Positive Feedback ISSUE 68
july/august 2013


Finding the Right Carrot
by Roger Skoff


I think we must all have tried, at one time or another, to lure others into our hobby, and been surprised to learn that it's a lot harder to do than it might at first seem.

How many times has this happened to you? You get your system just right or you get a new recording that shows it off perfectly and you bring in a non-audiophile friend to listen, thinking that you'll make a convert for the hobby and score some points for your system at the same time. You sit your friend down precisely in the "sweet spot" and play your system or your recording for him and he listens for a moment and then turns to you with a quizzical look on his face and asks…

"Where's the bass?"

According to sales people in mid-fi stores across the country -- the places your non-audiophile friends will likely shop for HiFi, if they ever actually shop for it at all—the very first things the average customer will do when you try to demonstrate to him, whether it's a receiver, new speakers, a complete audio system, or even a Home theater system, is to turn up the volume and TURN UP THE BASS.

One reason for this is that the great majority of people have no idea at all what music is really supposed to sound like. Odds are they've never heard a live performance of any kind, and even if they say they have, it usually turns out that what they've actually heard is a heavily amplified outdoor or stadium "concert" or the equally heavily amplified music in a nightclub or other indoor venue—not really "live" music at all.

Even truly "live", without any amplification, most kinds of music really don't "image" or "soundstage" very well: Except in venues with the very best acoustics, it's hard to pick out and locate a single voice in a live chorus or a single instrument in a live orchestra, or even to get a sonic "feel" for the actual size of the location they're performing in, and detail can easily be lost in halls with a lot of ambient reverberation. When amplification is added—almost certainly in mono—and when you also consider the mic'ing, mixing and equalization practices of the average sound man and the vagaries of where any particular listener might be located relative to the performers at any particular venue, it's no surprise that—especially for rock, pop, or big band music, most listeners have no idea at all of "imaging" or "soundstaging", and about the only overall impression they can get is one of a Bose-style "wall of sound" that's loud and has big bass!

That's what the average non-audiophile thinks of music; that's why the volume and bass controls always get turned up in those demos; and that's why "loud and with big bass" is enough to satisfy most non-audiophile listeners.

"Loud with big bass" is cheap and easy to do. It's also visceral and exciting, and that's why bass-heavy-and-not-very-good products like "Dr. Dre" headphones sell like crazy, and why, as long it has plenty of bass and can be made to play LOUD, most people are perfectly well-satisfied with the sound of their home "stereo", their TV, their iPod, or their "package" home theater setup, and see no reason at all to upgrade to audiophile-quality sound.

If we're ever going to lure some of these people into our hobby, although it may be the great sound that keeps them in once they've taken the bait, all indications are that the bait, itself, is going to have to be something else, entirely. And what might that be? How about "Peer Group Acceptance" ("PGA")—the same thing that causes people to pay big money for a watch, when, for just a tiny fraction of the price of one of the prestige brands, they could buy a Casio or a Timex that will tell time just exactly as well.

Nobody, these days, needs to buy a watch to find out what time it is. If nothing else, they can get the time, accurate to the second, off their cell phone or practically any other electronic communications device. That's one reason why so many people no longer wear a wristwatch—they simply don't need one! Another reason is that the watch issue has bifurcated along PGA lines, with some people regarding it as a prestigious sign of their social or economic independence that they DON'T wear one, and with others spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on a wristwatch (or a collection of watches)―the bigger, thicker, and more complicated, the better―that they wear to show the world that they can afford to.

Owning an audio system—especially one of audiophile quality—has now come around to the same position as the wristwatch: It's been a long time since anybody has actually needed an audio system to hear music: It's now on their computer, their cable TV, or any number of portable devices, and for almost a full century, if they've wanted to listen to music as an entertainment, a pastime, or even just as background, they've been able to get it "out of the air", through their radio.

Certainly the sound quality may not be there on the radio or on some of the other alternatives (although FM radio played on a good High End system can be quite excellent), but we've already seen that, for most people, better sound above a certain not-very-high minimum standard really doesn't matter. What DOES matter for them is Peer Group Acceptance, and that's where we've got to go after them if we want them to join us.

You don't really think that all those young people out there are paying $150 or more for a pair of Nikes just to run faster, do you? Or that people a little older are shelling out $300 or more for a Mont Blanc ballpoint pen because it writes 770 times better than a 39 cent BIC? Two big reasons why they buy what they buy (or that teenagers have always had what their parents think are silly hairdos or extreme outfits, or that people in general tend to follow the latest fad) are that, in their own minds and perhaps those of their peers, buying makes them (or validates them as) a part of the group, and NOT buying makes them feel isolated and "out-group". In a very real way, it's the old "carrot" and "stick" motivational program, and it has always worked.

Any ideas how we can make audiophilia as powerful as a pair of sneakers or a ballpoint pen? I'll be offering some thoughts of my own on what all of us—both the industry, and audiophiles in general—can do to advance the audiophile cause in the very next issue of PF.