The End is Nigh
I walk around here and I’m forcibly reminded of an ongoing argument. Here at RMAF, Ken Kessler hosted a talk called “Regaining the High Ground”, and his point was to advance a solution to what’s wrong with today’s high-end market. Almost universally, such arguments leverage a peculiar rhetorical device when talking about this issue — look around the room, they say, and count the “young people”. Can’t find any? Well, that’s what’s wrong with today’s high-end, they say. We’re aging everyone out — and when those geezers are gone, so too, will the industry they supported. This, they say, is the real problem, whatever it is that turned “the youth” away from audio in the first place. I’ll come back to this in a second, but it is interesting to ask: where did they all go?
The answer is complicated. Aren’t they all? The problem with this question — where is everybody — is that it isn’t a single question. It’s several. Why are there no young people is part of that — and there’s a rather simple response to this. The young people are where they always are — broke. It’s not until many of these folks are fully embarked on the misery they’re calling a career that they’ll have the free cash to blow on luxury items like “repaying student loans” and a hi-fi. The come back is usually something like — “when I was a kid, I used to [blah blah blah]” as if anecdotal evidence on a sample pool of one is ever interesting or valid. The fact of the matter is, kids are investing in today’s equivalent of a hi-fi. The problem, for most manufacturers, is that this means something different now than it did 35 years ago. The question is, then — naturally — what does it mean to them?
There are some, like head-amp champ Mike Mercer, who hold that it means “headphone systems”. If you follow this path, the reasoning is that cans are the way and wave of the future. Said another way, they’re the gateway drug that’ll ensnare the hearts and wallets of the next generation of consumers that will keep the high-end audio industry afloat for the years to come. Why? Well, headphones are fun, they’re hip, they’re different and uniquely personal, they’re very high quality — and most importantly, the entry point is far more affordable than the traditional path into the world of the audiophile. Maybe he’s right. Maybe what we need is a cheap way to hook new blood.
I think this is both right and wrong, though I like the way Mercer thinks. I think that headphone users are not the same as hi-fi users — and that the expectation of a sizeable crossover population are based more firmly on hope than fact. While headphones are cool and hip and fun and cheap — the experience is fundamentally different from that of a stereo hi-fi. A head-fi’er may well just stay a head-fi’er and never flip to a hi-fi’er. Good news is that head-fi seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance now, so I suppose this is still an open question. But it isn’t a bankable business plan for the average dealer or amp maker, I’m thinking.
Another “solution” came from a talk by Ken Kessler. In his screed, Ken lays out the model that the high-end audio manufacturer needs to lay out in order to survive in today’s market — call it the Rolex model. This is going to take a second to unpack, so apologies in advance. Anyway, it’s an arguable point that Rolex makes great watches. Here’s the rub — even if they have great “movements”, they’re still far less accurate than today’s quartz watches, and less reliable. Hell, if all you wanted was to tell time, your iPhone is sync’d to an atomic clock — beat that! So, why can Rolex ask for upwards of $5,000 for a watch that’s mass-produced (even if that factory is in Switzerland, not China)?
This was accomplished by convincing watch buyers that an outmoded technology with less accurate timekeeping and far higher cost of production was more pleasing and aesthetic than the cheaper, more efficient technology that had come to replace it. And then came the masterstroke marketing strategy that has essentially underscored all marketing of Swiss mechanical watches since this mighty comeback: watches are not just about the time.
A traditional mechanical watch is desirable in itself. It doesn’t matter that it’s not as accurate as a quartz watch or that anyone can read the time from one’s mobile phone. When a connoisseur buys into the idea of the mechanical watch, he or she is also paying dearly for tradition and craftsmanship.
The genius of the Swiss watch industry is that it has managed to convince the well-heeled watch-buying public that if it wants to own a serious timepiece, it must be willing to spend a small fortune on what is principally outdated technology requiring maintenance.
From Quartz: The Conundrum on World Tempus.
This is the model that Kessler thinks that the audio industry must pursue in order to stay alive: be Rolex.
Gah. Spare me.
I think a lot of manufacturers already do this. Take Audio Power Labs, for example.
Their flagship product is a monoblock amp that costs $175,000 per pair. Un-be-leee-va-bull. Yet, there it is. How can that possibly work? Not by being Rolex. The Rolex model assumes that your product is aspirational, but achievable — $175k is a far cry from $5k. So, they’re more Bentley or Aston Martin than they are Porsche. Lucky for them, there are quite a few bankers and lawyers out there willing to drop some serious coin on lifestyle trophies. But this is hardly a model for an industry, is it?
Stereophile’s John Atkinson offered this by way of response:
Kessler’s thesis was that the high-end audio industry is dying by its own hand; that if it is to continue to exist, let alone thrive, high-end audio has to emulate the example of the luxury watch, pen, and car industries by becoming aspirational and moving upmarket, abandoning the middle-class customers who no longer have the necessary disposable income to spend on audio.
Some companies are already trying this strategy—see my March 2011 essay. But personally, I think it crazy for a company, unless it is very small, to makes this concept the entirety of their marketing strategy.
