The Future of Hi-Fi

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by Josh Ray on March 10 '06

An interesting email circle sprouted this week concerning the future of hi-fi and the next generation of consumers. Some of the biggest names in audio chimed in with ideas ranging from preaching at college campuses to nation-wide advertising campaigns. Not terribly much consensus other than "something must be done!"

As the token 20-somethin' iPodder, I was asked to give my opinion. Click "read full article" below for my response where I take aim at many of the ideas offered. And after you read my response, check out Wes Phillips' "iPod: Threat or Menace?" article over at Stereophile for the big dog's take on the future of hi-fi (published before my letter).

It's clear there's a dividing line in this industry between those who want to create new "old school" audiophiles and those who, like myself, want the industry to adapt to the new consumer. Of course, both ideas are not mutually exclusive. Convert away, I say, but if this industry is truly to grow, we must stop selling to ourselves and realize there's a brave new world out there.

(Original letter below)

Hello, everyone. Josh from SonicFlare here. I feel I need to chime in with my SonicFlare experiences because, for the last six months, I've engaged in audio-specific outreach and you may be interested in some of the conclusions I've reached about the future of hi-fi.

If you're not aware, I created SonicFlare to provide a connection between the audiophile world and everyone else. Short, sweet and as trendy as possible is the motto. After a few months, I made connections with pop culture websites and began building a readership of potential next-generation hi-fi consumers. However, it became painfully obvious that no amount of outreach could make a difference because, as we know, this industry does not speak "consumer," it speaks "audiophile."

To give an example of the problem, I landed the Shanling T300 CD player in Wired magazine's coolest products of 2005 (no financial benefit to myself, mind you, but just to push the cause). And yet, not a single soul could go to Shanling's site and figure out how to build an audio system (let alone give a rip about silver wiring and teflon caps). It was a waste, as is practically all the outreach I've done, of which I've pushed maybe two dozen products into non-audio publications (internet or otherwise).

Simply, the barriers to entry are just too damn huge. The difficulty in building a system is more than huge, it's impossible. The truth is, of course, audiophiles love the idea of system-building as if it were a kind of magical art (which it is). But since the entire industry is built around separates instead of systems, it is truly impossible for a newbie to figure out what the heck they should buy. Moreover, magical system-building is a moving target with absolutely zero consensus. We as audiophiles may love the ever-changing dynamic of hi-fi, but it's cold water to Average Joe consumer.

So my problem with SonicFlare is not outreach, but product. I can push new product out there all day long but there simply isn't enough next gen-specific product out there for me to push. Props to Stereophile for their lower-priced gear and other iPod-related reviews in the last issue but even a mag like What Hi-Fi with their hundreds of reviews in all price ranges is ultimately limited by the industry itself, not outreach.

However, I do believe there are ways for publications to speak directly to the next gen of consumers. My goal for SonicFlare is to begin creating this new content but, naturally, I'm hampered by funds, staff and time. And, of course, I can do all the outreach in the world (as can an association by throwing ad $ in every direction) but it is ultimately meaningless if the products the new blood are directed back to are impossible to comprehend, impossible to match and impossible to buy. I've stopped all SonicFlare outreach until this inbound traffic can be converted in a positive way.

That said, please don't think I blame the manufacturers for the problems, they simply don't have the resources to go after outside customers. Nor do I blame the mags. Actually, I don't place any blame for hi-fi devolving into a language only a tiny segment of the consumers can understand. Sure, there are those that started the trend, but I don't believe it was malicious by any means. Rather, they were motivated by a passion for audio that spiraled out of control and, well, here we are speaking gibberish.

In any case, I believe that while this separatist, audiophile-centric mentality reigns, hi-fi will continue to shrivel. Audio must be as easy as buying a car (annoying salesmen aside), clothing or jewelry and just as easy to understand. We must speak the consumer language, not try and make them speak ours.

