Much lip service has been given to the failing health of the audiophile hobby, and with the demographics looking about as close as you can get to 100 percent male and a median age of well over 55, who could argue? But signs are actually trending up for the hobby as I see it. Audio and the hobby of listening to music is getting into the mainstream. The lifestyle advantages are being exploited (in the positive “Hollywood” sense of the term) by Madison Avenue. Prices are low for higher-and-higher-performance gear. Consumers are getting excited. Let me make my case for why the audiophile hobby is poised for a major comeback.
Audiophile’s Comeback Reason No. 1: Unlimited Access to Music for Less Than Us Old-Timers Used to Pay for One CD
Those of us who’ve been in the hobby for decades can chew your ear off about how much money that we’ve invested in our CD and/or LP collections. When I was in music school at USC (in the days when Snoop and Dre were kicking it down the street in Compton and Long Beach and Sublime was a frequent frat house band) I didn’t know too many guys that didn’t spend most of their discretionary money on CDs. It seemed that we went out every night to seek new musical experiences, be it in Hollywood, Westwood (enemy territory), Santa Monica, or the Sunset Strip. We’d spend like crazy to add exciting new or often used legacy/catalog CDs to our ever-growing silver disc collections. It was a lifestyle for us college kids as much as a passion. I had to sell a lot of stereo gear to keep up with my music-buying habit.
The rise of peer-to-peer music sharing on the early Internet took a lot of steam out of the music industry. All of a sudden, you could access nearly every song/record ever recorded from your computer thanks to Napster or LimeWire or God-knows where else. Factor in the role of the new Apple iPod and it was a total game changer – and not a good one for the music business, as domestic music sales went from nearly $40,000,000,000 per year in the late 1990s to about $11,000,000,000 a decade later, and that 11 billion number included income for ring tones and other new income streams beyond selling legacy Compact Discs at retail.
Thanks to Apple and now many other players in the space, the table has been turned back in the music enthusiast’s favor. Streaming has gone from a rogue, illegal entity to a $15 per month, all-access, metadata-rich experience that can deliver the listener access to CD quality (or higher) resolution versions of nearly every record ever recorded. Simply put, today’s music enthusiast or audiophile just don’t need to own or invest in massive music collection. As much as peer-to-peer was a game changer… legitimate, higher resolution audio format streaming has been even bigger. For the price of an expensive latte at Starbucks you can listen to nearly every record ever made. Brilliant!
Audiophile’s Comeback Reason No. 2: The Unlikely Revival of Vinyl
Don’t call it a comeback, we’ve been here for years? Well, not really in the case of audiophile vinyl, as it really did pretty much go away for a decade or two, but in an overly digital world, there is a new demand to listen to classic music in the format that the artists, engineers and producers created it for. Is vinyl Hi-Res? Nope. Not even close in terms of dynamics (low) and distortion (high), but consumer today don’t seem to care. They are tired of being constantly tethered to digital devices and who can blame them? Taking the time to sit down to some John Coltrane while sipping on a tasty drink with the lights dimmed has a positive lifestyle advantage. Getting away from total/constant connectivity isn’t the worst thing in the world and people seek that. House plants appeal to Millennials. So does vinyl and it is easy to see why. And buy is it helping the audiophile hobby.
Audiophile’s Comeback Reason No. 3: Madison Avenue Knows What’s Cool and Audio Is Now Cool!
I am watching my Phillies in the World Series and an ad for the Jeep Grand Wagoneer 4×2 (really, 2-wheel drive?) comes on, and what is the focus of the ad? Not the absurd $8,999 down or $549 per month over 39 months lease, but more the iconic blue McIntosh gauges lighting up an LED screen in the middle of the Jeep’s console. Audio is cool again and thank the Lord God Jesus H. Christ (on a pogo stick). These ads get tens of millions of eye balls every time that they run, and while Chrysler is trying to sell cars, I am watching more and more people see what’s cool about our hobby. Winning.
A few nights ago, I was watching some mindless show on The National Geographic Channel about the 1980s narrated by Rob Lowe and they were talking about cultural phenomenon of skateboarding in the 1980s. Madison Avenue didn’t understand this rogue, individual sport until they figured out that they could harness its cool factor and make their products cool like skateboarding. That is happening to audio.
You think that it is by mistake that NBA Super-star Steph Curry has floorstanding speakers in the background of his Subway television ad? Not a chance. You think it’s a mistake that Mike Pence, the new CEO of AXE Capital, on the hit show Billions on Showtime, has a killer, vinyl-driven, horn-speaker based audiophile, Park Avenue condo in Manhattan? No, because audio is cool, people. Add audiophile systems to the luxury goods that “the best show in TV” (so says me, and many others) promotes to its very well-heeled audience. Before it was Oura rings for health or Wheels Up cards for jet travel. Now it is audio. Anyone feel a coming out party for the audiophile hobby? I do.
Audiophile’s Comeback Reason No. 4: Collecting Headphones Is Actually a Thing
People are collecting headphones. Even expensive headphones aren’t that crazy expensive, and there are so many different kinds of headphones that one could own that people are starting to create collections. This solidly addresses one of my age-old issues with the audiophile hobby which is that it is an “OR not an AND” hobby. If you like scotch, you drink the bottle until its gone and you need another one. If you like watches, you don’t sell your Rolex to buy a Patek Philippe; you keep adding to your collection. Conversely, if you own a Mark Levinson amp and want a D’Agostino (yes, please) then you often would sell the Levinson to get the new steam-punk amp. That’s an “or” product. Headphones are changing all of that for audio.
Audiophiles (think, younger ones often) are buying Chi-Fi IEMs (in-ear-monitors) for cheap. They are buying more and more sexy and collectable over-the-ear Bluetooth wireless headphones too. Then they might need an open-back wired headphones for late-night listening sessions. They might want to dabble in the world of tubes and for hundreds (not thousands) they can invest in a cool-looking tube-based headphone amp that can sound as sweet as anything that you’ve ever heard. For those who love electrostatic speakers, you can get electrostatic headphones to add to your collection.
There are Facebook groups of people filled with headphone collections. They display them on cool headphone stands much in the way that you see vintage guitars on the wall at Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard. The collection is art. The collection is passion. The collection never really gets sold. Audio is becoming more like art as people are collecting key components, starting in the headphone market, and growing collections. This takes inventory off of the streets and drives up prices as the coolest gear becomes more and more rare.
This Is a Good Time to Be an Audiophile…
The lifestyle advantages of the hobby are clear. The value has never been better. The hobby has the antidote to digital burnout even if the audiophile “elders” don’t understand what’s wrong with digital (hint: it ain’t on the recording side) in the world.
And you have a role to play in the growth of the hobby…
The idea that the hobby is only about sitting in a room by yourself listening to music by yourself is flawed. Merge your audio system with your living space and invite your friends over for cocktails and music. Let somebody hear a song on your coolest headphones. Show somebody how you relax listening to music or how you find new music as opposed to finding stress watching political agony on TV every night. The Internet and cable news channels want to drive you crazy with angry and agony. Music doesn’t do that to you and that’s a good thing and more people need to learn about it. Will you spread the word? I will, if you do.