The Audiophile of Today
My introduction to this industry was as a young salesman back in 1971. The industry today bears no resemblance to those early days. In the 70’s the entire industry revolved around amplifiers, turntables, tuners, cassette decks (just introduced), speakers and reel-to-reel recorders. You had three ways of accessing recorded music, Vinyl LP, pre-recorded cassette or AM radio (FM was still a way off.)
Things have certainly come a long way, and we are all a lot better off for it.
Historically the Hi-Fi industry has always had its roots in the baby boomer market, and it is having a tough time breaking free of those roots. Pick up a current copy of the industry bibles like Stereophile or The Absolute Sound and many of the album reviews date back to recordings (or re-releases) from the 70’s or 80’s. Recently one progressive reviewer was applauding the fact that some of the Hi-End rooms at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas were breaking new ground by not playing the usual serving of audiophile recordings. An example was made of one room that was playing a recent live recording by the Rolling Stones. Hardly progressive!
The problem is that as lucrative as it has been, this market is now coming to an end. Baby Boomers are reaching the end of their working lives, and unless they have substantial savings they are also coming to the end of their legendary spending power. I recently read one sobering report which pointed out that 16% of Baby Boomers had already passed on.
It is the music format that was initially shunned by the audiophile industry that will ultimately prove to be its saviour. When Apple popularised compressed music via their iTunes site, it was disregarded by the Hi-Fi industry because of its poor resolution. I recall being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who asked what impact I thought MP3 would have on our industry, I replied 'very little'. I could not have been more wrong!
Despite its poor audio quality, compressed music, mostly due to Apple, has proven to be extremely successful. Along the way it exposed a new generation of listeners to a vast quantity of music, breaking the restrictive 'top 40' format that previous generations had contended with over the decades. Most importantly it did this cheaply and conveniently. Suddenly there was a significant portion of the population that was devouring more, and a greater variety of music than at any other time in our history. And by and large they were blissfully unaware of the limitations in the performance of this format.
However, this is starting to change. This new market is slowly being exposed to better quality audio reproduction, and once they hear the potential they are proving to be very responsive. Possibly the biggest challenge the audiophile industry faces today is how to engage this market and expose them to high-performance audio.
This does not mean that we will see a new crop of audiophiles emulating those that went before them - far from it.
This new breed of 'audiophile' approaches the market in a completely different way. In the past audiophiles lusted over amplifiers, speakers, CD players and turntables. When the committed consumer had everything they needed, then they (occasionally) purchased a pair of headphones. Today it is common for the new consumer to start with headphones. Often a pair of headphones is the first step on the road to building a quality system. This is followed by a headphone amplifier, then a quality DAC, eventually leading to an amplifier and a pair of speakers. CD players are not high on the list, but many will reach out to a turntable.
The buying habits of the consumer have completely changed. Good Hi-Fi stores still exist – but in smaller numbers. The savvy consumer knows that the only reliable judge of performance is their ears, but at the same time they have a vast repository of information at their disposal, be it from manufacturers websites, review sites or forum sites (such as StereoNET). A growing proportion of consumers are also sourcing their equipment on-line, although I believe that this will stabilise. As local prices fall more into line with international pricing, and supply chain costs are reduced, many will recognise that the small premium it costs to buy locally is good value given local support, warranties etc.
Prices in Australia have fallen significantly compared to overseas. The internet has created a world wide market, and no company can charge exorbitant prices compared to other parts of the world and hope to remain in business. It took some time for many companies to (painfully) learn this lesson, but most are now toeing the line.
There are new and aggressive manufacturers appearing in the market place. Many of these start out as on-line only brands offering disruptive prices made possible by their low-overhead environment. Once creating an on-line following they expand into more wider distribution, but retain the low margins and end-prices. One of the best known examples of this is US based company Oppo.
While high definition digital music will entice many to the industry its impact will not be solely performance based (I still contend that a good LP playback system is as good as, or better than the best of Hi-Res digital.) Its biggest impact will be the delivery of music (and video). It is obvious that the days of buying music on CD are fast fading, and this change will continue to gather momentum. Sales of CD players are also slipping rapidly, but this market is being replaced by sales of Digital-to Analogue Converters, streaming products and NAS drives.
The potential for this industry has never been greater. There is now an unprecedented proportion of the population which has access to vast and varied music and musical styles, and they're comfortable accessing it digitally. They are used to having this music with them at all times, and the costs of accessing and storing this music have reduced significantly over the years. Today’s consumer listens to what they want, where they want and when they want.
Changes are making their mark wherever recorded music is found. Even the humble MP3 player is about to get a make-over. This product category now finds itself as a potential Hi-End source as high resolution players like Astell & Kern, Sony and Neil Young’s Pono, take the performance of the portable player to extraordinary heights. Hi-Resolution download sites (see here for detailed list) are proliferating, and long established hardware manufacturers like Naim Audio and Linn are re-inventing themselves with committed ranges that draw the best out of Hi-Resolution downloads.
The one thing that we need to recognise is that the industry has not changed – it is in the process of changing. Despite all of the advancements of the last decade or so, we are only part of the way to what this industry will eventually morph into. Whatever that turns out to be, it is going to be an exciting ride.
About the Author
Len Wallis is a guest contributor to StereoNET. Len's experience within the Hi-Fi and Audio Visual industry in Australia extends more than 40 years, and Len is the propietor of one of Australia's leading and most successful specialist outlets, 'Len Wallis Audio', established in 1978. Len has been recognised with numerous awards for excellence in business both nationally and internationally.
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