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Thoughts on Headphones and the Future of the High-End

Why headphones are not going to save Hi-Fi

by Scot Hull

You've probably heard the news by now. Hi-Fi is dead. Rumor is, it was murdered. Poison! And it has 36 hours to learn who killed it. [Insert ominous music here] If this idea is even remotely new to anyone out there (other than fans of that dreadful flick with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan), well, I fear for you. It's practically a Facebook meme at this point -- it's taken as (figuratively) true by just about anyone In The Know. Yes! Just take a look at the number of hi-fi shops that have closed their doors in the last decade alone! Clearly and unequivocally, this is a Sign Of The Apocalypse, and the gasping demise of audio's high-end. In short order, Music by Beats or Spotify or some other streaming music portal will destroy Apple's iTunes and with it, the last remnants of the Old Republic will be swept away. Just so you know, these are probably the same people that said that the CD was obsolete. And before that, that the vinyl disc was obsolete. And before that, that the vacuum tube was obsolete. Ah, me. Clearly, we'd be rattling around like a bean in a can in our house of hyperbolic tomfoolery if we didn't already have it jammed full of overblown predictions. Sometimes, padded walls are good. Look at me! I'm crazy.

google-music-industry-is-dead-2_large

Look. The fact of the matter is that CD sales are down. Vinyl sales, while recently up, are still way down from historic highs. And yes, proportionally speaking, the vast majority of audio components sold today have absolutely no vacuum tubes anywhere. But there are still CDs, vinyl records, and vacuum tubes being sold and a lot of money still being made. And yes, there are still audio dealers peddling these (and other) wares. So while the market has certainly evolved (thanks, Apple and Amazon et al), it’s worth sticking pins in the ballooning nonsense coming from the Negative Nancy Brigade. The world is not ending. And every once in a while, something new comes along (still!) that sets the world on fire.

Take Beats, for example. Originally created by a team of clever folks including Dr Dre, Jimmy Iovine, and Monster Cable team, this headphone brand took the world by storm back in 2008. And by storm, we’re talking about them overtopping $500M in sales this year. If you’re an audio manufacturer in any vertical, that number really ought to wipe the tear-stained snot clean off your face. “Headphone Audio” is now a $2B market! But here’s the fun bit — the total market for hi-fi? About $200M or so, which happens to be down about 50% in the 10 years leading up to about to, well, about now. Said another way, the headphone audio market, which is growing, is about 10 times the size of the hi-fi market, which is shrinking. Said yet another way, Beats — by itself — is outselling the entire hi-fi industry combined, by a factor of two. Ahem.

Say what you like about Beats. In fact, you can say anything you like about Beats:

“In terms of sound performance, they are among the worst you can buy,” says Tyll Hertsens, editor in chief of InnerFidelity.com, a site for audiophiles. “They are absolutely, extraordinarily bad.”

It doesn’t matter. Because Beats are cool and everyone is buying them. Ka-ching!

So, if you were a wise businessman and invested in audio, which market would you think was the one to dip your toes into? Lemme give you a hand — if you’re a manufacturer making high-end audio bits and you’re not looking at headphone audio with a greedy stare while jets of saliva arc out of your lower jaw like some sort of underfed cobra, you’re a blithering idiot.

For hi-fi, headphone audio is an obvious market adjacency and quite frankly, there’s a lot of room for the average hi-fi manufacturer in the headphone audio space. Yes, headphones have been around for a long time, but quite frankly, the sound quality “over there” trails the hi-fi space by a wide margin. Take Beats, for example. Ahem. Yes, there are quite a few tremendous sounding offerings in the headphone audio space — but take all the world-class headphones and stack them up. Not just good headphones — I mean the best of the best. Right now, that’s a short list. You’ve got:

  • Audeze LCD series
  • Beyerdynamic T1, T5p
  • Grado HP1000, GS1000i
  • HiFiMAN HE-6, HE500 and more
  • JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266
  • Sennheiser HD800, HD700 and HD650
  • Stax SR-009, SR-007

I’m sure that there are a few others that deserve to be on that list, but the point is that the list is short.

Compare that to the list of world-class loudspeakers that Stereophile has listed for loudspeakers in their 2013 Recommended Components. Yeah, it’s big — and that’s just the stuff they’ve reviewed recently. There’s also a dozen more “highly reputable” websites that have similar lists.

I think there’s a few things that all this should tell you. One, there’s a lot of talent playing in hi-fi — even now, in this, the Declining Years. Two, that there isn’t a lot of variety (by contrast) in headphone audio. Yes, there’s some — but if the recent participation in CanJam at RMAF was any indication, with something close to 100 times the number of hi-fi vendors willing to travel and demo than there were headphone audio vendors willing to do the same, the scales are clearly unbalanced. Third, there is a level of insanity quality-chasing in hi-fi that just isn’t present in headphone audio. Sounds like opportunity to me! Check out what’s what with JPS Labs’ new $5,500 Abyss headphone — that thing is incredible sounding, and even at that eye-popping price (at least in the headphone world), it’s still getting a lot of positive reaction. There’s clearly a hunger in the headphone “personal audio” world for mo’ betta’ gear — and hi-fi manufacturers are a natural supplier for such “innovation”. I’ve already opined that headphone audio is going to be inundated with hi-fi sourced uber-product in the next decade (the deluge is only just now starting — check out the $1,000,000 Indiegogo campaign for a desktop headphone amp/DAC combo from LH Labs), and that it’s going to be nuts. It’s also going to be awesome and that’s all to the good for guys like me. But there’s going to be a backlash … but put that aside for now.

headphone-vs-speaker-cnet

Let’s take a step to the left and note that I’ve spent a thousand words talking about an exodus from hi-fi into headphone audio. Hopefully, I’ve been quite clear about this because that’s my point — while there’s clearly money being spent on one of the two market segments, headphones, et al, are most assuredly not going to “save” hi-fi.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about how the joys of headphones is the “gateway drug” into the gloriously wonderful world of hi-fi generally. Let’s just say that I think this is hopelessly optimistic and here’s why — by and large, most headphone junkies just don’t give a shit about hi-fi. Never have. Probably never will. Why that is has to do with their age, their demographic and economic status, and their generational experiences, but the point I want to emphatically underline is this — if you’re thinking that the success of Beats is a “good thing” for loudspeaker makers, I’m really sorry to have to disabuse you of this. Think of Tower Records — and how wonderful iTunes was for Tower Records’ business model. Remember Tower Records? Yeah.

Look, it’s just not about growing hi-fi market share — I’m talking about it, best-case, as market shift — not growth. Personal audio is eating hi-fi. And the current fixation that hi-fi has with spiraling costs will ensure that most can heads skip the train entirely — the fact that $9 out of $10 dollars spent in audio are spent in personal audio should be speaking volumes. Not rooftop-with-megaphones, but like rock-concert-PA-systems-on-rooftops. Personal audio and hi-fi are market adjacencies; they share certain features, but they’re not the same — think “sports car” and “motorcycle”, for wont of a better analogy. A true motorcycle fiend will never give up the bike, even after they can afford the sports car. And with the bike, there’s an open question as to whether the sports car will ever be “worth it”. These segments are separate. Sure, there’s overlap — that’s why the term ‘adjacency’ fits. But participation in one does not entail any participation, now or in the future, with the other. Assuming otherwise is a great way to miss the boat. And waste money — and opportunity.

And I do mean miss. Right now, there’s an old-guard in the headphone space. Certain vendors with long-standing product lines and valued reputations. They’re (still!) making great product and introducing new bits against measured plans. That’s a recipe that’s perfect for a new vendor with a disruptive product — like Beats, say. Given the wild success of Beats, and how utterly pedestrian the reviews of that product line tend to be, clearly there’s room in the segment. On the other hand, first-mover dominance is insanely hard to shake off and Beats isn’t sitting still. Anyone moving into the headphone space, specifically, has their work cut out for them. Daunting, yes, but doable — but best of all, there’s now room to elbow into. I’ll leave off suggesting viable business models, target price points and the potential for crossover products for another day.

The long and short of it is this — audio’s high-end is not dead. It’s not even on the table. It is aging and starting to show it, but predictions of its impending death are laughable. Still laughable — we’ve been talking about hi-fi’s demise for decades now. But like Keith Richards [or insert your favorite 1960s/1970s musician or band], it’s still making music and making that music sound good. Even if it looks a bit rickety, no one’s really sure why and how they’re still alive after all that abuse, and any fall is likely break a hip.

Hi-fi is, however, evolving. Whether it’ll be able to merge with a related adjacency or be swallowed by it is an open question, but it can most certainly take advantage of it. And it should. And it is, which is the most exciting news I pulled out of this year.

We’ll see where it goes. I, for one, am not dumping my hi-fi just yet. But just to be open with ya’ll, I have been buying a lot of headphone audio bits lately.

Counterpoint

by John Grandberg

When Scot asked me to to contribute some thoughts on this op-ed, I was a bit unsure. Was he going to rehash the same tired talking points we’ve all read numerous times before? Maybe. Probably? It sure would be the easy way to go. But hey, it’s Scot, so I figured I should give it a read before I outright turned him down. Once I actually sat down to digest his piece, I realized I had misjudged the guy. He actually had a lot of interesting points to make. Most of which I completely support, but a few that I see in a slightly different light.

