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The Lost Generation of Audiophiles

Occasional-lost30s-TEXT

Where are they now?

I admit, being a child of the 80’s does come with a few perks these days. As nostalgia for “the good old days” of my generation ramps up, more and more movie and TV shows like Stranger Things, Atomic Blonde and Comrade Detective show how the decade has finally permeated the warm fuzzy sentiment of public consciousness. The time frame of much of my youth has finally come full circle; unfortunately, those mom-jean pants seem to have come along for the ride as well.

But what happened to two-channel listening during that impressionable section of time? I’ve always harboured a deep love for music, but how was it that the hi-fi hobby nearly passed me by? Truth be told, I didn’t really fully enter the scene until my early 30’s. Back then it was a great time for audio, when personal listening choice really started to bloom and two-channel listening was going strong. Sure, there is a lot of doom and gloom predicted for the high-end market, but that is for another time – as so much has been said already. The focus here is to get a snapshot of that weird space within the ‘80s and ‘90s, where the pizzazz of hi-fi hit a snag and took a very public misstep.

Gen-x

Required reading.

It’s hard not to notice that there are very few 30-somethings in hi-fi. What happened to the generation? The 60-plus have their mainstay in two channel and personal audio is still showing growth in the college sector, and among those in their early 20’s. But at times it feels hard pressed to find those Gen X’ers in online forums or wandering the halls of any audio show across the U.S. Sure, there are a few exceptions peppered here and there, but many seem to be more legacy constituents; born of a father’s love for all things audio. How many headphone enthusiasts today would state the same influence from a previous generation of headphone appreciation? Not many, I would guess. It would appear that most have gravitated towards the hobby of their own volition.

8-tracks-web-1Growing up in the midwest offered a good number of interesting touch points for audio. I’ve been around long enough to remember 8-tracks in the car, but much of the listening was done via radio. I also remember absolutely detesting the way AM sounded, like a vibrating tin can crushed under the weight of its own obsoleteness.  It felt like listening to the past, even talk radio was barely acceptable on the media given the technological restraints. But eventually my family got a silver hand-held FM radio with a matching pair of foam-padded earphones. It was really something back then, but hardly anything by today’s terms.

Back in those days we had a huge stereo unit in the house. As a child it appeared immense, an all-in-one unit with an oversized cabinet, integrated receiver and turntable. The sound was mildly appealing, but the real action was going on with my plastic Fisher-Price orange and brown turntable in the basement. Alone with my grandfather’s collection of vinyl, I uncovered some of the strangest recordings known to man. To this day I will still come across some of those tracks and will be teleported back to that worn-out needle and those dusty record crates. But given the state of that rig, listening was more about discovery than swimming in an ocean of sound.

With the first Sony Walkman it was more of the same. To this day I still can’t believe how much of my youth was wasted waiting for a cassette tape to rewind – and for the love of God, why did we have to buy an entire record just to listen to a single? It was extortion pure and simple. Similar to the rise in popularity of the MP3 to come, an awaking in my mind started happening around sound quality. As my favourite tapes got played over and over, I started noticing the quality slowing diminishing. Noise-reduction and expensive tapes to copy onto never really made up much ground and the popularity of sharing mix tapes didn’t really craft the highest standards for our music hungry generation. Back in those days before the digital era, each copy-of-a-copy took a pretty huge hit in SQ, as some of those tapes had a fairly long family tree.

But the emotional connection produced by sharing music in such a way kept us distracted from it all. The tracks translated into something greater than the individual parts. A mix tape meant something.

Occasional-minidisc

Mixed mini-discs were where it was at…

With the advent of the CD, things changed even more. While the higher resolution of the sound brought with it vast improvements, many were more enthralled with the zero lag time between song switching, it felt like a miracle. But also rising up during my youth was the appreciation of watching movies at home. No longer were we restricted to watching Saturday morning cartoons on someone else’s timetable. Now we could watch and rewatch Star Wars until the tape finally gave out from playback exhaustion. Blockbuster came and went and we were distracted. The real blow to any hopes of two-channel intervention came with the DVD and home theatre.  Why would you have only two speakers when five were available – more must be better right? No matter what the budget, most college students could haggle together a set of rear speakers with a nest of wires crisscrossing the dorm room floor. In-amp DSP may have peaked the curiosity of a few potential audiophiles at the time, but most of that old processing just soaked the signal in varying types of reverb and did little to focus the sound. Besides, with the unstoppable domination of Bose in the marketplace, there appeared to be a shift in overall speaker size to cubes and rectangles that could be better hidden away from sight, but at least the in-home subwoofer started to gain some traction. But there we were, listening to sound with plenty of pop in the high end and lots of boom in the lows, but little to compliment the core of the music other than the whiz-bang of showy audio parlour tricks.

ipod-original-1

The original CD, and vinyl killer.

