a system worth about $5000 and we took an evening to just listen to music. My wife was floored by how good it sounded. She had never experienced that sort of thing. We recently went to RMAF and it was like a revelation for her. After we got back from the show, we started to discuss how we could get that kind of sound at home. Unfortunately, price will prevent us from having that level of performance in the near future, but we now both want to work towards that. 

Music_Guy's picture

...convince a new audience that high-end is cool...cooler than Beats headphones, Bose, and iHome sound docks.  Use images of attractive types enjoying  "high-end" communal critical listening/socializing.  Light-heartedly show them that Throw in artists/celebreties they know who enjoy high-end.  Lets see more articles about "Systems of the Rich and Famous"

...convince a new audience that high-end sound is real and better and closer to the music they love.  Everyone (almost) I know who has heard fmiliar music on a mid-to-high-end system was "floored" at the difference.  The challenge is to get them to stand still and hear it.  Articles and commercial about aha moments in listening. them that for around $800, they can set up a their own tube system that will make their iPod sound sweeter than their ear-buds.  Both retro-cool aesthetics and real sound improvement.  (Napa Acoustics...) them that for under a grand, they can enjoy a hot digital system.  (NAD D3020 + Wharfedale speakers) them that, that along with high-end exotics, there are "couple of hundred dollar" tweaks that can add enjoyment to existing systems. (Blue Jeans cables and so on...) them that behind the high-end equipment there are driven, creative humans.

..."Lie" to them that high-end means couple of thousand dollar systems.  Let them find out, only later, that high-end means 5-digits+.

...extoll how fun this gear/music is.  Not how stuffy, elitst and perfectionist it can be.

The high-end universe inhabited by well-heeled practioners is already doing just fine.  "The rich always have money."  The new High-end is simply higher-end.

(notice: 0 comments about $100k components and bunches of comments about the pastime.)

Josh Hill's picture


xsipower's picture

I think the issue is not as simple as price, but is the difficulty of the subjectivity of audio and the personal engineering we need to do to assemble a system that one personal “feels” creates a satisfying auditory experience. When you purchase a Rolex, Porsche a boat, etc. it is pre-packaged as a single performing item which requires no engineering on our part to deliver the “experience”.  You can go quite easily to a dealer and try them out.  With audio we have the daunting task of selecting individual parts based not only on specifications but on subjective listening that we can’t really do because there are so few places to go to listen to the stuff.

We also need to wade through the “snake oil” that almost all manufactures are culpable of in one measure or the other (that’s what their marketing department is being paid to do.).  I won’t blame Stereophile, but we need to realize that almost all trade magazines are simply marketing tools for manufacturers. Yes the reviewers may do their best to be unbiased, but as a package the magazine is used by the manufactures to sell their stuff. We may want to believe it’s not that way but it is. The pictures, the words are all designed to get us to feel “I must have that!”

Yes we can purchase a system that is based on the components objective specifications that are superb for $1000 - $5000. But then there comes the subject specifications that only listening can provide. The subjective part is the BIG thorn in the audiophile field, because it is driven by the effect of the particular room acoustics, the hearing ability of the listener, the mood of the listener, the aesthetics of the room and equipment, lighting, smell, and most importantly the quality of the recording.

Precisely because of these ambiguities and subjectivity it is very easy for audiophile manufactures to make big claims and charge $$$$ for items that no one can definitively say “Yes this is definitely worth this much”. In many ways, I think that this industry places itself closer to the art category than to the equipment category. Art is the epitome of subjectivity and music is the same. I may be wrong, but in my experience creating a desired musical experience from a recording is only 10-20% objective (equipment) and 80-90% subjective.

The reason it's so hard for people to become an audiophile is not so much desire, but the ambiguity of what it takes to make that special musical experience; "How much will it cost?", "What must I purchase?", " Will my room work?" and there are a thousand answers to each of these questions. For the majority with little time and attention span, the ease of a MP3 player wins. Until the Industry and audiophile community provides a means and method to easily create a high quality musical experience at home, like people buying fashion audio ( iPods', headphones, etc.) loud compressed music will prevail.


dalethorn's picture

I remember a time when Gordon Holt and Julian Hirsch actually agreed that high fidelity meant an attempt at accurate reproduction. Consider that the problem may not be habits or age or other such things, it may be a lack of focus. Today I hear things like "We all hear differently", but pretty much never hear or read about anyone demanding High Fidelity in their system, just "good, better, and best". Might as well be Radio Shack.

Now as to the Rolex, Porsche etc. thing: I already had 75 or so audio reviews on youtube with 500,000 or so views, most of them showing my wrist wearing an $8000 and very large U-Boat watch, and no complaints whatsoever. But when I reviewed a dozen small Louis Vuitton items that were worth collectively less than $5500, I got many hostile and very angry comments about flaunting my wealth (that I lack, unfortunately).

Why did my 94 percent male viewers accept the $8000 watch (which I also had reviewed) and be so angry about Louis Vuitton? Because they associated LV with women. Perhaps someone could look into the various audio sites (not Stereophile BTW) and see how they create a hostile environment for women.

I remember clearly, many years ago, reading a review of the Koss ESP-9: "Machine-gun-like precision of transients, flat as water on a plate" etc. etc. But opening the review were the words "For people who love Rolex watches, Porsche Cars, and Leica cameras, here is the ESP-9......" -- and I bought the Rolex Presidente in 18k solid gold, bought several Real Leicas, but not the Porsche car. Couldn't afford the insurance and maintenance.

But, that ad for the ESP-9 worked, and I consider it perfectly valid today. Greed is good, if you listen to the entire speech and not just the sound bites. So how about agreeing on one or more focus points (high fidelity?) and keep repeating them ad nauseam (as one infamous person was quoted to say) until it sticks? Then we can all get back to loving what we do, and have our justification too!

BTW, besides just occasionally reviewing some low-cost hardware, one thing this industry could do to gain some good PR is promote venues that get low-cost hi-fi gear into the hands of people who otherwise couldn't afford it. Too often the contests and giveaways just go to people who don't need the stuff. Goodwill and other agencies might not have the sensitivity to distribute hi-fi gear properly to those in need, but someone might, and they would be great for word-of-mouth PR.

medwardo's picture

In my experience, all I have to do is to get someone (well most people) to just sit down and listen to my system and they can hear that it is better than their mp3s. Now, whether they'd want to spend as much as I have is a different story, but they don't have to spend that much to get great sound.

In fact, what got me hooked on audio was hearing a friend's dad's system and I realized what was possible...and I wanted some of that. So began a lifelong quest....

So, as much as I can, I have music on when I have company. Some say that it sounds great and want to sit down to listen, some come back another time to really listen...others are indifferent, as expected. Some ask what it costs, but I won't say...just like I won't tell them what my car or house costs.

While there are always those who want and can pay for the best audio gear, they are not the majority. I enjoy the mag's aspirational equipment, but that needs to be balanced out with more affordable gear. Stereophile is moving in that direction, happily, but I think we need a lot more of that.

I would love to see the mags recommend a *system* at different price points so that the task of system building would not seem so arcane. (This is what great audio shops can do.) I've seen several authors write about their inexpensive systems that are musically satisfying...we need more of that. Maybe add systems to the recommended components and editor's choice features.

Finally at my age,  I don't care what others think about how I spend my hard-earned money, whether the item is an audio system or an expensive watch or a luxury SUV. Life is too short to buy and do things so that others will approve.


Josh Hill's picture

There will always be demand for good audio, but every time I leaf through a copy of stereophile I feel like I'm in a time warp to the 80's. Kids just don't sit down to listen to the "stereo" anymore -- they listen on their smartphones. People still do sit down to watch movies and TV, and may listen while using their computers and tablets.

A. All of this stuff is digital and increasingly served off the cloud

B. It is not part of a dedicated audio-only system; increasingly, it isn't even just A/V like home theater

And this is what kids are into, for good reason.

If high end audio is to survive, it will have to adapt to the way people live today rather than trying to attract a new crop of young people to Grandpa's LP's or Dad's CD's and the two-channel audio-only systems that play them. There are of course crossover products, e.g., high-end headphones and earbuds, but with high end stores, publications, and manufacturers so relentlessly focused on their traditional market, the word doesn't always get out.

