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How Not to Get Women Interested in Audio

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By Marc Phillips

“Do you think we can get ourselves banned forever on this thread?”

TrollfaceThat was Mal Kenney, interrupting a perfectly lovely Sunday evening in early December with a Facebook challenge to shake up the suburbanites on one of the our favorite audio forums.

(What’s another word for “favorite”, one that expresses that, while we like to spend time on this forum, it’s also the bane of our existence? Hmm.)

Evidently someone asked the all-important question, “Do women like HI FI?” That, of course, was followed by countless responses from middle-aged audiophiles who either claimed that their significant others loved music but hated gear, or that the industry should really get its act together and start marketing to women.

The inside joke, of course, is that both Mal and I have women who are active audiophiles and are also involved in the audio industry. Mal is married to Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney, who, after a relatively short time, has distinguished herself as an intriguing and unique voice in audio journalism. I, of course, am head over heels in love with Colleen Cardas, someone who needs no introduction in audio circles—except for maybe the aforementioned audio forum which sometimes seems to exist in a vacuum. Colleen solders like a champ, can tear down and rebuild an audio system in nothing flat and can walk into a room and immediately tell you if you’re out of phase in one channel.

Both Mal and I know the answer to the question, and it’s something along the lines of “stop worrying about this crap.” Just a few years ago we middle-aged audiophiles were so friggin’ concerned about getting younger generations interested in high-end audio, and guess what—they did, but in an entirely different way than we expected. Not only did they revolutionize the high-end market by energizing such product categories as headphones, DACs and computer audio, they embraced turntables and LPs as well. Middle-aged audiophiles had nothing to do with the journey of these individuals, but I’m sure that’s not stopping them from taking some of the credit.

Will women do the same and find a segment of the high-end audio industry to lionize and support? I suspect not because the same temporal element doesn’t exist. There’s no dire urge to keep the torch lit since women have always been around, and will continue to be around. Unlike “younger generations,” women have already witnessed the evolution of two-channel audio and they are either attracted to it or not. It’s that simple. For every audiophile who claims that the hobby—and the industry, for that matter—excludes women and that we should do something about it, the answer is “Why?”

Why do we feel the need to trot out names like Eveanna Manley and Colleen and that poor Japanese woman who has some executive role at Technics and that woman in Portland who owns a high-end audio store, just to feel better about the fact that our beloved hobby is dominated by males? There’s not a lot we can really do about it. We’ve tried marketing pink turntables and designing components that have a high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor), and so far, I don’t think those measures have re-ignited high-end audio sales among women. For lack of a better way to say it, I think we should stop being dorks about the whole thing and let women pursue their own musical journeys.

Here’s why I think this is all a tremendous waste of our time and intellects. First of all, I’ve said for years that women and men listen to music differently. I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I have seen consistencies and so far no one—especially women—thinks I’m nuts for saying this. To put it simply, I think that men listen to music for the sonics, and that women listen to music for its meaning. There’s nothing biological behind this—it’s just the way we socialize our young people. Girls generally grow up singing together, learning all the words of their favorite songs, while boys generally rock out together, banging heads, playing air guitar and air drums. That’s why boys often talk about their favorite guitar solos while girls champion a favorite lyric that means something to their lives.

Of course this is a massive generalization. For instance, the boys and girls I knew growing up who played in the school band or orchestra had a very different approach to music appreciation than most kids. I’m also speaking of my own musical experiences growing up in Southern California during the ‘70s and ‘80s, which may be completely different from someone who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution or in Brazil during the bossa nova craze in the early ‘60s. But it’s a generalization that feeds and informs both sides of the discussion. Men think more women would become audiophiles if we somehow made it easier for them, and women—well, I don’t even want to guess what women think, which is sort of the point. But I’ll hazard a guess that their answer is something akin to “we love music just as much as you do—we’re just not so weird about it.”

Just to muddy the waters a bit further, there’s the argument that there are already plenty of women audiophiles in the world—they’re just not hanging out on audio forums wondering how to further the cause. They’re getting it, and they’re probably having far more fun. At the same time, there are small numbers of women on these forums, and they do tend to speak up whenever some guy complains that there are no women who are interested in high-end audio.

Back to the thread on that audio forum, the boys don’t seem to be getting any closer to the truth. One poster states that the reason why women aren’t attracted to high-end audio is because they’re not encouraged to study science, math and engineering while they are in school. Another feels that women can’t focus on music the way men do because it gives them a headache. Others take a different, more flattering approach and say that women have better hearing than we have, a comment that is probably designed to score points with their significant others. (These are the same forum guys who, when asked about their celebrity crushes, say something like “My wife is the most beautiful celebrity I know…I’m such a lucky guy!” Zzzzzzz.)

