A few weeks ago, I wrote a column (which is a blog post with a fancy name) about gender and the audiophile hobby. People read it and I liked writing it. So I think over the next year, I’m going to include a monthly column on audiophile matters here on my archaeology blog. That makes perfect sense to me.
In last month’s column, I addressed one recent hot button issue. I thought I might take on the other burning question among audiophiles recently. Folks like Scot Hull, Jon Darko, and Steve Guttenberg have framed the question: how do we get a new generation of folks interested in the audiophile hobby?
The problem is not all that complex. Audiophile gear is generally expensive and relatively rare. It requires a certain amount of experience to appreciate fully and it is surrounded by a particular discourse that privileges the connection between listening and a basic technical understanding of how music-sound making things work. These issues should be in the forefront of any discussion of how to get new audiophiles into the hobby.
My experiences becoming involved in the hobby might be instructive. I bought my first audiophile grade equipment in the early 1990s from two Wilmington, Delaware stores: HiFi House and Overture Audio. From HiFi House I bought a Nakamichi CD4 and from Overture Audio, a pair of Energy C2 bookshelf speakers. I think the Nakamichi ran about $300 and the Energy C2 speakers were around $650. This is big money as a college student. Before purchasing the speakers, the guy at Overture sat me down and told me to listen to a pair of big Wilson speakers for about 20 or 30 minutes (I have no idea which ones; this was 20 years ago!). He just left me alone in a large room to listen. These speakers were, needless to say, badass. He then took me into their bookshelf speaker room and played as many pairs as I wanted urging me to compare their sound to the big Wilson floor standers. I then picked the pair that sounded best to me. My experience with the Nakamichi was similar except in that case, I listened to a range of slightly lower price gear ranging from Sony ES to Marantz before settling on the Nakamichi. I eventually combined the speakers and cd player with a NAD 312 amp (also around $300) and had a reasonable system for about $1200. This was affordable to me as a university student and then a graduate student who was seriously interested in sound and music.
I can take away from this experience a few key things. First, I purchased this gear after listening to a range of options. Next, I purchased it all from a brick-and-mortar store (it was all purchased, pre-internet). Finally, I relied on trade magazines and conversations with folks at hifi stores to make my purchases.
Audiophile bargains by Schiit stacked atop a vintage (aka used) Marantz 2235B.
So how does this relate to getting new, possibly more frugal folks into the hobby:
1. The Stereo Store is Key. I live as much of my life on the internet as humanly possible because I live in small town in North Dakota (seriously). I purchase everything from books to music, food, adult beverages, clothes, and stereo gear online. The nearest stereo shop is about an hour away and the closest concentration of shops is 3 or 5 hours away. So I don’t get a chance to listen to new gear very often.
For better or for worse, developing taste and knowledge of stereo equipment requires listening – mostly back-to-back – to different equipment. And for better or for worse, much of the recent generation of affordably priced stereo gear is sold direct to consumers. The way these companies claim to keep their prices low is by selling direct and cutting out store markups. I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds like something that could be true. So there’s a problem here. While I recognize that most internet direct companies have generous return policies and even encourage you to try out their gear, this is not the same as listening to gear in a store.
Moreover, the recent trend toward crowdfunding gear and allowing (encouraging?) consumers to purchase audiophile grade equipment without even being able to hear it suggests that direct sale online guys understand that a substantial group of audiophiles are willing to purchase moderately priced equipment without hearing it at all.
I understand, of course, that the internet has not just a space for selling stereo gear, but also a place for talking about it. While I still look forward to the monthly arrival of Stereophile, I spend much more of time reading Part-Time Audiophile, The Absolute Sound (online), The Digital Audio Review, and Audiophiliac. At the same time, I recognize the reading a great review, even from a reviewer that I trust, is not the same as actually hearing stuff myself. One learns to listen better only by hearing, and one develops one’s own taste in gear by connecting specifications with the sound that one likes. The more gear someone has heard, the more someone is likely to be able to figure out through an online review or a product description what one is likely to enjoy. This is something that comes with experience, and, right now, affordable level gear directed toward audiophiles who are new to the hobby or less inclined to drop big-bucks on stereo gear is much more likely to be sold online than in shops.
Without complaining too strongly about a business model that has benefited me personally (I own Zu speakers and have a growing gaggle of Schiit gear), I am concerned that this is not a good way to grow the hobby. After all, the hobby is based, at least in part, on our ability to talk about our tastes, to compare different equipment, and to identify aurally things that we like.
To get more people into listening to high-end, stereo gear, we have to make sure that brick-and-mortar shops are thriving and these shops stock entry level gear. This, I would guess, is a risk for the shops, because entry level gear most likely offers smaller profit margins, and for the manufacturers who currently sell direct on the internet. Regional audio shows certainly help, but again, these shows are not necessarily going to attract someone who is audiophile-curious.
