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Positive Feedback ISSUE 58
november/december 2011


The Future of the High End Part III - The Information Age Sparks Renewed Awareness of Music and Hi-Fi
by Michael Mercer



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Models breakdown and get rebuilt, the physical and theoretical. Paradigms shift over and over with no end in sight. The world changes before our eyes at a pace that dazzles when you stop for a minute to think about where you were twenty years ago. Technology (and I'm referring to technology surrounding information delivery) has been expanding like a Huxley acid trip, with a mescaline chaser. Think about it: We have large, flat, Star Trek-like video screens with resolution so lifelike they look like windows into the real world at times. We can broadcast high quality music from a slim device that fits into the palm of your hand to a system in the next room while using the same slick device to control the system out by the pool. I mean, I'm thirty-seven and it blows my mind, so I can't imagine what it must be like for many of my friends in this industry (many are twenty or more years older than me). It's wild, the things we can now do with music and video (though I'll try to keep the video chatter to a minimum here). These mediums occupy our lives in so many ways they alienate us from the real world; we get disjointed and have to "unplug" in order to recalibrate our mental hard-drives. Seriously, when was the last time you hung out with your wife or husband and sat through a sunset together (or a sunrise for that matter)?

I'm not trying to strike up The Singularity fear in you, I'm merely pointing out the obvious that doesn't occur to you when you're busy simply living your life. But stop and think about it for a moment; think about how we are constantly interconnected (interweb'd) through electronically induced stimulation. Whether it's our smartphone that we use all day (and not just for conversing anymore either—frankly, many people spend less time on their phones talking than they do sending texts and emails today—or, worse: They spend most of the day doing both while driving)! What does any of this have to do with audio and our collective pursuit of great sounding music? The answer's also right in front of you. It's allowing you to read these words this very second. The tools we use (and, arguably, abuse) everyday can also be the mechanism for sweeping change in a global awareness of the possibility for great sound; such as computers, iPhones, iPods, and gaming consoles. Even smartTV's and products like the AppleTV can be turned into high quality music sources at affordable prices today!

These devices are everywhere. You cannot deny it or argue this point all day (well, perhaps you can, as audio enthusiasts sometimes it feels like a requisite: The constant bickering over insignificant details). Regardless of your feelings about our non-stop electronic bombardment, it's also a grand opportunity! I don't see a gaming console (especially one that plays CD's and has a web browser and a digital output) as the enemy of good sound. Nor do I view an iPod that way, or even the now infamous white earbuds! Why do I consider all of these things a positive when it comes to our hobby, which is built around the concept of bringing the live concert experience home with us (that part of it anyway)? Why do I view these seemingly evil tools of distraction and compression as glorious things when it comes to Hi-Fi? All of these devices also have the one thing in common that binds us all in our pursuit of great sounding music, and that is: Data delivery (or, more specifically, they all play music)! Sure, they do all sorts of other tasks as well (think "there's an app for that").

Many detractors will latch onto that fact—that these devices are so busy computing on so many levels that it creates a sonically corrupt environment (there is truth to that, I'm not denying it) but if we look at the whole picture here, these devices (or apps for that matter, such as music apps and studio apps on tablets and phones) give us the opportunity to pull the rabbits out of our Hi-Fi bags and enhance the users experience! We can take these devices that the populace have come to depend on in their every day lives and turn them into vessels (powerful demonstration tools) for better quality sound. We can turn their Macbook into a great sounding piece of Hi-Fi! Plus; this introduces a cool factor (and don't dismiss this, it's important in this day and age, so why not harness everything at our disposal).

Never before have we had an opportunity like this, on this kind of scale. For the past thirty years, it has largely been a matter of us in the high end audio community telling consumers their "mid-fi" or mid-level (mass-market) equipment is not good enough. We've been telling them that what they already own (especially if they purchased their gear at a large corporate chain store) is not sufficient for high quality playback. This has broken the high end community off into a niche within a niche. Other factors have played into this as well: The price of entry into high end sound was far more just five years ago than it is today. Frankly, we don't have much time, and I'm not going to give up trying to spread the word about good sound because a few people older than myself think the youth market "doesn't have any money." What about the twenty-five to thirty-five demographic? We need to flip the script here, and start thinking like the audience we want to reach.

How do we do this? First, we consider these devices I mentioned earlier (smart phones, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, and products like the AppleTV and others like it) simply as a starting point. I'm tired of hearing people complain at audiophile events about their kids not caring because "all they want to do is load up their iPod and put in their earbuds." Frankly, this is bullshit. I mean sure, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who just don't care about better sound. Forget those people, you were never going to reach them anyway! Let's think about the kids who are embracing vinyl, and the members of for example. Many of these people think we're a bunch of snobs sitting in our ivory towers listening to Bach and smoking cigars all day (OK, so we have them too) but that certainly isn't me, and I know there are people reading this who feel the same way I do. So how do we infect these people and get them hooked on what Harry Pearson calls "magic audio fluid"? We speak to them through their music, and ask them about what products they're using.