A couple of posters have grazed the truth, however. One person stated that his wife isn’t as interested in buying gear as he is, but she appreciates the results in a “more meaningful, less nerdy way than I do.” Another poster elaborates on this by saying that while he listens for things like frequency response and imaging, his wife cares more about overall musicality. These viewpoints tend to support my theory about men and women having different priorities when it comes to listening to music, but I’m sure that won’t stop you from writing a comment at the bottom of this page saying that I’m sexist and I don’t know what I’m talking about despite the fact that you’re single, middle-aged and male—my usual critic whenever this subject pops up.

The most honest and relevant comment on that thread was, not surprisingly, made by a woman. Not just any woman, mind you, but Kirsten. In response to the gentleman who thinks that women aren’t encouraged to study science and technology, she replied, “I was referring to the many women I’ve met who are audiophiles who work in the industry. Threads like this crack me up because guys start going, ‘Where the wimmins at?’ when the answer is clearly ‘Designing, building and selling you the shinies that you so deeply desire.”

That’s really the point here. If you really want to know why there aren’t more women audiophiles, start talking to women and stop jumping on audio discussion forums with other male audiophiles to discuss the problem and how you’re going to fix it. Otherwise, it just might be the first time in a long time that you’ve actually made a woman laugh out loud.

Get your Occasional now

14 Comments on How Not to Get Women Interested in Audio

  1. Marc, here’s the journey of a wife of an audiophile, her 20 year journey and how she made her first personal purchase decision of her first personal high-end audio equipment, with a strong appeal to the audiophile community. http://bit.ly/19J6ufV.

  2. David Piscopo // January 28, 2015 at 9:41 AM //

    My wife loves music. From Zappa to Jazz to pop or classical. She enjoys it all. However, other than listening the rest is my job. Loading the music. Buying it, changing equipment, choosing what to listen to etc. She just puts on the headphones and listens. Lol we went to the Toronto audio show 2 yrs ago. Bringing her along guaranteed we had every saleman explaining the gear to us. They were happy to see a woman.

  3. Marc

    1) Both you and Mal “have women”? What – you *own* them?

    2) And WAF? As if a woman’s role is all but passive acceptance of hifi gear’s aesthetic intrusion.

    Could it be that linguistic trip-ups like this insidiously contribute to the problem?

    John

    • Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney // December 7, 2014 at 11:15 PM //

      Have I got an editorial for you… 😉 I feel the same way about WAF, 100%.

      http://parttimeaudiophile.com/2014/12/06/no-girls-allowed-why-i-hate-wife-acceptance-factor/

    • Marc Phillips // December 9, 2014 at 1:05 PM //

      1) No, John, I have Colleen and she has me. I guess uber-political correctness has no room for true love according to your logic, right?

      2) WAF is a real issue that affects our marketplace. Outside of your squeaky-clean, Harrison Bergeron world, men do buy gear and their significant others do object to its intrusion. You always know when you’ve gone too far down the PC road when you’ve forgotten about generalities vs. exceptions.

      Now if your name was Jane, perhaps I’d take your comments a little more seriously.

  4. mark schneider // December 6, 2014 at 9:33 AM //

    Marc,

    It is simply a fact that women ‘occupy’ high end audio in a percentage vastly below their percentage of the general population. Is this a problem? Is it one that we should want to fix? No comment.

    I think the central issue is that high end audio is a small market to begin with, one which many people fear is shrinking not growing. So it seems natural to seek out ways to ‘broaden’ the market (pun regretfully intended). Converting the mp3 portable crowd does not seem to be working to any appreciable degree.

    What des Colleen thnk of this?

    Happy Holidaays everyone!

    Mark

  5. Gavin Hadley // December 5, 2014 at 2:02 PM //

    We have the perfect arrangement here I must say. I sit in the sweet spot and my wife is perfectly content to sit one seat over as long as she is armed with this month’s magazines and I’m not talking Absolute Sound or Stereophile. And they lived happily ever after..

  6. JayZ,

    First off, I don’t think Mrs. Knowles-Carter would have any that crazy talk.

    As for your thoughtful statistical assessment of 99% of audiophiles, I am deeply skeptical and would love to see your data set or at least some methods here.

    While I don’t have your quantitative chops, I can attest, anecdotally, that nothing is better than listening to an album with my partner on a cold winter evening. I even like that she has the gall to interrupt and offer another point of view, and she has supported 100% of my upgrades over the years.

    Cheers,
    Bill

  7. Just a few of my own humble thoughts:

    First, stop trying to fix everything. Men seem to think this will work for everything from tears to good sound. It doesn’t.

    I think part of the lack of spousal support is that women’s hearing is different in the upper midrange, so what may sound great to you air-guitarists can sound almost shrill to us. Note I didn’t say women’s hearing is “superior”, just different. Anatomically, I don’t know why.