HP described walking past a high end store and not seeing a single pair of headphones in the window. Where was the display that would appeal to youth? To the extent that it remains incestuous, the industry will fade away with us . . .

tarxman82's picture

Hi all,


I'm not sure if it is the same in the US as in Australia, but a lot of higher end product limits its distribution to very high end dealers, but truth be told, there is not enough brand awareness for those stores in the marketplace, at least not over here. I work for a retail chain over here called Harvey Norman who, in my opinion are a little caught in limbo. They have an upmarket look about them, shirt and tie, but when it comes to audio product, they have moved more and more towards the low cost, high turnover market. Having said that, we don't really have access to any real high end gear anyway. Another part of the problem is a lack of interest in the product from sales staff. I'm the only one in my store that's truly passionate about audio, so that helps, but if a potential customer stumbles upon a salesperson who is completely unenthused about what they are selling, then their excitement will drop also.


I guess the point I'm trying to make is, when younger people go out to look at a hifi or a home theatre, they first and foremost go into a store not unlike ours and see these low cost systems, from that point, it's nearly impossible to convince them to part with up to 10 times that amount. I myself am only 31, and have only just invested in my first real hifi system, to the disdain of my girlfriend, who couldn't understand my need to part with thousands of dollars to listen to music, but fortunately for me my father was very invested in his hifi from a young age and has passed it on through to me. I know I'll be doing my part to try and educate any kids I have on what it means to have great quality sound, but I think the best way to keep the higher end market alive is through education.

Glotz's picture

by everyone in here.  Seriously happy from all of the dissertation. 

Education and marketing are so critical. 

Did someone call Henry Rollins yet? 

Headphones, small DACs, vinyl and a computer/mobile focus... exposure and focus will bring people with loot to spend.  

The Hive mentality seems to have made it okay to want to do 5 things at once, and want to broadcast the insipid silliness over the internet.  

Everyone enjoys music, but devaluing it while doing other things is a reality for many.

Taking pictures (or a video) at a concert with a mobile device is a great identifier of the lack of their involvement level to the moment of music. It seems to be under the need to communicate the idea of it, as a pride of living and privilege of being there. 

As long as they love talking about something, it would be a win-win if people acquired more music, became even closer to it, and still love their gear like audiophiles or music junkies like we are. 

They're really becoming more like us than they think.  

returnstackerror's picture

I have stated this before whenever this question comes up and its about two things.

The first, as  many have stated, is the lifestyle of the young.

But as equally as important is the lifestyle requirements they have verses income.

As high end tends to be a male fetish, when we grumpy old men were young, we could spend our money on beer, girls, cars, stereos.

A young male today has the first three plus all the other lifestyle requirements such as a smart phone, ipad or similar tablet, expensive designer head phones, big screen TV,  game console, home theater, car stereo etc. Add the cost of all of these and you probably will hit $3k to $5k.

So where as our "gadget" budget when we were young was spent basically on a single item (a stereo), today the budget must be split many ways... so any music playback investment will now take a back seat to other items.



Anon2's picture

The low end and high end of audio have predictable, and probably stable, paths toward continued patronage and sales of gear to 2-channel audio enthusiasts.

There is unquestionably fine gear at the high end of the spectrum; there will continue to be individuals with the resources to buy this product from innovative and visionary companies.  There perhaps has never been such fine equipment available at the lower end of the price spectrum.  Publications are full of favorable to raving reviews on affordable equipment (less than $1,000 per speaker pair or component).

The real challenge for the industry, and where there is much opacity and few clear answers, is for the wage-constrained consumer of today who wants to move beyond entry-level gear, but is not getting the answers that he/she seeks from the industry.  For example, I thought of moving from $700 per pair speakers (highly rated speakers by the industry) to a $3000 pair of speakers.  Maybe I had a bad presentation, maybe I do not know what I wanted or needed, the possibilities go on what information I did not have, and what ultimately led me to keep my $3000 in my pocket.  How was I to know, that a good part of my $3000 was to be absorbed in transportation or labor inefficiency.  These are the answers that the audio industry will have to start answering.

Clearing up these types of “maybes,” or perhaps telling the consumer that a better, more cost-effective path to upgrading is the job of the industry.  Sure, the consumer should be critical and informed; it’s the industry’s (and its retailers’ and publications’) job to elucidate to the consumer what the best path for ever-more costly upgrades (and staying in the audio game) actually is.  The customer needs help here; he/she is not getting it from the industry if my experience is any sort of guide.

I purchase new but modest vehicles.  If I want to buy a better vehicle, there are fact-based, more quantitatively oriented, publications that give me a very clear understanding of what I get for my additional outlay for a car.  I can buy a Consumer Reports report for a car purchase.  This report will tell me what I should pay for a car.  The report will tell me what the dealer is paying for the car.  The outlays, costs, and profits are all there for me to see. There are numerous publications telling me the quantifiable performance of a vehicle, and the cost of ownership.  The audio industry falls short of this standard of informing its consumer base of such facts to the extent that the auto-industry and its publications can convey.  Sadly for the audio industry, this is the standard to which many shrewd and disappointed customers are holding it to today.

I do not waste retailers’ time—and I live in large city, which still has many independent audio retailers—with auditions for audition’s sake.  However, during any brief time when I do ask for a sampling of a component or speaker set, and when they have their best opportunity to give me facts and figures to support the purchase, or a more comprehensive basis under which an upgrade could be optimized, they do not make the case.  Product seminars, major expositions, and many publications:  all leave the audio consumer with more questions than answers.  This will be the key to the industry’s survival; it is the information that customers are demanding more each day from a variety of transactions, including from essential services like the health care industry.

The well heeled can and will upgrade their gear.  Some people are satisfied with entry-level gear (or are staying with it absent a compelling case as to why they should upgrade).  The critical pivot point for the industry, and where it is not doing a good job, is how to engage the would-be audio upgrader with a compelling case to make the outlay for a better sonic experience.  For it is in this middle-tier of audio—not entry level or the high-end—where the most devoted future customer of audio, the current customer, is to be had or lost.

Glotz's picture

The middle-ground is really where the focus should be.

I do know of one retailer that allows for upgrades to a better model in a year, and I remember another that is long gone in the marketplace.  

There are better value middle-ground turntables, as well as phono preamps, and dacs.  

I do think there are other categories, but I think there are a dearth of affordable preamps and power amps in the entry to middle level market of all sectors in audio.

The integrated landscape has changed for the better quite a bit in recent years, but it does seem that the entry point for middle-ground high end is at least $2500 in terms of investment level, and because there are so many additional features added to the integrated landscape, value can be hard to track while looking at overall sound quality.  

Generally sound is vastly improved over the entry level, but it does take an exponentially higher investment overall at those pricepoints if yet there are time where I've heard the similar sound for $1000, while somewhat rarely.   

Take a look at Croft.  Almost $2000 for integrated, with spacious, over-achieving tube sound, but very limited in overall features, and with some hairshirt ergonomics as well. 

But outside of a few stalwarts deal in separates like AVA, CJ, Croft, and a some others, it seems the industry is less focused on this area of the more traditional entry-level high-end market ($1000-2500) where systematic upgrades allowed you to control your own path to better sound. 

I don't mean to invalidate the traditional alternative high-end entry-level that SM reports on, as that has been around for 30 years with some success.  But it really is that $1000 or more of investment that brings you to the next level to the middle-ground high-end with a little system and cable matching. 

wgb113's picture

High end audio is dead!  Rock is dead!  The long playing album is dead!  Buying music is dead!

All of the above are alive and well, things are just changing.  Someone touched on the inability to publicly show off their audio gear.  Just tune to ESPN for a couple of hours on a Sunday and count how many pairs of Beats or similar flashy, expensive cans you see.  

Headphones are the new budget bookshelf speaker.  Where I bought a pair of NHT SuperOnes my little cousin's eyeing up some Sennheiser Momentums.  The exploding high-end headphone market started out as a status statement and many noticed the improved sound as a byproduct.  

A good portion of those grow interested in DACs and headphone amps (two other exploding segments)  where I bought a trusty old NAD C320 integrated.

Some move into computer audio and active speakers.  As much as we bag on Beats for their bass-heavy cans and Apple for their lossy files, the future of both companies points to hi-Rez.  Beats is pushing for 24/96 as the new standard and Apple started requesting masters in that resolution from all of the major labels almost two years ago.

YouTube's the new Napster and Spotify's replacing the FM tuner in your Porsche.  Things are changing but the future's brighter than ever for high quality audio.

Cheer up peeps!

GeneZ's picture

When we were growing up music with melody and tone was the norm. Even rock had melody with a powerful rhythm.  That demanded audio equipment capable of producing beauty of sound,  even if it were classic rock and roll starting with the British Invasion on back. 

