Regarding the death of the home stereo system

In the last 15 minutes, about 25 people have sent me a link to this article, so now I'll share it with you. For better or worse, whether we're discussing velour suits or Compact Discs, any discussion regarding death is most likely premature. I call for a death to the discussion of death.

Yet, here we go again, this time discussing "the death of the home stereo system." CNN reporter Todd Leopold paints it as the classic struggle between quality and convenience, and seems to think that convenience has finally delivered the knock-out punch.

Nothing Leopold says is necessarily wrong, but I think his argument is a bit simpler and neater than reality. We tend to forget that quality and convenience aren't necessarily at odds. Even hi-fi, in its most basic sense, is an endeavor of convenience: Rather than travel to the concert hall, we choose to stay home and listen.

The truth, as I see it, is that quality and convenience are two sides of a long and happy marriage. Our interests sway from one side to another, of course, but, when things are at their best, the two sides are in perfect harmony. We're entering one of those phases now, with respected audio brands delivering intelligent, forward-thinking products fit to our current lifestyles—products that look good, sound good, are made to integrate with our homes or travel with us wherever we go, and are actually affordable.

As Jon Iverson so famously said, "Audiophiles perfect what the mass market selects." It just takes a little time.

dalethorn's picture

I'm good with having all of my files on my Macbook, iPhone, iPad, and iPod. Over 2000 photos, over 2000 videos, over 2000 music tracks, and hundreds of documents in PDF, DOC, TXT and other formats. I'm pretty well locked into Apple, but their late idiocy, er, make that myopia (don't mean to be disrespectful) has made 64 gb the limit on the iPhone, ditto iPad Mini and iPods. So my 90 gb of data has outgrown my devices, and all I can think is, I'd like to have the spare time to mount a campaign to explain to people how Apple has gone downhill since their one and only intelligent leader died. If they had an intelligent leader now, he wouldn't be making a new phone with a camera so inferior to the previous phone's camera (yes, it is), to name another blunder on top of the memory constraint.

Convenience ahead of sound quality? No - if I'm going to sit in one place for awhile I just connect the v-moda Verza DAC/headphone amp and a decent hi-fi headphone and I'm good for CD quality listening with WAV tracks I ripped bit-perfect from CDs, or converted from 96k downloads. For speaker listening, connecting powered speakers or a power amp and speakers is a snap, although that's not my normal situation. I have a Microstreamer DAC for the computer, so I can always play the original WAV or FLAC files in full resolution when desired. Being very small and compact, plus convenient yet ultra high quality is due mainly to the headphone, not the other small components. It's the loudspeakers and loudspeakers only that separate big from small, or convenient from inconvenient for most audiophiles. There is an argument for turntables there somewhere, but that's a fringe item - not mainstream audiophile - not yet anyway.

ken mac's picture

Geesh, what a simplistic argument the CNN writer offers. I bet anyone here could defuse, challenge, and basically demolish the premise. If anything, we are seeing the birth of new audiophiles (cringe, maybe they will invent a better word). Remember when everyone used crappy earbuds to listen to their ipods? Now I see so many styles and brands of smart looking well designed headphones on the subway I can't keep track (you guys should review the new KEFs). The need for better sound in your head translates to same at home. See: the return of the LP, which uh, can't be played on the road. You listen to vinyl at home, hence the rise of affordable tube amps. 25 to 35 year olds are responsbile for the LP's return, not the fuddy duddys who only listen to digital. What's next, the end of the eardrum? 

Music_Guy's picture

For as long as I can figure, to hear good sounding reproduction of music, you needed "separates" to give it to you.  But, at the same time, you could also have gotten just "music" out of a single "box."  Maybe the smallest box was heavier "back in the day" but there were always people for whom a single box "did the job" whether portable or not.  There were those for whom only separates would do.  A big factor was cost.  How much were you willing to spend to do the job.

I was around when people who wanted good sound routinely lugged separates to their dorms and apartments.  That was their minimum. But I definitely see that there are fewer of them today.  That is a testament to both their expectations of good enough and the relative quality of single piece solutions.  (And they are overwhelmingly digital only)

When I look at my options today, I see pretty much a similar range of choices as ever.  'Just want sound on one end...get a Jambox.  If you want the best sound on the other end, you are still going to have to match up separate components.  Within that very general range, however, the choice of solutions is soooo much greater!  All the analog sources are still possible.  But there is a whole new world of digital music sources and great gear to play it on.

Maybe someday we will have audio equipment Nirvana...a single, simple, affordable, box with sound fidelity/quality so good that we will only want that one solution.

(I bet that will never happen.)



Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...into believing we can multi-task.  Several studies prove we can't.  Everyone believes they can do two or three things at the same time as well as one thing.  Not true, not true, not true. (Check out texting and driving accident rates compared to no distraction accident rates.)

Portable Hi-Fi was sold on the basis of convenience and the lure of mult-tasking.  Sorry, you can't get into the music as deeply on ear buds while jogging as you can while sitting and listening to a dedicated system.  Now, if you don't care enough about the music to actually LISTEN to it, then that's another story.  (Perhaps for many, music today is no more than lifestyle wall paper; sort of a theme music for the movie of the EPIC life you're supposedly living.  Perhaps this explains why so much of modern music is banal and boring.  It's not supposed to demand your attention.)  But, if you actually want to understand the conversation the artist is trying to have with you, it helps to focus.  

