Did Apple Kill The Hi-Fi?

Saw this article today: The Atlantic, “Old School Hi-Fi in Search of the New New Thing.” The author, Hal Espen, apparently went to the RMAF show this year and got an earful from the seminars about how the audio high-end is a dying business. I’ve posted on this before, but thought I’d expound just a bit based on the following question: “Did Apple Kill The Hi-Fi”?

Espen comments in his Atlantic article that there has been a rather dramatic contraction in the hi-fi reseller market over the last 10 or so years. Here in the DC Metro market, Myer-Emco was a rather significant loss, and we’ve also lost some high-profile specialty dealers, like Sound Images in Falls Church and Soundworks in Kensington.

Combined with the Apple iPod & iTunes phenomenon, one can argue (and Lee Weiland of Locus Design did just that) that the game has changed and the industry as a whole must change, embrace the digital revolution, or die.

Let me summarize my previous comments: bullshit.

It may well be true that the market for the super-high-end in the audio is indeed shrinking. Steven Stone, in his seminar at RMAF, tried to make quite a bit of hay of this, seeming to believe that the sheer preponderance of gray haired heads in his seminar was evidence that there simply isn’t any “new blood” coming into the market. The ever enthusiastic Mike Mercer, in commenting on Espen’s article, claims that while “we need new blood, and we can have it, all we gotta do is cut the elitism, and reach new people through their music. I’m doing it EVERY DAY.”

To me, Stone’s tone of gloom-and-doom is typical “I’m old” nonsense, but Mercer’s “cut the elitism” and “reach people through their music” seem equivalent to the vacuity of modern politics. Devoid of specifics, spray-painted with a thin coating of hyperbole and just gushing a naive fervor that pretty much guarantees that nothing like this is actually happening, and as I argue below, is probably more damaging than helpful.

The problem, as Espen notes, but fails to seize on, is highlighted very simply in his reference to the annual glitz-fest that is now CES. Once, hi-fi had a central place in this annual orgasm of gear. Now, it’s pretty much lost in it. Is it over, then, for hi-fi? Do consumers not care about hi-fi anymore? Not at all. But it does mean that hi-fi isn’t terribly relevant.

The distinction isn’t particularly subtle here. We, as consumers, care as much as we ever have about high fidelity musical playback, which is to say, not terribly much as a whole. No, seriously! Audiophilia is and ever was a hobby for the bizarro few. The vast majority care about music quite a bit more than mere playback, and as Apple has very deftly showed us, there was something very broken with the mixed-tape approach to music that didn’t have much to do with sound quality.

We love music. We just didn’t like not being able to play what we wanted to play, when we wanted to play it, and in what order we wanted to play it in. And given the incredibly bad quality of 70’s and 80’s albums, this is hardly a shock to anyone. Enter the mixed tape. This was huge when I was growing up! Giving a girl (or a guy) a mixed tape meant something (other than the fact that being a DJ was probably not in their future) and was taken as a “big deal” by the recipient. If nothing else, it represented a huge investment of time, and I for one remember spending days hanging out at a friend’s house taping all his Dad’s LPs (he had a great hi-fi rig and I had a Walkman) for friends, girls, parties, or just hanging out in the car. And in all that effort, there was pain — mixed tapes, and then, mixed-CDs, were really a PITA.

And along came Apple.

The iPod wasn’t the first music player on the market, not by a long shot. I remember buying a Creative Labs device in the late 90’s that was the size of a large Sony Discman. I think it had 300Mb of storage on it, which was huge at the time. It was also painful to use. Apple solved that with a one-two punch. One was a small, white, elegant and shamefully easy-to-use device. The other was iTunes. And the rest, as they say, was history. (I am still kicking myself for not buying Apple stock when it was $7 a share.) I haven’t burned a mixed CD since I wired up my car to accept an iPod 5 years ago. There’s just no point. It sounded good enough, it was easy, it worked and worked the way I wanted it to. Time to move on.

And that’s precisely what I believe the potential hi-fi consumer market did. They moved on.

Its worth repeating: it isn’t that they don’t like music. Far from it. It isn’t that they don’t love listening to great tunes. Again, far from it — our lives are saturated with music in a way that was not true 20-30 years ago. There is music everywhere, all the time … it’s now not even remarkable anymore. And it’s not that there isn’t new blood coming into the hobby of hi-fi “all the time” — this is patently, obviously and trivially true. But like many aging pedants, it’s hard to remember what got us into the hobby in the first place — time and money. Older folks have it, younger folks don’t. When they do finally get some, well, some of them will gravitate — like yours truly — to something they lost touch with a long time ago.