Much of today's music fed to the younger generation is music without melody.  Its become a form of organized noise.  No need for great audio. 

There is some great music being produced today in jazz, especially some of the European jazz concerts to be found on YouTube, like concerts from Jazz Baltica.  But its not appreciated by the younger generation who have been conditioned to feed at the trough of conveyor belt music that has become an industry's formula.

I may be getting older. I know..  But now I am now able to see the exuberance and joy of music that preceded my days that I did not pay attention to. Even in styles that used to be not my first preference, Music that I did not appreciate when I was younger.  Try as I may, I can not find exuberance and joy being expressed in what's being produced today.  So, why seek hi-fidelity when its a generation of infidelity... They seek to be moved by effects, not music.  I am sure there are some great artists today... but even the artists that I did not like all shared in a feel for the music that has disappeared from recorded music.  So,  why seek hi-fidelity?

Gretschguy's picture

When I saw the picture of the Cayenne I thought, wow, Stereophile is going to do an interesting and useful article about how high-end audio is making its way into high-end cars and how this relationship will continue to benefit both worlds and revive high-end audio the way my Cayenne revived my love for high-end audio -- they must have seen the recent Burmester / Mercedes announcement and they are of'course knowledgeable that the Porsche Cayenne has a Burmester option that is state of the art...   They must know that...  They must....  

 You see, I actually bought my Porsche Cayenne for its hi-end stereo system!   So I found the references to the Cayenne as rather ironic given that it was the best choice in my opinion for a person who wanted incredible audio, quiet cabin and a great safe vehicle.

The Burmester stereo upgrade in the Cayenne is simply phenomenal IMHO -- in fact it is unique in that it actually has ribbon (AMT) speakers.  The sound is remarkable -- external noise is minimal.  My Cayenne purchase inspired me to dive deeper the audiophile world, particularly embracing me with Pure Vinyl and my vinyl collection such that I could digitize my vinyl at high resolution (24 bit , 48 kHz is what the car can play via USB).    The USB input accepts high resolution wave files and I can attest for remarkable sound from my LPs, I also do some high res downloads but I prefer the sound of vinyl.   I use a studio grade ADC called the Burl Bomber B2.   Suffice to say that I've had an incredible amount of joy testing, comparing, and finding the right combination of equipment (lyra, manley, sonic frontiers, pure vinyl, etc..) and have access now to 300+ LPs at high resolution at my fingertips becasue the Cayenne is unique in its ability to accept an external USB powered SSD drive.   I use a 480 GB  SSD drive made by Oyen Digital -- I'm eagerly awaiting their upcoming 960 GB SSD USB-powered drive.   This is fun stuff and somewhat unique to the Cayenne.  

I think I actually re-subscribed to Stereophile after buying the Cayenne and I've really enjoyed it but I've been baffled by this disconnect since so many audiophiles must spend a good amount of their time in their vehicles. 

So other than pointing out this great irony -- or great irony in my opinion with regard to the photo -- my point is that I have found it frustrating that Stereophile seems to be completely missing this relationship between high-end autos and hi-fi.  With Mercedes announcing a partnership with Burmester there could be some really good synergy going forward to a larger base of car owners who have an option to really hear hi-fi and this may lead them to hi-fi in the home or mobile hi-fi the way it has increased my overall audiophile hobby.

The Mercedes S-Class offers the Burmester now and I confirmed at a dealership that it will play 24/96 wave files and I would expect within the next couple years this remarkable system will be available in the more affordable E-Class and other cars.

That trend / link seems lost on Stereophile for some reason -- I just don't know why.  

I can attest for the fact that this new hi-fi car world needs help from audiophiles and publications like Stereophile to push formats like DSD and lossless PCM formats like FLAC and ALAC into the cars -- wouldn't it be great for those DSD downloads or vinyl rips or downloads to be playable on mobile devices and within cars?

Having access within cars for DSD, DXD, and other hi resolution formats can help trigger more interest in other hi-fi areas the way it has for me.

Certainly I understand that I'm lucky to afford both the car and the audio equipment to enjoy the Burmester to the max -- but I've been an audiophile for long time and I spend my fair share of time in a mini-van hauling kids around and I tinker like crazy to determine the best way to play back my LPs in the good old minivan (iPod, USB stick, etc..).    That world has a long way to go but could converge with high resolution / hi-fi as well.   Why not be able to play those DSD or hi-res lossless PCM files someday in a minivan?

In my opinion one way to help revive the hi-fi world is to embrace the auto relationship to hi-fi -- not just for the high-end cars although that seems like a great place to start.   More people will buy high res downloads if they can easily play them in their vehicles from a USB stick and not have to mess around with converting them to MP3 of an old format like wav that doesn't support meta-data and cover art effectively.

Anyway, the picture really had me fooled... I thought Stereophile was on to something interesting...





blueingreen48's picture

The picture of the Porsche at the head of this article explains a lot about the problems of high-end audio and of the way some of those problems play out in publications like Stereophile. A 911 GT3, optioned the way I'd want it, costs 135K. Add 90k for a Tesla as a daily driver and we're at 225k worth of the most advanced automobiles ever built.

I can also spend155k on a Soluution monoblock/preamp combo, another 60k on Magico Q5's and 105k on a dCS Vivaldi source. At this point I'm at 320k but wait! I don't have any cables, racks, power conditioning, vibration control or room treatment. What Stereophile will tell me is that all of these things are necessary to get the most out of the 325k I've already spent so I'm far from done.

Assuming for the sake of argument that I want great music in my home but not a "hobby" that consists of constantly auditioning, buying and selling components, and tweaking my (main) system; assuming I want to drive my cars instead and just listen to music; assuming I haven't spent 20-40 years making a living listening to and reviewing high end gear and thus training my ears to hear differences no laymen will ever hear, I'm likely to conclude that the value for money equation vis a vis high-end stereo and high-end automobiles makes no sense whatsoever.

What should I do? Even though I've read Magico uses Odyssey amps in their factory, I know Stereophile will never test the Q5's with amplification at that low a price point. Even though I assume that if Soluution or Pass Labs electronics are worth every penny, I know that Stereophile is never going to admit that these two giants might be able to supply adequate power cords with their products. Even if I conclude that ancillaries like interconnects, power cords, speaker wire, power treatment etc should not exceed the cost of the Q5's, I am likely never to see the Q5's reviewed with stuff that balances those costs in a way that suggests that speakers are more important than cables. I'm going to conclude instead that not every costly component can possibly be so critical that without them I may as well not buy the Q5's. Instead I'll put together a system with Q5's as the most costly component in it and take my chances that the music will be thrilling. But I will do that with no help from Stereophile. So it needs to be asked; how many of your readers who get their pleasure from listening to music, but not from the "hobby" of collecting high end equipment, take you seriously when you can't put a high-end system together that makes both musical and economic sense? And if they don't take you (or TAS) seriously, then where does the high-end find credible advocates?       

bernardperu's picture

I respect Stereophile's ethics. Having said this, you make a lot of sense. Blind tests for cables and all kinds of accesories are feasible, but they take a lot of work, time and some money.

It is hard to trust reviews that do not use an assistant to change equipment around while the reviewer remains blind.

Orgillian1's picture

While some would say that the integration of higher quality equipment into home theater systems is and has been the next phase of consumer acceptance of our much maligned hobby, I would submit that the integration of higher end/quality components with smart phones and tablet computers would gain a larger number of potential users than the current model. There are young people out there who can hear the difference between bad and good speakers and between mp3s and wavs. Apple stores do offer a slightly higher over priced option for computer speakers for example, and they do actually sell them.

Secondly, once the average price of a new car exceeded the reach of most consumers, even with increasingly longer loan repayment periods, the saving grace for the industry was leasing. While I realize that there is a far greater demand for used cars than for used stereo equipment, there are financial models where the numbers for this work, and the increased availability of reduced price good used equipment for sale would help bring customers into the store if properly marketed.

peter_964rs's picture

I can try and be more succinct than I was earlier.

When telling friends why I have a music system and no TV in my living room, I always cite the truism that 'music touches your heart'. It can be an emotionally stirring experience.

The passion for hifi therefore comes in deriving a closer emotional connection to the music.

Sadly, for many whose passions are stirred by the weight, shininess and illumination of the equipment they own (or the pride of ownership that comes from having something few others can afford) I feel they have missed the point. The equipment is not the purpose of high end hifi; it's the music it produces.

For example, I have an iPhone and even with the supplied earbuds, I've really enjoyed the commute from work in the company of a bit of Diana Krall or whoever. My day is somehow all the better for the music in my head. The fact that I didn't spend $$$ on the kit is incidental.