First off, let’s come right out and say it – the industry is having some difficulties. No denying that. But guess what? So are a lot of other industries! This is a hobby after all, with all the trappings that come along with the word. It demands disposable income and extra time and physical space in your house and…. you see where I’m going with this right? How many people are unemployed right now? How many are working multiple jobs to make ends meet? How many are commuting an extra hour or three each day? For a lot of folks, there just isn’t any extra budget for luxury goods. And even when there is a bit of padding there, enabling a person to buy a respectable sound system, do they even have the free time to sit around and enjoy it?

I hear some of you saying “But John, what about those well-to-do folks, for whom time and money are not limiting factors? Surely they are out spending money in the local shops, right?” Which of course is a good point – someone is still buying this stuff, or the companies and magazines (and websites….) would completely cease to exist. Yet I see something of a generational gap at play here, and with it a whole new outlook. No longer is the HiFi something most people aspire to own. For a kid who grew up with tube-driven amplifiers driving big Altec speakers, who handled vinyl on a regular basis and routinely tuned in the local radio station for news and entertainment – it makes sense that this kid would grow up wanting to have a spectacular system of their own. There’s an element of recaptured youth to the whole affair. But that kid is long gone. Someone who grew up with hundreds of television channels at their disposal, or thousands of MP3 tracks in their pocket, or the internet…. those folks have no fond audio memories to rekindle. Even if they somehow catch the bug and become an audiophile, it will be a new thing for them. They won’t have that same emotional attachment. Furthermore, as we became a more fast paced society, we kind of left behind “simple” things like sitting down and enjoying music – without multitasking. Think about that. There’s a whole generation (several actually) who really aren’t used to doing just one single thing at a time.

One more bit that seriously contributes to the decline of the industry – overpopulation. Seriously, how many companies are there trying to make speakers? Or preamps? Or DACs? Head over to Audiogon and pick a category. You’ll find dozens or often hundreds of currently active brands represented. And that’s just the current brands in any one category. A lot of them don’t even overlap. Can you imagine other industries being like this? What if there were this many brands out there trying to sell refrigerators? Mind you, a fridge is something that pretty much everyone requires. Every house or apartment or office pretty much has one, maybe two. Yet surely there aren’t a hundred brands out there currently vying for your business. It’s absurd. The analogy works just as well if we use tires, tissue paper, or trampolines. As for just why so many brands exist in the audio kingdom, well…. that’s a topic for a whole other article. Suffice it to say there are just too many players trying to grab a piece of the ever-shrinking pie. Some will disappear, and (with a little luck) the cream will rise to the top.

Where am I going with all this, besides making myself sound like a grumpy old codger? Ah yes, HeadFi versus HiFi. I think Scot hits on a lot of truths here. The 15 year old who wants Beats around his neck as a way to fit in? Yeah, that guy is not being “reached”. He likely won’t ever become an audiophile, and if by chance he does…. it won’t have anything to do with those headphones. There’s really no overlap at all. In that respect I completely agree with Scot.

Having said all that….. I do see some parallels for certain situations. Example: as a younger guy, maybe living with the parents or in a college dorm, there’s little chance to assemble a nice 2-channel rig. There probably isn’t space, or money, and parents/roommates won’t appreciate it anyway. But if he grabs some nice in-ear monitors (Westone, Ultimate Ears, HiFiMAN, etc) for maybe a few hundred dollars, runs them from his iPhone, then he’s got himself some pretty good sound. As he (or she!) gets more involved in musical enjoyment, incremental upgrades take place – a dedicated DAC, headphone amp, maybe some full size headphones or high-end custom in-ear monitors. Before you know it, this kid qualifies as a full on audiophile, complete with a very respectable (yet headphone based) system – which they would never have been able to achieve using speakers. As this person grows up and enters the “real world”, they find themselves having a place of their own along with more disposable income. What are the chances they decide to get a speaker rig at that point? Pretty good I’d say. Anecdotal, of course, but I’ve seen this happen to lots of people over at HeadFi.org. That younger generation, no longer raised in a home where Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker were in regular rotation, now develops their own musical tradition based around groups like Muse, The Strokes, Radiohead, et al. This sequence, or one very similar, is playing out as we speak, all over the globe. As long as there is teen angst, there’s a potential new pool of music lovers out there. And once they experience good sound, chances are they’ll keep wanting more.

The only other thing I’d add to this is that we need to keep a fresh perspective about what exactly constitutes “HiFi”. If we’re looking at speakers, turntables and preamps as the chief criteria, then yeah, there’s only so much potential for innovation. But look at the DAC market – major improvements in the past few years. What about music streamers? Dedicated audiophile playback software for PC and Mac? Active room correction? High-res PCM and DSD downloads? Ever-maturing Class D amplification? There’s actually a lot going on if you think about it. If we can free ourselves from the anachronistic notion that a “real” system must involve vinyl or giant monoliths for speakers, we’ll see a whole new world of great sounding gear to play with. At the same time, if you like your VTL and your Wilsons, those will still be around. It’s win-win in my book. The industry may or may grow bigger as the economy (hopefully) improves, but make no mistake – good things are definitely happening.

Counter-Counter Point

The team at Audio360.org have offered up some more thoughts on this (I even chimed in again, because I can’t seem to help myself) and you can find those. They also link a couple of others that had different … takes. Check it out. [Editor’s Note: Audio360 is no longer live]

Got something to add? Feel free to chime in in the comments section!

About Scot Hull (976 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and "The Occasional Magazine"

42 Comments on Thoughts on Headphones and the Future of the High-End

  1. Hi John & Scott!

    It was very insightful reading about your perspectives on the changing nature of the audio industry. I agree with you that good things are definitely to come…because at the end of the day, we will always value quality of sound whether it is only for our own ears or to share with others.

    The continual efforts to achieve the best quality of sound is the crux to all we do at Nano HiFi, a subsidiary to the leading electronics company Polytron in Indonesia.I am a recent graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business, currently interning for the summer at Polytron in developing the new launch of Nano Hifi (nanohifi.com) a home audio hifi system that provides unparalleled clarity & quality sound in an ultra-compact, sleek design.

    We need people like you: lives and breathes music, open-minded to innovative products, and above all appreciates the quality of sound and excellent design. It would be greatly appreciated if you (or anyone this message reaches) were to take this 3-5 minute survey to help gain more insight on the nature of this ever-changing industry:
    https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/3LDKH5G

    If you have thoughts on the product itself or have any other ideas, feel free to contact me at ujinandtonic@gmail.com.
    I am all ears!

    Terima kasih (many thanks) and love from Indonesia!

  2. VAfromAbroad // February 9, 2014 at 8:11 AM //

    Hello,
    interesting article. Just a couple of things I was thinking about – I´m sorry if I have misunderstood anything you wrote: you say that the personal audio generation aren´t interested in better sound, but from growing up in the era of 2 channels I can´t recall any friends with tube amps and massive theatre horns – they had compact stacks or standard mid-fi and didn´t buy anything else later in life. Just not a priority, they did sports and got cars instead. Substitute big stereo for smartphone/earbuds and it´s about the same – except the sound coming out of the smartphones is probably better.
    And from the perspective of enjoying music or good sound – why see headphones as a “gateway drug” to the superior world of speakers? Speakers are different but IMO not necessarily better. There are fewer options in the headphone world but what you can get is very, very good. It´s not what you did thirty years ago but with the quality of headfi today it´s the new high end, just a different one. Isn´t it the same thing in the end – you have a source, then an amp and instead of speakers coming out the other end you have a pair of Sennheiser/HifiMan/whatever. They´re firms dedicated to make good, realistic sounding gear, just different ones from before. If the “old guard” want to survive and thrive then maybe they should start making headphones and matching amps instead of monoblocks and massive boxes?

  3. Hi Scot, Great essay, and very timely. One thing that many are missing is the generational shift to head-worn smart devices in general, and the emerging technologies that will accelerate that shift. If we project the growth of all “associated technologies” into, say, 2040, we can begin to anticipate the profound media-culture shift that’s coming. I address this in next month’s Stereophile. Would love to engage here further, but simply don’t have the time.

    If anyone on the east coast is interested, I’ll be giving a lecture on the next 30 years of audio creation and delivery at various universities and AES section meetings, last week of March thru first week of April, including NYU, Berklee, McGill, Johns Hopkins, and Carnegie Mellon.

  4. MeeHungLowe // January 20, 2014 at 12:42 AM //

    IMHO, head-fi did less damage to hi-fi than home theater did. With head-fi, at least the goal is the same – enjoyment of music. Home theater changed the goal – music was no longer the primary goal – it had now become all about recreating the multi-channel theater experience and the latest gut pounding special effects. Sure, music also piggy-backed on to some home theater systems – but it became, at best, a secondary activity.

    I think personal audio actual *saved* home audio from an ignominious death at the hands of the HTiB. Being able to feed music from your DAP to your AV receiver provided a pathway for music to reenter the home living rooms.

