Those of us who know and care about audio and video gear are called many things -- enthusiasts, gurus, experts and tweaks. Marketers call us early adopters and influencers. We are the ones friends and family turn to for buying and trend advice -- and we are vitally important to those who sell audio or video gear. I embrace all of these terms and roles with greater or lesser degrees of affection. But the term I will not accept is "hobbyist."
Audio hobbyists -- those who can and do enjoy debating the virtues of tubes over transistors, moving coil over moving magnet, separate components over receivers -- are a segment and an important part of the audio community.
It seems to me that the "hobbyist" often gets caught up in the technology and forgets that the gear is a means to the end of reproducing music in the most realistic and pleasurable way his -- audio hobbyists are disproportionately male -- budget will allow. While often passionate, articulate and knowledgeable in their debate, they are only a segment of the audio-buying public.
I think I understand and love the "hobby" aspect of audio and other pursuits. For both pay and pleasure, I've spent many hours hunched over a table or workbench with a hot soldering iron to my right and a circuit board in front of me.
And I've got the burnt fingers--amplifiers, pre-amps, tuners and a color TV--to prove it. I do take pleasure in soldering components -- resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, etc.-- onto the board. I do find satisfaction in seeing a completed PC board, shiny solder firmly holding those components in place. Striped resistors, vertical capacitors, tripodal transistors, multi-legged IC chips all neatly laid out. Squint and the board looks like a miniature model city.
My argument with the hobbyists is that they tend to be exclusionary on almost every level -- consumer, dealer and manufacturer -- and that, in the end, spells extinction.
Many hobbyists show a smug elitism toward those "unwashed and uninitiated" who do not know the difference between a reflex and sealed box speaker. It is not by accident that the "hobby" is overwhelmingly male and aging.
As any serious examination of the audio market will attest, those "civilians" devoted to it are a shrinking band of enthusiasts, with some adherents moving on to other passions, the sheer biology of humans and the unforgiving nature of actuarial tables reducing our numbers.
A visit to most audio shows will reveal too many of the attendees are qualified to collect Social Security -- and others sport hearing aids. The number of specialty audio dealers is shrinking nationwide. Mass market retailers or "Big Box" stores, are curtailing sales space for audio.
Circulation of enthusiast publications is down dramatically - even if you count online outlets, such as the one you are now reading. Radio Shack, where many hobbyists bought solder, cables or dB meters, closed its doors several years ago.
Yet, there are almost certainly more people listening to music today than have ever done so in the history of the world. The iPod, iPhone, Android and earbuds, along with streaming and dedicated music services have made music personal and portable in ways not dreamed of a few generations ago.
Whether we go to a concert with thousands of other people or listen to a CD or streamed audio in our car or living room, listening to music is an activity that can be shared. We invite people into our world. I think it is vital for the survival of audio as an area of progressively better gear and technology to recognize that ultimately the "boxes" are subservient to the music they provide.
A Stradivarius or a Stratocaster is simply a mute object without the sound they produce. And the finest amplifier in the world is a collection of electronic parts and wires until it carries an audio signal that brings pleasure.
Many years ago, an audio industry executive told me, "living with music is different, from living without it -- and it's better." Of course, that was a self-serving statement, but that does not deny its essential truth. Living with music is a "lifestyle." It is a trait woven into the very fabric of one's life, as much a part of that life as faith and family.
As central as diet and exercise is to those focused on their health. And it does not really matter what the particular kind of music is. It is the feeling it brings to the listener that matters.
The emotions or passions or just pleasure that the music invokes makes life easier and sweeter. Provides courage when we are weak, solace when we are sad. My belief, based on long and close observation, is that we have looked at the pie and seen the slice. Hobbyists who understand the technology and enjoy its nuance are an important, vital part of the audio/video worlds. The worlds are wide and can be even wider still.
That audio executive was right in 1976. Living with music really is different and better than living without it.If we acknowledge and celebrate those facts, all segments of the world we embrace will flourish.
Surely, we can convince and convert many of those who listen to music, but do so via "inferior" systems. It is within our power and within our reach to share our knowledge and to make people's lives better. This is no small task and it will be no small achievement. But the key will be expanding our universe, inviting people to join, letting them know that "better" is both possible and affordable -- and sharing what we know in a way that excites rather than excludes. And when that happens, it will be music to my ears.