This is why yoof today are buying iPods and not Krell. Very few people 'get' the potential increase in musical enjoyment from that extra spend; an order of magnitude more (but still very few) get the pride of ownership element. The latter is why high end kit is shiny, bright, heavy and outre, and littered with niche brands.

Personally I think high-end is not doomed, but it will expand, collapse, and be left with very few brands that offer good perceived value and some credence to their products and product history. Companies like Naim, Quad and Krell (to name very few).

abhimawa's picture

Dear John,

I like your optimism about HE audio, especially when you consider the resurgence of the LP amongst young music lovers.

However, from my point of view, the resurgence of LP is due to LP being considered "cool", "unique". Young people like being "different", in a positive way. Well, not only young people, but ALL of us.

Owning a Cayenne is considered cool. So is having a Patek wrapped around your arm (to certain age). They are also easy to spot, easy to be admired. Does HE audio have this "x" factor? Perhaps, but not as easy as the two products above.

Factor no.2: along the journey to become an aficionado, one will find some snobs around. If you like automobiles, you don't have to start high. An old Camaro, an Alfa Spider Duetto, a BMW 2002 will do. Even a Mitsubishi Mirage can be transformed to become cool. As for watch, someone can own a Tag Heuer first, before creeping her/his way to own a Lange Datograph, or an FP Journe. In HE audio (well, perhaps I'm unlucky), I find that too many tin-eared so-called audiophiles with unlimited budget dissed the newcomers so early. The difference between these watch or automobile hobby to HE audio is: we can discuss the performance with little interest in price, while the latter, the price seems to matter the most. 

Factor no.3: Portability / ease-of-use. you can admire your 911 convertible or your Patek easily (well, youngster likes Officine Panerai better, though). Carrying a pair of WA around is impractical, not to mention the rest of the system and the room. Telling story about how good they sound is not very appealing. 

Factor no.4: the opposite sex factor.

Factor no.5: rank of importance. A Ferrari determines your status, so is your house, your watch, what you drink, your clothes. But to these people, a Bose soundwave is enough because it sounds 'okay' to the listeners. Let's educate them, and don't diss their Bose systems easily, and the rank of good audio system will be cranked up

Factor no.6: the crook story. This is a perfect example: Too much snake oil marketing that is unexplainable, and yet they (the manufacturers) overconfidently think their products can be easily targeted to some fools. Sort of the emperor's new clothes tragedy. Maybe a reviewer can get the item at 50% discounted price, but not the civilian. I'd rather get me a new Jaeger LeCoultre Master UltraThin, in which I know it was created GENUINELY by the watchmakers from Le Sentier than an overpriced pieces transformed by the Emperor's new clothes tricks in HE audio business.

The truth is: people perceived that a $100k car has more value than $50k power amp. Still.

Nellomilanese's picture

...and it worked LOL Look how many comments!

Feels like in here all of the sudden :D

Alex_Halberstadt's picture

This lamenatation surfaces from time to time, but these days seemingly with more cause and alacrity. My former boss Art Dudley has written about the subject with remarkable honesty and insight, but let me put in the proverbial 2¢. 

It may seem logical to compare the products of the audio high-end to Patek Phillipes and Ferraris, but lets face it, most are no Ferraris. What they happen to be is cludgy, dubiously engineered, homely, and vastly overpriced home construction projects—celebrated in some of the worst marketing copy ever devised.

Moreover, as Art has pointed out in a recent column in this magazine, the geniuses of the high-end have decided that the median price for a pair of speakers or a decent amplifier should be around $20K. And the price of a whole system be comparable to a down payment on a New York City apartment. The median, mind you.

Historically, this hobby was built on products that offered radically better sound at prices a middle-class (i.e. younger) listener could stretch to afford. The LS3/5a, the Rega Planar 3 and Dynaco's ST-70 all come to mind. "Affordable" $13K preamps and $5K cable looms from some of the high-end players of today do not. I happen to be 43, have a graduate education and do reasonably well in my chosen profession, but a $20K speaker is simply not something I'm going to be able to afford, or would want to buy even if I could. And when I think about some of the students I teach, who are leaving four-year colleges with student-loan debts of several hundred thousand dollars, the prognosis for these "statement" products gets even bleaker. 

And the problem isn't only that these items are too expensive and offer poor value, but that many are, frankly, as unattractive as they are impractical. Do you think a young person with a decent sense of aesthetics would want a "statement" speaker from the likes of Thiel or Vandersteen in their city apartment? 

The headphone hobby points a way that high-end two-channel audio could go, if it were smart about its future. That hobby attracts plenty of young people because it's portable, value-driven, computer savvy, and offers true high-end sound at prices that, while not chump change, are accessible to most. More importantly, it revolves around online communities and regional meets, not exclusive "salons" with their demo disks the "Patriot Games" soundtrack and Patricia Barber.

The notion that young people don't listen "actively" is ridiculous. But for most of them, listening cannot accomodate sprawling "reference systems." The proposal Mr. Atkinson quotes above laments the paucity of young people in the hobby while advocating presentations at "Mercedes and BMW clubs" and "fine restaurants." The folks in the perfectionist audio field need to decide whether they are in the business of making useful devices for music lovers or monumental techno-furniture for middle-aged oral surgeons and hedge-fund managers. And then behave accordingly. 

allthetime's picture

Picking up on a couple of themes above ...

I love this hobby and all it takes to create more equipment / sound junkies like myself are some basic Marketing 101 concepts.

You must interest a larger base of people in the value of better sound quality.  The rest will take care of itself … from this base will grow a proportion of folks that will become audiophiles.

1)      Learn from Beats

The Beats phenomenon is a fabulous opportunity for the audiophile community to leverage, here’s how:

Beats gave customers what they wanted: image (of course) but a taste of improved SOUND they wanted.  Fortunately the bar was low, primarily earbuds so there’s plenty of room to improve.

Beats also targeted a sweet spot of disposable income: 200-400$.  People will drop this kind of money to try something new.  The value of great sound is unfortunately a NEW concept to almost all consumers so this is where you have to start.  If you want neophytes to drop >1000$ for a single piece of a system, forget it, game over.

In order to “hook” folks into a longer pursuit of great quality sound you MUST first give them great products in this sweet spot.  Those products MUST make a substantial difference on their own.  A great example here are the miniature USB headphone DAC/Amps – Dragonfly, Microstreamer and about 10 me-toos coming to the market.  These products make music sound better to the layman all by themselves and are priced in the customer’s price sweet spot.  This is the Beats lesson in practice.

2)      Give future audiophiles information they need to get enthused and make smart choices

I agree with other commenters that trade magazines are THE primary vehicle to engage a broader demographic.  Spend more time on high value, entry-level equipment reviews and also more time on entry-level systems that have been pre-matched by you to sound good together.  This has a huge value to future audiophiles who are overwhelmed by choices alone, much less the prospect of matching for a particular sound.

Reviewing yet another 100 pound monoblock amplifier costing 5 figures does absolutely nothing to solve the problem you pose.  (In fact does anyone really care about those reviews?)

If you want to make a difference, start behaving differently. 

Give visibility to products that future audiophiles will be tempted to buy as a hook to the hobby.

It’s not rocket science!

NickAdams's picture

To revive the market requires replenishing the aging audiophile population with young eager audiophiles. The serge in young people buying LPs is proof that the interest in music and production exsists. There are two major roadblocks to this: exposure and expense.

There is very little exposure to high-end sound for most young people. If your parents or relatives were not into audio, you probably had no exposure to the audiophile expereince. Maybe your friend's uncle had a decent system, but his taste in music probably would have turned you off anyway. Without this positive exposure at an impressionable age, the idea of a dedicated 2-channel system in one's home is non-exsistent. Audiophilism is largely word of mouth: there are no mainstream tv, print, or internet ad campaignes - except of course for Bose. With electronics stores selling home-theatres as the ultimate home entertainment: loud and punishing sound is now synomis with 'good sound'.

Investing in a home hi-fi was traditionally something one did after investing in a home. For those in the rental world, everything is temporary (mp3) or portable (iphone). The unemployment rate for young people is about 1 in 8. The under-employment rate is closer to 1 in 3 (that is university grads working retail). Owning a home in an urban environment is out of the reach of most people under 35. Rental unit costs represent half of most young people's income. Instability of this type has lead to massive student and consumer debt in people under 35. Not exactly the environment for someone to spend 6 months income on an 'entry-level' system, if it has never been a priority in one's life at all! 

