Big Kids Toys: Why Aren’t There More Audiophiles? | The Ivory Tower







big kids toys
Dave McNair (far left), Mike Toomey (second from right) and two members of the Big Kids Toys AV staff.
I recently attended an audiophile event at one of my favorite local hi-fi haunts, Big Kids Toys AV, in Greensboro, Noth Ca-Lylna. Owner Mike Toomey was one of the first folks I met when I moved down south. In addition to being friendly, knowledgeable, and an all around great guy, Mike has operated a fine audiophile sales establishment (polite code for audio drug dealer) for over 20 years.

On this occasion, I went to the store to hear Trent Suggs, the new president of Audio Research Corporation, talk about all things ARC including his vision for the future of this Minnesota legend. Big Kids Toys had recently picked up ARC, and it was great to hear Trent’s passion and commitment for continuing and even elevating the Audio Research tradition of designing and building world class vacuum tube gear. As I jealously eyed an Audio Research t-shirt, sported by one of the attendees, I also learned a few things about how they design and build Audio Research components.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

At some point, well, many points, the assembled group of what seemed to me as seasoned audiophiles (polite code for The Get Off My Lawn Crowd, Audio Edition), veered into the age-old hit parade of audiophile topics including Why aren’t more people audiophiles? Remember when people used to sit around in groups at home and listen to music? Will brick and mortar audio stores survive? And, my favorite catch-all, What happened to our hobby?

audio research at big kids toys av

“The Hobby”

I have my own ideas about the answer to these unanswerable questions, but the one I thought about the most was why aren’t more folks into what we like to affectionately term “The Hobby.” My own experiences have me doubting the often echoed refrain of “If more people could hear a truly great system they would be converted from the evils of phone listening, cheap earbuds, car audio, Bose speakers, and (fill in the blank).”

As we collectively explored this topic at Trent’s presentation ay Big Kids Toys AV, my own pet theory emerged. Just about everybody in the room, myself included, told stories that seemed to point towards a curious phenomenon.

On a macro level, yes, if more people heard a great-sounding system for the first time it would definitely increase the numbers within our strange but lovable herd. But I think that audiophiles are born not converted, nature versus nurture. Furthermore, I think there is a similarity between audiophiles and the folks whose brains are wired for greater susceptibility towards addictive behavior. Maybe not in exactly the same way, but it seems there may be a latent tendency towards this frequently obsessive behavior that wakes upon sampling what may become their drug of choice.

mike toomey
Mike Toomey of Big Kids Toys AV.

Dave’s First Time

How many times do we hear stories of That First Time? You know, when we first heard music on some kind of system, like the ones featured at Big Kids Toys, that lit up our brain in a certain way? That’s when the craving starts. At least that’s how it happened for me.

I was about 14 and wandered into a local stereo store. The salesman put on “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh and cranked it through some big Altecs with 15” woofers and horns powered by a Great American Sound Ampzilla. Probably a Denon turntable. The chest-pounding sound of the deeply tuned snare drum, combined with lots of space in the verses, led to the big, rockin’ choruses that had me instantly hooked. For life. I decided right then and there that one day I would possess a system that could provide me with that experience anytime I wanted.

But what about a story I heard that afternoon at Big Kids Toys AV from a guy with, no doubt, a jaw-dropping system? When his non-audiophile buddies came over to watch the game one day, they collectively took a break to hear his system. Plenty of “Wow, Fred, that sounds awesome!” But interest was short-lived, followed by the rapid call for “Hey let’s get back to the game.” I don’t know, maybe it was a closely fought championship or something, but if I had been in that crowd I would have let everybody get back to the game and then politely ask if I could stay in the system room to get my fix on. Not a thing in the world wrong with the guys more interested in the game–they simply weren’t audiophiles.

My partner Linda, with her PhD and university professor status, is an actual bona fide member of the Ivory Tower (as opposed to my implied status in this column title, which she finds quite annoying).  She also has a background in music, having played and sung in bands. Upon request, Linda will listen to my hi-fi when I have something new to review that I think makes the system shine. She usually says “ Yeah, that sounds great, can you play some Shins or Bowie?” She has good ears and easily hears sonic differences between components but she is most definitely a music lover, not an audiophile.

big kids toys av

I love music, of course. Who doesn’t? But it’s much more than that. I think I was drawn to learning how to play instruments by loving the sound, just as much as I wanted to be the next Eric Clapton. Heh. If I had truly been all about the music then why did I lose interest and decide to pursue working with audio as a recording engineer? It wasn’t my love of working with musicians in a studio, although that can be pretty fun. It was because I could help create and mold the sound.