    To put a practical spin on this topic – just consider the numbers involved. If even a small percentage of the personal audio fans ultimately purchase home hi-fi gear, I think it is possible the hi-fi market will actually be larger than it would have been *without* head-fi.

  5. Oh, easier said than done, of course!

    But I think that a lot of people would buy an integrated solution like this:

    – A single box, permanent sound station for the living room
    – Plays music from wireless devices like phones
    – Can hook up to the TV, DVD/Blu-ray, video game console
    – Can hook up a record player without even knowing that phono preamps exist
    – Clear input names that the customer can edit (no “aux,” “phono,” etc.)
    – Small and fashionable
    – Can connect to speakers either with wires or wirelessly
    – Several speaker options: tiny, small, large, soundbar, subwoofer, 5.1 (maybe you buy a different bundle based on the type of speakers you want)
    – Easy configuration wizard and tutorial available through the TV screen (but don’t have to use it)
    – Can also control and configure it with an app
    – Good sound! (mid-fi anyway)
    – Headphone out

    The closest I’ve seen is the NAD D 3020, but even that has big problems:

    – Its looks do not exude “gadget lust” or fashionable mainstream appeal
    – It’s called a “D 3020 Hybrid Digital Amplifier” — that name is incomprehensible and intimidating to normal folk
    – On the front, you see “OPT1” and “-60, -80, -100” — you might as well put hieroglyphics on it
    – When you read about the device on NAD’s website, they don’t really say what it is, and then they quickly launch into gibberish about asynchronous mode and jitter

    I wish I could get my hands on that product and make a version for normal people, and market the heck out of it!

  6. I find that this article looks at things in a weird way. It’s from the point of view of someone looking at the industry first and foremost, which leads you into a way of thinking that just does not match how normal people think and behave.

    This kind of mental trap happens all the time to companies that cater to experts and early adopters. Apple has made a lot of their money not by inventing products, but by first figuring out what normal people want to do, and then tailoring the products and ads to them. For example, there were MP3 players before the iPod and tablets before the iPad. The Apple magic was to make it easy and pleasurable for normal people to do what they liked.

    I remember looking at ads for the Diamond Rio MP3 player several years before the iPod appeared. It looked complicated, full of tech specs and buttons. It was aimed at hardcore techies. Apple ads, on the other hand, showed an animation of someone dancing with earbuds in. That was it. Normal people could relate. It seemed effortless.

    I worked for a company in the mid-90s that had their own Internet search engine. It had a really busy page and tons of options. Google won in Internet search by making a page that had one text box and a search button below it. That was it. Normal people could relate. It seemed effortless.

    Geoffrey Moore has written highly regarded books about high-tech marketing and how moving from the hardcore early adopters to normal people is “crossing a chasm.” The audiences are vastly different, and the market size of normal people is astronomically larger. Beats crossed the chasm. They were stylish and simple. “You’re not hearing all the music,” the ads said. As soon as you put them on, you heard more bass. Normal people could relate. Especially since bass-shy iPod earbuds were the standard.

    Anything that involves esoteric knowledge cannot cross the chasm. All those lights on your DAC that indicate bit and sampling rates, or choosing different rates or file formats when you download a file — that cannot cross the chasm. Attaching a headphone amp and DAC to a phone for portable listening is cumbersome, looks weird, and can’t be easily explained when a phone already has a headphone out. It cannot cross the chasm.

    So let’s look at normal people rather than markets or hardcore audionerds. If you like great sound when you listen to music, then you are an audiophile and you are into hi-fi (a.k.a. high fidelity). To a normal person, it doesn’t make sense to separate hi-fi from head-fi. The fidelity of the sound has nothing to do with the delivery mechanism or market.

    If you’re into hi-fi and you’re young, it’s cheaper, easier, and more portable to use a smartphone or MP3 player and headphones. If you are an audiophile, you will gravitate to good headphones, and you might get into headphone amps and DACs.

    But this is a solitary experience, so the next step is to get a portable speaker to bring different places, like your friend’s house or the beach. Your source is your phone or MP3 player. If you are an audiophile, you will look for a good speaker.

    And as you settle down, set up your living room, and have people over to your house, it makes sense to get a stereo or home theatre. If you are an audiophile, you will look for a good system, and might get into turntables or DACs, etc.

    The key is, this is all driven by use cases. By how people want to integrate music into their lives. What adult is really into music enough that they have great headphones, but isn’t interested in some kind of speakers to listen to music out loud?

    This is where the motorcycle analogy falls down, too. Motorbikes and cars can be used in the same circumstance. I can drive to my friend’s house using either. With headphones and stereos, I listen to headphones on the bus or when I’m trying not to disturb others at home. I listen to my stereo when friends are over, or when I’m home alone.

    Another point, I think it is completely natural to sell more headphones than stereos. You get headphones for your kids. Headphones get lost or break (they last way shorter than a stereo). You get different headphones for different circumstances (portable, noise cancelling, full-sized open for home, etc.).

    I have had a living room stereo and bedroom stereo for about 10 years. I’m assuming that they will last another ten easily. I expect to buy several pairs of headphones during that time. Does that mean I am primarily into headphones? Absolutely not. I am primarily into music, and I buy high-quality listening devices according to how and where I would like to listen to that music.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // January 13, 2014 at 7:36 PM //

      Dan, thanks for the considered response. In short, I have very little to argue with here — there are many folks that “grow into” home-based hi-fi, and grow into it by “growing out of” headphone-based hi-fi. In fact, I know a couple of folks just like this. There are also people who flow the other way, for many reasons — again, I know folks just like this, too.

      My point isn’t that this doesn’t happen — it does.

      My point, such as it is, is fairly succinct: There just aren’t that many of these people. Not when you look at the entire demographic.

      I don’t feel like paying for the market research (but it’s available) but the snippets everyone is bandying about says that the total addressable market for headphones (and related widgets) is over $2B. By contrast, the entire hi-fi industry is (according to one guess) about 1/10th of that (if that). Given that there is a rather decided cost-discrepency in favor of head-fi, the numbers come out to be something catastrophically one-sided when it comes to the user base — ~1M hi-fi enthusiasts worldwide (a rather generous number) and over 100x that in the head-fi space. With that kind of disparity (100:1 or more), you have to wonder what the deal is.

      Is it the case that head-fi is stealing market share from hi-fi? Or is head-fi it’s own market segment?

      Again, it may be that there will be crossover from one segment to another. I don’t doubt that. And again — I’ve seen it happen and I have no reason to believe it won’t continue to happen. But given that the hi-fi market is down over 50% in the last decade or two, you do have to ask “well, when are those head-fi guys finally gonna show up?”

      My bet? They’re not. Not in the numbers that will “float” the hi-fi industry to anywhere near it’s former glory. I mean, why would that trend change? Said another way, what is it about the headphone market — now — that will suddenly dump millions of new consumers into the hi-fi market when it has failed to do anything even remotely like it in the past? Nothing has changed — from the hi-fi perspective, anyway. As you mentioned, no hi-fi vendor has stepped up and jumped the chasm and brought a ton of new consumers into the segment. Not like Beats has done for head-fi. And until something does, it’s worth mentioning that hope still isn’t a strategy.

      • Thanks for the response! I agree, hope most definitely is not a strategy to expand the market. The strategy for success is crossing the chasm. As you say, no hi-fi vendor has stepped up to bring a ton of new customers into the segment. I think that’s a golden opportunity! Maybe we should start a company that does exactly that. 🙂

        The key is that these markets are elastic. You say that the head-fi market now is around $2B and the hi-fi market is maybe 1/10 of that. Before Beats appeared — which was only five or six years ago — the market size for head-fi was vastly smaller, and the hi-fi market was larger. These things change, they ebb and flow.

        There are two forces pulling on an elastic market: customers and vendors. It’s like a conversation. And if the conversation is dysfunctional — if customers are speaking Greek while vendors are speaking Chinese — then nothing productive is going to happen.

        Let’s not blame the customers for not learning a new language. You can’t force them to do it. If you’re a vendor and want to sell more stuff, you have to learn the customer’s language or continue to decline. There is no other option. You have no one to blame but yourself.

        As for crossover from one segment to the other, let’s ask the reverse question: did people used to cross over from hi-fi to head-fi when hi-fi was the larger market? Not really, it seems. Hoping for crossover is not a sound business strategy.

      • Part-Time Audiophile // January 14, 2014 at 12:30 PM //

        The strategy for success is crossing the chasm. As you say, no hi-fi vendor has stepped up to bring a ton of new customers into the segment. I think that’s a golden opportunity! Maybe we should start a company that does exactly that. 🙂

        I think I just snorted coffee out of my nose.

        Well, that would certainly be the trick, wouldn’t it? I do think a couple of companies are doing this better (than others), like Sonos for example. Mid-fi audio quality for reasonable dough in a package that’s easy to use and — to your point — really easy to understand the value. But even that success story (I’m assuming it is because I’m a fan, but I actually have no real idea) hasn’t opened the gates.