    I don’t know where the notion came from that women focus on lyrics while men focus on guitar riffs and drum solos. A car manufacturer wanted to use a Bob Dylan melody, omitting the lyrics, and an infuriated Dylan refused because, to him, it’s all about the lyrics, not the tune. Granted every man isn’t Dylan, but I think a lot of men find the lyrics to be a crucial part of a song. Not always, but sometimes.

    There are many, many songs I thoroughly enjoy and, some, I’m even passionate about though I don’t understand all the lyrics (thank you, Google). Listen to Josh Groban’s amazing voice sing an Italian opera. The fact that I have no clue what the lyrics are let alone mean doesn’t take away from the beauty of the song, and I admit I’d rather hear it in English. On other songs, the melody has me so enraptured that I leave my conscious thinking for a while and forget to listen to the lyrics because the music itself is taking me somewhere else. There are other songs from way back that I admit to liking, even though they really suck, because they remind me of a special time, moment, person or place.

    For almost 40 years, our particular business has been rebuilding classic audio equipment. I made a decision long ago that I could either be an audio widow or that I could get involved in some way, though my education and experience has been as a government budget analyst (there’s not a lot of fun there). Not a piece of equipment has ever left our doors without my having listened to and approved it, sometimes to the frustration of my husband who was undoubtedly mumbling “bitch” under his breath, in the nicest way, of course! As we now start to manufacture our own equipment, I’m still the final pair of test ears.

    If you want women in general or just your particular woman to be involved in the (or your) audio world, include her when you audition and set up equipment. There is a sound quality that has to be captured which she has to be embraced by. And please do your system tweaking before opening the wine and sitting down to enjoy some music with her. There is nothing more annoying than starting the same record 4 times while you adjust the VTA.

    Lynn Bettinger

    • Marc Phillips // December 5, 2014 at 1:00 PM //

      I agree with you on just about everything, Lynn. My “theory” on sonics vs. content is just that, a theory, and I’ve already stated that it’s a gross generalization based upon my own life experiences, which is why I presented it as such. Instrumental pieces do not automatically disqualify the theory for the simple reason that melodies and sounds can invoke images and language in our brain–applying language to experience is how we create memories (which is why we don’t remember being born and being a baby). That’s different from the visceral punch so many boys–and men–seem to require when it comes to music.

  8. There is another aspect to this whole argument…

    Did you actually consider what would happen if every Audiophile man had a woman at home who is equally interested in audio and is able to listen critically? Would you really have the freedom to decide on your HIFI journey then?

    I would say 99% of audiophiles will then find themselves unable to upgrade or even that bit of private time appreciating a good recording will be interrupted by another point of view.

    I would say the only requirement and what we should all wish for, is for Audiophiles to not be hindered by their co-habiting partners and children. If your wife or girlfriend appreciates your taste for hi-end audio – that’s great but let’s stop it there, there really is no need to encourage the take-up of this hobby.

    • Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney // December 5, 2014 at 1:18 PM //

      First of all, I’m not sure that this is really a legit concern; if I were to dump my husband in some kind of extinction burst and go out looking for a new partner, my chances of finding someone (male or female) who would care as much as I do about sound quality and gear is probably pretty slim, no matter how much I involved them. Caring this much isn’t that common among men OR women.

      BUT, I find the idea that “women shouldn’t get into this because then I’d have to share my stuff” both hilarious and sad. Hilarisad? Some of the best times Mal and I have are listening to music together and working on the system (some of the worst times probably involve cables and speaker positioning, but that IS a lot easier with another set of hands). Rather than hindering the upgrade process, we tend to egg each other on — which might be a downside, depending on the state of your bank account. Record shopping is particularly dangerous.

      Are there compromises? Sure. My limited tolerance for Captain Beefheart means that if Mal wants to listen to more than one album, he waits until I’m not home. Similarly, my time for blaring Rufus Wainwright is also curtailed. But if you have a true partnership with your partner, he or she should already be involved in the financial decision-making aspect. How much better, then, to have a partner who actually GETS it and understands the utility of upgrades, rather than someone who just sees it as a silly, hyper-expensive hobby?

      • I’d say these comments only support my argument that hobbies are not always fun when shared. And there is absolutely no value in taking exceptions, its the bigger picture that matters. A true family especially when kids come along, gets to exercise good values of sharing and the need to compromise in bucket loads so to speak. A hobby can actually give someone that bit of personal space and time away from a busy family life. I know for a fact that my wife does not like it when I try to help with her cross stitch work but she does like comments about its outcome. I am the same with my hifi rig. As I said, one can always find exceptions but that adds no value to this argument.

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