 I am in my early thirties; I have been building my system seriously for a decade. It is good, not great. I have a Leben and a VPI. I have 1500 LPs in my collection. I speak from a place first hand experience. I was lucky in that a had a small group of friends who deceided to take interest in music AND music reporduction. I also do my best to show my friends my system any chance I get. They are almost all impressed and express some type of interest in recreating a part of the expereince at home, but always on a shoe-string budget. ALL people I know under the age of 35 would rather purchase equipment used than from a dealer, PERIOD.

I don't want to write something that is all negative without atleast presenting a couple solutions:

1. The 'used' and 'vintage' market is the best way to get a young person involved in purchasing hifi gear. Integrate great vintage pieces into the audiophile experience.

2. Be positive. Focus on the strengths of inexpesive gear. Eliminate the pharse "'s good for the price"

3. Be negative. Call out manufacturers that charge outragous amounts for incrimental improvements. High prices should be a negative point in reviews and reports.

4. Leave the old arguments in the past: analog/digital, tube/ss, horns/cones, belt/DD, MC/MM god/gods... This stuff is rubish to people feeling out the hobby. It is a huge turn-off. 

5. Respect everyone's opinions. There is no scientificly certain 'good' sound or 'good' music.

prerich45's picture

Excellent post!!!! 

NickAdams's picture

"This unit would be Class A, but it is far too expensive for such modest improvements"

hifijohn's picture

High end has been dying a slow death for a good 20 years.Its both a supply and demand side problem.

From the demand side: young people now still listen to alot of music but dont care about the hardware, a stereo to them is a button on their computer or ipod.I have had friends sons and nephews in to see and hear a good stereo, not only didnt they care they couldnt even imagine why they should care.If I had brought a bunch of strays cats, they would have been more interested.And you cant create demand.

From the supply side:

$10000 this $15000 that, you got to be has gone from a fun hobby to a lunatic extreme.Take a look a typical audiophile mentality, all you need is a good 5watt tube amplifier but only if you spend a great deal of money on that tube that has been out of production for 50 years then you have to spend another few years finding that one speaker that that amp can drive.Why do you Bose makes $2bn a year(many times what all of high-end audio makes)because he knows people want to take it out of the box put it on the table plug it in and listen to music.

also lets not forget all of scam artists-- cd demagnitizers??!!just to name one.High end mags have done nothing to help,every month some new amp is the best ,and since reviewers never pay for anything, price never is considered.Reviewers are bored, like art critics, they just love stuff that is quircky and weird.

Audiophile are also to blame, hobbies are useless unless you can share them with other people ,but who the hell wants to deal with audiophiles?? what a bunch of neurotic nutjobs--and hifi and hygene dont always go together.

Many audiophile companies never design to a price point they just build what they like and dont care what the selling price is,($500,$5000,$50000)many products  are more like functional works of art,or multi copy prototypes instead of practical audio components.

So in the end I cant shed a tear for high-end you get what you deserve.

misterc59's picture

Just a thought about the "music experience". Headphones/earbuds can give you good sound, but they cannot give you the "experience" of feeling the bass of a concert or home stereo/theatre experience. I remember my first concert long ago, the music was engaging, and the FEEL of the bass really made the experience much more memorable. All the "CONVENIENT music available does nothing to bring out this experience. IMHO

Perhaps this is part of the issue under discussion...

I believe this is a multi-faceted topic with multiple solutions/approaches, but let's take it one step at a time? ALL comments can be valuable contributions!

otaku's picture

I went to see "Gravity" at an IMAX theatre, and my pants cuffs were blowing around from the bass. Really. 

prerich45's picture

    And knowledge shall increase......This is what's happening in the High-End and people don't recognize it. The DIYer is becoming more prominate.  People are into building their own speakers, crossover design, or even better crossovers, crossover-less designs, DAC's, HTPC's and Music servers as preamps.  I've seen the value of first generation Klipsch Heritage speakers explode recently - due to crossover upgrades and the like.  Volti Audio took PWK's concepts and improved on them until he had his own unique product!  Robert is not the only one doing this - many are doing it at home.  I look at the price of music servers and cringe - there are young people (and some older ones ;) ) doing the same thing with similar quality.  Hey, I'm an IT tech and I even went the way of PC only (I may add a USB TT to my rig so I can make 24bit/192 khz needle drops and save them to my NAS).  

The increase of knowledge is what the High-End is facing - there are no more secrets!  I look at the cost of a commercial high-end Sabre32 DAC and cringe.  So what do I do...I hit the DIYer's and see if anyone has developed one because the chips are not that expensive...and you know what - many have done this which much success!! I see the day of kit hi-fi returning - when it was fun (remember Heathkit, Dynaco and the like?)  

People are doing this now!  It will not only influence HE 2-channel but also the HT world as well.  I've gotten rid of my receiver/pre-pro in favor of a HTPC and the Essence ST/H6 combo - with JRiver, REW, my amps and speakers....I enjoy HT and 2.1 channel music - and I actively listen to music more than I watch movies (gotta have my music to wind down the last 2 hours of each day). 

I don't think the HE is dying persay...I think its evolving and the smarter people get, the more they will realize what they can do for themselves.  What I used to do with a wall of equipment in the early 90's....I can do the same and more with just 1 box and poweramps (I don't even have to take things to the shop anymore - I fix it myself)! 

Anon2's picture

DIY as the future – Very well put and plausible (Speakers Especially!)

PREFACE: I am an individual enthusiast not an industry professional.

A previous writer is correct.  DIY, particularly with those having the tools and the time will be part of the future for hi-fi, as it’s been part of its past and present. 

I won’t judge people’s ability to DIY. The hi-fi industry does this at its own peril, as this forum shows that skepticism and disaffection run deeply among current hi-fi enthusiasts.  People can and should experiment, especially given spiraling above entry-level component costs.

Speakers are the real area of vulnerability for audio manufacturers (except those making the components) and retailers.  Buying speakers used is a dicey proposition.  Middle-range speakers above entry-level often offer dubious improvements for the considerable additional expense (see my post above for details on my experience with this).

Building 2-way monitor speakers at home—from readily available kits and components—may be a  complex affair, but it’s a reasonable gamble given the expense.  If people have the time to build speakers, then that’s their time and it implies zero labor costs for the consumer who chooses to build his/her own speakers.

There are companies and services that will design and build crossovers for the less-technically savvy consumer.  There are very high quality drivers readily available at very low prices from reputable, patient, courteous, and efficient retailers, three of which I have had the privilege of dealing with in the past (one closed after many years selling kits).   Smart consumers have also noted that the drivers found in very high cost manufacturers’ speakers can often be had for $250 or less per piece (sometimes even for less than $75.00) from a catalog.

I bought a kit back in the late 80s.  The drivers and assembled crossovers came quickly in the mail.  Far from a hassle, building the enclosures was one of the most interesting and entertaining projects that I have had in my life.  I controlled the work and quality.  I managed the finish to my liking.  The durability and quality of the resulting enclosure would probably require a minimum $5,000 outlay today for a store-bought speaker.

How was the sound?  It was fine to me.  And isn’t “letting your ears judge the sound” the sacrosanct credo in the hi-fi industry and its publications?

Maybe a crossover built by an enthusiast or a service won’t match what a professional company can do.  But for a 2-way design, the crossover hinges on a frequency, a single number (and the roll-off as a secondary metric). My perusal of manufacturers’ specifications demonstrates that for 2-way speakers, the number is pretty much within a tight span of values. There are qualified people who will figure out that number (and give you roll-off options) for you today.

As for cabinets, here is where the hobbyist could probably deliver a superior product for the dollar.  European audio websites (and, yes, we audio enthusiasts have discovered these and refer to them as often as we do to Stereophile and other US publications) regularly show the interiors of speakers that they test.  Perhaps Stereophile could begin this “illuminating and revealing” practice.  Most of what I see in there isn’t anything that I did not learn in a couple of woodworking and industrial arts class in my junior and high school days.  Urban living and its constraints on power tool usage is the only thing stopping me from going full-bore into speaker building.

I do not direct my words toward the highest end of speakers, for the most part.  There is no doubt that most very high-end manufacturers devote considerable time to research and innovation, are master craftspeople of the highest order, employ many costly advances in materials science and engineering theory, and conduct exhaustive computer analysis for their products.  Some of these same manufacturers also deliver the best entry-level speakers, and often the only reasonably priced credible mid-tier speakers.

