The Lost Generation of Audiophiles

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.

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.

Growing 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.

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.

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.

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