High End "in a Funk," Claims NY Times

The High End has reached a new low, one characterized by "existential angst." That's how Lawrence M. Fisher of the New York Times describes the industry's ongoing malaise. In a well-researched and well-written piece that appeared last Thursday, July 9, Fisher cites "demographic and economic issues beyond its control and technological trends that threaten its very relevance." He mentions the economic crisis in Asia---destination for a large proportion of American high-end audio products---as a major contributing factor to the stagnation in which much of the industry is mired.

He also correctly points an accusing finger toward competing technologies---computers and the Internet---and changes in listening habits that make people today less inclined to sit in quiet rapture through an entire opera or symphony. People are busier now than ever before, and therefore more likely to listen to music while engaged in other activities: working, exercising, or cooking, for example.

The requirements of an audio system used primarily for background music are considerably less robust than those of a foreground system. For the majority of music lovers, audio systems are appliances like toasters and refrigerators---items that are counted on to work reliably, and to be replaced when they don't. The ultimate nuances of recorded music, or the fine craftsmanship of hand-built monoblocks, are subjects of little interest to most people.

Fisher, likely a true believer himself, pegs $10,000 as the ticket for an "entry-level" high-end system. He mentions $70,000 loudspeaker systems and $17,000 CD players in the context of a hypothetical six-figure system---something easily attainable for folks at the top of the economic pyramid, but rarely purchased by them. The fact that such systems are largely irrelevant to the rich is a mystery of enduring irritation to retailers like Mike Kay of Lyric Audio, who dismisses the mushrooming home-theater phenomenon as "today's fad," primarily of interest to the "middle class."

Manufacturers like Lew Johnson of Conrad-Johnson bemoan the fact that a $25,000 home entertainment budget must be divided among video sources, a projection system, and five channels of audio, instead of applied to a single amp or preamp.

Some high-end manufacturers have changed strategy (or at least broadened their product lines) to go after the upper 10-20% of the market rather than the upper 1%---after waking up to the reality that, even among hard-core audiophiles, the law of diminishing returns eventually sets in. At some point, hobbyists' red-hot desire for the latest designer boxes subsides to a barely warm glow. Family finances and domestic relationships can take just so much stress. Audiophile Jeffrey Labovitz is quoted: "You reach a certain level and you stop."

Fisher, unfortunately, doesn't address the asocial aspect of high-end audio---one that may always limit its appeal. Home theater is taking off because it facilitates socializing: it's easy to organize groups around a movie. By contrast, most high-end systems are, in effect, giant headphones best enjoyed by one person at a time. Traditional audio, unlike other amusements of the well-to-do---opera, ballet, the symphony, contemporary art, golf, sailing---has no group appeal.

Even small sailboats will accommodate three or four people. Not many high-end systems can do that. One of these days, someone will think outside the box and figure out how to include friends and family in the musical experience. When that happens, business may boom again.