My belief is, once again, that the DIY approach for speakers will hit the industry in its soft spot:  those products a tier or two above the entry level which today offers a very murky payback in exchange for many more of the strapped consumer’s dollars.

Is DIY a gamble for a home-brew speaker buyer/builder?  Sure, it’s a gamble, but so is spending $2,000 to $3,000 more for an “upgraded” 2-way monitor pair of speakers--from a small manufacturer who may not be around years later for parts and service--that don’t sound much better, don’t weigh much more, and seem to have the same drivers as their own entry level models or of lesser or equal quality to what is available for a nominal expense in a catalog.  Let us also not forget that the finest products, which today start at $5,000, are beyond the means and/or financial responsibility threshold for many, if not nearly all, audio enthusiasts.

jimtavegia's picture

Last period at school today and the day winding down and our football team had already packed and loaded their bus to head out for the 2nd round playoff game.   One of the students asked about borrowing some headphones from another with about 10 minutes to the bell.  

I asked the class if they had $1,000 dollars and had the chance to buy a nice audio system or something else what would they buy.  Unanimous it was a new IPhone and maybe some Beats. Not a one of them owns a real stereo at home and they all said that listening to music on their phones or computer was just fine. Most of their music delivery was YouTube and ITunes.  

I should have known. Quality, bit-depth, spacial cues, you-are-there experience...forgeddaboudit. I may bring this subject up again after our Thanksgiving another way. 

I think I am going to make up a survey over the break with about 10 questions on it to gather some data. Should take about 5 minutes of class time for them to fill it out. 

How did listening to great music presented in the best possible way in the highest sound quality get lost in our society? When did quality stop mattering, when now, we have the technology to record it and present it in the most accurate way possible?

otaku's picture

The sad truth is that I am glad that Stereophile reviews the mega-buck equipment.

When I see a review of $75 cables or $250 DAC, I need to agonize over whether to purchase it (and I bought both).  A set of $20K cables or $108K speakers does not present any problems at all.

Bill Leebens's picture

Having been involved in several failed attempts to organize high-end industry groups, including the A5 mentioned in this piece, I've given up on that tactic.

I think the only effective way is to ignore the doom and gloom, and just make things that the next generation might actually want. There are numerous high-performance, reasonably-priced products surrounding computer audio, and it's a field I'm glad to be working in.

On the analog front, VPI's Mat Weisfeld announced a new product on Bloomberg TV yesterday (on the show "Taking Stock with Pimm Fox") called The Nomad, an all-in-one package of a belt-drive VPI table with a built-in headphone amp, iGrado headphones, and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, for $995.  While college students might find the price a bit of a reach, they'll likely hit up their parents, anyway.

And just for a little perspective: the $300 dorm-room systems us oldsters are familiar with from 1973 or so? That's about $1600 in 2013 bucks. Decent gear has never been free, and parents were always called upon to pony up the dough!

Nellomilanese's picture

...and I agree with most  of them. 

What got me back into Hi-Fi was the amazing sound system in my car....a 5000 € optional....a Harman Kardon 480W Class D amplified...8 speakers. This system is mind blowing in bass control...timing....0 distortion at max level. I mean the windows and rear-view mirror shake and there's 0 distortion in bass or treble !!! I've put 20-30% more miles into the car just because of the hi-fi system in it....sometimes I drive around the house 4 times until the cd/album ends LOL And it's a joy to take family trips playin' some jazz or bossa nova cds, or whatever I have in my iPhone.

It actually makes my 50 minutes commuting to work and traffic jams something to look for !!! I'm actually happy when I get stuck in traffic...I can play some Mighty Sam McClain and chill :D F*****ing money ever spent!!

What I don't agree with is the fact that great music is not produced anymore, or that good artist don't come along, or good recordings are only the old ones etc etc....not true, not at all. 

There are great young artists...some of them with a greater talent from the get-go in playing and songwritting than artists from the 70's that we consider "icons".

It's just harder to spot them, find them, in the middle of the cr@p but Spotify and youtube come to rescue.

Adele, James Blunt, Mike Rosenberg  etc etc

I have no problems admitting that James Blunt solo singing at the piano in a full stadium was as good as Freddy Mercury's piano solo, the lyrics even better, and I've seen them both in concert (3 times james Blunt, 1 Freddy)

Mike Rosenberg (Passenger)

Mike and some hippy friends :D


Ed Sheeran acoustic....amazing...beat up crappy guitar and a microphone...this kid is like 20 LOL

Nellomilanese's picture these young artists that the kids and 20 something actually listen to, play them on a simple, under 1000 $ system at audio shows and capture the 20 something crowd....later in life when they have more money they can upgrade to middle stuff...some of them maybe become big lawyers or CEOs and they'll have dough for the really high-end stuff.

Play the artist THEY LIKE via bluetooth/wi-fi from iPhone directly on some 300-700$ active speakers and I guarantee you next time they won't get the new iPhone but keep the current model and rather spend the money on active speakers to use in their dorms, bedrooms etc Capture them with something they can pre-amp, amp, cd player cr@p with tons of cables....just active speakers.

directly heated's picture

It seems to me that the reader John Atkinson quotes above—who cancelled his subscription over Michael Fremer's having "purchased" the review samples of a $47K speaker from Wilson Audio—can be said to have a point. Over the years, the practice of audio reviewing hasn't exactly distinguished itself for its impartiality, good taste, and ironclad ethics.

Of course the prospect of getting expensive equipment on "indefinite loan" or at steeply discounted "accomodation prices" is pretty appealing. I worked as an audio reviewer for a minute, and I can empathize. And high end audio tends to be a close-knit business. But the quid pro quo arrangement doesn't do much to inspire confidence in reviewers who then recommend the equipment at full prices—or in the integrity of their evaluations. What to make, for example, of Fremer's Associated Equipment column in his most recent Stereophile review, earlier this month? It appears he's listening to a $65K turntable sitting on a $25K turntable stand and using $20K worth of cartridges; a digital front end from DCS worth $110K and another, from Meridian, costing $10.5K; preamplifiers that cost $24K, $26K and $20K, respectively; monoblock amplifiers worth $144K; and a pair of newer speakers from Wilson Audio that cost $200K. (I guess Fremer upgraded.) And, of course, many thousands of dollars more in cables, phono transformers, spare tonearms, software suites, resonance control products, power conditioners, room treatment panels, cartridge demagnetizers, cable burn-in machines, and record cleaners. 

I'm not questioning Fremer's ethics. But we can only assume that not all of the money for this system, which is pushing a million dollars retail, came out of his Source Interlink Media paycheck. And unless we concede that much of the equipment was given away or sold for pennies on the dollar by friendly manufacturers and importers, we have to imagine that Fremer has been depleting a family fortune or has a lucrative side career in rhinoplasty. Or that, like Walter White on "Breaking Bad," he's been cooking meth.

Again, I don't mean to pick on Michael Fremer (though I remain perturbed by his increasingly acid responses to readers, like the one in an October column on Analog Planet, where he referred to one of them, in print, twice, as "a real dick"). I'm sure his stereo sounds really, really good. But the inevitable questions about the provenance of all that equipment don't exactly fill us readers of Stereophile magazine with trust and fellow feeling. And unless John Atkinson (and Robert Harley and other editors-in-chief and publishers) can demonstrate to us that these insider transactions are governed by some semblance of transparency and fairness, we will continue to doubt their opinions.

John Atkinson's picture

directly heated wrote:
the prospect of getting expensive equipment on "indefinite loan" or at steeply discounted "accomodation prices" is pretty appealing.

An Industry accommodation price for reviewers tends to be the wholesale price of the product, ie, what a dealer pays.

directly heated wrote:
I'm not questioning Fremer's ethics.

You appear to be doing so.

directly heated wrote:
But we can only assume that not all of the money for this system, which is pushing a million dollars retail, came out of his Source Interlink Media paycheck.

The dCS stack is in for review, in the January issue. Michael purchased the Wilson speakers, dartZeel preamp and power amp, Continuum turntable/tonearm and Meridian Sooloos system. Michael cashed in some of his retirement savings to finance his purchases as well as using the money he got for selling his earlier Wilson speakers. So before you throw stones at one of us for our apparent lack of integrity, please _ask_ first.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

directly heated's picture

Hi John—

Thanks for your response, and your point is well taken. I should have asked before engaging in conjecture, so from now on I will. Here goes.

The New York Times, which you disparaged in your column, has a policy barring its correspondents and freelancers from accepting gifts, loans and freebies of any kind. Accepting a free trip or even a free dinner is a fireable offense, and the Times has demonstrated, recently and publicly, that it enforces the policy with impunity. 

