It’s that time of year!
We rant around here about what’s wrong with the audiophile hobby, and rightfully so. The irrational devotion to retro-technologies over new-school and positively disruptive ones, the embrace of voodoo religion over proven acoustical science, the fact that today’s 70-year-old Baby Boomers won’t be around to buy many more of the $10,000 stereo preamps that are part of our industry’s bread and butter…
Do you know what sells true high-performance audio equipment to the people who can actually afford it and who might appreciate it just as much as stereotypical audiophiles?
Yes, I said it. Lifestyle. Generation X, the older children of Baby Boomers, are sadly stereotypically defined by their incredible work ethic married to a total lack of work/life balance. Simply put, we are killing ourselves for no good reason and are often miserable in the process. Our younger siblings, the Millennials, have a term us Xers could learn a little from: “living your best life.” Us Gen Xers have a lot to learn about living our best life, and perhaps it could start with a good audiophile system.
25 years ago, when I was a kid selling a lot of Wilson Audio, Mark Levinson, Proceed, and Transparent Audio in Beverly Hills, all despite an early 1990s aerospace recession, the key to my success was to illustrate to clients with enough money exactly why a pair of $12,900 Wilson WATT Puppy 3/2 speakers (a gem for their era, albeit very expensive both then and now) could bring peace and happiness into their lives. Traditional audiophiles then invested in gear more based on brand equity, esoterica, and often mystical performance. More mainstream clients saw how having excellent-sounding music in your life made your day-to-day a better existence. This was a key differential that moved with me from selling the aforementioned brands to the then Bugatti-like Cello Music and Film Systems. Mr. Levinson (not to be confused with the brand that he sold in 1982 to Madrigal under very unique circumstances) could get very wealthy people to invest in music because music, like art on the wall or your name on the wall at a museum or what have you, made your life better. A tough day on Wall Street could be softened by listening to some John Coltrane for 15 minutes with a nice pour of something single malt from Campbelltown and a few, slow, deep breaths. What was the value of that relaxation back then?
Better question: what is the value of enjoying the greatest music today in our ever-connected, overly-digital life today? I argue that finding a way to make music a part of your life, your relaxation, your cerebral healing from this 100 percent connected world is worth more today than 25 years ago. Here’s the good news: it costs less and less these days to bring great sound into your life. My go-to system in the old days was a pair of black Wilson WATT Puppy 3/2s, an Acurus Integrated amp, a Rotel 855 CD player, perhaps an Audio Alchemy DAC, and some entry-level Transparent cable. Total system cost was around $16,000 retail.
Today, you can put an audiophile system together that costs a quarter as much that destroys the performance of what we could do a generation ago. That is the advantage of a technology-driven marketplace: things get better and better in terms of performance while prices drop like a stone. Ask anyone who bought one of those first-generation Sony 40-inch plasma TVs, which were four inches thick, roared with fan noise, and cost $20,000 out of the gate. Sure, they were cool at the time, but today’s 65-inch UHD TVs are superior in every way for less than a tenth the price. Audio systems have benefited in the same way, at a time when more and more of us could seriously benefit from some amazing music reproduction in our lives.
Many of today’s $1,000/pr floorstanding speakers delivery absolutely fantastic sound. Even a decent AV receiver these days sounds so much better than the Acurus Integrated amp from back in the day, and has HDMI inputs/outputs, wireless connectivity, streaming, and most importantly simply fantastic room correction that just a few years ago would have been an insult to any self-respecting audiophile. Today, many of them are off-the-charts good.
If you want to actually hear the lowest registers of bass? No problem. I can think of two handfuls of super-performing subwoofers that range in price from $399 to $1,199 that Rock the Casbah and need about 90 seconds of your time to make rock in your room.
Oh, how about musical content? For a little more than the cost of one Compact Disc at the old Tower Records, you get access to pretty much every album in every genre ever recorded. Metadata? The best you’ve ever seen. Better than what you would have paid $14,000 for from, say, Meridian Sooloos ten years ago.
If you are worried about the future of the audiophile hobby–and you should be if you follow the business, its demographics, its trajectory, and the way the elders consumer products versus the young’uns–perhaps it is time that we start selling these systems as solutions to problems the way the Calm App speaks to an ever-stressed out generation. Us Gen Xers are respectfully a mess in our forties. Younger Millennials are even more stressed, or so they say. But you don’t need to spend more than the price of a weekend pass to Coachella to buy an audiophile system that can perform in ways that Mark Levinson, Joe Cali, Christopher Hansen, myself, and all of my old-school buddies could never have dreamed of. The day has come to stop focusing on selling to the same people in the same ways. There are better reasons and better performing systems that cost less to help the world be a happier place, one audiophile system at a time.