Thursday, September 22, 2011
How Cool Is Your Hi-Fi?
"Now, I'm a writer and editor of an audio and music magazine. My kids are teenagers and know better than to go anywhere near my stereo equipment (they're too busy listening to their iPods to be concerned with my antiquities). The wife has become an ex-wife, and I'm currently seeing a very cute blonde woman who also happens to have a master's in American Literature and loves the Beatles and actually knows Big Star's story... and after nearly nine years in the aesthetically-challenged San Fernando Valley, I live in the Pacific Northwest, where it's rainy and wet and green, just as I like it. Needless to say, it's a great time to listen to records."
I took a lot of flak in the online audio discussion forums a couple of years ago for this admission--apparently some audiophiles didn't want to hear me boasting about my wild single years, and a few even posited that I made the whole thing up and that I was really living the life of the modern audiophile. That, of course, implied that I was sequestered in my Pacific Northwest hovel, listening to my LP collection alone, utterly and geekily alone. The truth was, I wasn't boasting but merely reflecting how much things had changed in the first decade of the Vinyl Anachronist column.
I also wanted to throw a rather risky and possibly far-fetched idea that having an awesome hi-fi was still cool. In those wild years, which have faded considerably in my rear-view mirror, I experienced a wide range of responses to my chosen hobby and profession--everything from actually playing a few records and getting lucky to having one woman tell me, "So, you just sit here and listen to music? You don't do anything else?" (My response to that was "I don't think this is going to work out" and showing her the door.)
Audiophiles have come a long way from the Golden Age of the '70s and '80s, when Playboy magazine asked the question "What kind of man reads Playboy?" and the answer was some cool bachelor with a futuristic Bang & Ofulsen hi-fi in his pad. Audiophiles lament the passing of those days, and the slow transition from coolness to geekiness that is marked by hi-fi nuts rhapsodizing about the best way to perform needledrops, and whether FLAC files are really superior over WAVs and WMAs.
I'm prompted to bring this up after Jason Gross, editor of Perfect Sound Forever, sent me a link to a story about the size of the music industry (which you can read here). Hypebot.com reports that IFPI has compiled 2010 statistics on the music industry, and $25 billion was spent on something called "home audio systems." This was the third largest segment of the music industry, after radio advertising ($32.5 billion) and recorded music retail sales ($27.6 billion), but it's still a much larger number than I thought.
So the real question is: what comprises a "home audio system" in 2011? We audiophiles kids ourselves into thinking that a substantial portion of that should be two-channel audio systems, but the reality is that most of it is probably iPods and wireless music servers and USB interfaces. In other words, we're probably not going to see any full-page spreads in Playboy showing that the type of man who reads their mag is spending his Saturday nights downloading FLAC files and perusing the audio forums in search of the best DAC for $200.
I'll be talking about this a little more when my next Vinyl Ananchronist column appears in Perfect Sound Forever in a few days. Two-channel audio still makes up a very small percentage of "home audio systems," and both hi-fi dealers and audiophiles are hurting because of it. If I could snap my fingers and make hi-fi cool again, I would. Here in my little Texas town, I have plenty of people dropping by to see what I do for a living, which is currently importing tube amplifiers, turntables and single pairs of speakers for US audiophiles. And every single one of these people, who are generally unaware of the presence of high end audio on this planet, are simply amazed at the sound quality that is possible from two-channel audio. (One person, in fact, seemed skeptical that the full soundstage that was reproduced in my listening room was coming from a single pair of speakers; they were convinced that subwoofers and center channels were hiding somewhere in the room.)
Two-channel audio IS cool. It sounds like real musicians right there in the room. Audiophiles need to stop wringing their hands about the current state of affairs, and they need to start inviting their neighbors over for a "music night."