Does Stereophile have a policy in place to prevent conflicts of interest among its reviewers and columnists? A concrete set of enforceable rules that governs their conduct in regards to accepting free equpment, long-term loans, and the timely return of review samples? 

I ask because years of anecdotal evidence suggest that the giving and receiving of equipment on "indefinite loan" is a practice that's alive and well among certain, if not most, reviewers and manufacturers. And it corrupts the conversation, as it does with wine, cars, travel and every other field where reviewers and the industry have cozied up to each other a little too snugly.

Thanks for your consideration.

John Atkinson's picture

directly heated wrote:
The New York Times, which you disparaged in your column.

No, I _criticized_ the NYT to make a very specific point. Why would you use an emotionally loaded word like "disparaged"?

directly heated wrote:
. . . has a policy barring its correspondents and freelancers from accepting gifts, loans and freebies of any kind. Accepting a free trip or even a free dinner is a fireable offense, and the Times has demonstrated, recently and publicly, that it enforces the policy with impunity.

The Times has considerably deeper pockets than Stereophile, of course. But at Stereophile we draw a line between large-value gifts and the usual demonstrations of politeness. When manufacturers visit my listening room, they will sometimes bring a bottle of wine, for example. Conversely, I give visitors Stereophile CDs etc. Often they will buy me dinner. Conversely, I also buy them dinner. I try to keep the ethical books balanced. For example, a couple of years back a manufacturer had a ticket to an opera at the Met that his wife couldn't use. He offered it to me. I accepted on the condition that I could buy him dinner at the Met's excellent restaurant beforehand. The cost of the meal was more than the face value of the ticket.

directly heated wrote:
Does Stereophile have a policy in place to prevent conflicts of interest among its reviewers and columnists? A concrete set of enforceable rules that governs their conduct in regards to accepting free equipment, long-term loans, and the timely return of review samples?

Yes, you can find an outline of that policy at Please note that to the best of my knowledge, no other audio magazine or webzine has published such a policy.

Of those rules outlined at the link, to me the most important so that reviewers and editors not act as consultants, whether paid or unpaid. Very often, a manufacturer or distributor will ask a reviewer to "just take a listen to this, you don't have to review it, just let me know what you think." This is absolutely forbidden at Stereophile. If we are sent a piece of equipment, we will write about it and the manufacturer finds out what we think about it when he receives the preprint of the review. Again see my policies at the link above.

Other magazines and webzines don't honor such a rule. For example, we tried to acquire a third-party website a couple of years back - the deal fell through in part because we insisted the editor would have to give up his consulting business.

directly heated wrote:
I ask because years of anecdotal evidence suggest that the giving and receiving of equipment on "indefinite loan" is a practice that's alive and well among certain, if not most, reviewers and manufacturers.

Again, see the policies linked to above. We allow long-term loans on the conditions described, the most important of which is that the component remain the manufacturer's property and the reviewer cannot sell it.

It is not feasible for Stereophile reviewers to purchase every piece of equipment they need to use as references during preparation of a review, so there is always a "float" of review samples circulating. But most review samples at this magazine are returned fairly promptly to the manufacturer or distributor. (It can sometimes be surprisingly difficult to get a manufacturer to accept his component back; he would prefer it continue to be used and referred to in reviews.) And most reviewers purchase the components they wish to use as long-term references. Yes, this is at standard industry accommodation prices, but please bear in mind that offsetting that is the fact that we all need to have several systems active, in order to be able to form accurate value judgments.

directly heated wrote:
And it corrupts the conversation, as it does with wine, cars, travel and every other field where reviewers and the industry have cozied up to each other a little too snugly.

I agree, which is why at Stereophile, we try very hard to keep the ethical books balanced. I have fired writers for breaking our rules and will do so if I find out that that something untoward has happened in the future.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

directly heated's picture

Thank you, John, for that forthright and informative answer. 

Louis Motek's picture

Quote: "Or [...] he's been cooking meth."


Fremer himself wrote in one of his blogs quite explicitely that he made all the money for his audio equipment from sales of his now famous DVD about turntable setup. He even did the math in front of the audience. Sorry I don't have the link handy. I just remember the line about him having to order another batch of DVDs because he's sold out yet again. 


By the way, most musicians also make most of their money not from concerts, nor from teaching, but from royalties from sold records, or their compositions being played on the radio, etc. I know a composer who wrote a bunch of theater music. But he made all his money off of jingles played on the TV and radio!


Louis Motek

John Mitchell's picture

Has Stereophile (or any other organization) surveyed young people on their interest or lack of interest in high-end audio? There's a lot of interesting speculation in the reader comments for this article, but getting answers straight from the (young) horse's mouth may be the best way to start formulating a practical answer to the question the article poses.

Nesster's picture

The high end camera business is facing a decline, and is under attack from the smartphone. Thom Hogan writes a lot about the camera market, things I think apply to hi-fi as well.


People don’t (think they) need dedicated cameras because they already have something that does an adequate job with them all the time, their smartphone. The only way you get those people to buy a camera is to bridge the gap: (1) you have to make the camera’s use and workflow as simple as they’re used to, but (2) produce a benefit that they don’t currently get that makes it worth carrying/using the added device. 

The camera makers certainly haven’t done #1, and much of that centers around the “sharing” aspect I wrote about. I don’t mean sharing as in “share on Facebook,” by the way, but in a much broader sense: as in “getting my photo from my device to someplace where some other person can see it." We used to “share” photos by taking them out of our wallet or getting out the photo album or mailing duplicate prints to our friends and family or even putting them on a wall. These days we have way more choices, and the thing I was trying to point out is that the smartphone is just far better at getting your photo where you want it than your camera. It “shares” naturally. Cameras don’t. Customers won’t go backwards. Once there’s a “better way” that has to be the way. 

The camera makers' marketing is also terrible at making #2 clear. You’re sitting in the stands of your child’s soccer game and they make the big play. How’d your smartphone do in capturing that? Note that there are smartphones that are already doing a better job of marketing on this very issue than the camera companies are! The ad for the Nokia smartphone where all the parents are rushing the stage with their phones and tablets to try to get more pixels of their child while the 41mp Nokia user sits at the back totally content is a good example. But the camera makers simply aren’t making the same case, even when they add longer lenses to compacts. The best they tend to do is emphasize pixel count or actual focal length numbers, which are just specs, not a true marketing message. User benefit. Those are two words a lot of camera makers need to not only post in big letters over the entrance of their buildings, but also make sure that the marketing departments get fully on top of. That’s going to be tough. Samsung outspends Nikon on advertising what, 10 to the 5th power or something like that? Apple gets the emotion of advertising. Nokia gets the user benefits in their advertising. And both those, too, are spending more than most camera companies on marketing. Is it any surprise cameras aren’t selling so well? So not only do the camera companies need to up their game when it comes to marketing, they’re going to have to up it big time because they’re playing with a smaller megaphone. 

Another aspect that’s getting lost by the camera makers is usability. Take a few raw file shots with your DSLR. Now hand the camera to your mom, or sister, or child and ask them to send shot DSC_1129.JPG via email to your dad and watch what happens. Now take a shot with your smartphone and ask them to do the same. Notice a difference? ;~) Right, the smartphone makers are solving user problems and making discoverability a key point in their user interfaces. The camera makers are adding features and burying them in more controls and menus. And, of course, leaving the real workflow to software on your computer.

But you have to start somewhere. That somewhere was right where I suggested in the original article: “how do I get this shot where someone can see it?” Couple that with “why is this shot better than the one I took with my smartphone” and camera sales will rise again. Fail to answer those questions with dedicated cameras and what we’ll have is a generation raised on mass market devices (smartphones) that aren’t interested in progressing to specialized devices (cameras). 

geordanh's picture

I'm in my mid twenties, own a pair of B&W 802's and feel pretty qualified to respond to this post.

If audio companies continue to assume that high price can be a differentiation strategy for selling what is now a commodotized technology, they are dead wrong. It is a declining market that will buy 'luxury' technology at a high price. My generation is especially sensitive to paying a premium for what has essentially become a commodity.

If the technological gains of the last ten years in hi-fi were worth the premium, there'd be an expanding market for it. People are rightly smelling BS and spending their money on real technological advances and settling for audio systems that deliver most of the performance for a fraction of the price of high end hi fi.

But nevermind market conditions...