        The trick, as I see it, isn’t just to jump the chasm. If the goal is to “drive” the hi-fi industry up and out of the rotting rut, then there has to be a breakthrough that a lot of vendors can tie their boats to. My guess (I’m just full of random ideas) is that this will have to be marketing-driven (like Apple or Beats Electronics) and not product/category driven (like “computer audio” or “home theater”). Hi-fi just isn’t cool or relevant.

        Vinyl on the other hand ….

  7. There isn’t any inherent conflict between the headphone world and the system in a room world. I have both. In my case headphones came after speakers in part because I was looking for something better than the ear buds that came with my iPod and because I could go “high end” (Grado GS1’s) for less money than some folks want for a power cord. Once in, I’ve gotten in a bit deeper and expect to top out with planars, (Audeze probably, but I’ll wait for OppO before I make up my mind). I have a Dragonfly, a Centrance HiFi Mate, a portable on-ear and a closed over ear for working at home and in public spaces. I have powered speakers and a disc player in my office and the same set-up at home.

    Herein lies the high end though not the HI-Fi problem. I like the sound of everything I have and love is only a subwoofer away for the home system. Altogether I’m in for roughly 7K (plus power conditioning, stands, vibration control and cable upgrades). After the sub and the planars I’ll still be under 10k. But the money spent on everything I have or will own won’t buy me a pair of some high end interconnects. Yet the sound of what I have is far superior to anything I’ve ever owned and I’ve had a stereo system (minimally speakers, a turntable and a receiver) in my life since college. What I have is hi-fi sound (since it’s my money only my opinion matters here). Given my income (high by the standards I grew up with), standard expenses, family needs, the desire to spend discretionary income on things like travel and the need to save some of it, it is unlikely that I’ll ever have a stock of equipment much more expensive than what I already own. I’ll never have high-end sound. So the question for the high end is where the new customers come from once the present group leaves the scene. Once the rich boomers go (I’m a boomer but not a rich one) where are the younger people who are going to spend what it takes to find speakers that will reproduce music the way a pair of $500 headphones will. They’ll do room systems, but a lot of their focused listening will be through the best headphone set-up they can afford. They may never be interested in a pair of 10K speakers much less 100K speakers, and won’t want 10K interconnects at all.

  8. What a brilliant stream of thought on the current and future state of hifi. I think we all know that change is happening and that hifi as we currently know it may be a mere shadow of itself in the very near future. I still have hope that it can survive, yet it may look nothing like what we fondly remember or even know today.

    I do believe that the youth of our time have adopted, as most of us have, a mobile lifestyle with everything! Those of us in the hif space may not utilize it for music all of the time, but our kids do.

    My 16 yr old daughter spends most of her time consuming music on a phone. And not necessarily with headphones. She routinely listens to music on it in the bathroom with that little hole in the bottom of the phone providing the fidelity. She listens to music in her room on it while looking at hundreds of instagrams and multitasks non-verbally with her friends via the same device.

    As for music consumption, I am not sure even itunes downloads will continue at their present pace. As much as I do not like the fidelity, the cloud is going to be how many will get there music. I see the free music proliferation continuing with young adult downloading tracks from youtube using converters and many listening to the free offerings from soundcloud and hosts of other sources.

    I do feel that the human aging timeline noted further up changes how we consume music. As we get older and settle down we often will migrate to a HT based setup or small stereo to listen to as background music with guests or while home alone. And we have our workplace or virtual connection to the rest of the world, the computer or tablet.

    All of these use spaces are opportunities for growth only not as we know it today or maybe have in the past. I think John is correct in suggesting that some of the new technologies we see today are the types that may lead us to that different vision of hifi in the future. We need innovation in the mobile space, the virtual socialization space, and yes in the home. We need more technology that pulls us along into a new world order of hifi and we need it even faster. Look how long it has taken for Apple to give us digital out on an idevice so that the masses can use better dacs. Look at the years of lobbying Android to get a universal USB digital out that can be used with a regular player on all of our phones. We need more of this and the stalwarts and newcomers in the hifi business need to jump on it. We need more LH labs crowdsourcing to take the risk out of being innovative. Hey if Pebble could raise 10 mil with 68 thousand backers in a short time, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in crowdfunding.

    We need continued innovation from people like Apple, Intel, ESS, and TI. Look at all the newer chips that enable our headphone oriented digital devices. We just need to get them in products faster and with more innovation. I like that thought of home based hifi with DSP speakers that are not monoliths. And it is encouraging to see more headphone manufacturers stepping up to the plate with very nice sounding headphones this past year (Philips, PSB, NAD, Sony, Sennheiser) but I agree we need more and we need to get more young people involved.

    AKG has a blog called AKG live where they have some stories of young artists that are making music. We need to take a cue from this type marketing and reach out to more folks as we help morph the hifi market. There need to be more converging of the pro and hifi side. There are lots of young people making music today and listening to it on pretty decent setups. We need to have them help market some of this to more young people. Maybe we need to get people like Tokimonsta to RMAF and other events. Perhaps more joint marketing like the Red Bull / AKG tieup.

    I have hope that hifi will survive. I know it will be nothing like I think it will, I have been pleasantly surprised by what has happened over the last few decades.

  9. When the music you love is recorded, mixed and mastered to sound aggressive (I say “like crap”) it won’t matter what the ‘phones sound like. The logo on those Beats ‘phones sold them, just like a logo sells a pair of tennis shoes (and has for 3 decades). There is still a substantial portion of the marketplace that thinks the Bose wave radio is the finest stereo ever manufactured. Until Sennheiser, PSB and Grado figure out how to truly mass market, they will never come close to Beats’ market penetration.

  10. “Head-fi” will deliver younger consumer en masse towards “mid/hi fi” because their ipods and pc audio have taught them music listening is both convenient and enjoyable. However, they will not purchase their electronics the same way their dads/granddads did. This generation is wired/wireless. They will more likely research the topic to death before dropping long green and make a smart decision that will maximize their investment. And, they won’t be getting their information by tire kicking at the local b&m. Instead, they will narrow down their product via online research then buy from online or businesses selling direct who offer 30 day trials. And, they will keep the equipment that works best for them.

    I am not sure how the “high end audio” dollar share has shrunk during the last decade. Anecdotally, the industry seems the be thriving. Maybe how the dollar is measured ought to be re-examined. Audio equipment has to be selling more now than before. As said before, they are just sold in less traditional methods. And, perhaps, just like everything else in this economy, there’s just a smaller middle class but there is a burgeoning elite class. Hifi seems to be becoming outrageously expensive. But, at the same time, good audio can be attained much easier than before with advent of USB audio and Class D amp technologies (for example).

  11. Both sides of this discussion make some sense, but miss the overall trend of the marketplace which is that fewer and fewer people shop in traditional Brick and Mortar establishments with salespeople offering limited (preferred, self-selected) choices.
    The analogy of refrigerators vs. audio speakers misses the point, IMO. A better comparison would be wines vs. audio speakers. Both specialty wines and high end speakers are pretty much no longer sold in stores, yet both continue to be bought. There are hundreds of varieties of both at all price points and products in each line continue to evolve. The same might be said of watches. Watch stores are pretty much gone, but the high end watch market I’m told hit nearly a billion dollars last year alone! Wow.
    Consumers in America, perhaps elsewhere, read reviews by so-called experts, order in the middle of the night with virtual money (credit cards), have the stuff delivered to their doorstep and squirrel it away inside their homes. Aside from food and perhaps cars, that pretty much sums up the American spender. Malls themselves are going the way of the dinosaur.
    If manufacturers want customers and customers want manufacturers, we all need to evolve and understand the marketplace. Cheaper and cheaper works for some. More and more expensive for a smaller group of others, but both those models exist and have their place. But as was said earlier, the motorcycle enthusiast probably isn’t going to become a sports car enthusiast. A beer drinker probably won’t become a wine drinker, but will search out better beers (and trust me there are thousands now to choose from…beware Budweiser (haha…..they still survive, don’ they?!?)
    Head-Fi/Hi-Fi enthusiasts are similar. Both parties will seek out what rocks their boat. The marketplace is, in fact, Perfect and everyone will eventually find what they like or need.
    I had headphones once and I probably will again because they suit a purpose in my listening experience, just as sampling a digital track has been when deciding if I wanted to purchase the vinyl.
    I am decidedly old-school, but more than that, I can tell the difference between good and great. I’m sure you can , too. As you know, Good is not the gateway drug to Great. Lest you think I am an inveterate snob, most of my universe is Good things, but since audio is my true passion, for that I seek out Great. We make choices and god bless us all.

    • I’d say the Wine comparison is only poignant if we liken it to something “consumable” such as music. A music lover will continually return for a new fix of the thing they love, as will a wine lover. But speakers, amplifiers, and CD players? Closer to a refrigerator in my estimation. Buy it once and use it for a long time. You may find yourself upgrading, or buying a 2nd setup for another room, but generally speaking you won’t be doing so on a weekly or monthly basis. I’m aware of counterexample gear freaks but they are the exception rather than the rule.

      Perhaps the HeadFi market will eventually find itself residing in a similar place as “home theater”. That is to say – separate from HiFi, but very interrelated, with overlap and distinction in roughly equal measure.