Let’s say I’m listening at home. Unless I am REALLY into the music and the sound is REALLY happening (for me), I’m looking for something else to spin. And my reaction based on sonics alone, to any particular recording, can change for different listening sessions. How many of y’all have picked out something to play because an inner voice said to you “oooh, the ride cymbal on this bop record sounds amazing”?  My inner voice frequently says something like, “We need to feel some 40-50hz tonight, better pull out Brittany Howard to start.”

I’m not ashamed to admit I loves me some Hall and Oates or ABBA, but when I’ve tried to play H&O on a hi-rez system I’m almost incensed by how the sonics created for maximum impact on a car radio ruins my enjoyment of those great, pop confectionery, guilty pleasure, tunes. (Well, at least  E.L.O. usually makes the grade.)

audio research corporation

Big Kids Toys and Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I have a hunch my brain has different locations for producing the serotonin drip I get while listening.  One section for audio and a different location for music. In my case, the audio brain cells usually win out. If people’s lives depended on it, the World Health Organization could commission a scientific study of our brains on music. Wouldn’t that be interesting to find out if and what percentage of the population are naturally wired to be an audiophile?

In pro audio there is a universally acknowledged term known as G.A.S., which is short for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. This is the phenomena of engineers endlessly buying more recording and mixing gear in search of the perfect sound that’s in their head. This affliction is not extreme for all engineers–a small percent do great work and make do with just about anything.

G.A.S. is frequently mitigated by various factors, things such as return on investment–some vintage gear appreciates in value. How much more work will come in based on an increase in the quality of the work which will supposedly improve with said gear? How much can practically be spent (or justified)? And in the case of married hobbyists, which these days make up a large percent of recording gear purchasers, how much can I buy before my partner leaves me?

big kids toys av

Back to Big Kids Toys

Minus the part about improving the work, does this sound familiar to audiophiles?

It can get really out of control when new gear purchases seem to have a correlation to a client’s approval of the work. Even though I am as guilty as most of my fellow audio engineers in this regard, I know in my bones that the gear I use, past a very basic point, is not what produces the sound quality of my work. It’s what I do with it. Kinda like the fact that even very affordable home playback equipment is shockingly good these days. Way more than good enough to get a big thrill from listening to your favorite tunes. But if you’re an audiophile, that’s no fun, now is it?

Back to that discussion at Big Kids Toys AV, I’d love it as much as the next audiophile for more people to join our little cult. Wouldn’t it be nice for there to be a bigger pie for all the hi-fi companies to eat from? We might even see more choices for very high end level performing gear without the high level price tag. But unless someone figures out how many potential audiophiles are out there lurking in their happy unexposed innocence, and how to reach those folks, we may never know.

Are audiophiles born or made? A bit of both? What say ye? I invite interested readers to comment.

another sound room at bkt AV

gear from luxman, d'agostino and more

big kids toys av










36 Comments

  1. I’m not convinced that the hobby is dying. Changing, yes, dying no. Smaller inexpensive systems sound way better than 30 or 40 years ago. That is a good thing. Expensive high end systems will always be available for music lovers who can afford them. I have always been a music lover and have always owned the nicest system I could afford. It still comes down to being a music lover to me. It really isn’t about the gear. I listen to music on my main system, through my headphones on a headphone amp and on earbuds. I prefer my main system but can’t always listen that way. Building incredible high end systems help to improve the quality down the line to less expensive gear that more people can afford. I don’t see this disappearing any time soon.

  2. Recently, I conducted an experiment that I think explains why 2 channel high end audio is dying. Instead of streaming Tidal connect to my big system of handmade Italian floorstanders and pricey amplifier, I accidentally sent the signal to the little Sonos Beam soundbar under my TV. I was SHOCKED. The Sonos made a damn good accounting of itself when compared to the big system. I’m not saying it was as good, but it would fool many (most?) casual listeners. The DSP corrected signal from the Beam even created a good affectation of bass weight, and combined with the little speakers firing in different directions created a reasonably convincing sense of soundstage presence. My main system cost 43 times the price of the Sonos Soundbar. Uh oh. The hobby is getting timed out. DSP, room correction, a better understanding of psycho-acoustics and things like Dolby Atmos and multi channel signals are going to sink 2 channel. The technology is getting bettered at a drastically lower price.

  3. Almost forgot. People that have listen to my system and commented on how great it sounds still say “my hearing is not good enough to hear a difference.” Despite being able to hear a difference with my system, they just don’t want to be bothered. Too much money. I am amazed at how many people still enjoy AM rock radio.