Adam Smith, the philosophical father of free-market capitalism wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” The fact that poor and miserable people don’t buy high-end audio equipment was Kessler’s point but it was the expanding purchasing power of the middle class throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s that fueled the growth of the high-end audio industry. I believe, like Art Dudley in September 2012, that product prices aimed at the middle class remains the industry’s best hope for both survival and growth.
I can’t agree more. I think the primary problem with audio’s high-end is one of its own making — what happened to the entry-level? Quality products, pitched appropriately, that offer real value and appeal — this is the way any industry digs its way out of a hole. Call it the Field of Dreams model. So, while there will always be the über-brands pitching the Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous, it’s the middle-class that will be the most curious. And there are a lot more of them than there are bankers or lawyers. Given that this is precisely the part of the market that is hurting the most right now, finding better ways for them to on-board in a more affordable — and still very high quality way — that is the trick. And note the emphasis — we need better shit and lower prices, not just cheap shit. This is the trap most high-end manufacturers have fallen into — resting on their brand while dumbing down the products to the point where no one in their right mind would be tempted in the first place, much less be willing to start the long climb into audiophile-dom.
This is one reason I like products like the VPI Traveler. It’s not cheap by any means, but it is excellent, and it’s one of those pieces that folks can look at and say, yeah, I can own that. Magnepan is another — absurdly low prices for the quality of sound on offer. Aren’t the MMGs something like $600 a pair? Peachtree Audio is another great brand — great sounding products at the $1k price point. Again, not cheap — but cheap isn’t the point. The point is “great sound” at real-world prices. If a dealer can pull together a great sounding system for $2k or $4k or $8k — he’s created a path. Now, all he needs to do is find feet to put them there.
And that’s where things get tough.
I’m thinking that what the high-end audio industry needs is some kind of trade organization, like an AARP for Audio, that can advocate for the industry. And by advocate, I mean promote. There are some TV shows and movies out there where stereo systems show up — there needs to be a lot more of that. And it needs to be championed by bigger people. I saw an article in Stereophile by Henry Rollins a while back — this is exactly what I’m talking about. But it needs to be from Justin Timberlake and published in Teen Vogue or something. Seriously. Rising tides float all boats — and the industry as a whole can make hi-fi cool again. It simply may need celebrity spokespersons to help it along.
And that’s what I was thinking about while I walked around in CanJam. Yeah. I’m weird like that.
It’s a wrap
This is my third show report from RMAF. It probably won’t be my last — this is the mother of the regional audio shows, and I can’t see it losing it’s primacy of place any time soon. However, at 170+ rooms, it’s becoming obvious that even without having to leave early to make it across the country to attend a funeral, comprehensive coverage of a show this big isn’t really possible. Here it is, over a month later, and I’m just now finishing — with 80 posts from the show! If I’d have been able to do every room, at a rate of ~3 posts per day, I’d still have almost a month of coverage left to do. Clearly, I’m gonna have to branch out. Or hire. Hmm.
I’ve gotten a couple of complaints about the amount of time dedicated to show-coverage here on Part-Time Audiophile. There’s a reason for it, and it’s complicated, so let me tease that out for you right quick: it’s important. Audio shows are how many of us kick the tires, when there are no local dealers and an Internet-based hand-job (aka, a forum “discussion”) isn’t enough to justify forking over thousands of dollars. Audio shows are how small vendors, with no dealer networks, can show a potential customer that they’re real, serious, and don’t suck. Audio shows are a way for any vendor to “get the word out” in a world where print-advertising is less and less effective. Audio shows are also just a lot of fun. So, I cover them here. Why do I spend so much time doing it? Because very few “mainstream audio publications” do it at all well — or rather, well enough to satisfy me and my appetite for all the what’s new and what’s cool; I can imagine that there are other folks that are similarly dissatisfied with what they’re being offered elsewhere. So, I spend a bit more than 15 seconds on a room or product. I take more pictures than one “representative sample” — and I attempt to make sure that the photos I do actually post won’t be confused with dark, blurry shots of someone’s hairy armpit. I link. I discuss. I even offer some context. And, by and large, I take my time. I know, it’s weird. But that’s how I roll. Don’t like it? Well, there are plenty of places to go to get less.
So, there you have it: the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest of 2012. It was a helluva show. Bravo to Marjorie and team for a job well done!
And on a personal note, here’s to hoping that 2013’s show is a bit less personally dramatic.
A special thanks to my new friend Mal Kenny for being my eyes and ears. His listening notes were absurdly thorough, and if it wasn’t for his willingness to pitch in and tell me about everything I missed, this show report would have been remarkably thin. So, anyway, thanks Mal. I owe you big.
And now, The Best in Show
I’ve kind of buried the lead here, but lets take that last second and celebrate those rooms that really did some amazing work for this show.
Best Sound: MBL. This room sounded fantastic — in a show full of fantastic sound. Maybe I got lucky with the timing (which I totally did), but I now understand why people would be keen to drop a quarter-mil on an audio system. If I had it, I’d be lining up, too. Great sound, great room, and altogether, extraordinarily well done.
And don’t forget to check out Audio Head for more videos from CanJam.