I was no longer in school by the time I saw my first iPod, but I was there for Napster. A real fidelity awakening started to take hold. When so many simply couldn’t collect enough files for free, my mind kept racing with the notion – at what price? In order to keep download times to a minimum, the bitrate for songs had diminished down to a crispy, downtrodden collection of noise with no discernible high hat to speak of.  It would be much later in life that I would attend an educational conference on youth buying patterns when a man with far more degrees than I spoke of an uncovered revelation forming at the time. Kids who grew up listening to those tracks assimilated the sound to a central position of neutral in terms of sound quality. Those crispy tracks burrowed their way into the impressionable minds as not only acceptable, but as the ultimate reference as to the way all music should sound.  The same might also be said about the love of tubes in high end. The technology we are imprinted with in our youth – when we are most malleable – can carry through to the rest of our lives if no additional education is sought. The lucky few who made it into the hobby before the ultimate distraction of television took hold no doubt may still find preference in the comfort of warm tubes and no more than two channels of sound (even one perhaps).

Only with a progression into a world dominated by iDevices and Beats headphones have we managed to regurgitate the age-old question: “How can I make this sound better? In an interview from HBO’s “Defiant Ones,” Beats creator Jimmy Ivine can be seen implying that the core motivation for the signature of his headphones was simply more bass. Critical listening of early models has confirmed that this was achieved, but the overall idea of a new lifestyle accessory not only brought a few new enthusiasts into the fold, it also opened a few doors that the rest of us can now take advantage of. For better or worse, the rise of headphones has at a bare minimum pulled music from out of the background and into the forefront of our limited attention span.

Naim-DAC-SPL-5

From solo explorations to two-channel sharing?

Will these newcomers give birth to a new generation of two channel lovers? The rise of vinyl in recent years only further fuels tempered validation to the silent prayers hanging on the lips of high-end manufacturers across the market. Much text has also already been spilled on this subject, but the chasm of missing 30-somethings is a trench that still has yet to be filled. I haven’t reviewed an extensive amount of age data on the new wave of vinyl recruits, but my best educated guess is that they land closer to 20-something than the shockingly absent Gen X’ers. Where did we go? What are we doing?  Will we ever be led into the welcoming bosom of high fidelity audio? I’m looking around and I don’t see it.

Perhaps the reclusive youth of headphone audio will open up once they get their own place with more disposable real estate? It appears the time for the 30-something has come and gone with nary a bookshelf loudspeaker to speak of. Growing families and OLED TVs only leave room for sound bars these days (at least some are starting to be sold with a subwoofer again). The collective zeitgeist has moved on in life, with hi-fi sadly waving from the window of a departing train at the station of disposable income. 

–Brian Hunter

Get your Occasional now

9 Comments on The Lost Generation of Audiophiles

  1. Great article, as a 35 year old (part of the xennial micro generation I would say) I can identify with a lot. Remember being amazed by the instant shuffle feature when my dad got a Sony hifi with a CD player. It also had LP and I do miss the experience of playing with that – something I may revisit eventually.
    My own journey I think was spoiled by the seduction of convenience. I built up a library of mp3s for an ipod, neither of which I listen to now. If I’d got even a handful of cd’s instead I would have been better off. Was also seduced by small wireless speakers for a while before reading the audiophiliac and getting a pair of kef x300a’s. After my dad passed away I used some of the money he left me to get a real system – Atc siacd + scm11s – was keen on a real hifi and cd player so my kids could experience music in a similar way to I did when younger.

  2. The marketing scholars recognize three generations in the time span of this article: X, Y and Millennials. Xers were born in the 70s. Yers belong to the 80s, and early 90s. Millenials? Who needs em?… To use the parlance of their times: JK, Lol!! 😂

    I’m 33 and used all of these formats growing up. Three of my gang had Mini Disc players and most of us had a multi-channel setup of sorts in our bedrooms. I’m probably the only one who still cares about audio. I’m strictly 2-channel these days and have more invested in my stereo than my car.

    It is a bit disheartening to recognize the lack of interest from my generation, especially in an era of so many great and affordable products. I suppose the possible upside is that in another 20 to 30 years, the rare among us will have our pickings of cheap Magicos and Wilsons.

  3. VERY nicely written. I might have to cancel my subscriptions to _____ and _____. I’m 44, and YES to all stated in this piece. Tapes for friends and girlfriends were sacred. Vinyl, a drop in my memory bucket, though. Gen Xers, lost? Yes, BUT, in my circles, Gen Xers are focused on being good parents above all else, leaving hi-fi to the few like me who see hi-fi as an actual part of a good parenting paradigm. My daughter knows what is the “sweet spot”, and she loves YouTube science (and toy) shows most. When she’s older, I’ll explain nodes and modes in the room, placement, sample rates, sample depths, etc. The seed’s been planted. Yipee!!! And I’m hoping for a forest. Best Luck with the Occassional.