Additionally, there seems to be some significant disagreement about the potential market for hi-fi and just what the new hi-fi consumer should look like. I believe everyone who spends money on luxury goods is a potential consumer. Though some disagree, sports cars, designer clothing, lux watches, plasma TVs, etc. are all industry models for high-end audio. I've never driven a Ferrari, Porsche or a BMW and yet I want one. Why? Marketing. Image. No one should ever have to hear Alexandria X-2s to believe they're good. Hell, they lust after Bose and spend $2000 on the laughable 3-2-1 system, so why is it so hard to believe they'll lust after a $4000, $10k or even $100k system? They will if it's marketed correctly. I speak to non-audiophiles all the time, pitch them on the hi-fi sound, show them some pictures and they say, "Bose is terrible? God, I didn't know! I love music and I'm ready to drop 2-5 grand right now! What is the best system and where can I get it???" And I don't have an answer.

Consumers have no problem coveting a million dollar Bugatti but they laugh at $2000 speakers. Whose fault is that? Not theirs. Ours.

Naturally, I disagree that we're selling an "experience" and not an "image." In fact, I would argue that if hi-fi is to ever be as big as sports cars, watches and clothing, it must sell an image, even if the image is "the best in the world" or, at least, "better than Bose." There also seems to be a prevailing attitude that hi-fi should never have anything to do with pop culture, especially hip hop. I'm not above rap music and neither is Rolls Royce, Bentley and, you know, Apple, Bose and Bang and Olufsen. It seems some are actually bothered by the idea of selling equipment to people who don't care about the the sonic differences between tubes and transistors.

We must market to people who will never, ever, ever be audiophiles. That doesn't mean they don't enjoy music, just that they don't have the time or passion to dig deeper. And trying to educate consumers and turn them into old school audiophiles seems like a denial of the shortcomings of our industry. We must adapt to the consumers, not the other way around.

At least, those my thoughts after the SonicFlare experiment. I may be way off base but I'd feel irresponsible if I didn't call it like I see it.