  12. allenfarmelo // December 29, 2013 at 6:57 PM //

    Great discussion. Certainly the term ‘hi-fi’ gets used differently by different folks in different contexts. I think re-defining the term a bit is a step toward making the concept of having great sound in our lives more accessible to everyone. As we know, the hi-fi community can be a bit exclusive, expensive and genre- / era-bound, and I’m not sure it has to stay that way going forward. I believe a more inclusive re-definition can be a really positive thing – inclusive of more genres, more eras, more playback systems.

    I’ve been personally working to re-define ‘hi-fi’ as “awesome, 3D, holographic, detailed sonic experiences” – or something to that effect (still refining). I want the definition to remove barriers.

    For this reason, I just lump head-fi and hi-fi together. Whether it’s a great vinyl cut spinning its way through a $20k system or a phone feeding a portable DAC and a great pair of cans, the *experience* of a great recording through a great playback system is what’s going to turn people on. I know the impossibility of replicating the phantom image, 3D soundstage, dynamics and overall nuance of a great 2-channel system in a tuned room with a pair of cans, but I will argue that the gap of experience between an iPhone pumping an MP3 through stock earbuds and a high-end portable cans-based system (phone-DAC-cans or some variant) is perhaps wider than the gap between a great cans system and a finely tuned in-room hi-fi system. We can argue that point, but the very portability of the portable systems makes turning new people on far more likely. “Here, check this out,” and hand them the phones.

    So, maybe ‘head-fi’ just IS the new hi-fi?

    And I really do believe that headphones are the gateway drug (I may have even coined that phrase? – not sure) because cans tell a story! That story goes like this: “Hey Consumer, you can improve your listening experience, and it’s going to cost money, and it’s supercool to do it.” Beats suck, I agree, but Beats are telling that story to consumers. This story creates an opportunity for people to stop and consider their playback systems, and to swallow the idea of investing in improving it. That’s why I’ve called it a gateway drug. And let’s not forget that traditionally hi-fi systems were very sexy design objects that appealed to our sense of style; in that aspect, Beats is really just riffing on a hi-fi tradition.

    Will cans lead to people buying traditional 2-channel in-room systems? I have no idea, but I’m not sure that matters if we accept the so-called head-fi as the new hi-fi – a playback system that can deliver “awesome, 3D, holographic, detailed sonic experiences.” Open up the discussion, include more people and styles ages and income levels, lower the barriers.

    Put a sub $1k portable system on someone who worships a recently recorded sonic masterpiece and reveal the full sound of that recording to them and there’s a chance they’ll get hooked on the new hi-fi. I enjoy few things as much as giving people that experience for the first time and welcoming them to great sound.

  13. I also think it’s important to mention (as some already have) that there are ALREADY a good number of high-end audio manufacturers who are starting to offer a wider price range of products and this is key, particularly, if they want to secure some customers in the younger age range. Beats headphones started out with one model (that wasn’t cheap btw) and later added cheaper models that also had cool stylish looks, and this widened adoption of the brand even more. Yes this is because they have marketing money and a recognizable name behind it etc…..but I BET if beats came out with bookshelf speakers…then loudspeakers folks would scoop them up! High end audio folks are starting to do the same thing…just in the opposite order of beats, and…..yes time will tell if this will truly pay off in the end….but I think it will for some manufacturers.

    But see, it also depends on what we define as “paying off”. Does “paying off” mean that two channel hifi will be found in most american’s homes again? That super high priced audio products are in everyone’s home? Or will it take on more of a slightly different shape? Like the ubiquitousness of a dedicated headphone system in peoples homes….with maybe desktop speakers hooked up to a laptop or portable music player or cell phone?? Maybe all these things will be able to approximate loudspeakers in an even greater way that some of them already do now. That’s kinda cool actually! Like headphone systems that mimic the listening experience of loudspeakers (SMYTH Realiser…and others). The possible ubiquity of systems like this would render the traditional 2 channel, loudspeaker-listening-ways less necessary. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Heck, I welcome something COMPLETELY new….like something even more immersive than surround sound!

    These “death of hi-end audio” talks are fueled by a fear of change….high end audio is changing at what seems to be a faster rate than it has in a long time (or maybe ever has!) and as per usual with change (especially the quick kind) there are folks who will freak out and claim the new direction “inferior!” and cling tightly to their known and trusted ways etc etc….I mean, those folks will always be here, purveyors of the flame right? Nothing wrong with them either btw. But me? I’m not worried about high end….maybe that’s because I’m not really “in it” (in some people’s view) because I have a headphone based system right now….but I consider my system hi-end for sure! To me it’s high-end because it’s not something one can purchase at the corner electronic store…it’s high end because none of what I own is mass produced and most of it is hand made/assembled to a certain degree…it’s high end because it’s performing at a higher level than most in it’s product bracket. That’s the most important thing to me really..

    I’m sorta just having fun and riffing off of what some people have already mentioned…but at the end of the day….music will FOR SURE be with us! It would make many of us who CARE about HOW music sounds, very happy to see more of our friends and loved ones enjoying more of what their music has to offer sonically. But thank goodness most of them are LISTENING to music at all. I DO feel like products that improve the sound of the average consumer’s music will continue to trickle down into the mainstream (phones with better DAC’sand speakers etc….that’s happening already actually!). That’s wonderful. In whatever form it takes. High end manufacturers who make only “statement” products most likely won’t care much and that’s cool. That’s not their goal. But for all the other dudes who make high end stuff? I think they should keep their ear to “the streets” so they can adapt and be able to offer more of their goods to a wider audience.

    My quick example: I read an interview with the new head of VPI industries. His father who used to be the head of the company really wanted to just continue making turntable products for the older more traditional audiophile…….his son, after taking over the company started developing lower priced (but high quality) TT’s intended to reach a younger/wider consumer (the VPI Traveler) and they have sold a TON of them…not just to younger audiophiles I’m sure. They are capitalizing on the shift that is still happening in regards to the surge in vinyl sales with the youth as of late. Most popular bands are now releasing their music on vinyl along with the digital version as well now! VPI is also releasing a turntable with a dedicated headphone amp…….you GO VPI! And i hate to name a particular company and a couple of their products (I ain’t getting paid for the plug and I haven’t heard the products, haha!) but it IS helping to make my point. VPI has been around for a long time….but this new kind of mentality will (literally) buy them more time in this industry. I say bravo to them!

  14. For an oldster like me who grew up on a home-built, mono, tube system, head-fi and hi-fi have ebbed and flowed with living circumstances. Apt roommates and spouse/young children saw headfi’s stock rise. Living alone, HeadFi faded and HIFi rose. Now I lead a split listening life. My Audio Note system holds sway in the listening room, but I spend all day in front of a computer downstairs where my Mac Pro stores the tunes and feeds an HRT Streamer II+, Schitt Mjolnir and Mr. Speakers’ Mad Dog Balanced ‘phones. (Our neighbor’s barking, outdoor-living dogs put a thumb on the scales of desktop system decision-making.)

    I think the perceived, stark dichotomy is more a matter of experience and listening opportunity than a purely generational split. My son, a vocal performance major at McGill, knew from the first second of listening that Beats are the dog’s breakfast. He listens to Senn Momentum through his iPhone while out ‘n about, but plugs into a Schiit Lyr fed by his MacBook Pro and HRT StreamerII+. For communal gatherings, (don’t forget, late teen and twenty-somethings don’t spend ALL their time in isolation), he’s got a Rega P3, tube phono stage, AN Kit4 tube integrated and AX Two Sig speaks. To him, the ultimate is running the phono into his Lyr. His description of his initial reaction and that of his friends tells me that once they have the means, iTunes, mp3s and Beats won’t fulfill their musical needs.

    Of course, if the middle class continues to sink into double shift, minimum wage serfdom, they’ll never have the time to listen to anything but Mickey D’s aural sedatives, and that’s a much bigger problem than what sort of audio dies, survives and/or thrives.

  15. goldendarko // December 29, 2013 at 12:48 PM //

    Hi guys, really enjoyed the wonderful article! I do think though that the demise of the audio industry is way overblown myself though. As a young audiophile (29 years old), I’ve owned products by Bowers & Wilkins, NuForce, Audioengine, Neuhaus Labs, KEF, Peachtree Audio, Burson Audio, Audeze, Grado, Klipsch, Shunyata & Audioquest and can say that the market for products affordable to younger serious music listeners is growing and becoming even more affordable, such as the soon to come Geek Pulse (which I have also preordered!). I think ultimately the thing that always saves the music industry in times of great change – is the MUSIC!!! Sure things like Spotify are a big change to the way we access music and overall decreases the sound quality I can get from Vinyl or even HDTracks, but I can’t even tell you how many great bands I’ve discovered through Spotify over the last 2 years that I would not have known about otherwise. And in the end, that’s what our passion is all about, is the music. And as far as young people not being into hi-fi, that’s simply not true. I just talked to a 14 year old on Head-Fi yesterday asking about getting a pair of Grado’s & a FIIO amp. There’s a new one born everyday, sure the Beats listeners may be more, but more audiophiles will continue to join the ranks every day, especially as the gear becomes more affordable. Don’t worry, the music will save our hobby like it always has!