If you own a Hi-Fi store (yes, they still exist, and they need our help more than ever by the way) think about your local music scene. Consider reaching out to some bands that make up that scene, and offer to host an event where you let them play in your store, or maybe host a record-release party, where everybody can listen to the new album on differing levels of stereo systems. Reach out to the remaining record stores and ask them to recommend your shop to their customers, and if they do so offer them a small discount for supporting your business. Make that a two-way street, and if somebody buys a system from your store, see if that same local record store will give you a coupon to offer them so they can go buy some new music! There's nothing like the feeling of bringing home a new stereo system, so imagine if you knew you could also go buy some new music at a discount! This is how we'll tap into the vinyl resurgence as well! Kids that are currently showing up to buy vinyl (but going home and playing it back on a sub-standard playback systems) will suddenly know about a place they can go to experience better sound. Offer to host "music nights" (our editors Dave and Carol Clark have had a few down here in Southern California, and we've all had a blast at their parties, sharing and talking about music). Get creative, the old model is dead (where you place an ad in the paper for a sale and expect to sell off your remaining inventory). You need to give the user a reason to get up from behind their computer and head out into the real world and make a purchase. Make it worth their while! 

If the people you meet have an iPhone or a laptop and listen with headphones show them an inexpensive DAC and a headphone amp. Have them play a song they love their way (with their cans), then play them the same song, on their device, through that DAC and headphone amp! After that, offer to show them a better pair of headphones (but don't scare them too much on price). Have patience, think of this as old school artist development (when there was such a thing). We need to educate and develop their awareness in order to show them they don't have to settle for convenience! If they have a gaming console that plays CDs or has a web browser (and a digital output, even if it's an optical output) show them what a better DAC can do for that console, whether they're playing CDs or streaming Pandora or Spotify, or MOG!

People do respond to better sound when you meet them half-way, through something they are already familiar with. My friend Russell is a perfect example of this. When I met him (about four years ago) he was nineteen. We were working together. He was (and still is) a big-time gamer. He also owned an iPod, so I knew he was into music. As we got to know each other, he would come to my house and see my system. Over time I explained to him what all the components were for. He had never seen a piece of tube gear before, when he first saw my tube preamp he thought it was an antique! As time went on, we began to sit down and have listening sessions together. Next thing you know, he's calling me on the phone whenever he was having a stressful day, asking for his "audio therapy". I'm not making this up (I'm not that creative). He would come over, I'd sit him down in the sweet spot (which was a single Lazyboy chair at that point) and he'd ask me to play him something to calm him down. By the time he left, he felt much better (sometimes he didn't leave—he fell asleep in that chair). Stereo sound became so important to him, he now owns a Harman Kardon receiver and a pair of those fantastic Pioneer bookshelf speakers designed by Andrew Jones (and he was so proud of his system, and his speaker placement, he sent me a picture text which I showed to Andrew at this years Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (he got a real kick out of that). Now, Russell had no idea high end audio existed before we met! Now he's out there spreading the great sound gospel, and he's doing a hell of a job by the way (I even hear rumors of a young audio society taking shape in the Bay Area).

I'm not trying to detract from the events that currently take place at high end audio dealers by the way, but these are usually aimed at the already converted. That is not going to grow our industry! I'm also tired of seeing the same band and artist names on the covers of Hi-Fi magazines! I picked up a copy of one of the more popular Hi-Fi journals recently, and every artist they mentioned (who's records were reviewed in the issue) were all dead! What reader of Under the Radar, FADER, or Vice magazine is going to see those artist names on the cover of a Hi-Fi mag in the rack at Barnes & Noble and pick it up? None of them. But you know what? That's the audience we need to reach! When I opened the recent issue of FADER (number 76) and saw the double-page Sonos ad I almost dropped dead. Now that's smart, targeted marketing! I'm not saying we can all afford such advertising, but the fact that they chose to advertise in a hip, young, music magazine shows they are reaching for something beyond the typical audiophile, and we all need to do the same if we want to survive.

That brings me to another point: Hi-Fi used to be marketed as a lifestyle. I remember seeing the Hi-Fi advertisements all over the issues of Playboy at my father's house in the eighties (sure, I was searching for those thought-provoking editorials). I even bought a few copies at a local thrift store in Los Angeles recently (unfortunately, this time I was in fact buying them to look at the Hi-Fi advertisements—if that isn't a sign of serious Hi-Fi geekery I'm not sure what is). I wanted to see what the glory days of Hi-Fi looked like through adult eyes (if I may refer to myself as such). What went wrong? Where and when did we become such elitists we fell of the pop culture map? Well, thanks to those gadgets you've been hating on for a few years now, we have an opportunity to make a serious comeback. So what are you going to do about it?