All the best,

Josh Ray


*golf clap times 1000* Wow. Best. Article. Ever. Man, if the high-end audio industry should have a PR department of sorts they should hire you ASAP. The writing in the wall is so clear... Take Apple for instance. They don't seduce you with techno babble, but with style and info on how their products have a fit in your life. Save the techno and spec crap for later - lust and creating interest and passion are what it's at. There are many people wondering whether they can do any better than their boomboxes - but simply don't know where to turn for advice. The high end mags are simply too busy preaching to the choir. Every person at least half interested on high end audio should read this. Well done, congrats.
Hey Beto, Glad you liked it. Hopefully it will get a dialogue going. At least, I think I boiled down the central problem, something that has been bugging me since the beginning of SonicFlare. Funny you mention industry PR. The A5, a non-profit audio advocacy group, aims to take audio into the big time. I sit on the board of directors as that token 20-somethin'. Of course, there are a number of very intelligent industry vets on the board providing the needed counterpoint to my ramblings :)
Josh, the absence of demand for Hi-Fi audio as a luxury good is surely not a problem of marketing. First and foremost, Hi-Fi is high technology, and as such it cannot not possibly appeal to those who are not technologically inclined. Look at sex. Sex has serious image problems with devastating daily publicity in mass media coming from deviants/criminals; and yet sex continues to be in great demand, particularly the hi-end kind. :) As for the luxury goods market it is driven by effeminate men and by women who typically have little interest in technology and will buy luxury goods that have sheer esthetic appeal for wardrobe for example or practical value such as cars, but will not invest any money in very expensive collections of capacitors, vacuum tubes and transformers regardless of appeal of the packaging. Fact is, Hi-Fi audio’s commercial problem is that it is primarily the object of interest by masculine men who tend to have little money and do not usually purchase luxury goods or services.
I certainly will blame manufacturers for their predicament, it's certainly not news that HiFi gear is too hard to set up and use. Bose speakers may be made of recycled coffee filters, but like Apple or B&O they understand the importance of ease of use. What needs to happen? Receivers need to sprout iPod docks and Ethernet ports. Speakers need to get a makeover, B&W XT style. And HiFi companies must start educating consumers about the virtues of lossless audio.
"In any case, I believe that while this separatist, audiophile-centric mentality reigns, hi-fi will continue to shrivel. Audio must be as easy as buying a car (annoying salesmen aside), clothing or jewelry and just as easy to understand. We must speak the consumer language, not try and make them speak ours." Speaking from the Average Joe Consumer standpoint, I have to say that this quote exemplifies the problem. Most of us, as consumers, are happy to put $10 headphones on and go on our way, as long as we can hear the music we want to (ipods, transistor radios, casette tape Walkmans, this is not a new phenomenon). Moving past this point will not be simple. I have the problem of not wanting to look like an idiot. I don't own an amplifier, for example, and I don't know if I need one, but the last thing I'm going to do is go to a salesman and ask about it because I can't tell if the guy is giving me something good or bad. So, I look online for information about amplifiers. Then I come across some audiophile pages and see pictures and reviews of products that I don't understand, speaking in terms I can't get, about things that cost more than I can spend! When it's over, I'm feeling pretty good about the $10 headphones because I know what I'm getting and I'm not paying for a salesman's new TV, and there wasn't someone sitting there saying "what do you mean you can't tell the difference?! Are you deaf?!" The one thing I can see, from the outside looking in, that will help is advertising. Porsche and Ferrari make great products. So do Rolex and, well, Rolex, but the point is I never went to a specialized place to find out about these things. I turned on the television and watched "Risky Business" and "Magnum PI" and "James Bond" and not one of these things showed how a great sound system could change my life (even with Tom Cruise jumping on a couch, listening to Bob Segar! Do you know the system he listened to in that movie? No, but you know "Porsche, there is no substitute.") but they did show how cool I could be if I drove a certain car or owned a certain watch. That's what the audiophiles need to do. Show the benefit of owning a great sound system compared to a crappy one and people will come running. That's why we all (Average Joe Consumers) want Bose. They advertise. And they advertise that "you can get a big sound for not too much money." It's a sales pitch that (obviously) works. I apologize for rambling like this. It's late, and I'm tired. Now, can someone tell me about a $50 amp I can hook my $10 headset to to make them sound like a $20 headset?
I agree with the aims of the conversation Josh. I just can't help but think that focusing on what you are recommending would eventually turn the industry into a bunch of Bose-like entities. Focusing on marketing and distribution takes budget, and that budget will come from either higher prices, lower parts quality, or less research. That's my jaded opinion. The long term effects of this water down a product line, but may increase brand recognition, and sales. Give it thirty years, and you've got Bose, or Harmon Kardmon, or Marantz (not trying to pick on a company here). There is something unique in the audio formula. Driving a Bugatti (or better yet a Shelby Series II!) on a country road in the spring may be a very pleasant experience. But will it cause you to understand the underlying message or the experience better? A good audio system allows you to hear more deeply into music, discovering new meanings from the artists, hearing more instruments, more musical lines. A Rolex doesn't allow you to discover time in any new way. And that is the difference and the power of enthusiast audio. The connundrum in high-end is how to communicate that effectively to new markets? It's easily coopted by the Bose of the world with a bit of flowery ad copy. I have a belief (or is it my fantasy?) that there will arise a new generation of consumers sick of mass-market plastic products who will seek out and support a new artisan culture to indentify with. This is the antidote to Wal*Mart and Bose. And within a trend like this, enthusiast audio can thrive. So I guess my feeling is that new and current marketing is what fails us. There are plenty of complete systems out there. Audio Note UK has one, Sudgen has one, Omega and Red Wine have a nice little kit. I remember a cool little Meridian system I used to have that was like that. The components even linked up when you stacked them - no wires to worry about. Ok, that was my ramble.