2. A Hobby is a Conversation. With the growth of online communities, the audiophile hobby seems have access to a medium for growth. At the same time, I think that the audiophile press remain the crucial catalysts for expanding the audiophile hobby. They are, of course, beginning to take entry level gear a bit more seriously, and there is no doubt that many of their hearts are generally in the right place. I’m sometimes skeptical about their ability to maintain a focused interest on gear that is not aspiring to be “perfectionist quality” or “summit-fi,” but is designed to provide better sound within the reach of everyday people.
To take entry level gear seriously, the audiophile media needs to resist the temptation to compare every $100 USB DAC to a DAC costing many, many thousands more. This is the equivalent of reviewing a Honda Civic, and adding a paragraph or two reminding the read that it is not nearly as good as a Porsche Panamerica or Aston Martin DB8. Of course, this is incredibly reassuring to a Da Vinci owner that their five-digit DAC is not bested by a $100 USB doojaggy, but it does little to make the entry-level audiophile feel like their investment in their system should be taken seriously. Including this new group in the conversation involves meeting them where they are in terms of desirable products and moving just a bit away from the exotica.
Anyway. I understand the draw of the exotic and fun of enabling audiophile voyeurism, but we can learn a thing or two from Steven Mejias’s late “The Entry Level” column over at Stereophile (and Steve Guttenberg’s work over at the Audiophiliac). Both manage to review entry level gear with enthusiasm, communicate the excitement of affordable gear, and avoid humbling comparisons to audio exotic or suggestions that various gear is “perfect for use in the pool house.”
3. Recognize that Low Price is Not a Silver Bullet. Some of the recent enthusiasm for low-priced, audiophile gear seems to be detached from a realistic understanding of how entry level audiophiles purchase gear. They seem to think that serviceable $50 Dayton Audio speakers and $20 Lepai amps will somehow draw people to the hobby (and I do get that some of the focus on super-affordable gear is just a way to say that better sound costs almost nothing). But, again, I’m skeptical that focusing on such inexpensive gear is the way to attract new audiophiles.
Most people who like music are already spending money on CDs, vinyl, downloads, and whatever (even assuming that some of their music is purchased used or pirated), and even cheap CDs and downloads would cost a significant portion of these inexpensive stereo systems. People interested in getting better sound are already spending a couple or few hundred dollars on headphones, so it’s a bit silly to think that they wouldn’t spend at least a much on a home system, and maybe more.
As I noted in Point 1, part of the goal of engaging the new audiophiles is engaging their passion for music in a realistic way. Entry level audiophiles want to be part of a conversation that reflects their commitment to music and not some race to the bottom.
4. Celebrate Used Gear. The best way to get people into our hobby is through used gear. I know, used gear does not attract advertisers, but it does provide a relatively painless way for new audiophiles to get into our hobby. Moreover, for dimes on the dollar, used gear provides access to brands that make up the audiophile firmament and instantly involve new audiophiles in the brand conversation around which so much of our hobby revolves.
Used gear is readily available from places like Audiogon and Ebay, but right now most chatter about used gear centers around user generated threads on forums rather than in the proper audiophile media. This is a shame. While there is plenty of interesting chatter on these forums (and not a few experts, self-proclaimed and otherwise), there is still no authoritative voice on used stuff among the mainstream audiophile media. Stereophile still fills out their online offerings with vintage reviews, and one of the British audiophile magazines has some throwback discussions on classic pieces, but these rarely take into account what is available at a reasonable price to an audiophile on the market today.
5. Write about Resale Values and Upgrade Paths. Talking about used gear is not just about purchasing used gear, but it also involves thinking about how new audiophiles get involved in the hobby. Most of us get into the hobby through constructing systems that are designed for upgrades in a realistic affordable way. For most audiophiles, this involves selling off unneeded components to fund upgrades (rather than storing them in that magical closet that all audiophile reviewers seem to have filled with old gear).
So part of a consideration when someone buys new gear to build a system is to understand the combinations of upgrades and resale moves necessary to continue to improve one’s audio experience. There is data out there, of course, that could be scraped from Audiogon, Ebay, or other used sites. A combination of that and the authority of trusted audio media sources would make this an invaluable resource for the starting audiophile. With all due respect to the folks at Your Final System, I’m always thinking of how to make my system just a little bit better and having some advice on upgrade paths would be brilliantly helpful. I might ignore the advice, but the philosophies behind the selection of complementary equipment would be very helpful in getting a starter audiophile on their own route to audio bliss.
In the end, attracting new audiophiles to the hobby is as much about how we engage people potentially interested in our hobby as the actual products and music that we’re all so passionate about. Much of this is bound up in the large audiophile ecosystem that includes manufacturers, advertisers, reviewers, and, yep, bloggers (or columnists, as I now claim to be). While my observations here might be wide of the mark, my point of departure – thinking back to how I got involved in the hobby – is as good a place to start as any. After all, even audiophiles had to have a first time.