The Kids Are Alright

It's one of audiophiledom's eternal questions: What can we do to draw more music lovers into the audiophile fold?

Of the proposals bandied about on audio forums, two seem predominant: a) sell stuff more people can afford, and b) sit your neighbor or the cable guy in front of your stereo, cross your fingers, and let 'er rip—the theory behind b) being that the experience will be so epic as to transform the reluctant participant into an audiophile butterfly. As if.

These ideas aren't wrong, but their aim is all over the map. Actual human beings have a ton of other things—and not just fun things—they'd rather do. Things that don't involve sitting in front of music while doing nothing but listening.

Unlike us. We're quirky that way. We want to do nothing but listen to our hi-fis. We even make time in our busy schedules to do so.

And there's this: We and non-audiophiles listen to recorded music differently: While their engagement with music can be close, ours is molecular: if it's in the recording, we want to hear it. It's why we care so much about the sound quality of our playback gear, and why we go to unusual lengths to optimize our hi-fi to sound its best. Such reverence for sound quality is too much for the average person: I get that.

I also get that there's been a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between consumers and recorded music: What was once an objet d'art that took pride of place on one's shelf is now a 20-second download designed to be instantly expulsed and replaced. And at $25/month to stream a zillion songs, music has achieved a monetary status of near worthlessness. Who, then, with his or her head on straight, would spend $25,000 on a stereo system—never mind on one component of it—when all it's good for is playing back music that, according to the people who dispense it, isn't worth a dime?

The answer might pertain to why the simple idea of a $10,000 amplifier strikes most people as absurd—but not so a similarly priced watch, or a $200,000 sports car. Those consumables come wrapped in ideas whose significance to every human being can't be trivialized: time and freedom. A stereo system, as important as it may be to you and me, is to most people as a mere hi-fi accessory is to us: It might improve things, but life works fine without it.

Yet hearing my recordings with minimal interference from the mechanics of playback is a privilege I value. Not only is this aspect of sound reproduction directly proportional to my ability to focus on the music, it is more respectful of the hard work that went into creating and recording the art of music in the first place.

So I'm okay with being in the minority—of being so eccentric that I can listen for hours at a time to music that doesn't come with pictures. I like belonging to a fraternity whose members speak a strange lingo and perform sacred rituals, while being implicitly aware that great audio is as much about developing the new as it is about refining the old.

At the same time, I wish everyone could hear what I hear, to understand empathetically what it is that makes the audiophile pursuit so special to me, even noble. Then there's the existential concern expressed in my opening sentence: that fear for the survival of our hobby and, by extension, of the survival of the audiophile inside each of us.

Not to worry, brothers and sisters: As sound quality continues to improve across all music-delivering formats, consumers, whether they realize it or not, are becoming increasingly acclimated to better sound and more of it. What a perfect M. Night Shyamalan twist! With convenience conquered and out of the way, sound quality matters! Which means: Stay alert for an uptick in the number of music lovers who will wander into our orbit searching for audio enlightenment.

The hard truth is that trying to convince most people of our hobby's appeal is a waste of time and effort. This is why it's best to set our sights on those who, during discussions of music or sound, display an affinity for audio—but who might be tentative and leery, and needful of being gently guided away from the din of audiophiledom's unwinnable in-fighting, crazy-sounding theories, and sticker-shock pricing. This is our chance to don our audio-emissary hats and spread the word on the street: Audiophile gear will make your music come alive! Even the cheaper stuff!

If we're lucky, we'll get to see some of these budding enthusiasts become audiophiles—just as, long ago, we became audiophiles—and we'll be reminded of a familiar and reassuring refrain: The kids are alright. And so are we.—Robert Schryer

PaulMG's picture

There are lightweight music lovers who primarily listen to background music. Why should they invest in a megabuck (stereo) system? On the other hand there are many technophile audiophiles who primarily esteem the latest and most expensive technology. And there are audiophiles who primarily value luxury aspects. Only few appreciate primarily a high-fidelity approach that focuses on the reproduction of the original sound quality. Psychoacoustic aspects come into the 'game' meaning the best match between speakers and listening room and between speakers and amplifier. The ideal would be having an active speaker designed as a point-source. Tiny nearfield-monitors can already realize the HIFI goal for a most affordable price. No pomposity needed as with muscle cars! :-)

dalethorn's picture

My take is, a lot more people would like to "get in", but there are many barriers, and cost isn't the big one. Just picture the curious person sitting at the coffee shop, and you walk in with your new remastered CD of Duke Ellington's Indigos, or maybe some great pop singer who just won a grammy. And you show them the CD, and tell them about the marvelous sound, and they listen to you because your enthusiasm is contagious. And after all, they would like great sound if it were available as easily as buying a CD online, or downloading an album.