There's serious listening and there's background music.  Serious listening is best served by a chair and a dedicated system, be it speakers or headphones.  Background music while jogging, reading, eating, surfing, partying etc. can be delivered by ear buds or boom box or laptop speakers.  

My problem with the CNN article is that it assumes serious listening is dead.  Growing vinyl and turntable sales suggest otherwise.

jimtavegia's picture

My Dad had polio in the early 50's and I was his DJ when I was 6 & 7.  We had an nice RCA mahogany flip-top record changer and my Dad was given 100's of 78's that I would play for him for hours.

On the back was a jack for a remote speaker and someone had given us a cabinet  1 ft  X 2 Ft with an 8" driver in it, but it didn't work.  So we took it down to a stereo shop to see if they knew what was wrong.  They deemed it was a bad voice coil, or some such problem, but never offer to sell us a replacement driver or, better yet, a new speaker that might work even better.

I often thought about that time and wondered what might have happened if someone there are show my Mom something better that might have sounded great compared that that old RCA record player with its swell dual-cone 8 inch front mounted speaker.

After My Dad passed and my Mom remarried, my step-Dad bought this swell Delmonico Stereo from Western Auto. To say that I thought that was great is so sad when I could have know about the  best audio had to offer at that time.

It is a sad commentary on our society if all that matters is convenience and some decent background music. I'm glad I was exposed to some great gear in the early 70's through reading Stereo Review, as flawed as it was. With all the information that is now available and the high quality audio that is all around, that convenience reigns regrettable. 

Briandrumzilla's picture

CNN reporter. No reason to read further.

Louis Motek's picture

Portable Hi-Fi was sold on the basis of convenience and the lure of mult-tasking. 

One thing that really ticks me off is how Big Marketing has managed to convince the independent, once-critical press and talk show hosts to take it hook, line, and sinker, that these new gadgets conform to the "way we live". That they somehow reflect our modern tempo of life, that they blend in and express everything there is to express about ourselves and our daily routines. It is quite the contrary: these gadgets and screen sizes and communications protocols and connector types are all quite simply and without any social altruism to ease our lives 100% profit-driven attempts to become the next big thing in the marketplace. If that means turning away from sound quality, then fine: that will be taken out of the next trend. Because "now we can offer built-in speakers, built-in multi-track recording, built-in piano lessons, and built-in music library organization, and the competitor can't, so buy ours." And you will. Because the press is not critical. The press just furthers the same story: this is our modern lifestyle, we are advancing in every conceivable way. And without these gadgets you will not be whole.

I know why my beloved artists from the 60's were so good and expressive: it's because they learned to play music on an instrument and amongst people better than them, and not on some stupid software which shows you in red notes when you mistyped your C sharp minor scale on your Garageband "LCD Keyboard". 

Perhaps for many, music today is no more than lifestyle wall paper; sort of a theme music for the movie of the EPIC life you're supposedly living. 

I was once so pissed off about this very trend that I sat down and penned an article about it in order to vent. (Please excuse me, this is in no way meant as self-promotion.)

The more I think about this, the more I realize that it is really a world view that audiophiles share, and that very few people in the world even begin to fathom our sensitivity and that we cherish the musically achieved by both the artist of the music and of the gear. Even we ourselves participate in the creation of the experience when we adjust things and combine gear. And then listen to the whole.

I think the word that is common to us is simply meaning. And it's not an old geezer thing at all. It was merely industrial circumstance that thirty years ago, home audio gear was big and heavy. So were ovens, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. Even sofas were not liftable. Everthing manufactured has become streamlined. In good ways and and bad ways.

Nothing's really changed. Throughout the ages, either you value things or you don't care much. Everyone chooses different things. Or, put another way, everyone decides to what extent they let marketing into their personal lives and take them over without critical participation in the process.   


Louis Motek

Et Quelle's picture

The cellphone generation has its pathetic qualities, though not all their fault. It is sad when people who cant buy a pizza smirk at your 3yr cell phone. When did phone mean cell phone and for home phone you have to say home phone. I miss the original way. I am collecting records and phono equipment, riding bikes and watching a projector. I am the only one not buying another cell phone every year; get someone to talk/text first.

Mallette's picture

Great piece, Mr. Motek, and TRVTH.  Favorite lines, which I am pasting for those who might not read your piece themselves:

"Those, however, who discover the unending ocean of beauty, insight, and intuitive knowledge which has been recorded in the form of music will desire even more precision and quality from their playback equipment. Not for the sake of the gear, but for the sake of a desired proximity to the recorded audio event–for its content is so vast and deep, the musical vocabulary so unending in its nuance and expressive touch, that a phone line scenario would be extremely limiting to the sublime information that ought to be communicable through music."

No other technology we have developed can so totally create a separate reality like properly engineered audio. 

Thanks for sharing...