Good thoughts. I blame the extreme audiophile audio mags, brick and mortar stores, and cable peddlers. All target a very small percentage of the american public but turn off many. Brick and mortar. Stop turning your nose up at minorities, young people, and females. Old white guys with jags aren't the only folks interested in audio! Oh, and educate your employees; I refuse to pay a giant markup when you add zero value... and you wonder why stereo stores have been closing. Stereophile. Dedicate more space to mid-fi brands. Let's face it, the majority of your readers can't afford an entire rack of $2,000+ components. Cable Peddlers. $1000+ for a 1 meter cable? Act like other systems are crap if they don't use one? Nice way to turn people off. Anyway. Good article. I agree that marketing is the problem.
Hey guys, A great point was brought up about what this audio company of the future should really look like. And, ultimately, if it will look like Bose. I don't believe that a company must act like Bose in order to be as easy to purchase. The only difference (other than sound and product quality) between Bose and any other company is really the complete packaging of components. Sure, a few guys here and there have systems, but is any magazine reviewing packages? Not a chance. Also, as for the issue of watches, clothing and other items that have no intrinsic value, audio, HT and automotive have, in fact, discernible differences between product levels. I'd say we must look to the auto industry as an example of consumer/industry purchasing. Take Ferrari. How many people who actually own a Ferrari will ever take it to the track? Pull a G on the skid? Heck, use a manual transmission? I'd say very few. Same with BMW or Porsche or any high-performance product. For an industry to succeed, at least a portion of the sales must go to people who are not hard core and may never truly appreciate the finer aspects. Just like someone may put their $40k speakers too close to the wall, a Lamborghini owner may never go above 120 mph. Saying we sell to people who will never use a product to its fullest potential isn't to say everyone must turn into Bose, it's just saying that, for the industry to make money, we must target consumers who are not audiophiles and never will be.
Josh, cars and audio equipment are not analogous. One does not require special knowledge or good perceptive abilities to appreciate a powerful, fast and/or maneuverable car. A gas-guzzling two seat Saleen S7 has a lot more practical value for anyone than a million dollar turntable, and has a lot more showoff value than any home audio equipment. By the way, I do not own a car, any car. The biggest problem with the analogy of course gets me back to the hormonal aspects of human behavior. Essentially, the people with the money to spend on luxury goods have no interest in high end audio equipment owing to their hormonal makeup and the people who are pining and dying to get a million dollar stereo system will inevitably settle for something a lot more affordable. Just look at the kind of equipment that’s bought by the high end audio-obsessed mental cases that frequent hi-fi forums. Everyone there probably wants Wilson speakers and ends up buying Axiom stuff. The $20 Sonic Impact amplifier received much more attention that anything that ever came from Krell.
I think a lot of excellent points have been made here. Lately I've been thinking that the audiophile industry should look to the wine business as a model. In some ways, the products are very similar: huge variations in price and quality, years of work by the consumer to develop his/her "palette," and price scales that generally adhere to the law of diminishing returns. What the wine companies understand, as do Apple and beer companies, is that you are selling a lifestyle more than anything. Apple sells being cool. Beer companies sell sex. Wine companies sell connoisseurship and taste. They've also been able to "train" their (still growing) consumer base in the mysterious ways of appreciating their products by creating vintage charts, standardized reviewing systems and more. I think most non audiophiles can understand the analogy between these very different hobbies. They also tend to "get it" when you pitch the hobby in terms of wine appreciation rather than spouting some BS about SETs vs. Solid State. Like most beginners will admit that a $600 bottle would be wasted on them, they can also admit that a $10 000 speaker might go beyond their ability to appreciate it. That being said, this shouldn't turn them off the hobby, instead it can give them a level to aspire towards. Maybe the industry needs a "Sideways" style buddy movie about some aging white dudes touring vacuum tube factories in China. This might hurt the solid state business though :-)
I think that one of the main problems that exist (as Josh outlined and referred to) is the fact that none of my buddies and friends are even remotley inclined to walk into a "current" audio store to be ridiculed and made fun of for a) their iPod; b) their music taste; c) their outfits and be looked down by some elitist geezer snob who will drown them with superficial pseudo-babble about how they dare listen to music via the iPod and so on ... As to the potential one only need look at our bretherens, the car audio industry - mai, it appears that they have no problems what-so-ever attracting teens and twens to purchase 20k+ audio systems for their little Scion's and such... see, people do care about audio... its just that the present form isn't suited for non-audiophile distribution... anywhoo... ;-)
The market for high quality audio will not grow significantly until listening to recorded music at home in company is once again a valued activity.