  4. I feel the article should have been “why aren’t more rich people audiophiles?” The cost of a 500 sq. ft. one-bedroom apartment is now over $1000; child care for one child for one month is about the same; and many people are struggling to make $15 per hour. Only the wealthy can afford to be an audiophile. The problem for the wealthy is that they can’t “be seen” in a stereo. So many people still think stereo gear should cost what they paid at the PX when they left the military, and they think anyone who spends more is a fool. It has taken a lifetime for me to assemble an audiophile system, although it would be sneered at by most of those who have already commented. What my system lacks in performance is more than outweighed by me being able to dedicate my living room to the system, and I can play what I want, when I want, day or night, at high volume. Divorced, yes. Few people have had any interest in hearing my system, and those that did said it sounded great but happily returned to their MP3’s and earbuds. My gear and music has never influenced anyone to invest in a better system. Even finding someone who has the time to visit and listen is difficult. I guess I am still stuck in 1968 when young people gathered to hear the latest great LP, meet some girls, and have a good time. My friends tell me no one is interested as they don’t have the time. So much for changing the minds of the earbud/Bose people as they are very happy with what they have. Always something.

    • I totally get ya. I’ll say it again, you DON’T have to be rich to own a great sounding system. Yes, you must have a certain amount of cash after bills other things are taken care of but not as much as some folks think. And there is the headphone crowd that gets amazing sound at a fraction of many 2 channel systems. The question is – how important is it to you to have a special sounding system as opposed to other things none of us really needs like a weekend motorcycle or high priced vacations. I know a lot of people that have/do that kind of stuff that aren’t what most would consider rich.

      I tend to write reviews from my perspective as a crazy, life-long audio and music addict, but I don’t pity or look down on peeps that don’t have my same weird obsession. I also find the differences between everyone beautiful and fascinating.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Mr. McNair. The first time I heard a stereo was as a freshman in college, and the music was the first Jimi Hendrix LP. Wow, did that change my life! I had a great part-time business buying Dynakits, building them, and selling them to other students. I had more influence on people to seek out better sound than any other time in my life. That was before UPS; they shipped by train. After graduation, I worked for Dynaco in Blackwood, NJ, as a technical correspondent. I worked at several stereo stores in New Orleans before embarking on a career using my degree. I’ve had great gear throughout my life, and quite a bit was used gear. I think many people would be very happy with a streamer/amp and some bookshelf speakers. I guess I am taken aback by the lack of interest in a good system by people my age who grew up going to concerts and enjoying music. They are very happy with earbuds and nothing else. At least they are listening. I enjoy the newsletter very much. Keep up the great work.

  5. I believe that music for most people, incl many ocd music lovers, is a string of notes arranged in such a way to make a tune that they find very pleasing whereas audiophiles have a need to deep dive into the recording and can revel in all the textural nuances that can exist in the 3 dimensional and audible colour palate planes. We may both be eating vanilla ice cream but one of us is savouring.

  6. Maybe people is less gullible these days and don’t fall for the snake oil sellers of exoteric cables, spikes etc.
    It’s time to leave that nonsense on these past

  7. It’s pretty dope to share emotions through sound. It’s fun and really helps with self development. I see a large future in this industry

  8. Like aficionados in many circles most of us fail to comprehend how the multitudes just can’t grasp the wonder of this high level of music reproduction. Seem we are a bit unusual , no? Do we wish others to share our obsession, as a validation or as a form of acceptance?
    I darn well want the audio hologram in its best form right in front of me. Having found that not so many share this is somewhat of a disappointment but can’t say it’s exactly killing me.
    I really think it’s time we leave everyone to their own methods of getting what they want out of life and just enjoy the 🎶.

  9. As a audio mastering engineer for the last 30 years… The question you really should be asking is… Why so few studio engineers care to be referred to audiophiles..? There is a reason.

    • Speaking for myself, it’s probably because of all the negative connotations associated with the term audiophile. When I started reviewing for PTA, I’ll confess to have been a little concerned what my pro audio friends would think. At this point IDGAF.

  10. It’s too expensive. That’s why. I tried to get into it when I bought a house. Ended up getting a good deal on a Denon receiver and then got a package from Hsu Research for three CCB8’s and a 15″ sub. Had to make my own cables and get Dayton and monoprice speakers for the rest of the surround sound system due to cost of those front speakers. My wife almost killed me. It sounds great but reading online I should still buy another amp to run just the front 2 or 3 ccb8 speakers. I just have to be happy with what I’ve got. I can’t even listen to it loud most of the time bc the bass scares my dog and my wife gets mad

  11. Big question. I think for one, there are too many other ways for people to get the serotonin drip. Social media is like crack for most people, so why would they look elsewhere if posting a selfie occupies their leisure time.