Now comes the hard part. How to get started. They're not going to take a leap of faith and buy a bunch of stereo gear just to explore from their curiosity. They want it, but the big barrier isn't cost, it's getting from zero, or possibly a cellphone and earphone, to audiophile-quality speakers in the home, and some minimal gear to drive those speakers. Or maybe just the cellphone, DAC, and powered speakers. How to get from zero to a home stereo. Rental maybe? Even better would be an audiophile-quality budget system, delivered on a rental basis, like a pizza. No setup required other than placement of the speakers.

So that's my view - you have to have a way to get from zero to home stereo quickly and painlessly. And it needs to be the real deal, virtually guaranteed to sound awesome to the person who's trying it out.

fetuso's picture

If someone came to me and expressed interest in obtaining a minimal hifi system, I would say "easy;" NAD D3020 and Pioneer SPBS22LR bookshelfs. Hookup a laptop and you're in business.

dalethorn's picture

I think that would be a fail, for all the reasons the article states, i.e. it isn't working now. What needs to happen is for people to be able to call someone or go online and request a simple evaluation system, delivered and set up in mere minutes. The system you described may be ideal, but it needs to be delivered as a rental option, so the prospective audiophile doesn't have to buy it or go and shop for components in a store. If the system were a "buy and try" for x number of days, I think that would fail also, as it's failing now.

fetuso's picture

There's no market for what you are proposing. You would have to have vendors with large inventories all over the place. As it is now hifi shops don't like keeping inventory. There are enough on line retailers that offer no questions asked 60 day return policies that it in effect acts as a rental. The cost of shipping a piece of gear back to a retailer is a lot less than renting that gear would be for the 60 days. I don't think access to gear is an issue when talking about getting people interested in hifi. I think it comes down to the motivation of the individual. If the person is interested, he'll find a way.

dalethorn's picture

Actually, no. First, the market is exactly what Stereophile says we need to promote audiophilism. Secondly, think of "furniture rental", "auto rental", etc. And the inventory at the rental doesn't have to be large or expensive. The gear is budget-class mostly, and it recirculates all the time.

mrounds's picture

I Am Not An Audiophile. Stipulated. However, I like well-recorded, well-reproduced music; I just don't build my life around it and couldn't afford to if I wanted to. So I don't worry too much about missing that last octave or so at the bottom when it works well otherwise; often, it can be easily inferred from the first couple of harmonics.

I do like to attend actual live music performances, occasionally (depending on budget, type of music available, etc.). Partly, that's a need to recalibrate my ears occasionally for comparison with my sound systems. But it's also because there's something about the live, music-producing (not just reproducing) experience that matters. It's much more interesting to sit and see the music being created, rather than sitting in a room looking at some speakers, possibly with a TV screen in the middle (sorry, that's Home Theater, not High End), and imagining being present when/where the music was recorded. Playing the recording is a performance, but it's not THE performance.

I suspect, due to the near-zero-value of recorded music these days (interesting viewpoint in the article, and led me to thinking...), that many younger people do that too: when they want to really enjoy music, they go to some live venue or someplace (like a good movie or show) where the music is part of a larger performance.

Recorded music is often, as noted above, background, just part of the sound track of life, and doesn't NEED to be reproduced at an extremely accurate level. For that matter, many if not most people really can't hear the difference between good and not-very-good music reproduction; I've seen that in my own family. OTOH, I've heard some of what my kids' stuff puts out, and it isn't bad (high-end laptop, many phones with reasonably decent earbuds or cans), and it doesn't take up nearly as much space as my sound systems (even the little one tied to the computer) let alone something truly esoteric. And maybe that's OK, though it doesn't bode well for the continued wealth of some high-end equipment makers (who can't figure out a way to tap into the needs of the younger demographic) once those older of us, who have money and space for a good system, and time to listen to it, pass on.

deckeda's picture

Normal citizens want music in a certain room. They spend a few bucks to get something to plug into their smartphone or bluetooth it over to a speaker. That's today's home stereo.

Now, if they come over to YOUR house and there's music, one of two things happens. You either have a very modest system that obviously sounds worlds better than what they have, or you have an "audiophile's system."

Guess which one is likely to interest them, regardless of cost or sound quality? It'll be the one that looks least intimidating (which could be the megabuck setup.). "To show interest is to show signs of ownership."

rl1856's picture

The HE industry has to do a better job of convincing the masses that HE audio- well recorded music reproduced on great sounding equipment, is an acceptable way to spend discretionary income. Unfortunately, HE audio etc tends to be a solitary activity. Why? HE equipment is not displayed for others to envy. Lets face it, one of the reasons why people buy conspicuous items (large luxury watches, expensive cars etc) is to show the world that they have money and taste, while at the same time soliciting affirmation of their status from the have nots. As a solitary activity, it becomes hard to justify the expenditure in a 2 income household. Home Theater has been very successful in penetrating the home. Why? Because a large flat screen makes a visual statement to someone entering a house. HT is something that everyone in the house can enjoy, hence it becomes much easier to justify the expenditure. Lately I have seen HE companies attempt to produce lifestyle products, and market their wares by cultivating a lifestyle image. While some may find the concept odious, understand this- by positioning HE products as "lifestyle" components, companies are able to plant a seed in the mind of the consumer regarding how HE equipment can fit into an upscale home environment. Out in the open, instead of locked away in a "man cave". A great first step.

