How Not to Get Women Interested in Audio

By Marc Phillips

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

That 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.