Bill Leebens's picture

'Twas ever thus: apparently the writer is too young to recall that there used to be record-changers and even tape-changers, and then CD changers. Oh, well. There were choices then, there are choices now.


Whould've thought that the quality of mainstream coverage of the industry would dip to a level that would make us miss Hans Fantel at the NYT?


Mallette's picture

It is fascinating that this subject should suddenly be getting notice.  In the dwindling ranks of magazines with significant penetration into audio as a pastime and hobby, Stereophile is one of the survivors.  I’ve taken it now for a number of years.  Having lived through HiFi and Music Review, Audio, Stereo Review, High Fidelity, I can observe they had significant mainstream appeal.  While Joe Sixpack might not subscribe, he would purchase when making a decision on a new stereo, especially in the high years of the 60s and 70s when the penetration of decent systems reached its peak.  I rather doubt many in the general population ever do this with Stereophile, as the target (that would be US) is now a niche and no attempt whatsoever is made by us or publications like Stereophile to communicate with those outside the interest group.  Makes sense. 

Having begun in radio, moving to audio production and engineering for film and video, then on to related but irrelevant areas all the while being an ardent music lover and listener, I have had the opportunity to watch the whole parade and due to other conversations I have with fellow audiophiles I gave this subject a great deal of thought.  I’ve also been very blessed to have a set of friends made in the early 70s that I still have contact with.  “Back in the day,” we’d gather, blow a few joints, have a few beers, and listen to Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and many other similar recordings we all agreed on.  Great times!  I do not remember a single time when we gathered that the TV was on.  Green people, low resolution, crappy 4 inch speaker…not a lot of fun if you had friends around.  However, all with the exception of a couple rarely listen anymore to anything except mp3s, Ipods, and such.  I really got to thinking about why. 

I write for fun as I find it relaxing and it forces me to research and learn.  Seems this topic hit me about the same time as others.  I wrote a piece on it that, whether it’s correct or not, is based on a lot more contributing factors.  I am linking here because, as my blog header clearly state, I come to learn, not pontificate.  Praise is really cool, but one learns nothing from it.  Feel free to flame at will… 

Whatever Happened to Hi-Fi?


PS - BTW, Stephen, I fully agree with your last quote.  Our clout isn't what it once was, but we are still heard.

Et Quelle's picture

Special stuff like turntables that range from $300-$100K when Sony cost $130 reg. price increase the look, sound and prestige of your system and enjoyment. Turntalbes into phone preamps into tube preamps into power amps w/ integrated ones 3-8 feet towers. It is not to show off. Non audiophiles have never heard of Marten speakers,etc it is because we are into it and want the best we can get!

They think it is over because we do not discuss it with people who don't share our interest. Just like any hobby, comic books, etc. It starts with Best buys top of the line and then the next thing you know, you are saving for a year?

discojets's picture

In the late 60's when I turned 13, my parents bought me a GE portable, fold out record player.  I didn't know any better and thought it sounded fine.  Then my older brother bought a used KLH Model 26 compact stereo and my audio world changed forever.  Ever since then I've pursued high fidelity to some degree or another, within my financial ability.  Now, everything is CD's ripped lossless into iTunes.  And I can carry around all my music on an iPod Classic (down converted slightly)  It sounds pretty darn good.   What's great about the audio world today is that there's something for everyone.  You want high fidelity, you got it.  You  want portibility and speed, you've got that too.  And most of it sounds pretty good.  Why worry about it?

sudont's picture

He has a point, though, about the high-end and the low-end moving further, and further apart. When I came up, in the seventies, you had a lot options for a decent system in the form of Japanese receivers, and other reasonably priced components, which you could use as a jumping-off point. The situation today seems to mirror our society with its shrinking working- and middle-classes. Much of the high-end, judging by the prices I see in Stereophile reviews, is accessible only to the one-percenters. Stuff described as "affordable" costs more than any car I've owned.
If you don't have several thousands to spend on stereo, it makes little sense to get into vinyl, (except perhaps to make a "retro" statement). Otherwise, you're better off with digital, where you can do more for less. I have been building my system piece by piece, trading up, always getting used, (I believe the euphemism is "vintage"), gear for many years. The closest I ever got to a new component was a demo model TT! If I were just starting out now, I don't think there'd be any way I could get into hi-fi as a working person, today.

indianscout's picture

As I read this, I am sad for the masses that will never know the essence of the quality products that were made in the 60's & 70's. I remember going into the PX when I was stationed overseas and seeing all the great names like Sansui, Marantz, Pioneer and Kenwood! I had some extra money after my return from Vietnam so I did the only thing I wanted to do for a long time...I bought a Marantz, Pioneer, Sansui and Kenwood receiver and stored all of it in my dry attic until I got out. I still have all the equipment in original boxes. I pull out my Kenwood KR-9600 (180wpc) and hook it up to my AR-3a & quad ESL speakers, Thorens TT and Nakamichi tape deck and still love the music. After a while, usually a year, I pack it away and pull out the Marantz 2500! I revel in the quality and sound of these works of art and keep them in mint condition. I figure I will listen to quality music the rest of my life. Other than marrying my wife, this was the smartest thing I ever did.