    • Lot’s of great points!

      I’ll add that I’m also young as far as most audiophiles go (30) and I am a great example of someone who has a FANTASTIC headphone system at home and is looking forward to achieving many of the same sonic attributes I’m enjoying b/t my head at the moment, on a loudspeaker/bookshelf system at some point….and I have headphones to thank for that! Headphones are definitely my bridge to the high end speaker world (not necessarily high priced speakers). They are giving me a taste of what I will be able to enjoy on a larger scale and I can’t resist that temptation. So it’s not a matter of “if” I’ll purchase hi-end speakers…its “when!” Right now I’m “wading in the water” of my music with headphones….but (to borrow a comment Scott has made in the past regarding his speaker listening experience) I can’t wait to “swim in the music”.

  16. Scot Hull is my favorite audio writer.

    Scot’s mention of motorcycles piqued my interest. I’m age fifty-nine and owned over fifty motorcycles. I noticed a large percentage of motorcyclists share affinity for music and audio.

    Regarding the alleged death of high end audio: City Bike is a monthly motorcycle newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. Starting approximately the late 80s/early 90s, City Bike and other journalists loudly and repeatedly predicted the demise of the so-called “cruiser” type motorcycle genre, personified by the Harley Davidson brand.

    For I don’t know how many years in a row now, HD has maintained the largest piece of the large motorcycle pie, with no end in sight of being dethroned from its lofty position at the top of the mountain. Most recently, Polaris (maker of the Victory brand motorcycles and another US company like HD) purchased the “Indian” brand name and spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing a well-received line of popular cruiser type bikes. Specifically, Indian wants a piece of the huge cruiser market dominated by HD.

    So goes the alleged death of the cruiser market, twenty five years later.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 29, 2013 at 12:51 PM //

      Nice analogy!

      Where I think things get interesting, from a market analysis perspective, is where the success of Indian is coming from. Is it due to market shift — stealing from Harley Davidson? Or is it due to market growth — bringing new blood into the lifestyle? Personally, I have no idea, but if the analogy fits onto high-end audio, the answer would be “shift” not “growth”. Good news for Indian, not so much for the market (which is what high-end audio needs — growth).

      That said, high-end audio isn’t going anywhere. Like vacuum tubes, vinyl and the silver CD, it’ll be here 25 years from now, no question.

      I think it’s possible, however, that many newer hi-fi brands may seek to either shore themselves up by offering products in the head-fi space (in the hopes of propping themselves up for the next “Golden Age” of high-end audio) or cross-over into head-fi entirely simply due to it’s trending market strength.

  17. I agree with both Lee (Scoggins) and Chris (Sommovigo) in that Head-Fi can save hi-fi.

    In fact, I know someone that started in headphones, progressively moving up the ladder of fidelity, and is now looking at a DaVinci and line arrays… and that person is only one of a handful that are taking the same path. Headphones can totally be a gateway drug, I’ve seen it happen.

    How is this possible? It’s because there is something that is slightly different about the Head-Fi community… and the products that have been created to cater to our little corner of personal and portable fidelity. We are not just a bunch of kids pumping MP3s out off crappy headphones. We tend to seek the best of both worlds. We want the convenience of portable devices and digital media, but we also pursue gear that is on a whole other level than what consumers would go for. In other words, our very existence is that of a bridge between consumerphilia and audiophilia.

    So yes, with regards to Head-Fi not saving hi-fi, I am firmly of the opinion that it can. It definitely can. Whether it will or not is another story. The scary part of this precarious situation is that it’s up to hi-fi as to whether it wants to be saved by personal/portable fidelity. And right now, a lot of those manufacturers just don’t see extinction coming. If they did, they would start reaching out to us, with products, right now. But they don’t.

    Instead we have personal/portable fidelity manufacturers like Woo Audio coming out with their WA234 Monoblocks, amps that can drive both headphones and speakers. There is one example of a crossover product that seeks to bridge the two worlds. But again, going back to what I was saying earlier, that’s not not hi-fi reaching out to Head-Fi. It’s the other way around. Woo could sell hundreds of those monoblocks, and not one hi-fi amp manufacturer will have been saved. And for as long as our little crowd is ignored – which is something that Scot cautions against – hi-fi will repeatedly lose out on opportunities that won’t last forever.

    Elsewhere, Chris points out “that the desktop itself is a viable and respected Hi Fi environment blows the minds of audio traditionalists …”

    I think a large part of that skepticism is due to many traditionalists clinging to an arcane image of headphones, formed decades ago, when headphones weren’t very good at all. Compound this with the proliferation of compressed music, and of course one has something to thumb one’s nose at. Or at the very least, scoff at.

    To those that feel that way, I would invite them to learn a little more about what we – as a community and market segment – have been able to achieve within the last decade. I’ll be expanding on this a bit more in our Audio360.org companion piece to Scot’s article, but we aren’t just a bunch of kids roaming the streets with iPods and MP3s in tow. We’re running around with 24/96 FLAC files (and in some cases DSD) on DAPs that feature discrete DAC/amps for each channel, and piping all of that into planar magnetic headphones like the new Audeze LCD-XC.

    And if some of the more obstinate traditional hi-fi manufacturers don’t want to learn what we’re all about, that’s fine too. It’s a free country, and the Darwin Awards could always do with more nominees.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 29, 2013 at 12:45 PM //

      Warren — this is an excellent point and I’m not going to contest the structure, just the numbers. Said another way, I think there are many paths into hi-fi, and head-fi can certainly be one.

      But, on whole, the numbers of folks making the jump (from whatever base they’re starting from) seems to be dwindling. Not like a faucet suddenly shut, but what was once a pretty decent flow has pretty much uncontroversially become less so, even if the term ‘trickle’ may be understating things.

      The point is that I don’t think head-fi is a growth sector for hi-fi — that is, I don’t think the hi-fi industry is going to suddenly expand or “revive” (depending on your perspective on the current state of the market) due to the sudden success of Beats specifically or the head-fi market generally. Or rather, I’m not convinced of this. I mean, it’s certainly possible that it could be, but I haven’t seen anything that clearly delineates that path — this is still marked as “TBD” in my book.

      • Ah yes, well they’re certainly not seeing Head-Fi as a potential market right now. I completely agree with that. But I think that has more to do with their limited outlook as opposed to our (personal fidelity enthusiast) leanings. Or to put it another way, and quoting The Moody Blues, who themselves quoted Scripture: “there are none so blind as those who will not see.”

      • Part-Time Audiophile // December 29, 2013 at 1:07 PM //

        By and large, that’s so totally true. But then there’s Light Harmonic/LH Labs. Given recent events, I think there’s gonna be a lot more of this — soon.

        And none of this is going to help hi-fi.

        It may, however, help some hi-fi brands. But the market segment they’re growing isn’t hi-fi.

      • I’m excited to post our public responses from Audio360.org SOON! Great essay Scot! It’s so great to have you be a part of this conversation. As somebody who migrated from the two channel high-end world to high-end headphones, loving both – And after trying to build a bridge between the two communities for years in many essays ( check out my installment of my What is the Future of the High End series for Positive Feedback – subtitled The Personal Audio Explosion – or my essay entitled Personal Audio – The Next Sonic Frontier for HpSoundings) I am also of the firm belief that they can save each other. While high-end audio has successfully cut itself off from consumer culture the headphone community is heavily steeped in consumer culture – So when either do well the other also does well. More official comments to follow and again I’m just excited to have other peers in this conversation!!! Great job.

  18. I have a glimpse into yet another scenario for the future of hi-fi. This one has been just born, but it shows signs of great vitality and promises the most exciting future. Case in point: Light Harmonic and its LH Labs branch using Kickstarter and Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaigns.

    Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on R&D for products that may or may not sell in the future, they were handed over $1,100,000 by campaign backers. What that means to the LH Labs? It means at least two things. One – they don’t have to worry about funding the development of their product. Two – they are assured that when that product will get through design and development stages, there WILL BE, actually, LOTS of people who will buy it.

    Besides that – and in my opinion it is at least of equal importance – the consumers will flock to this new marketing model, because they pay for what they really want and not for what some audio engineers think their customers may want.

    Let’s not forget about the pricing of products developed through crowdsourcing campaigns. Since the company doesn’t need to put their own money into R&D, they will pass that saving to the crowd.

    So, there it is: a chance for both hi-fi and head-fi to coexist and thrive peacefully without stepping on each other’s toes – as two separate trends…

  19. To a certain extent, headphones and hifi are like motorcycles and cars…both transportation but also very different on many levels. Just because you buy one doesn’t mean you will buy the other. If a young person decides that they want the “live music experience” in their audio system, it won’t take long for them to realize that its hard to achieve with headphones which don’t allow the body to “feel the music”, or anyone else in the room for that matter. On the other hand, should they begin to explore hifi as an option, they may soon become overwhelmed and feel that good hifi is financially out of reach (even though it really isn’t).

    Think “Toyota Strategy” Toyota found itself becoming transportation for middle age Americans who thought of Toyota as reliable but blah. Toyota began to realize that the younger generation, as they aged, had no reason to gravitate toward Toyota as they were already being drawn to more affordable and more exciting brands produced by competitors. Hence, the creation of Scion…a way to lure the young people back and create Toyota loyalists for the long term.