  4. I was born in the early 80s. I was and still am mostly in to portable audio, I made mix tapes, played around with MiniDisc, recorded hundreds of CD-R audio discs on a Philips deck, had the chance to play around with the first DAPs before iPod was a thing. I spend most of my teenage years with earphones and I was not the only one. My friends to a certain degree all loved music, some of them went on to become good musicians.
    I don’t think we are the lost generation of audiophiles but I do feel we are the silent one. As for generation X, technically being born in 81 leaves me in a certain generational limbo. One thing I am sure of, I enjoyed both analogue and digital, I don’t need to try to collect cassettes because I jumped that train as soon as MiniDisc came along and I don´t regret it.

    • I worked retail during those few years that MiniDisc both came and went. Weirdly, most of us never fathomed that recordable CDs would emerge later. During this time (1992-ish) I recall being told what a “web browser” was and totally not understanding the concept.

      3 years later it began to make sense when I watched my dad’s computer for 15 minutes load a page from the newspaper’s site (his ISP was the newspaper company … somehow. Ironic, yes.)

      Digital Cassettes! That was pretty cool, but I wanted a DAT machine. In a way I’m glad I had none of it. I still remember reading about discussions regarding PASC’s 384 kbit/s versus ATRAC’s 292 kbit/s. Back then, CDs and DAT were still “perfect.”

  5. One: Bass is immediately noticeable, as is sparkling treble. I think part of the “convenience” also includes things that are easy to tell the difference between. The most accessible example of this is the difference between earbuds and Beats Studio headphones.

    One blocks some noise, has way more bass, and is larger… Therefor, it’s better, just like things more salty or sweet are better. It takes time unfortunately to appreciate the actual music and clarity without the coloration that gets tiring. The best success I’ve had is having people listen to an Audio Technica M50 multiple times. It’s better than most headphones people have. It’s also more of a V shaped frequency response curve, which people can notice right away.

    It’s much harder to sell someone on an Audio Technica AD900 or other neutral, clear, and detailed headphone because they aren’t used to listening for clarity, and it doesn’t punch you in the face like bass.

    Two: I’d love to see more data on demographics. Few in their 20s seem to be into high end audio, though over 30 seems to be especially sparse.

  6. 36 myself, and a lover of things hifi! But for me it’s more of a discovery process through second hand buying power. Sites like Craig’s list. Offer up etc. provide us with so many hifi options. Most would rather give up quality for the convenience of Bluetooth and usb connections. Companies that sell audio equipment have to worry about competitive marketing. One upping each other with inflated power ratings and number of speakers etc. instead of focusing on audio quality. I understand why… the bottom line and buys ideas of more is better… but hopefully more will “listen” and understand that there is more sound in a cd than you tube could ever provide due to video streaming rates. Happy listening all.

  7. I read Coupland’s book when it came out, but not much of it resonated with me. I’m 51, and my experiences aren’t very much like Brian’s here, despite us both being Gen X-ers. (Each generation has sub generations, especially with this one being so wide.)

    What happened to sound quality, is that not enough boomers and early X-ers had friends or family with better systems. They did not seek education because they didn’t know it existed. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem, and the existence of hifi magazines had a net zero effect here.

    Pop in a cassette or CD, and massive, pent-up frustration about dirty/noisy records was unleashed. It weirdly became the LP format’s own fault that buyers weren’t told how to care for them or get best sound from them. “I did clean them but they still had all these pops and ticks” I’m here to tell you, is essentially a lie.

    LPs were shut down by record companies looking to push more expensive CDs and cheaper cassettes. Record labels primed listeners to accept less from the experience, and later, to look on lossy files as “good enough.” And who cares about artwork or metadata at all, when it was so small to begin with (CDs).

    **********
    The common denominator is convenience, not age. If it’s not your hobby, it must be an easy effort instead. My dad streams Sirius in the car and the cable company’s jazz music channel through his TV at home. All of his old CDs are in iTunes losslessly, and he could losslessly AirPlay that over to … but oy the remotes and input switching. This was the first year we didn’t listen to any of the family’s classic Xmas tunes. My sister relies on Pandora or Apple Music. I had CDs lined up for both as gifts, but how would they hear them when they no longer have sound systems?

    Notice that both of them would rather spend $120 or so a year for an endless stream of things they don’t need to think about, rather than seek even so much as one used CD per month they might dive deeper into, for the same annual cost. People bought LPs and CDs when they had to. They downloaded music when that became viable. The vast majority only now want to stream. It’s easiest.

  8. 30-something from US here. I did a lot of research into hi-fi last in 2016, and concluded that it was too expensive. I do realize the limitations of a sound bar, so I’ve set my sights on an audio engine HD6 with a Hsu subwoofer. I can’t justify the expense of vinyl as I listen to a lot of Indian music, and I do own a Sony WH1000MX2.

    The main problem for my generation is lack of employment stability coupled with high prices of audiophile grade hardware. I’m hoping for active speakers to take off – that’s the only way the sub-$1000 market will get bang for the buck, and bring new audiophiles into the market.

    I also recommend Schiit Audio – reasonable prices and way better than the junk DACs found in TVs of today, even the OLED ones costing upwards of $1600

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