Audiophiles are unbearably pretentious and obnoxiously self righteous. I love the broad stroke comments about my generation being a bunch of 'passive listeners' and thereby hurting the market for high end audio. This is the kind of arrogance that turns people off. I genuinely hope the high end market continues to contract. It will continue to pressure the uncreative 'luxury' brands out of the market, and encourage more innovative companies like Audioengine to continue gaining market share. I love my B&W 802's and Aragon hi fi system, but I know that my friends can enjoy listening to music on their Audioengine systems just as well. They appreciate coming over to listen to music, but I'm not about to suggest to them, most of them musicians, that they are 'passive listeners'.

Long-time listener's picture

I have another question, and I wish Stereophile would deal with this sort of thing more often, since it has to do with price and with system matching.

I have a bedroom system using NAD's inexpensive CD player (with Ortofon silver interconnects), an 18-year-old old Nakamichi 75-watt receiver (surprisingly good), and Monitor Audio Bronze BX2 speakers. It sounds wonderful. Why is it that when I add in my NAD M51 DAC--a Stereophile A+ rated component--the sound of the system becomes worse? It then sounds thin, pinched, and unmusical. I wish Stereophile could address issues like that. And stop giving Class A ratings to poor, unmusical components like the T+A Power Plant integrated amplifier. To me, something seems wrong in your system of ethics when it is consistently given a Class A rating, but with no review that discusses its performance in detail. Either that or someone on the review staff needs to be sent back down to the mailroom.

sudont's picture

I think you're on to something about people not having the patience to listen to music anymore. I'm the only person I know who does it.

But you're not going to get young people into hifi with four, five, and six-figure gear. You never see a young person driving a Jaguar or Porche, either. They simply can't afford it.
When I was young, there were affordable options upon which you could build. You might start with a Sansui or Kenwood receiver, some big cheap speakers, and a Garrard or Sony TT. Then, over the years, upgrade these components, one at a time.

As it is, everyone starts off with a computer. All you need add are some decent computer speakers. After that, there's really nowhere to go. Unless you have an older brother from whom to inherit a stereo, you have to start from scratch - and that takes a lot of scratch these days. Unless the price of high-end gear can be addressed, only those with a substantial income will be able to get into it - and that means older folks.

John Atkinson's picture

sudont wrote:
As it is, everyone starts off with a computer. All you need add are some decent computer speakers. After that, there's really nowhere to go.

With respect that's not correct. We started in part to show how, for not much money, one can use a computer as the basis for a true high-end music system

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Julian Higgins's picture

The luxury car business has a helping hand with the tax system, most leases are to some extent deductible & cars are often a business perq. This significantly affects the market with regular 3 year replacements and pulls new models thru.

The hi end companies have done nothing to help their cause - for example Harman has millions of cars on the road with their auto systems under various brands. Where are the factory reps offering clients free firmware updates and usage seminars and setup (most of these systems go out the door with bass & treble slammed for impact - the eq options for my harman system was NOT in the user manual !) and Oh, by the way what do you have at home and have you seen the latest Revel/Harman/ML/Lex/JBL new device at your local dealer. Here is a coupon for a hundred dollars off.  Am I missing something here ?

The distribution channel is also at fault otherwise Schiit and Emotiva etc. would not sell direct.

I have attended hi fi shows - speakers in the middle of the floor, stacks of electronics in the middle of the speakers and heavy thick cables everywhere. This is totally unsuited for any modern residence where humans, dogs and children actually live. So any rational practical person, male or female, seeing this, immediately perceives they cannot have this in the house. Roy Allison had the right idea designing speakers for wall and corner placement. B & O is sleek and integrated, limited functionaity and performance notwithstanding.The industry needs to stop working the "audiophile" space and work to meet aesthetic expectations in real rooms. This does not mean necessarily accepting a pair of in walls to drive a big room, but it does mean remoting the equipment to a rack somewhere not in the middle of the room. Sonos is intelligently working in this space.

Those homes featured in Arch Digest should have real systems - that none of them do is a key problem affecting the industry. The time is right for new trends - everyone has upgraded their TV and there is nothing to watch so the opportunity presents itself.

Edward See's picture

Be optimistic! You guys have not tried hard enough in the oversea markets, I am referring to China and India. My wife went to CHANEL in Paris recently and wanted to buy some earrings. She selected 4 pairs but can only buy 2 pairs. Ask Why? The saleslady said " I cannot mention the country name but these crazy people got so much money they buy everythings. So to be fair to others, each customer can only buy 2 pairs and you can only come back in 2 months' time to get 2 more pairs! CHANEL computerise the sale receipt, you cannot bluff if you try to buy earrings the next day. You see there are plenty of opportunity for High End Audio and plenty of rich people out there. America must work hard! By the way, I own Mcintosh and Mark Levinson. Long live America Hi Fi.

Doctacosmos's picture

I have a feeling not as many people do as you might think or if they do, have never experienced them.  Most stores don't carry them. If walmart carried a few then way more people would be interested.  Then upgrading them would be a necessity. The only reason i know about them is because i'm old enough to remember when there weren't smartphones and people actually sat down and enjoyed music instead of plugging in headphones.  I could go on about how people will see them when searching for a home theater in a box on but even then, if they are interested they go straight to and get confused ( reminds me i need to go erase some of the threads i made when i was learning lol) and see the crazy prices of equipment.  Why are there so many speakers anyways.  Because people want to make money.  understandable.

Doctacosmos's picture

not necessarily just the company :"Rent-a-center" but other companies with the same objective.  A lot of people rent from there and i would be willing to bet that if they had some set ups with lets say $1000 a pair to $3000 a pair speakers that people could actually listen to, then people would look into floor standing speakers.  After hearing a good stereo floor stander set up right most people will not be able to shake it from their mind.  Even if they don't buy the speakers set up in the store they will definitely look into other options.  Larger bass image the better

deftoejam's picture

Science literacy continues to increase.  Luxury item substitutes continue to increase.  So, if you wanna save "high end":

1) Completely and immediately drop the faux-science approach, and completely and unambiguously embrace all aspects of the scientific method when even inferring audible differences in anything.  Encourage and facilitate target customer education to overcome myths and fallacies widely disseminated in high-end audio.  Hire objective outside experts to educate yourselves if you think you are already doing this.

2) Encourage the focus of manufacturer and music production efforts on innovations and quality improvements that really make an audible difference, in line with rule #1.  This means many things, including but not limited to elimination of the "testimonial" marketing method and mutual back-scratching that goes on between makers and publishers at the expense of objectivity, transparency and rule #1.

3) If you like something because it's rare, exclusive, or just wicked expensive and it looks good, that's OK - just state that in an intellectually honest and unambiguous way, in line with rules #1 & #2.  Luxury item firms do this all the time, and it works very well for them.  Treating target customers like fools with facile dissembling, like high end audio currently'll catch a few flies, but not many and fewer in the future.

I have little hope any of the above will actually happen, and that's why "high end" will likely continue its decline.  The recent attempts to try to frame analog as superior to and less problematic than digital are failing, as are the attempts to make high quality PC-driven audio appear difficult to achieve.  There are just too many (younger) people who know better, and you'll never, ever reach them with the current approach.

Put another way, if you want a different result, try a different approach.  I think it was Einstein who said something like "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result".

Cassettivity's picture

I think we are missing something in this conversation (or maybe I missed a comment): we are in the MIDDLE of the digital revolution. Right now, our storage and bandwidth is limiting the source quality, but this is changing. Once bandwidths are improved and once we have whatever-comes-after-terabyte sized smart phones, the mainstream will be working with this gucci digital media. Once that happens, there will be a REASON to spend $$ on improving your syste, because who would pay $$$$ (or even discuss fidelity) to reproduce 128kbps MP3's?

I imagine that the decrease in the hi-fi market correlates to the increase in use of crappy source material. Once source improves to something that will blow any CD out of the water, hi-fi systems will flourish. Can you imagine what could be done in a room with not-yet-invented-fi digital sources?? I'm talkin' super-fi. 

Closing thought: 10 years ago, when I used to sport my Grado SR60's on a subway, or in public, I used to feel pretty dorky. Now, I see big headphones everywhere. People want good sound, its just that people are suffering with mp3's (that HURT when you listen to them on a too-good-system {so many hyphens... sorry})

Audiolad's picture

When they rate top products costing $500 and the others are $5000, then the public perceives the $5000 products overpriced. As always, there are reasons why less expensive products rate that well, but the more expensive items have capabilities the less expensive models don't have. I have always thought product ratings should have a price range ($2000-infinity), ($1000-2000), (0-$1000). Within the range the people have a chance to see the top products in every price range. Is that so difficult??