    Second, most mid-fi is kinda crappy. These affordable setups with their thin towers and tiny 5 1/4″ midbass drivers are so thin sounding. drivers. They sound like loud AM radios! This problem is exacerbated by the foolishness of designers to eliminate tone controls in integrateds and preamps all in the pursuit of what exactly? So you can’t bump up the bass a tad or roll off the treble a bit?

    And third, Sonos, Bose, etc., all offer single speaker streaming boxes that really sound “good enough”, so folks just won’t make the jump to components. This doesn’t apply to me, as I find those solutions a bit strident for my taste.

    • singin’ from the same hymn sheet re speakers Jim, the industry went down a totally wrong headed path in the early 90s as far as i’m concerned, electrically inefficient, multiple small drivers, narrow baffles, overdamped cabinets, designs that only ‘work’ in bags of free space with the wick cranked up, so, initially impressive in a dem / show room but essentially useless in most domestic settings, most of the time…
      Absolutely no coincidence that efficient wide baffle, near boundary designs are creeping back on he market while their 70s/80s forebears are suddenly commanding serious prices on the used markets…

      • Lol yup. I was aghast when they manufacturers started to come out with all things thin. At the time there were still a few HiFi stores around, and when auditioned, sounded pretty narrow. All sizzle and no steak. I still cringe when I see a bass driver less than 8″. I also wonder, what is the design goal with these string bean speakers? To make folks buy a sub?

      • I have nothing against a speaker with a big beefy 15” (or multiples) but I don’t think we are listening to the same small woofer speakers. I’m a bass freak and my favorite sounding speakers all have smaller workers in a narrow baffle – the exact type that doesn’t float your boat. And that’s the thing, everyone is entitled to like what they like. What’s that saying? I may not know a lot about speaker design but I know what sounds good to me.

  12. In my humble opinion, you have to love listening to music.

    The gears we have (high end, lofi whatever) is just the portal to music listening. What we have to do, is to bring the music lover closer to enjoying his particular sound.

    Most are on some cloud base source’s listening on some earbuds, given the opportunity for them to listen to their “sound” as compared to how they usually listen, and watch how it is for them as compared.

    Most music lover, are taken in by the lyrics, arrangements melody, and beat. Our gears are nothing if the music does not exist.

  13. It all comes down to greed. Thousands on new speakers when children are suffering all over the world. Hey, I have an idea 💡, let me demo some new gear and give someone else a nice audio system 😀

  14. Porque não há mais audiofilos ? Porque não há poder de compra para pagar os preços das várias aparelhagens. Porque nem todos têm 1 sala disponível para ouvir música com condições mínimas, nem sequer tempo disponível para a ouvir ou até onde colocar os aparelhos. Se tivesse condições, também eu me tornaria num audiofilo. Não as tendo, tenho de me ficar pelo que tenho há quase 30 anos e esperar que funcione mais alguns.

  15. Great article.
    The thing is, many people enjoy music, but only a small cohort of your friends and family are ‘properly’ into music. You know what I mean by this – people who can talk origins of albums, creative direction of bands, even comment on production and recording values.
    If the proportion of people who are into music on that level is relatively small compared to how widely appealing the medium is, then it stands to reason the audiophile subsection will be factors smaller. After all, I find it hard to imagine someone would share this passion if they did not care for music and sound itself on a deeper than mainstream level…
    Just my two bob!

  16. Found this via Google articles.

    There are plenty of audio guys, but few audiophiles. And for good reason. I’m an audio guy, always have been. But I refuse to associate myself with the term audiophile.

    For 2 years in 2006&2007 I subscribed to stereophile magazine. For two years, I realized what a mistake that was.

    Guys arguing over cable tonality that cost more than I make in a year. Reviews of individual products that better relate to used vehicle prices… ‘audiophile’ is reserved for the tier of collectors that have reserves of money to piss away on insignificant parts, sums the majority of the world dreams of having just a fraction of which to feed themselves.

    Audiophile is a rich man sport. Like cigars, wine, or sports cars.

    There are less and less rich people, so by process of elimination, there are less audiophiles.