    So, a key question for hifi writers is how to create easy access information that clearly maps out how to achieve a great sounding low budget hifi system. They key for the producers is how to create great sounding budget products on which they can make money and with which they can create brand loyalty so that like Toyota, they are ready and able to serve with higher end products when called for.

    As for headphones…no doubt based on recent trends that an audio manufacturer that is able to offer a good sounding budget and mid priced headphone in their stable of product offerings has a better chance of building that brand loyalty for all of their products. Why else would PSB and NAD be in the headphone business.

    One final point… “home theater” has also eaten a big chunk out of 2 channel hifi….and home theater seems destined to continue to grow. Therefore, manufacturers also have to figure out how to add home theater offerings to their line up as well.

  20. Thank you for providing these throught-provoking pieces. I agree with many of these observations and I have a few of my own.

    I am 40 years old. I can relate to the “old-guy audiophile” mentality. In fact, I just built a new house and included a dedicated listening room, complete with ARC, Avalon, SME, Meitner, etc. Perhaps I am an old soul, but I love 2 channel. Even as a teenager, I always appreciated (and longed for) my own high-end system. It’s like a dream come true.

    I am also young enough to understand the next generation of listeners. I grew up enjoying music on headphones (first the Walkman era and then the iPod). I would save my pennies and summer money for the latest and greatest new Aiwa. Even to this day, listening to music on headphones feels natural. Like kids today, I can relate to music through headphones. I can see why so many young people want to improve the experience that they find familiar. Headphones are not a fad, it’s just how people 40 and under relate to music. It’s not unlike the way in which people 50 and over relate to vinyl. It’s familiar and natural. I think it’s great that so many people want to improve their listening experience. Headphones are convenient, personal, and fun. Kudos to Beats for tapping into this market. I’m sure others will come along and leapfrog Beats with better products (and better marketed products).

    To me, the solution for high-end audio is innovation. Not incremental innovation, but a willingness to embrace new technologies and form factors. The recent phenomenon around DACs is promising. The industry is moving where people want to go – wireless, convenient, streaming. Just look at Sonos. So many people are buying Sonos systems with wireless speakers. They sound OK, but offer great convenience in a wireless/wi-fi world. The high-end audio industry needs to embrace these changes and develop new ways to bring great sound that people can enjoy within the convenience of their everyday lives. There will still be room for dedicated rooms with $30k speakers, but the market will continue to shrink unless audio manufacturers can capture the hearts and minds of new listeners. It’s time for people to accept that the era of $10k CD players is over. All price points are welcome, but it’s time to stop improving outdated technologies.

    There is a lot of great innovation, but the high-end industry needs to think outside the box. As your articles point out, there are promising development on the DACs front (the Dragonfly comes to mind). These are the true gateways. Even at the high end, we need more products like Devlialet that break the mold and recognize a changing world. We need more high-rez content (!) and streaming that combine great sound with convenience. We need more iOS-enabled products and less cables. The products need to come to people and not the other way around. The high-end needs visionaries who are willing to embrace these changes and lead the way. People will always love music and a good portion of people will seek out great sound if it is accessible and convenient. It’s not just about price, it’s about convenience. Great sound and innovation can go together.

    Just my $.02 (or $20,000.00 in the case of an audiophile).

  21. Lee Scoggins // December 29, 2013 at 10:25 AM //

    I going to politely differ with both Chris and Scot, which is something I rarely do.

    Both of these fine gentlemen don’t believe that “head-fi” is going to save “hi-fi”. Well I do but I will explain.

    First, some historical perspective. Over time our choices as consumers have expanded as gaming has become more popular, home theater has become popular and many other activities and devices like iPad/Internet have sucked away our limited entertainment dollars. So yeah it’s not surprising that hi-fi shops are closing and spending is shifting to other areas. However, traditional “two channel” hi-fi has always been a niche market. It is a one percent market so we should keep this in mind. We should also keep in mind the economic issues we have had and the fact that this is a luxury area at the end of the day. In other words, when times are tough, no one needs a better tube amp.

    Second, the article mentions that the traditional hi-fi and head-fi market while adjacent are different. This is correct. Beats and many headphones are fashion objects as much as sound. If not they would not be nearly as popular as anyone who has heard a variety of cans can tell you how truly awful the Beats sound. An argument can be made that their inflated bass does appeal to the hip hop crowd and filled a gap in the market.

    But I believe Scot and Chris go too far to suggest headphones are not a gateway drug. I believe they are based on discussions with friends I recommended the headphones to. In fact the biggest issue I have with the article is that it is too narrow. There are in fact three powerful “gateway drugs”:

    **Headphones
    **Computer Audio
    **Turntables

    Each of these areas has experienced tremendous growth recently. What is driving this? A number of things…Headphones are driven by a larger investment in smart phones and the ability to play music off the same and kudos for the iPod getting us started down the path. Computer audio is perhaps driven by a matter of convenience of everyone having a computer of some sort. Turntables seem to be a matter of sound quality among audiophiles, nostalgia perhaps as well among the 40-50 year old bracket I am part of and the availability of new music for the 20-30 year old bracket.

    Now my point is this. Many of the fans of each of these Big Three will simply stay involved at a level that will not create any or much additional revenue for traditional hifi firms. However, we only need to attract a few. We only need that 1% or so to keep the hobby alive and thriving. I strongly believe these Big Three areas will drive growth and the hobby will exist.

    Look at the $1 million Geek Pulse campaign where many bought in below $200. That is essentially a headphone amp with DAC. How many funders? 6,340. Wow. That is a nice amount of customers acquired on something that has not been reviewed or seen (in final form anyway) or heard. Many were probably old boring two channel guys like myself but what if 300 were completely new and wanted something better for their headphones?

    This is the way to grow the business and/or maintain it. Create customer-centric products that are cool and affordable. People will get hooked on the good sound and even a few might buy that amazing $20K DaVinci DAC.

    Like Frank Zappa famously once said about jazz…Hi-fi isn’t dead, it just smells funny.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 29, 2013 at 10:44 AM //

      Lee, I don’t really find myself disagreeing with you. I do want to call out the great success of the LH Labs crowd-funding campaign, but that’s not hi-fi anymore, is it? No, that campaign is pretty much the poster boy for what I was talking about — a hi-fi brand successfully crossing over into the headphone/personal audio market and stealing a slice of that market share. As I said, we’ve seen some of this already and I think we’ll see a lot more of this in the near future.

      What remains to be seen is if that model will work for, say, a pair of loudspeakers (or some other “traditionally hi-fi” product). Might. Might not. But the fact is, it did work — in “head-fi”. I suspect that the model is directional — from hi-fi to headphone audio, and not the other way ’round.

      The why of that is complicated. And sure, there will always be those that do make the jump from headphone audio to traditional hi-fi/stereo audio. But my gut tells me that while there will be some, and will always be some (these market adjacencies do overlap a little), that this is not a growth segment for hi-fi.

      Your suggestion that we need fresh ideas to bring folks into the hi-fi money hole hobby is dead on. We do. Turntables and the rise of vinyl are to my mind great ways to do that, and also seem (again, to me) more reliable in their power to draw in long-term consumers. I am not convinced that headphones have that same power, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

    • Lee! Are you coming to T.H.E Show Newport this year! THE Headphonium has expanded! and given your outlook here – I really think you’ll dig our headphone panel, entitled: “Personal Audio: How the Power of Community is Rekindling Passion for Hi-Fi.” Our panel includes yours truly, my Audio360.org partner (and co-Producer of THE Headphonium w/ me there) Warren Chi, Alex Rosson of Audeze, Owen Kwon of Astell&Kern, Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio, and Mike Dias from Ultimate Ears!

      We’re PUMPED for this panel! As we tried to pick panelists that cover the broad spectrum of headphone culture: A leading headphone manufacturer, reviewers, a leading headphone amp/DAC manufacturer, a bleeding edge DAP manufacturer, and a leading IEM manufacturer!

      Hope you can make it!!

  22. Music was not meant to be consumed in private but shared with others this is something that will return with time since the whole headphone or staring at a screen alone is unnatural and will pass.We are social beings not designed to be alone isolated and though tech has caused this change temporarily. I feel that since this is such a lonely isolating experience it will and can not last. People will with time understand how unnatural this tech enforced isolation is and want a change.

    • Music is meant to be consumed the way the individual wants to consume it. Just because you choose to do so with others, does not mean that’s how everyone does. It sounds like you are a social person, and that is fine. Many others (myself included) prefer to listen to music alone, and that’s OK too. I spend about half of my time listening to music on speakers, and I do this in my study at home, alone.

      To some, listening to music is a personal experience. When I listen, I prefer to crank it up, roll back in my recliner, zone out and relax. I don’t want to discuss the political situation in Syria or the next trendy band or anything else. Hell, I only have one chair in my listening room, and I prefer it that way.