And no, it’s not about live music or the loss thereof. There’s more live music opportunities now than ever — and it’s probably how the vast majority of musicians are actually making their money, so there’s a whole lot of incentive for them to keep on keeping on. Isn’t Mick 70 now? Sheesh. But lives — well, my life at least — has gotten so that attending live performances is far more hassle than it’s worth. It’s crazy expensive for tickets, travel, & parking. And I have to pay that for the pleasure of hearing music I love played to standards not matched by the studio recordings in a venue that is not only wildly uncomfortable but also probably has terrible acoustics, bad EQ, is pumped to ear-crushing volumes attempting to mask too much crowd noise, by musicians I too far away from that I can’t see them anyway. Live music sucks. But slipping on my earbuds and selecting my favorite playlist is really easy. And it’s something anyone can do practically anywhere.

Which brings me to my main point — competition. Apple did something really great for a music enthusiast. They made it easy and fun again. At the same time, they brought the quality of playback up considerably. Yes, MP3’s have terrible sound (at least when played back through a nice, resolving high end hi-fi system). But they tend, on average, to sound WILDLY better than my mixed tapes ever did. And with CD-ripped lossless files, the sound quality jumps even higher. The important thing to remember is that this is now the baseline — and that baseline is really good. Is it the ultimate in high-fidelity? Of course not — but lets get back to CES for a quick second.

The problem that Espin missed in noting how busy CES was and how hi-fi seemed lost is exactly that — there’s a ton more stuff clamoring for our attention (and wallet) than there was decades ago. So much money is being poured into Consumer Electronics, so many neat and cool gadgets, that it’s really hard to not get swept up by them all. So, if you were the kind of person who would have been a hi-fi consumer in the mid-80’s, right now you’re being bombarded by marketing highlighting time-shifted TV, video games and the associated platforms, cameras, cell phones, GPS systems, video-game-playing-camera-cell-phones-with-GPS-systems and more. It’s a mess out there. What I’m getting at is, with more demands being made on disposable income than in the past, is it any surprise that hi-fi has seen it’s potential consumer base erode in favor of the new hot hottie making it’s 3.0 debut at CES? Not at all.

Your wallet is probably like mine: finite. There’s only so many dollars that have to go around to, now, more and more entertainment buckets — and moving dollars from one bucket to another is share shift, not segment growth. Add that to the fact what Apple has done to audio quality and it’s really not surprising that many consumers are looking at their wallet and their wants and saying, well, my music sounds good enough — time to go spend elsewhere!

Ok, to sum up — the reason the hi-fi market is contracting is external competition, not that there’s something wrong with today’s youth or even that the hi-fi market is doing something wrong, being elitist, snobby, or even too expensive. Mass market audio quality is higher than it’s ever been; to compete against the external pressures and shift market share back to hi-fi would mean doing something different — and not, sorry Mike, reaching out to consumers through their music (and how the hell would you even do that, anyway?).

I think the solution, or rather, a solution to a contracting market will need to focus on Apple. Not competing with them — that’s a sucker’s game. So, you can’t go to the market and tell them (even obliquely) that Apple’s products suck — that’s a non-starter. You want to beat Apple back, you have to either out-Apple Apple (good luck with that) or provide something Apple doesn’t. I have no idea what that is or else I’d be doing that and making a bazillion dollars.

But one thing you don’t want is Apple selling hi-res files via iTunes.

Follow the logic. While the rising tide floats all boats (consumers), it’s literally hell on the buildings along the shoreline (non-Apple-manufacturers). If you think you’re seeing a contraction now with lossy, crappy-sounding audio being sold by the truckload through the world’s number 1 retailer of music, if they move to a hi-res option, that “good enough” just got  much better, and then suddenly there’s even less reason to go into hi-fi at all. So if you’re looking for a market indicator that puts the veritable stake through the heart of the hi-fi industry, it’s when iTunes sells CD-quality files. Is that likely? Dunno. But if audiophiles keep reaching out to the users “through their music” by telling and showing them how much better it could be, it’s pretty damn likely. Like Apple won’t notice? Or isn’t looking to expand it’s market offering and dominance? Yeah.

So, to that end, I think Weiland is dead wrong: “computer downloading and music playback from computer are the wave of the future.” Of course, as a manufacturer attempting to sell crazy-expensive digital gear, it’s not surprising that he says this, but more trivially, downloading isn’t the future, it’s the present. And not the recent present either, it’s been this way since Napster was built back in the 90’s. And continuing that trend, or worse yet, embracing it, will be the end of them all.

No, I think it’s vinyl, not digital, that is where the biggest hope for the hi-fi industry lives. Apple simply can’t play there at all. And, for whatever the reason, interest in vinyl is growing. Yes, it’s still tiny segment, but it’s real and has the support of more and more labels. Even after it’s supposed death back in the 1980’s. So, contra Espin in his concluding comment, “everything that’s all-analog is obsolete”, my bet is that this is precisely where the case must be made to that ever shrinking market that there’s something valuable in hi-fi — it’s analog.

