"I've been thinking of late about the state of the audio hobby. Everyone is lamenting the fact that fewer and fewer young people are getting into the hobby. I'm going to lay the blame at the feet of manufacturers here. These companies are making costlier and costlier products that are so far out of reach of today's young people. Reading the CES show reports, it becomes evident that if you don't make a speaker that costs $50K, then you can't be a serious player. Or how about $10,000 bargains; I've read that numerous times.
"The most refreshing discourse on the web and the future of the audio world can be found on Headfi.org. The average age of the contributors on the site has to be south of 30. These are all young people who are seriously into audio and they all make real salaries (some in high-school make very little but there is still a place for them here). Many of these folks have realized they can achieve truly great sound for very little money. Most of these people have been ahead of the curve when it comes to computer audio. There is general excitement when a new affordable product emerges, while they still, of course, drool over the headphone cream of the crop. If I were a manufacturer, I'd be trying to find a way into this market. These are your future customers; future doctors, lawyers and engineers. Thiel and Wilson should make headphones. Krell and ARC should be making dedicated headphone amps. Millions and millions of iPods are proof that music is still important to people. Shouldn't manufacturers be finding a way to speak to these folks and let them know that much better sound awaits them? Maybe I'm alone on this one. Companies leave the headphone business to those who seem wholly dedicated to it. I think it's an opportunity wasted." - Drew McAllister
On the surface of it, Drew makes a compelling argument. Let's present one flip side though, one which comes as a function of the capitalist system's present trend for making the rich richer. If you were a manufacturer and had burned out your 'change the world' fire, your rebellious streak, your noble dreams of 'making a difference' - would you rather sell fifty $30,000 items per year, globally, or three-thousand $500 ones? See what I mean? With the rich enjoying discretionary income no matter what, there'll always be a market into which to sell trophy items (and though that term often has a derogatory connotation, let's be open to the possibility that it could and sometimes does deliver the real deal all around).
Especially 'middle-class' audio sales often require enormous hand holding. To a customer for whom a $3,000/pr of speakers is a massive expenditure saved up for piece by piece, anxiety and insecurity are the name of the game. He wants the very best he can afford. And he does not believe he can afford to make a mistake. The amount of pre and post sales support to make such a sale can assume epic, nearly pathological proportions. A trophy shopper on the other hand often is far more casual. He trusts his instincts and impulse. He knows what he wants, he can afford it, he wants it now and to the manufacturer or retailer, it represents an easy sale.
If we leave idealism at the door and apply crass capitalist commercialism where each sale not only means profits but also, how much time and energy were invested, fewer but far more profitable and less time-consuming sales are preferable to those which entail endless demonstrations, comparisons, phone calls, e-mails, weekend loaners and which, half the time, come to naught because the shopper just returned with a brand-new review that raved about something else he now wants to hear but which you don't sell. Purely from a business perspective, the $50K speaker makes enormous sense if a company can deliver the complete package - desire, cachet, reputation, implementation, delivery and customer satisfaction. Do audiophiles really need gear executed like Boulder amps and Rockport speakers, i.e. of NASA-level engineering? Still, it sells. Don't blame the manufacturers for what you may believe is customer foolishness. Filling demand is what capitalism is all about. Including creating demand where none existed.
I've often wondered how mall-based sock stores stay in business. Those are boutiques which sell nothing but designer socks. How many pairs a day do you have to sell just to make your triple net lease? I don't think this type of business model appeals to many high-end audio manufacturers. Should Audio Fanatic, to insinuate itself into the consciousness of the 20-something crowd, start making iPod accessories? Isn't part of Audio Fanatic's entire allure the fact that it is out of reach at that age, something one aspires to as a future part of having made it? The only problem Audio Fanatic faces really is that nobody knows about its existence. That, I believe, is the bigger problem. Dom Perignon, Rolex, Aston-Martin, Hummer and an endless parade of luxury brands have spent multi millions over the years to establish themselves as the go-to brands for the jet set. Whether it's a wrist watch, a sports coat, a perfume, a hand bag, a pair of high heels, the hip and sophisticated who are going places know exactly how to accessorize their lives with the status symbols of success. Individual audio companies simply have never had the budgets to mount the long-term publicity stunts and ad campaigns which are necessary to become part of the status symbol set. Wilson Audio in fact has arguably done a most splendid job on that count, a fact which many audiophiles criticize to no end.
How can you complain about HiFi's insignificance and invisibility on the one hand and then condemn an audio firm which is doing exactly what needs doing to make a difference? On the opposite end of the Wilson Audio scale sits Sony. Don't say anything about quality or customer service. This argument is about consumer awareness. There can't be any argument that everyone knows who Sony is. The same cannot be said about hi-end audio. At the level of penetration Drew is talking about, it takes a Sony or Apple-size mega corporation to deliver the pricing he feels is required to be relevant to the masses. That's the appliance level of the game - washing machines, lap tops, cell phones. To move consumers into wanting anything more advanced or elaborate really requires exposure. Listening to music the way audiophiles do is an acquired taste and skill. If you haven't been taught how to appreciate music played back at a certain level of sonic performance while you grew up, what are the chances that you suddenly will when you exit college, enter gainful employment and dream about what to buy yourself for Christmas?
One could just as well turn Drew's argument around. Lay the blame at the feet of parents and existing audiophiles, for doing a lousy and negligent job of training others how to listen. If you don't really listen, there's no need for audio beyond the appliance level. Get a clock radio and be done with it. That makes noise just fine and using it is free. Just twirl the dial. Enough for today. Next time, we'll lay the blame on someone else. How about the press? Or the retailers? Or AudiogoN? Or 6moons? That last one, you'll have to write yourself though. Of course there's a much easier way to defeat Drew's argument. Affordable audio already exists, lots of it. Take a Paradigm Atom for example. An NAD integrated. Throw in some AntiCables and presto. It's simply not what CES show reports tend to focus on.