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.