  23. Hi Guys,

    One of the things I’m curious about is not how we as consumers engage head-fi or hi-fi, but how the companies who are involved in our interests engage those things. For example, it is hardly shocking that several serious hi-fi players are becoming more engaged in the head-fi market (NAD, Focal, et c.). It is likewise not shocking that head-fi players have become involved in the hi-fi market (Redwine comes to mind, but there are undoubtedly others). In other words, I’m not convinced that these two markets are as clearly adjacent and Scot proposes. Or more specifically, I’m skeptical that head-fi has been around long enough to generate true adjacency with any other market. There are hints that the industry might feel this way as well. The number of hi-fi makers seeping into head-fi seems poised only to increase (and the overlap between mid-fi and mid-head-fi is longstanding). There is only one way to explain this: hi-fi companies see the potential for drawing new consumers into their core businesses through head-fi and viability of their names in this new market.

    This brings me to the real issue that these two opinions seem to miss. This is the question of how companies make money? Do companies make money through less expensive, higher-volume products or through low-volume high-margin products. If its the former is possible (i.e. through economies of scale) then the generally lower cost head-fi revolution could add to the continued vitality of our interest and is parallel to the perennial flirtation of high-end makers with the seemingly lucrative mid-fi market (e.g. MacIntosh’s and Focal’s “lifestyle” products) or the recent, steady drift toward lower-priced integrated amplifiers. If it’s through the latter (e.g. GM SUV/Truck market in the early 2000s), then the generally lower prices associated with head-fi (and which might inculcate consumers with a lower tolerance for exorbitantly priced hi-fi exotica) could both rob the field of consumers willingness to purchase high-profit-margin toys while drawing resources away from the production of flagship products. This seems like a somewhat unlikely gamble in the industry.

    In any event, since it’s the end of year and people are getting all “predicty”, I suspect we’ll see more hi-fi makers entering the head-fi market particularly at the more fluid mid-head-fi range (i.e. competing with Beats). This suggests not only a lack of adjacency, but might also hint that some of the stalwarts in our hobby see potential new revenue streams.

    So, what do industry insiders think?

    Bill

    • Many of the big players in the HeadFi arena make money both ways – high-volume low-cost items *in addition to* high-margin flagship products. See Sennheiser, Grado, Ultimate Ears, HiFiMAN, et al. All offer one or more options in the $100 range (and sell a ton of them) while also having a flagship in the line costing at least 10 times as much. Are there many speakers companies which sell a lot of $400 monitors but also do very well in the $4,000 segment? It happens, but probably not as routinely.

      I do agree with you about the popular HeadFi industry not being around long enough to really define itself yet. Headphones themselves have been around for ages, but the explosion in popularity/fidelity/etc is a more recent development. I’d be curious to survey the landscape in 20 years and see how things have unfolded.

  24. Headphones are audio crack AND a gateway drug. Few have the disposition to just take one hit. Next thing you know your floor is littered with headphones, like so many glistening pipes…and there’s a new one in town-Blue Magic, but it needs a special amp to really make it sing. You can feel the pull, gravity’s force tearing at desire. Two years later, you have no floor; just an amalgamation of tubes, wires, ear cups, and something new; two coffin sized centuries guarding your door, while intermittently belching out 125 db pulses of life. They’re A-L-I-V-E!!! (I rarely sell a headphone to an absolute beginner, and when I do, I almost feel guilty.)

  25. The headphone issue is a matter of social sector, and as it happens the young and considerably less arthritic are finding high end headphones relevant — and finding high end audio less so. They bring enthusiasm to the market, but they are not “high enders” in the classic sense because they are far less concerned with gear for gear’s sake (aka: Gearsluttery™), but happen to be rabid consumers of actual music. No no no, not that reviewer-approved sound effects record that has been passed around for the last three decades, nor that list of old ladies singing (even Diana Krall is an old lady by their standards).

    Here’s the thing that I don’t see discussed, even by the people who I know are supremely smart but, for whatever reason, myopic: a 25 to 35 year old with some extra cash to spend on toys, who loves music, and who wants to play “audiophile” was 13 to 23 years old when the first iPod took the world by storm, some 8 months after the introduction of iTunes (the music library software, not the music store itself). Mark this date in your historical calendar: October 23, 2001. That’s the day that the foundation of ordinary home-audio began to unravel like a handmade sweater.

    Why this is important is fundamental to understanding why headphones are even a subject being discussed by audiophile intellects at all:

    For all intents and purposes, these customers have only known musical life through headphones.

    So many of us grew up in the age of the stereo system, whereby all music was ‘consumed” through two speakers situated in an actual room with chairs and rug stains and lamps (I love lamp) and little tables and tchatchkis on shelves … and that is *the* fundamental aesthetic informing our thoughts about how best to listen to music. Your dad had a stereo, you’ve got a stereo, and maybe – if you’re at the point now where your barber is trimming the hair inside your eras ever visit – your son or daughter has a stereo. On October 23, 2001 all of that changed and “personal audio” overtook the lane.

    “BUT!” you say, flashing your rapier, your freshly-waxed mustache glistening in the noon-day sun, “if what you say is true, then this ‘personal audio thing’ would have manifested in the 1980’s with the advent and popularity of the cassette-based Walkman, or with the CD-based portable devices … ‘personal audio’ in not new! Ha HA!”

    Touché! But no. You see, portable audio has always been about convenience, and digital has also always been about convenience, and these older devices weren’t all that convenient. First – they were kind of bulky by today’s standards. Second, they were affected, adversely, by movement. Put those two things together and you are not going jogging. What the iPod did was popularize and already-in-the-field technology (there were already plenty of MP3 players out by that time) by making it better, with greater storage capacity, and by giving it a convenient backbone for music delivery: iTunes. Come Sring of 2003, the iTunes music store would be launched, and that would combine with the iPod phenomenon to create a perfect storm.

    By January 2006, Apple would announce that it had sold 42 million iPods.

    In 2013 alone, Apple sold ca: 150 million iPhones, which remain the most popular music-content-delivery system in the world and the standard by which new “audiophiles” have been made since the early 2000’s. Not because of their quality … dear me, not at all. But because of their ubiquity.

    Headphones matter because they are the aesthetic foundation upon and through which music consumers engage in their love of music. It’s not complicated, nor requiring of fancy-pants master’s degrees from Ivy League universities. It’s just like meteorology – the guys with the computer-models are going to be somewhat less accurate than the guys opening the window and actually looking outside.

    Will headphones “save” Hi Fi? No. They are going to create their own sector, and they will thrive without the need for Diana Krall or Rickie Lee Jones, and without the need for a few hundred square feet of house dedicated to music reproduction. Hi Fi, as we’ve come to know it, is dying for various and sundry reasons – chiefly among which are that its prime customer base is entering pensioning years with fixed incomes and insulin pumps. Since the late-1990’s the secondary market has become the primary one, and people buy discounts – lumping all similarly-priced gear into the same performance category, and then buying the one that they can get the best deal on. It won’t go away, but ti will become a part of the Long Tail niche that drives small specialty markets and won’t likely ever return to its former glory days when the pages of Playboy were graced with advertisements for exotic Hi Fi …

    The cheese has moved.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 29, 2013 at 12:55 PM //

      Times they are a changin’. Thanks for the insights, Chris.

    • Chris,

      I’m 61, older and arthritic, and have been listening to headphones AND speakers since the 70’s so I guess I don’t fit your typical customer described above. Maybe there are a lot fewer of those like me that I’d care to admit. First and foremost, I’m a gearslut. I even had a few email conversations with you a number of years ago regarding what BNC connector you were using on the XV2 as I was building my own cables for personal use. Thanks for the tip BTW!!

      I agree with your assessment of the market. It’s definitely becoming more niche and you nailed the economic aspect of it on the head. More people are buying discount and the ability to purchase equipment on the internet, which is more convenient, is driving it in that direction even faster.

      There are companies, like yours and few others, that provide excellent bang for the buck (a better mouse trap) and hopefully that’s the model that will survive in this changed market.

      Gery

  26. I tend to agree with the counterpoint – headphones work great when you are in an apartment, and when commuting if you are riding public transport, but when your life starts including a spouse and a kid or two, the headphones become more of a hindrance than an asset, and a stereo or other music system starts making sense. I know when I hit 30 or so, I started dreaming and saving. And I think it is easier to “get in to the action” with a good stereo now than 15 years ago. What the headphone industry does for the HiFi one in my estimation is foster a love of music (absolutely), and appreciation of realistic sound (potentially).

    It would be easy to conclude that the “big boys” (Sony, Marantz, Pioneer, Onkyo, Denon, etc.) are all gearing up to address this segment with some interesting and affordable options that offer pretty good sound – something they stopped in the 1980’s as people flocked to the “Home Theater” as family entertainment when TV companies offered larger and larger screens. I think the companies that play in the Hi-Fi space may be left out of this due to the economies of scale the large consumer electronics manufacturers can command. But if consumers respond, we may just see a few headphone junkies get into stereo systems as the headphones become impractical in the context of a growing family.

    I think it would be interesting to predict what someone in the “up and coming” generation would want. Streaming Bluetooth? Streaming Services? Computer Audio? Vinyl? Multiple wireless headphones? CD? What?

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