    I collect used audio gear. The cast-off’s that everyone else has deemed to be unworthy. I build my own car audio systems, with oddball brands, generally priced on the low end of the spectrum. Do you want to hear about my collection of old realistic speakers, valued at a whopping $400? Or the car audio builds using mostly Dayton audio gear for a price that barely breaks into the comma range? My forays into audio forums makes me an oddball. I end up spending more time defending my lower tier choices than hear any appreciation for doing more with less

    The question should be ‘when did audio get so elitist?’

    There’s plenty of people interested in audio. But few that want to deal with what has become a toxic culture.

  17. my girlfriend is very sensitive to noise/sound at home. Lucky to have a room for music. as we have top floor of aan old house our neighbour downstairs complained a couple of days ago too. I won’t bother investing anymore. nodody is knocking on the door to share my music…PS, I love Barry Manilow!

  18. I don’t know if I would call myself a audiophile but over the last 10 years iv come to love good sound and high quality products because of the simple reason it’s fun to listen to great sound if it music or movies.

    I’m now 27 and a friend of mine introduced me to pair of nice headphones and I was blown away by the way that they sound with all of the music I loved, after that it all started I looked into reviews of new equipment and dreamt what I would be like to have and decide over few years to buy myself a used 3.1 setup for my TV and I did and I loved using it for 4 years before I decided to upgrade and play around with it and now I have setup I’m proud to own and most importantly love to listen to.

  19. I definite think audiophilia is related to how people’s brains react to things. I would just add to the aural experience of music the adrenaline kick of purchasing something, the pleasure involved in fondling and admiring a new piece of gear, and the thrill of putting things together yourself. If you get a kick from all of these things together, you’re pretty much doomed!

  20. I grew up in the 1970s, and let me tell you, lots of the tube and solid-state equipment was mediocre. Today’s consumer audio equipment sounds a lot better than those predecessors, so there is less incentive to search for something better.

  21. Yeah I agree with dave sometimes the more expensive stuff sounds better but it usually just sounds different

  22. One thing is there is a ton of nonsense and snake oil. It just turns people off. The other is everyone is a gamer now. People are not spending money on systems. Its time is over.

  23. Re Ferraris–I have a 3yo $199 phone and am on a low-cost plan, because that’s an additional $1-2K/yr I can budget for gear. I started with a cheap 5.1 soundbar system and keep trading/selling my way up. Like Dave said you really don’t need much money for great sound. That’s a lot of the fun!

    • The cost of your system is not the determining factor in being an audiophile. The enjoyment of music on a quality sound system and the quest for a better representation of that sound regardless of budget, is being an audiophile.

  24. “Why Aren’t There More Audiophiles”? Mostly for the same reason there aren’t more Ferrari owners.

    • I get where you’re coming from but you don’t have to spend Ferrari money to have a great sounding system. I was an audiophile even when I had a very modest system. Used gear is a great way to get started.

      • As I understand the history of audio as a hobby, it grew from people making their own gear. Fifty years ago I used to visit a store that could sell you all the pieces you would need to build your own amp or speakers. Many of those pieces might be used or recycled, as they would also buy or trade such things. I do not suppose many stores like that still exist.

        Maybe DIY is the way to breed a new generation of audiophiles, but it would not support the raft of specialist sites (or manufacturers) you see linked from Daily Audiophile.

        Consider a Community College owning the equipment to do the kind of thing being done here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQlrNc3qqnw

  25. My first time was with my dad and we had walked into Definitive Audio on Roosevelt Way (home to many audiophile stores, back in the day) in Seattle. I was 13 or 14 and I heard a Transrotor table, big Maganpans of the day, and some high end amp. I’ll never forget Ella, leaning against a piano singing to me, with Oscar Peterson playing. I could see everything I heard.

    They are born, but- they’ll never know if they don’t get exposed to what it can be. (The drug addict correlation is unfortunate yet accurate)

  26. Who wouldn’t want to join this hobby, so they can argue about cables, tubes vs SS, or the minutiae of inaudible noise characteristics? Who wouldn’t want to be mansplained to on a daily basis about the supremacy of measurement subjectivism vs listening subjectivism? Forgive the snark, but too much of this hobby’s narrative is being dictated by insecure man-babies. It’s just a fact.

    I’m trying a different approach, building a low- key listening lounge to show off great gear at a full range of prices. There has been a revolution of fantastic new developments in audio over the past decade or so that anybody can enjoy. We just have to wrest the narrative back from the brow-beaters and technocrats and get away from the absurd obsession with squiggles on screens and inject some fun back into this amazing hobby. That’s my two cents, anyway. Time will tell if I’m right or not.

    Thank you for a great article!

Got something for this?