Home Theater represents the demarcation line that may have contributed to the decline of the HE industry. HE had a chance to impact the audio standards for HT, but instead chose to criticize and then stick their heads in the sand. HT developed and became very successful in spite of HE objections. Now there is a 2nd chance. Digital Audio Streaming. HE has overwhelmingly embraced Digital. Notice the plethora of digital devices explicitly designed to improve the reproduction of digital files from a laptop or other portable device ? How about the number of HE companies now offering HE headphones ? This too can be a way forward. By embracing the younger digitally oriented buyer now and giving them the products they want, the HE industry is building a large base of potential future buyers. Some of these new clients may be inclined to purchase more traditional HE components as their tastes change and income levels improve.

Adapt or perish.

jwh9's picture

These systems are not for shared walls. I'd imagine few metropolitan millennials would/could buy a 'stereophile' level system for an apartment when they can't afford a modest starter home (within 20mi of their employment anyways) with a patch of grass for the dog. Maybe if you live in Detroit, but not most other cities. So... earbuds.

Anton's picture

Speaking statistically, my fellow older white guys...

How did you overcome AM radio, cassette, BSR turntables, Magnavox consoles, 8 tracks, etc in order to become "audiophiles?"

Quit opining the yoots of today and their failure to dig your vision of your hobby. People will find their way in, or not.

Can anyone of you drive your car and play a favorite song and enjoy it? If so, then shut up about how you need your hi fi fetish rig to really get to the guts of a song.

If someone can play a Bose Wave and enjoy their evening, that person is not a musical "light weight," that person simply doesn't need our sonic Latex suit with mouth strap in order to get off on music!

You folks are starting to sound like Plushies wondering why everybody else doesn't get the proper way to have high end quality sex.

These rationalizations for our fetish are kind of embarrassing. "I just love music. So much. So much, I can only get inside it with specialized high end gear played as I sit stock still in my precisely positioned listening chair with a handful of lube."

Damn, the kids are alright and will get here in their own time. The best y'all can do is please leave them alone and don't screw it up!

misterc59's picture

I for one, came from a small town where the local electronics shop sold the "familiar" brands of the day, Sansui, Pioneer, Yamaha, Akai, Sony. Higher end products were not even on the radar. Yet, I still managed to realize that some equipment sounded better than others and had the curiosity to experiment and search for better sound (which continues to this day).
Back in the day, family and most friends had no interest in higher quality sound, as long as they could listen to their favourite music, they were happy.
Just as people have their selected hobbies, working on cars, woodworking, etc. I can do parts of these hobbies be content, and have no desire to pursue it to another level, just as many music listeners may be aware there is better sound available to them and still mange to enjoy their life.
One of my most memorable "music moments" was hearing Springsteen's Racing in the Street through a dorm room brick wall and thinking, wow, who sings this?
I guess my point is, if you have the desire to educate yourself and want to find a way to make your activity/hobby (choose any), more appealing and interesting, you will find a way to do it. After all, free time is limited and there are many ways to use it. Listening to music, and getting into "audiophile" sound is but one.
I would love to see this hobby grow, but if not, I can understand some of the reasons why.
The resources out there to investigate are exponentially higher than when I first began listening to my little blue Sony transistor radio.

Journeyman's picture

makes me have a nice perspective about the "kids" these days.
I'm old enough to be a father but young enough to "understand" some of the teen culture. The curious aspect is that teens do enjoy music and quality gear, just visit tumblr and you'll get my point, but most of them don't have enough money to spend on dedicated gear like older audiophiles do. So yea, the kids are alright with smartphones, consoles and laptops that have enough audio quality for them, some of them may buy a DAC others just buy better DAPs and headphones. Few will confirm that they are audiophiles because thats a label and labels can be uncool.
Teens have an affinity to audio that only audiophiles retain after they get over a certain age. Anyway don't expect most teens to enjoy quality gear, but if you give them a good smartphone with a amazing pair of headphones most of them will love it even if they don't admit to it.
That's my view but like all things in life it may be filtered by the people I know and stuff I enjoy.

musicguy's picture

My take is simple. I have a limited budget on music spending. I do my regular job and listen music for whole day and night and I have invested only $30 on earbuds and I am happy with the quality of sound and comfort I am getting with my pair of best earbuds. Do I need try more expensive earphones to check another level of music. I think, music is increasing my creativity and productivity. That's the objective.