Have the audio industry start figuring out embedded advertising on a hit TV show, and have it be a major character point that the hero loves his turntable. That all the women love his big analog nature. Something like that. No brands. No ultra-fi. Just vinyl. And make it everywhere. Do that and my guess is that the hi-fi industry will suddenly get a whole new look-see at some future CES.

About Scot Hull 1039 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. It’s interesting to see where things have gone since that panel. The funny thing is it was this article that made me a PTA reader ever since! Most of us were fortunately a bit prophetic actually, though we’re always talkin’ out our collective asses. The crux of this panel was simply about embracing a future that was coming whether they liked it or not in the high end.

    Look at the significance of properly executed social media marketing campaigns today: Every major company has a substantial social media presence. Even the companies making products by hand are trying their best (many of them anyway) to maintain social media interaction with their customers. The landscape was at an aphex of change then I believe. I was following in the foot steps of people like Seth Godin (don’t don’t where I’d be without Triibes or his books) and Bob Lefsetz: The most brutally honest and informed writer/commentator on the music industry. Both of these men know how to get their voices heard.

    What I was trying to do was bring people who represented what I perceived to be the dawn of that new era of Hi-fi: High quality iDevice, computer and personal audio, where everyday devices could be used as sources for any system, great or not. The vinyl renaissance has been amazing to watch, and we spoke about that too – and I still believe, while I love it, shit I buy vinyl monthly, that isn’t sustaining in the long-term. These days I’m either listening using MacBook as source or my turntable! No more silver discs. Well, they’re not completely gone. I still buy CDs and get lots of promos (which is a good sign – though that would crawl to a stop) and we watch Blu-Rays. But we were onto something there. Look at what Jude’s accomplished since!

    • I think there are some very interesting things that need to be said and done in audio’s high-end to bring kids “back into audio”, assuming they were ever there to begin with–something I don’t really believe. Back in the ’50s/’60s/’70, there simply weren’t the options there are today, so it’s not exactly fair to consider those that grew up then to have been into “hi-fi” as it’s now practiced. Times, and terms, have changed. Replace “hi-fi” with “stereo” and you have the ’80s and ’90s. Swap it again for iTunes and iDevice and you have the ’00 and the ’10s. Same consumer (class), same drivers, same lack of cash.

      But what has changed is the upward path. Back then, the hi-fi just got better and better the more money you threw at it. Now, well aside from guys like Vinnie Rossi, there really isn’t anywhere to go with an iPhone. At least, not sonically. It’s “good enough”. There are some hipsters and such that are moving to vinyl (for all the usual reasons), and it’s likely that at least some of them will be bitten by the bug. But if you want to mainstream high-end audio, something is going to have to change.

      Some say it already has, and that headphones and personal audio is that future. It’s possible, but I think it’s different. Sure, there’ll be crossover, but no more than average. Not a bad thing, head-fi, just not entirely convinced it’s a gateway drug to anything other than head-fi.

      You want to bring high-end audio to the masses? You need to go where they live. Heroes will have to talk lovingly about their lavish systems. It’ll have to be front and center in books, movies and TV. And then someone freakin’ huge like Steve Jobs will need to make it cool, fun, and affordable. However that’s done, and by whomever, it’ll have to be interesting and different. Disruptive. And whoever pulls it off is gonna make a sick pile of cash.

  2. When I spoke about reaching people “through their music” I meant play back music that new, young, possible sonic adventurists know (like Radiohead, James Blake, or even Swayzak to Hecq, which John Darko loved when Dave and I played it for him in Newport this year) and do it in a way they’ve never heard. Theres nothing more powerful than the magic of a demo. I LOVE taking a friend of a friends iPhone or Ipad, or PC ( Mac or other) and i play it back on my little system in the office (kept affordable for a reason) amd that person gets bit by the hifi bug, and we embark on their Hifi quest together. I love turning them onto new music even more admittedly. And, thankfully, my dear friend was right (Lee, Rest in Peace) just look at the exploding DAC market now! Plus: I still love vinyl, I only DJ with vinyl. But I understand your points here. Me, I’m a never gonna quit music and sonic integrity evangelist – and I think I owe that to the people I’ve worked for. The analog resurgence is amazing, but, in the long term, as living space shrinks, so will our homes. I’m psyched we’re learning how to turn these devices of convenience and style into vehicles for grand musical experiences!! I was also glad my buddy sent me this article! As it shows me how two people ( you and me) can start in different places, but our shared goals bring us together over time!!!! Keep up the great work.

    • This article was another abject lesson in why “drinking while you’re writing is a bad idea”. Sheesh! I am one opinionated asshole. Did I even have an argument in there?

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